A good coach can help leaders adapt their management style, resulting in better use of their skills. Sue Mortlock hears some success stories.

Over the course of 2010-11 the Emerging Leaders workstream of the former National Leadership Council – now part of the new NHS Leadership Academy – funded a national programme of executive coaching skills training for senior leaders.

All 10 strategic health authorities participated and now these regional communities of senior leaders are actively coaching emerging leaders and other targeted groups including clinical leaders, women and those from diverse backgrounds.

The Institute for Employment Studies was asked to evaluate the programme during its start-up and early implementation phases. It spoke to a number of emerging leaders who had been coached by the senior leaders who were trained by the programme to find out what they had got out of their coaching sessions. Here and at www.hsj.co.uk/academy-coach some of the coachees share their experiences.

Case study: ‘I am much more effective’

Rebecca Lacey, community health services director of children and families at Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust

Rebecca Lacey had been in the post for three years when the opportunity to receive coaching came up. “As the organisation was going through significant change, including merger with a larger mental health trust, I thought that it would be a good idea to take advantage of the opportunity,” she said.

Her objective was to gain greater clarity about how she could be most effective in the new organisation.

“I have been able to improve my ability to function as a director by testing out my ideas with the coach and learning to make better decisions.”

In particular, she notes she is “now much more inclusive, not feeling the need to make all the decisions on my own.” She also believes her leadership is clearer and more consistent, and she is more challenging in pushing her team and taking more risks. “Through better understanding of strengths and vulnerabilities, I believe I am now much more effective in challenging situations, making a conscious choice about how to respond rather than just reacting.”

For Rebecca an important part of the coaching was “that the coach challenged and pushed me, which felt uncomfortable at first but was important.” She observed that the “coach had been 100 per cent present and totally focused on me during the sessions, which was in contrast to coaching I had received previously. There was no sense of subjective judgement and I felt safe in the session; the coach never strayed into mentoring or talking about themselves.”

Ms Lacey was very happy to work with a coach she knew (previously her manager’s manager), but both parties recognised there was a confidentiality issue as they were on opposite sides of the commissioner-provider relationship. Ms Lacey was conscious of sharing information about the provider service with someone from the commissioning arm. While she trusted the coach, she recognised that it is almost impossible for them to “not know” this information outside of the coaching relationship. On reflection, this should be considered when deciding with whom to have a coaching relationship.

If you want to get the most out of coaching, Ms Lacey says, just remember: “The more you are prepared to give the process, and take risks, the more you will gain.”

Case study: ‘Now I share more responsibility’

Gbemi Kuforiji, chief pharmacist at Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health Trust

When Gbemi Kuforiji was offered the opportunity to receive coaching she wasn’t sure of the differences between that and mentoring. She thought: “As head of a clinical service it would be good to have someone to talk things through who, by not being part of my organisation, would help me build an objective view.”

She adds: “I had some concerns about the changes that the organisation was going through and how to manage my service to the best effect through these changes.”

While thinking through her strategy, she had a number of diverse threads and wanted to gain some clarity about what had to be done and how to best manage the process of change. “The coaching gave me the opportunity to bring my ideas together into a clear strategy and business plan for the service, as well as identifying who needed to be involved in the process.

“Coaching helped me better organise the tools I had so I was able to appreciate the importance of working with the finance function effectively through this period of change and the support they were able to offer. I got to plan my approach to engaging the trust board in terms of what they needed to know to make informed decisions.”

Ms Kuforiji also used her coaching to think about her management style. “My natural style is to take a lot of responsibility on myself but now I share more responsibility with my senior team and expect people to feed in their own ideas into possible solutions.”

She cited having a safe space to talk confidentially to someone else outside the organisation as the key feature of the coaching, recognising that if you talk to someone else in your own organisation they may often have their own agenda. They agreed to meet at the coach’s organisation, which she saw as good because it allowed her to get away from the office mentally and physically.

“The first coach that I was offered by the SHA worked in a neighbouring organisation and there were discussions ongoing about joint working and so I asked for someone further away as I was concerned about the confidentiality issues. It helped that the second coach I was offered had a clinical background, and was from a primary care organisation and had had roles in commissioning.

“As my coach and I had had similar but not exactly the same sorts of challenges, she was able to get alongside me and help me see alternative perspectives on my issues. Overall, I found it an extremely valuable experience, which has improved my understanding of organisational management at trust board level.”

At a recent appraisal Ms Kuforiji’s manager, the trust’s medical director, commented on how her capacity for strategic thinking had advanced.

If you are given the opportunity to receive some coaching, Ms Kuforiji’s advice is: “Take advantage of it. No matter how experienced you
are there is always room for improvement and looking at different ways of getting things done.”

Coaching is a powerful approach to support emerging leaders in the NHS, particularly through times of such great change. More generally the benefits of being coached that were identified by the IES’s research included improved self-awareness, self-confidence, resilience, ability to cope with work stress or time pressure and overall job satisfaction.

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