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Caterpillar turning into butterfly

Coaching Through Change

Phil Hayes
April 26, 2024


Change is constant in our lives, even when it seems nothing much is happening. Change and life are inseparable. Some change is visible and active – new circumstances, new roles, tasks accomplished, projects completed, significant events, relationships evolving and so forth. Other change happens unnoticed – subtle shifts in perspective, incremental re-evaluation of priorities, changes in our relationship with the world around us. In coaching we sometimes point to the distinction between changes at a ‘doing’ level – the visible changes – and the ‘being’ level – our core sense of self in terms of our values, beliefs, and sense of identity. At times of significant professional change – what we often refer to as transition – managing change effectively at each of these levels becomes increasingly important and a juncture at which coaching can be particularly useful.

Coaching Holistically

One of our tasks in coaching transition is to ensure we approach it in a holistic way. Our experience with clients is that, for understandable reasons, they can often become focused on specific parts of the transition they are undergoing. A typical scenario is the client who is focused on ensuring they have clarity on goals and milestones for the first phase of a new role – the 90-day plan is a common encapsulation of this.

This is fine in itself of course, but what of the other factors intrinsically involved in significant transition? Depending on the individual client, as coaches we may also ask questions and draw attention and energy to other significant aspects of transition that may fly under the client’s radar.

Examples are:

  • Relationships – what are the key relationships or alliances they may need to make?
  • Cultural adaptation – even a move to a different part of the same organisation may involve adapting to a significantly different micro-culture. Moves to a different organisation, or a new country, or both, will heap on the pressure to adapt quickly to a new culture, where the ‘rules’ may be difficult to read.
  • New skills needed, or a shift in which skills become more important,
  • Considering the reputation and overall impact the client wishes to make in the new context – what is going to be their legacy?
  • Managing energy and well-being. Such can be the drive to succeed in the new context that self-care can take a back seat. Coaching can help the client to ensure they take care of themselves and avoid the dangers of burn out.
  • Ensuring goals are clear for different periods of time – short, medium, and long term.

Domains of Coaching in Transition

It can be useful to categorise the coaching of transition into separate domains – whilst ensuring these domains are linked and congruent with each other:

Domain One is the intrapersonal – helping the client to navigate the change of professional identity, professional and personal priorities – making the psychological adjustment and attending to wellbeing.

Domain two is the interpersonal – helping the client to navigate new or changed relationships, make new contacts and alliances, and ensure personal family and social relationships are addressed.

Domain Three is focused on task – clarity on goals, priorities, and plans. Typically, these will also involve questions of time and energy management and focus on developing key teams and direct reports. Focus on key skills is frequently part of this domain.

Domain Four can be thought of as big picture – consideration of the strategic overview and personal legacy. What impact is our client intending to have in their role?

Showing up

An intriguing and challenging dimension of many such transitions is the question of how the client plans to ‘show up’ in the new context. If we take the typical scenario of a promotion to become manager of former peers, how should the client change her or his behaviour towards them in the new role? We have seen examples where the newly appointed manager adopts an authoritarian posture, alienating former peers. At the other end of the spectrum, we have seen examples of newly appointed managers striving to remain ‘one of the gang’, thus sacrificing credibility.

Another scenario is admittance to a new, more senior peer group. How will they manage the first meeting, the first presentation, the first disagreement in this new context?

The reality of transition is that it can often feel like a parachute jump – no matter how much thought and preparation goes into the transition, the moment will arrive when the ground rushes up to meet you, and the first human encounters in the new role happen.

This coach had the experience of coaching a UK ambassador preparing to take up post in a new country with a very distinct culture. He had undergone rigorous preparatory training, including the small matter of speed-learning a new language. In our coaching we addressed the big picture concerns first, and then aspects of the forthcoming task.

But the real energy in the coaching came when the day of getting on the plane was closing in. We began to discuss what needed to happen in the first couple of days. The 90-day plan telescoped into consideration of the 90-second plan – how would he conduct himself – show up – as he got off the plane and shook the hand of the welcoming dignitary? Then we discussed the 90- minute plan – how would he show up on arrival at the embassy and address the scores of local staff, who by reputation were discontent? Then the 90 -hour plan – what pressing challenges and situations had to be navigated in the first two weeks?

As the coach, I was challenged to ensure that his handling of some of these imminent micro scenarios would dovetail with his macro ambitions, and chime with his personal values and sense of authenticity – all in a context of intense scrutiny from London, the embassy staff, and the local politicians and agency heads. Not to mention the need to look after his family in a new country.

What fun we had!

And finally . . .

Coaching our clients through momentous change or transition is challenging and exhilarating for the coach. It requires the ability to navigate flexibly between micro and macro scenarios and take a holistic and strategic perspective simultaneously. It presents opportunities for deep professional satisfaction – and simultaneously the tantalising sense that it is never quite ‘done’. I guess that’s why we come back for more!

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