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Four Decades Of Powerful Coaching

Phil Hayes
January 2, 2020

As we enter a new year, and a new decade, we are feeling reflective at Management Futures and wanted to take this opportunity to look back over one of our most longstanding coaching relationships between MF Chairman Phil Hayes, and Saul Nassé.

Phil and Saul first began working together in the 1990s and have worked together throughout Saul’s impressive career in both a team coaching and individual coaching capacity.

Phil caught up with Saul in December to find out more about Saul’s experience working with MF over the years and how the coaching from Management Futures has helped him at various crucial stages throughout his career.

Phil: “Thank you for taking the time to talk with us as we approach what will be the 4th decade in which we have worked together. It’s quite a long association – certainly a happy one from my part – and I wondered if you’d be so good as to tell us a bit about your background?”

Saul: “Certainly Phil. I’m Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment (which is part of Cambridge University) and we run exams all around the world. Prior to that I had a long career at the BBC. I originally trained as a scientist but then moved into science broadcasting, editing Tomorrow’s World which was BBC One’s primetime science show. Then I did a series of different jobs at the BBC; I ran the religion department for a time and had two spells in India - including executive producing the Indian version of Strictly Come Dancing. Finally, I was controller of BBC Learning – producing all of the corporation’s education programmes and websites – which is what led to my move into more formal education back at Cambridge.”

Phil: “And how did you come to find Management Futures?”

Saul: “While working on Tomorrow’s World I had a deputy called Alison Rooper and she had previously worked with you. I was new to management at the time - she was actually a more seasoned manager than me - and together we recognised that I needed some help with the team. So, you came in and helped the Tomorrow’s World senior team look at how we were feeling and review how we were implementing what was quite a new approach to the programme.”

Phil: “What was it like working with us back then?”

Saul: “From the beginning you brought a real sense of clarity, drive and purpose but with a human, non-jargony approach. You took us on quite a journey – even in one day. My defining memory was the sense of intense but calmly controlled energy you brought to the session.”

Phil: “Yes - I still remember that team and the characters pretty clearly. Although we mention teams there, we’ve probably done more one-to-one coaching than team development work in our time. How have you found that in broad terms?”

Saul: “Really, really good. Personally, it has helped in a number of ways. Across the four decades I’ve tended to turn to you when I’ve got either a lot of change happening in what I’m doing at work or a lot of change that I’m contemplating in my own career. You’ve helped me deal with knotty people issues on several occasions. You have also suggested additional psychometric tools to help me think about my sense of self, my approach and how I can unlock new ways of doing things. When I’ve been landing in a new job, you’ve helped create powerful moments of reflection around what was happening at the time.”

Phil: “Yes – it feels like we’ve worked together at key junctures in your career. The turning points, the changes and the challenging episodes. I wondered what the most memorable moments have been for you?”

Saul: “I can remember very early on I did something called FIRO-B. It highlighted my need to exert control and my resistance to having control exerted upon me. I took that very much on board.  As a manager starting out, I was very controlling but, following the FIRO-B insights, I took myself on a journey to be much less so. Many years later I did the same assessment again and, while I was still resistant to being controlled, I was much less prone to exerting it, so the impact of that early assessment was firmly embedded. In addition, I remember an intense spell of team coaching that we did when I started off at BBC Learning. At the time, I had brought together a completely new senior team with some very strong characters in it and we were going on a literal journey together - moving departments from London up to Salford. We had a session a month for 4 months in the lead up to the move and they were hugely effective at pulling us together.”

Phil: “If I summarise a bit, it sounds like you’ve had one or two insights on a personal level which have been important learnings and, at a team level, there has been some fairly intense team development to do with big challenges under quite stressful circumstances.”

Saul: “Yes – most certainly. I also remember certain moments where we’ve come up with something together that has made me do things differently or just see the world differently. What I like about your coaching approach is that you’re not afraid to play in research that builds knowledge. You have the ability to create an environment where people can choose to feel what they want. Those sorts of moments are really helpful. If your instinct is to want things to be a certain way, you feel like you ought to be able to make people have particular emotions. But in the end, you can’t because they’re all humans.”

Phil: “Yes – it’s a delicate balance. While we would never look to give advice if we know something or we think we know something which might provide useful perspective then it can be really helpful to share it.”

Saul: “It’s never advice to the point that I think I’ve gone to see my advisor today or it’s never advice to the point of I’ve gone to see my mentor today. It’s information that’s come out in the course of a coaching conversation with my coach. To me that feels exactly as it should. However, I have worked with other coaches who are so purist you’d feel like you’d never got a sense of their perspective or their opinion. For me, that’s a waste of time to be honest.”

Phil: “That’s interesting - my own reflection is that we’ve worked in partnership. We have a good relationship, we’ve been willing to explore things, take the odd risk, go off on a tangent from time to time and just see what’s out there. For me that is a very grown-up way of working and I’ve never felt like I’m simply applying my tools."

Saul: "Yes – I would certainly agree with that."

Phil: "So, I’d like to look to the future for a moment. If you were to dream up a service or a product that people like us could be offering people like yourself what might that be?”

Saul: “That’s an interesting question. If I look at what we do at Cambridge Assessment - in a very general sense - as an assessment organisation, then we run exams which people turn up to take in a sports hall once or twice in a lifetime. Are we having the maximum impact if that’s how we’re interacting with our learners? If we can be much more of a companion to them throughout their lives, then that would be much more compelling. In a way I think that’s also the opportunity for an organisation like Management Futures. We’ve talked earlier about interacting around key moments – when there has been an issue or a challenge. If there was a way of creating a mechanism to connect your coaching journey to your whole life or your leadership development journey to your whole life, I think that would be really powerful.”

Phil: “That does sound interesting. I think it would be challenging to do but I really like the idea of being somebody’s companion on a journey. In fact, if I think about my own development, I’ve definitely had one or two companions on my journey who have been hugely helpful.”

Saul: “I’m just going to throw another one in there. I’ve had a lot of people joining me in senior leadership roles over the last year or so and we’ve been offering them onboarding coaching. This has been interesting because, in a way, onboarding coaching is a sub-discipline of coaching. Perhaps there is a way to package or put a framework around coaching for particular moments? For example, change of role coaching, career decision-making coaching, tricky people management coaching and so on. I feel this approach would make coaching even more relevant and accessible. And one other thing I’d like to share is around the importance of finding the right coach. When I’m offering my people the chance to have coaching, what I really want is for them to have a coach that really suits them but actually knowing who that person might be is virtually impossible. I wonder if there is some sort of tool that one could create that did that matchmaking piece between a coachee and a coach?”

Phil: “Thank you for sharing those thoughts Saul. Both the specialisation of coaching and the matching process are things we value highly too. For example, one of the things we are developing is what we’re calling transition coaching. This might mean moving to a new organisation, taking on a new role or might even mean a combination of those things in a new country. We’ve come to realise that when people go through transition, they tend to only focus on one or two bits of it. They might focus on what they have got to achieve or the alliances that they have got to create, and they don’t reflect on other things which are going to be very important both in the short and long-term. So, we’ve tried to become more systematic with that. As for the matching process we place real emphasis on the chemistry call and offer people a structured series of chemistry calls to allow them to build a relationship. The coaching relationship is hugely important and if you don’t get the chemistry right then the technical bits won’t have anything like the impact they could because the client is not so open, will not be so relaxed, will not be so trusting or will not feel brave enough to be experimental in their thinking."  

Saul: "Yes, exactly. That’s just how I feel. It’s so important to get that right. It’s reminded me of one more memorable moment too. It was a coaching conversation we had on the Friday before I started as Controller of BBC Learning on the Monday. That was a massive leap up in scale of job for me and within the first five minutes we had zeroed in on what I was going to do on my first day. We literally planned that day hour by hour and we got so much right in that planning. It gave me a sense of control and I was able to walk in confidently on that Monday because I knew that I was making the day be exactly what I wanted it to be for me.”

Phil: “I remember that very clearly. It stimulated me to really start thinking about, not just the first hundred days, but the first hundred seconds. I subsequently worked with some ambassadors on how they were going to walk down the steps of the plane to meet the Prime Minister. Remembering our conversation, I worked with them to really think about their body language at the moment they were saying hello and shaking hands. That initial contact and that first impact are so important.”

Saul: “Actually another very memorable moment was when I was applying for the job I’m in now. You may remember there was a point in the process of applying for it when I thought I hadn’t got it and I just sent you a message. You said well give us a call, so I did. We probably had just a 15-minute conversation but that was what kept me completely in the zone for going on to get that job. If I hadn’t had that conversation, I wouldn’t have been ready to step up to the role a few weeks after that.”

Phil: “So you might not be where you are today without Management Futures?”

Saul: “Exactly – I owe it all to Management Futures!!! Joking apart, you’ve been there for me at some very crucial moments, and it’s worked really well.”

Phil: “Well, I think that’s a perfect place to finish this conversation! Thank you so much for your time today Saul and for spending a little part of the last 4 decades with us. We’re certainly looking forward to a few more conversations in the future.”

Saul: “Thank you Phil.”

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