If your coaching isn’t going well

How to work with a coach, part 9

Sometimes coaching disappoints. But it’s a sign of the determined positivity that grips much of the coaching business that this isn’t well acknowledged.

As Steven Berglas, a psychiatrist turned executive coach noted in 2002, purveyors of coaching have an interest in inviting prospective clients into a story of readily attainable transformation. Coaching contracts are mostly short-term. This is ripe ground for clients forming misguided expectations of a quick fix. Coaches might reinforce this with an emphasis on behavioural change, the linearity of which defies the complexity of human experience. Because coaches mostly hold to a professional ethos of facilitating a neutral process, they can implicitly absolve themselves of responsibility when the product doesn’t deliver.

How do you know when coaching isn’t working? You might find yourself going through the motions: turning up for the sessions but not really engaging with the endeavour. Or you might be engaging wholeheartedly with the sessions but feeling that the process as a whole is not producing the outcomes you had hoped for.

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I, Tonya shows the role of power in achievements

triple axel

Before Christmas, I wrote a blog post with the title Effort more than talent is the key to achievement. True enough. But how could I have forgotten to mention another critical determinant: power?

Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya – starring Margot Robbie as the American figure skater, Tonya Harding – shows us how power, or the lack of it, can frustrate even the most promising blend of effort and talent.

Tonya Harding had both in spades. She was famously the first American woman to achieve the phenomenally difficult triple axel jump in competition (and only the second in the world). Her skating career came to an end after she was implicated in an attack on her fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan. But, as portrayed in the film, this incident arose out of a wider nexus of class and gender relations that had held her back from the outset.

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Your work between coaching sessions

How to work with a coach, part 8

The work you do between coaching sessions is as important as the work you do when you’re with your coach.

Coaching can be conceived as a staging post for the stuff, in the world beyond the sessions, that the client wants to work on. It’s a safe place to try out different ways of being. Coach and client reflect together on what the client brings and might formulate ideas for action. There may be an opportunity to rehearse in the session. But it’s not like learning a musical instrument, where the pupil practises in private before performing publicly on the stage. For the most part, the client practises on stage as they put the ideas into practice directly in their everyday life.

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Working with your coach

How to work with a coach, part 7

How should the working relationship with your coach develop? It’s worth thinking about this if you want to get the most out of your coaching. Clients sometimes take a while to realise that it’s not the best strategy to sit back and let coaching happen to them. Coaching is a two-way street and it pays to lean into it.

Martha Stark, a psychotherapist, has described how there are implicitly three possible models at work in professional helping relationships. Which do you imagine yourself to be in as a coachee?

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Spielberg’s The Post offers a masterclass in public leadership

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee celebrate the court’s decision in 1971 to allow publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Steven Spielberg’s film The Post combines three themes close to my heart: leadership, journalism and power – with an interesting gender dimension overlaying all three.

The film portrays the days in 1971 when the Washington Post faced a dilemma whether to publish leaked material, the Pentagon Papers, showing how successive American presidents had deceived the public about the country’s purpose and prospects in Vietnam. The scoop already belonged to the New York Times. But an opportunity to catch up arose for the Post when Nixon’s government obtained an injunction against the Times, and the Post obtained the material independently.

There have been criticisms that it is perverse of the film-makers to focus on the role of the Post in the the Pentagon Papers affair, when the Times was the bigger player and took the earlier risk. However, that is to misconstrue the drama in which the Pentagon Papers affair is merely the MacGuffin on which hangs a tale of press freedom and gender politics. It is precisely because the Post was the lesser player that it merits attention. It’s the story of how a faltering business, guided by a woman in a male-dominated world, steps into the big league and transforms itself into a pillar of democracy. The whole episode serves as a dress rehearsal for Watergate, when the Post made the running in holding Nixon to account and ultimately brought down his presidency.

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Failure of leadership at Oxfam

Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in January 2010.

Oxfam’s sex exploitation scandal (£) is a case study in how easily leaders can trash the reputation of their organisation when, through wilful blindness, they convince themselves that they are acting to protect it.

In a series of articles, The Times has revealed how Oxfam betrayed its purpose to help the vulnerable in Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. It was a time when the country was devastated, and political authority had all but broken down. Senior aid workers in Haiti were able to seize the opportunity to organise the sexual exploitation of young women – including underage girls – whose desperation in the disaster presumably secured their compliance. There were said to be orgies and the exploitation of underage girls.

On Friday, Oxfam’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, nauseatingly missed the point when he spoke of “the few” who had not upheld “Oxfam’s or society’s values”. Only, it seems that the few had acted consistently with Oxfam’s values which have been revealed to be duplicitous and self-serving.

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Here ends the Vogel Wakefield Advent Calendar

It was only in the last week of November that I conceived the idea of writing a blog post every day in the lead-up to Christmas. I was inspired by my email provider, Fastmail, whose Advent calendar blogs I have enjoyed over recent years.

For various reasons, I’ve written very few blog posts over the past couple of years. In part, this has been because I’ve felt the world to be moving too fast for me to fashion my thoughts into timely and relevant written pieces. I wondered if giving myself a commitment to publish every day might break the logjam. I made the commitment semi-public by telling folk about it and announcing my intention just once on Twitter. This created enough expectations of me to be motivating; but not so many that the stakes would be inhibiting.

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Abstract nouns are rarely the solution in organisations. But they could be.

Some years ago, I was happy to make the acquaintance of Valerie Iles, a leadership consultant whose domain is healthcare. Like me, she brings an interest in mindfulness. But she has a great ability to draw on a diverse range of other ideas. This year, she held a seminar to hand over her body of thinking. I was already running with it. But, in the months since, I’ve enjoyed re-reading some of her articles.

One that stands out is Valerie’s admonishment against reaching for abstract nouns. This is not the usual tirade against meaningless management coinages but a philosophical challenge to how leaders conceive their strategies.

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Political renewal needs more than bland centrism

Burke ‘n’ Marx.

What kind of politics do we need? Between left and right populism, it’s perplexing that there’s nothing inspiring emerging from the middle ground.

Is part of the problem that current hopes of an alternative are invested in something called centrism? There’s nothing to lift the spirits in that term. It suggests a bland splitting of the difference between the extremes or, worse, nostalgia for the discredited status quo ante.

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In praise of philosophers and other experts


I haven’t much time for the anti-expert sentiment that came out of the referendum campaign. But the Brexiteer blogger, Pete North, has made an articulation of the case against expertise that makes sense to me. He takes issue with the the narrow economistic perspective advocated by the corporate sector and he rightly points out that other considerations are at play in Brexit:

“There seems to be a quest to seek out a perfect answer to a complex question. But there is no perfect answer because you have to hold this Brexit crystal up to the light and see the many reflections it casts. It is entirely a matter of perspective and it extends beyond the realms of economics and into the domain of identity, culture, heritage, class and a myriad of rational and irrational concerns, all of which have equal standing. So diverse are the views that there is only really one way to settle it. Democracy. Imperfect though it may be, it is at least fair.”

Much as I agree with the sentiments expressed, this doesn’t amount to a convincing case against expertise. Rather, it underlines that what we take to be expertise in public debate is much too narrow.

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