Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

A recent article by Kara Swisher in the New York Times appeared under the headline Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical? Tech companies have been attracting a fair amount of criticism this year over their grasp of ethics. But they’re not alone in finding this area a minefield. The shareholder value view of firms, which has it that their sole purpose is to make a profit, still shapes leadership thinking in most organisations. This infects even those – like the BBC or NHS – that aren’t ostensibly profit focussed but where stripping out cost often crowds out other considerations. Where a reductionist view of purpose prevails, it’s not surprising that questions of ethics may receive scant consideration.

Kara Swisher considers various solutions including companies appointing chief ethics officers, putting in place official systems of ethics or (radical idea) chief executives stepping up to the plate to provide more leadership. She quotes an unnamed ethical consultant who complains that appointing custodians of ethics would be no more than window dressing because “we haven’t even defined ethics yet”.

Running through all of this is an assumption that ethics can be defined to delineate universal principles that clearly determine ethical or unethical behaviour in all eventualities. Coaching has been pursuing this track for some years. Every professional association of coaches has a code of ethics that its members commit to follow. And yet coaches, who are privy to ethical dilemmas more than most in business, must know that ethical choices are highly contingent on the contexts in which they arise. This is the essence of the well-known trolley problem: it’s obviously wrong to kill someone; but what if doing so saves the lives of five others?

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The serious business of playing the Fool

fool

It’s a shame that Hetty Einzig’s The Future of Coaching is so-called. Its concerns spread much wider than its title implies. It’s a radical and thoughtful book which holds before us the chaotic nuttiness of the world as it is now and asks what kind of leadership should coaching call forth.

Hetty Einzig takes it as axiomatic that the big challenges we humans face demand committed and creative interventions by leaders. Never mind present concerns such as Brexit or Trump, Hetty reminds us that the broader context is that of a trajectory to environmental catastrophe. She has no truck with the notion that coaches should be neutral facilitators of whatever goals their corporate clients might pursue. Nor does she believe leaders should collude with such ideas. Coaches and leaders alike are citizens in wider society as well as servants of the organisations that employ them. It is the legitimate task of all of us to try to influence organisations to play a constructive role in addressing society’s problems.

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Looking for senior leaders or coaches who want a fresh approach to their development

Are you a coach or a leader who needs a reflective space to think creatively about how you work with others? If so, we may be able to help each other. I’ve just started a one-year diploma and I’m offering discounted access to leadership or coaching supervision to people willing to be practice clients.

This is an opportunity to experience a rich and creative space for developing yourself. Your part of the bargain is to show up in a spirit of experimentation and to be prepared to give me feedback on your experience. I’m looking to try out new approaches, in particular to facilitate ways of reflecting that get beyond the constraints of language and cognitive thinking. So there might be, for instance, drawing, imaginative work, mindfulness or reflecting while walking outside. There’ll also be observation in the moment on how our work unfolds and what this might say about your work with other people. You’ll need an appetite to learn in ways that are possibly unfamiliar. The point, as I see it, is to take you beyond the habitual routines of your working life so that you can access aspects of yourself that might sometimes be bracketed out of how you normally approach your work.

I’m taking my diploma with the Coaching Supervision Academy, the top international provider of supervision training. As part of my assessment, I need to work with a number of practice clients over the coming nine months. Although I’ll be trying some new methods and approaches, I’m an experienced professional. I’m an APECS-accredited executive coach who has been practising for 12 years and already provides supervision. For more on my background, please check out my coaching profile and testimonials.

Supervision can be thought of as supporting people who support other people. It grew up as a discipline to help professionals such as psychotherapists, teachers and social workers. Many coaches work with a supervisor to get quality assurance of their work. (I always recommend to prospective coachees that they only work with a coach who is supervised). Applied to leaders, supervision offers a thinking partner who can engage dispassionately with your challenges and help you find new perspectives. Good supervision should help you maintain your energy, or regain it when depleted, and make you feel someone has your back even as you are challenged to think afresh. It’s a connection of heart and intuition as much as of the mind; one that might leave you stirred, but not shaken.

If this sounds like it might interest you, let’s talk. I can offer five one-hour sessions between now and next summer. I’m looking for a mixture of senior executives, coaches and perhaps one small group. I’m open to working both by videoconference and – for those within reach of London – face to face.

If you’re paying your own way, the cost would be £50 (GBP) per hour. If your company is paying, the cost is £100 (GBP) per hour. In addition, VAT is chargeable for those in the EU. There may be some occasional ad hoc additional cost, such as venue hire when a private room is needed for face-to-face work. But, given the aforementioned spirit of experimentation, it may not always be necessary to use a private venue – for instance, if we choose to meet and walk. If you are familiar with costs in the executive coaching market, you will appreciate that this is very good deal.

To find out more, please email supervision@vogelwakefield.com or message me via LinkedIn.

Image courtesy Stewart Baird.

Engage a coach to save humanity from itself

Humans are a clever species. Look at the world we’ve constructed. The very name homo sapiens describes us as wise. But somehow we’ve come to live in a way that is inimical to our nature and destructive of our wellbeing. The organisations in which we work are part of the problem. They are incapable of maintaining bonds of trust with their employees, and obstruct our efforts to sustain our closest relationships.

This is the thesis of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon which attempts to explain the science behind our fundamental need for human connection. Written by three professors of psychiatry, it was published in 2000. In my layman’s reading, its scientific authority has been overtaken by more recent neuroscience. But its date of publication is significant. At the start of a new century, the book aimed to debunk the mythology – whether psychodynamic or behaviourist – which shaped our understanding of emotions through the 20th Century. Insofar as these mythologies remain influential today, A General Theory of Love remains a relevant read. Indeed it seems prescient in its cultural criticism of how Western societies have developed so as to deny our physiological need for attachment, and the social maladies that thereby arise.

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When it’s time to finish coaching

How to work with a coach, part 10

When is it time to finish coaching? And how do you end the relationship elegantly when you feel it’s time to part company with your coach?

Often, decisions about ending are determined in advance. There’s frequently an understanding that the coaching is a finite arrangement. This is partly philosophical: an assumption (not necessarily valid) that a client risks becoming dependent on their coach. Partly, it’s budgetary: the number of sessions is determined by the funds available. Whatever the reason, your coach will likely have a well-rehearsed model for bringing the coaching to closure.

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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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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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Leading in complexity

busy street

I’m not a great one for introducing theoretical models in my work with clients, however much my practice may be informed by theory. One that I frequently reference, though, is the leader’s framework for decision making devised by David Snowden and Mary Boone. This is the clearest and most usable articulation I know of what it means to lead in complex situations.

Snowden and Boone argue that leaders often come unstuck because they misconstrue the nature of the scenario they are dealing with. Typically, often without realising it, they are informed by an ideology of management that likens organisations to machines. So they fall in with expectations that most problems can be subject to linear solutions of command and control. Unfortunately, they are likely to be putting unreasonable pressure on themselves and, ultimately, setting themselves up for failure.

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