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A Coaching Journey

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

Some of you may know that I am an executive coach. I try to coach no more than 8-10 clients at any given time. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that I want to ensure I keep a sustainable mix of activities so I can always deliver all my clients a well-rounded approach.

I recently completed a five part coaching relationship with a very inspiring client. I’ll call her Emma. Her journey proved to be a moving experience for us both, which led me to think that I’d like to share it with our Professionelle members. I asked Emma and she agreed, and further, she agreed to provide her perspective.

Emma approached Professionelle to see if we would work with her privately after her boss suggested it. Emma is a senior administrator in a very large corporate. She is tertiary qualified and leads a team of other administrators. But Emma wasn’t happy. She didn’t feel engaged in her job and was restless. In many ways, she had simply fallen into administration as a result of her great organisational skills and social ability which made her very effective at her job – but, as the ad says, she still felt ‘she needed something else’.

We had an introductory meeting and felt we could work well together. My approach is very flexible; I don’t have a predetermined notion of how to go about the coaching process, but I do have a ‘bag of tricks’. I use them as and where the clients and I find them useful. In Emma’s case we started by identifying her values.

The Importance of Values at Work

Experience and training have consistently shown me that it is absolutely crucial to discover your values. Most of us have a faint understanding of them but often figuring them out in detail helps shed light on the many occasions when things seem off kilter for us in how we feel about our work. By contrast, when there is an alignment between our personal values and those of our workplace, we become engaged, and indeed passionate, about what we do and where we do it.

Emma was brilliant at this.

To help distill her core values – the ones she held most deeply – I asked her to think about times she remembered being really angered or outraged. I know this may sound at odds with a positive psychology approach but I have to say that asking people to remember such occasions results in the most in-depth and accurate description of their values.

Another approach is to ask people whom they admire and why, what their favourite books and movies are and why, and what the best advice they ever received was.

Emma had three core values:

  • Meaning and purpose
  • Personal challenge
  • Diligence and hard work

Understanding one’s personally held values is critical because unless there is an alignment between your values and what you do and where you do it, the chances are that things will not feel quite right.

In Emma’s case, there definitely was an alignment between her work and her second and third values, and to a lesser extent with the first one. However, Emma derived most of her meaning and purpose from her engagement with her faith.

Once we’d worked all that out, Emma was better able to monitor how she felt about her values being met at work – which began her self-discovery journey.

But values are just part of the picture. The core element of my Positive Psychology approach is to understand my client’s signature strengths and how the client uses them in his or her personal and professional lives. Read more about signature strength in the chapter Why Positive Psychology is for Everyone.

Before I asked Emma to do the Signature Strengths test, I asked what she thought her strengths were so that we had a baseline understanding. In many ways, Emma came up with what I would term ‘competencies’. These included project management, organisational skills and the like.

Signature Strengths

Emma’s top strength was diligence which meant that everything we agreed she’d do, she did. I asked Emma to keep a diary to record what strengths she was using in her daily activities and how good or otherwise she felt her day was. This helped her uncover that she tended to over-rely on her perseverance strength. And that on the days she did so, she didn’t really enjoy things.

Emma’s other strengths included love of learning, curiosity, social intelligence and bravery. To help her re-engage with her role, we crafted ways for her to use more of these other strengths in the course of her daily tasks. This led her to undertake some projects that were not directly related to her role, but that gave her a very strong sense of meaning and engagement. It also gave her an excuse to take an hour for lunch and read something new, which let her exercise her love of learning and feel energised for the rest of her busy afternoon.

Because I’m Worth It

Emma, like so many other capable professional women, doubted her own worth. Yes, she received lots of really positive feedback, and plenty of suggestions about what she excelled at… but really, she didn’t quite believe them. At this point, we turned to a vital tool for appreciating how others see you.

The Reflected Best Self exercise (RBS) was devised by the Ross School of Business in the University of Michigan. It draws on the principles of Positive Organisational Scholarship and is devised to help people gain an understanding of what makes them truly unique – what is the singular impact that they can have on the world.

The essence of the exercise is asking colleagues, friends, family, and clients to tell you what is the unique contribution they believe you have to make and to give you examples of when they saw you at your best.

Simple as this sounds, it is a really hard exercise to do. Most of us have worked for organisations whose focus has traditionally been on our weaknesses and how to fix them. As a consequence, the thought of only asking for positive feedback seems daunting.

Emma spent time thinking through who she should send the requests to, and how best to word the request. She had an overwhelming response from the people she chose and received the most insightful and thoughtful comments!

But that is not what the exercise is all about.

The key to the exercise is actually distilling the key themes so that you can write your own reflected best self-portrait. Emma saw certain things in the feedback, but I saw others. Together we had a meeting of minds and the blending of quite different perspectives. Doing this helped her gain an in-depth appreciation of what others saw her doing when she was at her very best.

Where to next? What was she to do with all this fabulous information? What should she be doing?

Next came the hardest exercises of all – actually writing down Emma’s best-self portrait, her personal vision statement, and a future “interview” with herself given from a time in the future when she has reached her destination, whatever that might be.

So where did Emma Get To?

Emma sent me her completed exercises before we met for the last time. I was incredibly moved by how far she had come. The vision she developed for herself seemed perfect and to me made complete sense. So instead of using my words, I will use hers:

In five years’ time, in addition to having a young family, I will have begun to study part time towards a degree in social work. Where possible I will have gained practical experience in helping individuals and families in the rural community where I will be living. This will be in the form of volunteering for playgroup run at the local Church and running the leadership of that group, looking to expand both its community influence and the services available to local families. I will have started to develop a strong network of contacts amongst both Government and NGO social agencies, discovering what help is available to meet the needs of the people in the community I interact with.

My long-term vision would be to complete a social work degree, and to continue to gain practical experience in the local Community, with a view to starting to move into Management and Policy/Strategy of Child, Youth & Family to influence and facilitate change at a higher (perhaps even national) level.

Final Words

In our final meeting, we worked through how Emma might approach this. Meanwhile, she’s also managed to find a man and get engaged so her hands are quite full…

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