Mobile Navigation

The power to change: On the value of coaching

Graham Silverthorne, Former Head of East Campus
Graham Silverthorne on his personal experience with coaching.

I think it was probably sometime in 2001 when I sat chatting about my annual performance review with the Chair of my school board. It was a cold and dark early spring evening in Cambridge and I was coming towards the end of the second year of my first school headship.

For a young leader, things had gone tolerably well. I had made some mistakes, scored some successes, learned to climb a few of the necessary ropes and I was beginning to find my feet. Jim, the Chair, was asking me what I wanted to do for my professional development and I was a little stuck with my response. I was reading the right books, attending the conferences, becoming known in the Department of Education in London—it all looked pretty comfortable, but Jim clearly had something on his mind.

“Why don’t you get yourself a coach?” he asked, twirling his RAF moustaches as he offered the suggestion. I wasn’t sure what to say—truth be told, I didn’t really know what a coach did or how that suggestion would help me. Did he, I wondered, think I was doing something badly but not want to hurt my feelings? Being wise enough to follow along an idea from the man who had signed my contract, I agreed to investigate coaching and to devote my professional development money to that purpose for the year.

As the saying goes, you never hear the bullet that hits you. Had I but known it, that conversation changed my life and set me on a course that has left an indelible mark on virtually every aspect of what I do, both professionally and personally. True to my promise to Jim, I found three potential coaches and set about meeting them all to assess whether I felt I could work with them. The first one, I felt, would have been better suited to selling second-hand cars, the second I found quite dull. The third was Pippa Basan.

Pippa came to my office for our first meeting and told me that she wanted me to talk about myself. I spoke for about 15 minutes and all the while she wrote. When she finally interrupted me, I saw that what she had written were individual words on a significant number of post-it notes. She leaned forward and slapped each of the notes down on the coffee table—there must have been at least 40. Leaning back in her chair she said to me, “sort them out”. Nonplussed by the instruction, I gave her my best nonplussed expression but she held firm and offered me no more guidance. I looked again at the words on the table and tried to follow the unhelpful instruction.

The words she had written were all words that she had heard me use—it was a clever variation on the coaching technique of mirroring. All of the words were values or value judgements about myself. Strong, ambitious, caring, sympathetic, compassionate, helpful, driven, successful, anxious … I couldn’t tell you exactly what the words were now but the magic happened in the sorting process. I must have taken 20 minutes, maybe more and pretty soon I was oblivious to anything or anyone but the sorting game that she had set me. I found that I could, indeed, ‘sort them out’ and that they fell, almost with a clean sheering away from each other, into two distinct piles. It was fascinating and it was the first deep insight that I had ever been given into the workings of my own inner voice—or, as it turned out to be, voices. One set of values and judgements about myself was warm, generous and generally the definition of laudable ‘goodness’. The other set, when I saw them all together, I hardly recognised as me at all and yet the words had all fallen from my mouth. These words were about toughness and drive and ambition and success and generally ‘amounting to something’.

When she eventually spoke again, Pippa asked, “Which one is your voice?” It was immediately clear to me that it was the first voice—I liked that person and wanted to be him. “Then whose voice is the second voice?” came the next question … and this was the beginning of my journey. The second voice, I soon worked out, was primarily that of my father. There were other contributors I could identify but what I was essentially carrying around as a self-narrative, as the voice inside my head that told me what I should be doing, was the voice of my father—or more accurately, what I had interpreted as his expectations of me.

What I was learning about, in mind-churning slow motion, was the coaching concept of self-limiting beliefs. The existence of the narrative loop that we all carry within us which doesn’t exist to help us but exists, primarily, to restrict us from being the person that we really want to be. You will be familiar with the words that this voice uses to introduce its judgements—
“I shouldn’t …”, “I need to …”, “I can’t …”, “I’ve never been any good at …”, “I must …” And you can fill in the rest of the phrases just as easily as I can: “eat so much chocolate”, “diet”, “help buying shoes”, “do maths”, “be more organised”. The stories that we tell ourselves are the driving forces of our lives. If we are using the words and expectations of other people to tell ourselves these powerful stories, then we are highly likely to spend lives lacking in fulfilment and contentment. If we don’t like the stories we tell, then a coach can help us change them.

There were many other revelations with Pippa, this was just the first one but it was the moment that I gave myself the imperative (using my own voice): “I must learn how to do this”.

Within 12 months, I had completed a coaching course with Performance Coaching (now Culture at Work) in the UK. The CEO of that company and my trainer, Carol Wilson, had been on the Board at Virgin Records and remains a personal friend of Richard Branson. The training that I received from her led me into a world of pro bono coaching (of which Carol does not approve, she thinks that financial commitment secures buy-in but we agree to disagree on that) and into two extensive teacher education programmes, first in Bristol and then in Hong Kong.

There is no correct way to be a coach. At East Campus, I am fascinated by the engagement with the Cognitive Coaching Model. I will learn more about this over the months to come but I can see the effect of that process on relationships within the campus with absolute clarity. There is an emotional intelligence, a respect and a commitment to allowing all voices to surface in a conversation that is unique in my working experiences. I have no doubt at all that this collegial and supportive approach has been engendered by a quite conscious process of defining collaborative norms and shaping positive expectations of one another.
The large bulk of my work has been with the GROW Model of coaching (created by Sir John Whitmore) but I have also worked with a process known as the London Challenge Model in the UK, supporting failing school leaders, the Instructional Coaching Model of Jim Knight and Alan Sieler’s Ontological Coaching Model. Instructional Coaching is also already established on East Campus and works well in tandem with the other approaches.

Sometimes I hear people question the value of an organisation investing in coaching but to me that is rather like asking what is the value of smiling at people. I couldn’t provide you with any metrics on that but I am as sure as everyone else is that doing it will improve my environment and my chances of success tenfold. Actually, the impact of coaching can be measured quite successfully in a number of ways, including employee satisfaction ratings, attrition rates, the success of performance management systems, succession capacity building, professional development evaluation ratings, to name but a few.

We don’t always recognise the moments when important things happen in our lives until much later. The day we first set eyes on a future spouse or partner, the application we decide that we will or we won’t send, the person to whom we once showed a kindness that is repaid many years later with great interest. I had no idea, when I sat down for my fireside chat with Jim, in 2001, that evening would set me off in a new direction for the rest of my life. One great gift that we can give to another person is the belief that they have control over their own lives and the power to change things—or stories—that do not serve them well. This is the power of the good coach.

  • East Campus
  • Leadership
  • Opinion
  • Professional Development