Coaching…My Way of Giving Back

My long-time friends often have questions when they find out that I am spending so much of my time coaching. What exactly is coaching? Is it “life coaching” that I see advertised on social media? What is it that you coach?

Good questions.

Originally I coached clergy in their personal and professional development in their work in ministry. Over the last ten years, I have been working with leaders in healthcare as well, administrative and clinical, as they seek to become more effective in their leadership. Currently, I do both, as well as work with a few folks who are transitioning in their work life, some into new fields, and some into the world of retirement.

What is coaching?

My favorite image of coaching is that of “coming alongside” someone doing a specific piece of work, pausing for a moment of self-reflection on the past, focusing on self-awareness in the “now”, and then intentional planning for the future. The way I do it is somewhat a hybrid between consulting, which involves expertise, and therapy, which is about personal growth. Add “friend” to the equation, and the hybrid is complete.

My initial image of what it means to coach came naturally from high school, coaching from the sideline, reviewing films of past games, noting strengths and weaknesses in performance. It also involves planning the the upcoming game, both in terms of overall strategy and specific tactics. And then, standing on the sideline, bringing a somewhat objective eye on the game, adjusting to the moment, and encouraging full engagement play. The athletic coach analogy breaks down at points but gave me a workable image when I first started coaching clergy many years ago. John Wooden, the UCLA legend, was known for teaching his players to put their socks on properly, to avoid debilitating blisters. Phil Jackson, the Zen master, got into the heads of his players and created a “team” spirit that was truly collaborative. These, and others like Mac Brown were in my mind when I began this coaching thing.

When people ask why I enjoy coaching, I joke that I prefer sending in plays from the sideline, and not having to absorb the body hits that are a part of parish leadership. And that is no joke.

These days, I also spend a good bit of time working with executives and clinical leaders in healthcare, mostly around issues of leadership. While healthcare professionals are well-trained in the clinical moves, I have been surprised at their lack of training in organizational leadership. Most are trained in a command-control format, ordering change by memo. Most have learned that such a method is no longer fruitful, but don’t know what to put in its place.

I often think that I spend most of my time around making change happen on time and with the least amount of blood on the floor. I learned this method after studying change management with one of the change gurus who was leading the way in understanding that process. We were facing a profound change of leadership at the Cathedral in Atlanta and I intuitively sought out someone who had spent a good bit of time studying the process of change. Daryl Conner, who wrote the pioneering book, Leadership At The Speed of Change, still whispers insights to me about the process of unfreezing the status quo and provided a framework for my practice.

I started doing organization development coaching working with churches as they were trying to figure out how to grow. In the Diocese of Texas, we were particularly interested in growing our numbers, that is, the numbers of members. We framed this in terms of The Decade of Evangelism, which I found humorous in the Episcopal context, where we typically were not exactly enthusiastic about inviting others to join us in worship. Submit a financial report, a genealogical record, and academic transcript….and we’ll get back with you. My favorite cartoon at the time was a priest on an examination table, telling the attending physician, “Doc, I am not sure that I have a decade of evangelism in me!” Humor is funniest when close to the bone.

I found myself as a South of God refugee needing to reframe the marching orders of evangelism. I did that by reframing the charge as 3-Dimensional Growth, in three dimensions, or 3D, as I described it. The first dimension is in terms of increasing the number of members. This is how most people think about church growth, but I have expanded the meaning. The second dimension is “scope” in terms of the width of acceptance, that is, who counts and is included within the bounds of community. In my own Episcopal tradition, this has moved along racial and sexual lines, which proved to be a push for some of our members. The third dimension is also strong within the Episcopal tribe, that is, the dimension of “depth” as to their spiritual growth. The intent of church is to grow disciples, making them more transparent to the Christ that is within each person, an identity that goes with the territory of being human. We just need to discover our true nature…and the nature of all who share the planet.

These days, I find myself in the C suite, with administrative and clinical leaders trying to figure out these complex and fast times, especially in the wake of pandemic. I have particularly enjoyed helping leaders form teams of high functioning members. Casting a vision, setting realistic goals, and executing plans is the bread and butter of organizational leadership but the main work is finessing the hard work of transformation and change.

At the same time, I find that I am enjoying my work of coaching clergy more than ever. I have a number of young clergy, fresh out of the gate of seminary, hungry to learn how to be effective. Most times, these people are like me when I finished seminary, well-trained in the intellectual disciplines found in theological education, but little clue about how to lead and how to organize a group of people. My own hard-earned lessons and the organizational skills I have studied prove to be helpful in managing transitions that are the normal part of parish life.

As I mentioned earlier, the image that operates in my mind when coaching in that of “coming alongside” an “other” person. This “other” is not only trying to DO something, sometimes something very particular and peculiar to the time and place, but the person is also intending to BE someone, namely herself/himself. Both must be engaged or it is an incomplete act of coaching, in my book.

The “how to” is the actionable piece of the work, the technology of how to get something done. In my leadership model, The Leadership Wheel, the basic tension is the polarity between creating vision and getting it done. First, and primary, where is it are you intending to go? This is the visioning process, that is, the intentional direction that you are hoping to go, and as a leader, where you hope to lead your people. This process of casting a vision is critical part of leadership, whether you tend to work off building consensus or promoting your own vision of the future. There are many variations between those two extremes that can work, but the central notion if to get clear within your self as to how you are planning to work.

Of course, “context” may be the most important aspect of all in this first dimension. If there is an immediate, pressing climate, consensus building may take up too much time, time that you don’t have in a press. You may have to exercise authority in the moment just to do something, which seems to be a tendency or default for a lot of folks. Generally, there is time for consultation, in order to get other views, checking your own myopic tendencies. But there are occasions when a decision must be made NOW. Again, being self-aware of your tendencies and aware of how you are operating is primary.

Second, executing the plan, that is, making it happen is a critical next step. There are many churches and hospitals I work with who have had a history of long, involved planning processes, long-range and immediate, that produced voluminous research,, dialogue, and planning, only to wind up in a file somewhere in a back office, never seeing the light of day nor action in the field of play. At Galloway, we have used a simple process, formulated by our teacher, Robert Miles, which involves procuring Commitment to Action (CTA) from the various players in the organization, a public way to monitor process by way of metrics, and a means of “cascading” the vision down through the group, checking for completion.

This is the Texas Two-Step of organizational development, with both pieces critical to producing fruit from our labor. Simply put, Vision and Reality. A vision to plan for where we want to go, an action plan that will get us where we want to go.

It sounds simple, but I am amazed at how many people and organizations founder between those two rocks of reality. Just by paying attention to this balance, a coach comes alongside the leader to assist in both the awareness of the present moment as well as beginning to think, to imagine a future. Once a vision is captured, the coach prompts the planning as to how to make it real. And along the way, the coach presses the monitoring of the progress, the resistance that the emerges, and the supporting forces. The essence of the coaching relationship is providing a trusted “other” set of eyes, to drill down on the depth of the context, to focus on the present moment, to plan for the future, and to monitor the progress.

Coaching is all about looking deeply into the situation, and asking the clarifying and probing questions. I feel amazingly alive when I am engaged in this work with the people I am committed to, and I get such a sense of meaning when I am able to deliver this valued presence. Can you sense how much I love coaching? I feel like I am using all the experience I have had, my knowledge of organizational leadership, and my gift of encouragement. No wonder I am energized by my work of coaching! It is work that deserves my best time and energy. Blessings.

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