I remember my first coaching session well. The client was a friend of a friend. I was charging her £5 and wishing I wasn’t charging her anything at all. I went to her flat – an idea that seems incomprehensible to me now but at the time, you know, anything to be helpful! (The notion of professional boundaries came much later in my learning.) She wanted help with blushing. I distinctly remember blushing when she told me this. (The notions of parallel process or phenomenology or use of self…all of this would be years ahead in the future for me.) For now, I gulped, blushed and began.
So much has changed between that first session and now. Eight years have passed, over 1200 coaching hours have been delivered. In many ways, I’m a completely different person, let alone coach. And in many ways, I’m exactly the same.
Training as a coach has taken me to places I never expected, given me experiences and insights that I couldn’t have dreamed of. It’s enriched my life and taught me that there is so much opportunity under that one tiny word: coach.
I had worked in community development for a decade before training as a coach, travelling UK and Europe to support people in telling stories about themselves and their communities using social media. But there was one group of women really close to home who acted as the catalyst for me to become a coach. In a council estate, about a mile outside of Manchester, I delivered a confidence building programme for women who had never worked. By the end of the course, one was setting up a business, another was applying for work, one was planning on leaving her abusive partner…they were buoyant, optimistic, full of plans. And yet my sense was that bringing these plans into life would take a lot of tenacity and enough resilience to keep going through the inevitable bumps and challenges along the way. My training had got them so far, but I didn’t think it would be enough to really see the course through, and my frustration at this led me to start Googling coach training courses.
I took the first coaching training that I could afford at the time. It was limited – but, not having been a coach before, I didn’t realise quite how limited it was until I took the Animas Diploma in Transformational Coaching a couple of years later. But it was enough to get me started, and into that kitchen of the friend of the friend. Trial by fire!
I signed up with a supervisor immediately and then worked with lots of different practice clients, determined to learn from the bumps and scrapes of those early sessions. Because there’s no way around it – coaching isn’t a theoretical concept that can be passed by exam; there are very few right/wrong answers. It’s experiential and relational. We make up part of the data, we’re part of the field, so we can only really learn by doing, through an accumulation of our many and various ‘wrong’ choices and ‘wrong’ turns. Starting out means developing the muscle and the grace for being ok with being ok.
As the months passed and I started to ease into what this coaching malarkey was all about, I tuned into a calling, an itch that needed scratching. Having come from a background of community development, and having been directly inspired by a group of women in one particular community, I wanted to get back to my roots. I’d always known that I wanted to coach in the community – my brilliant business mind deciding that I wanted to coach people who couldn’t afford to pay me. A genius business model, I know. But then a random Google search opened up a whole world of possibilities.
From practice to prison
Anyone working in the third sector knows that we have to sing for our supper. You want funding? You have to prove your impact. Qualitative and quantitative reports, social return on investment analysis…funding is very much a give and take game. I wondered, if there was social impact coaching happening out there, what might be some discernible impact measurements? I wondered about measuring recidivism rates for offenders – that seemed like a highly measurable statistic – so I Googled ‘coaching in prisons’, and to my eternal joy and gratitude it turned out there was a local charity offering just that.
The recruitment and induction process was lengthy (everything to do with prisons is complex and lengthy) but then there I was, day one, with my ID badge and my prison belt, complete with a set of keys dangling from the chain and a whistle to blow on in case of emergency.
Wandering around a prison for the first time is utterly bewildering. There’s so much to take in. The first prison I worked in felt very much like wandering around a National Trust property; the gardens were beautifully maintained and a portion of the population were housed in large Victorian red brick houses. But then you’d hit a locked gate and have to reach for your keys. Or you’d start to notice that the women were categorised in different coloured uniforms (relating to where they worked, so staff could quickly tell if people were in the right place or not). And the first time I went on the Wing – that was disorientating. Edgy. Noisy. A sense that things could kick off at any moment. The Wing was its own world within a world.
And whilst it was bewildering and overwhelming, from the start, I loved it. I loved the healthy scepticism of the women when they came to an introductory session to discover what coaching was. I loved the challenge, the questioning, the bravado; the willingness, the vulnerability, the hope, the fear. The women told me over and over again that they couldn’t trust anyone inside – it’s not safe to let your guard down, ever; too many of them had learned this lesson the hard way. But with the coaches, they were seen as the whole, resourceful, creative women they were. They were treated as equals, respected. Their company was enjoyed. Under these conditions, they thrived, came alive. Coaching was transformative.
I spent five years coaching inside. After the first year, I was able to give up work completely. I worked as a coach, project coordinator, Head of Operations. I coached in men’s and women’s prisons, set up services in new prisons, supported coach development across the charity. I worked as a coach in the community, with those at risk of offending. I coached young people and their families. From one Google search, a world of opportunity unfolded, and I took every opportunity that came my way.
From prison to associate
As coaches, we work with others to help them push out of their comfort zones into new territory. After five years coaching inside, I realised I was extremely comfortable – and it was time for a new challenge. So I hung up my keys and started exploring ‘what next’.
And ‘what next’ came fast and furious! I’d recently received a Diploma in Relational Team Coaching – a hugely powerful and transformative training programme – and an opportunity quickly presented itself to work with a team in crisis at the Emergency Department of a hospital. Following on from this, I got the opportunity to work as an associate coach in primary care, and I found myself working with GPs and Practice Managers. Around the same time, an organisation called Sanctus was recruiting, and I was lucky enough to get through their recruitment process and join their team of Mental Health Coaches. I was also approached by a coach I worked with in prison about doing some training and coaching with them, working in the Diversity & Inclusion field.
As ever, the universe decrees that if you leap, opportunities will emerge. Nature truly abhors a vacuum! So here I was, from not knowing quite what would follow my time working in prison, to experiencing an incredible range and variety of opportunity, all with so much to teach me:
Gremlins and creatives
Around this really fertile time in my career, I started having some interesting conversations with a friend – a novelist – about the common blocks to creativity. We started to record our conversations and structure them around coaching questions. These recordings became the basis of a book – Seven Creative Gremlins – that sparked the creation of a monthly meet-up for creatives in Manchester. My co-author, Nic, would take the group through writing exercises and prompts; I facilitated Time to Think sessions between participants and offered one to one coaching.
It was a joy to work with creatives, but more than anything I loved the whole ‘life imitating art’ aspect, the organic way that we followed our noses to allow our natural curiosity to turn into a book and to turn into monthly meet ups. There was a flow to the process that, ultimately, is creativity in action. From nothing, there is something. I really enjoyed the freedom and empowerment of holding my destiny in my hands in this way. It feels like a privilege woven into the path that we have chosen as coaches. We make our lives happen.
There have been many twists and turns in my evolving coaching career. I love that the associate work has taken a key role in how I earn my living, and that this affords me a lot of freedom to do other things, like writing the book and developing the workshops. But I didn’t plan it this way.
I think I was always aware, out of my side eye, of some of the received wisdom about how to grow as a coach: train, niche, market yourself, increase your fees again, and again, then, phew, you’ll be a success.
I guess I always thought I’d do this…I just never seemed to have the space. Opportunities that were juicy and interesting and challenging and rewarding were in the space instead. There was no gap, and no sense of lack.
Ever since my first client, I’ve always had a small, word of mouth private practice alongside whatever else has been central. This has been a place where I’ve experimented with what feels core to me, where I’ve explored what coaching is and isn’t to me. I’m evolving a keener sense of what my coaching philosophy is, what my philosophy of change is. I’ve made mistakes, crossed boundaries. My private practice has been a fertile place for me to grow and learn in supervision.
As for what next? Something is percolating. I’m not forcing the next iteration of my business to present itself. Instead, I am listening, exploring, learning, growing and intuiting my way into the next phase. I really value my associate work that supports this space for reflection. I sense that something powerful and congruent is emerging for me – and I appreciate that I’m not quite ‘there’ yet.
My experiences over the last eight years have taught me to appreciate the breadth of possibilities when it comes to coaching, and also to respect the wonderful things that emerge from space and a gentle pace. I intend to be working for the next thirty years. I’m not in a mad dash to get ‘there’. I’m enjoying ‘here’ in the meantime and will enjoy seeing what manifests next.
Wherever you are on your coaching journey, I hope you have moments to take a breath, hit pause from time to time, take in the view, and pivot as often as feels refreshing. There are so many opportunities out there. Enjoy crafting your own coaching story.
Interested in crafting your own coaching story?
If you would like us to help tell your story or you would like to share your coaching niche, philosophy or agenda in the form of a blog, like this one – contact Sam to express your interest: [email protected]