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Stephen Tolfree completed the Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching with the AoEC in 2015. Working within the civil service alongside running his own coaching practice, Stephen has developed a way of consistently helping clients change from just a single coaching session and rigorously gathers data on the outcomes he achieves. Here he talks about his experience of coach training and how he is using his coaching skills to help colleagues and clients find direction and improve confidence, wellbeing, and performance.
You have worked as a management consultant and as a senior policy advisor in the Civil Service, having studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. Who or what introduced you to coaching and led to you signing up for coach training with the AoEC?
Coaching is something I came to organically from having conversations with friends and family and finding that it made the difference for them making changes in their lives. But I wanted my instinctive approach to be professionalised, so I looked for the most prestigious and well-regarded training available and AoEC was the obvious choice. Though my coaching is often therapeutic I draw on my experience solving difficult financial problems - because to bring about effective change in a complicated system you have to really understand what the heart of the problem is, and I bring this same problem-focused approach to my clients.
What were some of the positives and challenges you experienced while doing the diploma?
I was lucky in having really supportive and encouraging colleagues on the course who helped stretch me and helped me grow. I liked how I was introduced to alternative approaches, one of which - systemic constellations - I have gone on to specialise in and use with many of my clients. It was challenging - but beneficial - having my peers give me honest feedback on my coaching style. Despite my academic background, I didn't enjoy the studying as I much prefer learning-by-doing (which thankfully the course focused on) rather than learning-by-reading.
Looking back at doing your diploma, what has been its lasting impact on you as a person and you as a coach?
The biggest difference was in my confidence, in that it allowed me to confidently present myself as a coach, whereas previously I was more of a hobbyist. At the time I was surprised by the focus on my signature coaching model - but attending to this is really important and has helped me understand what I stand for as a coach.
Can you tell us more about your personal coaching model and how this has evolved since doing the diploma?
My coaching is all about transformational change and the model I developed was based on bringing clarity as a route to change. This is still the case but I'm now more aware that I take a problem-focused approach and clarity on the blockage - and how to overcome it - is the focus of my coaching now. I originally had a model of rapid coaching because I was getting results after 1-3 sessions. As I've become more experienced, I now consistently get results after a single coaching session.
You now work as an executive coach within the civil service and have your own practice. Can you tell us more about who you are typically coaching in each of these settings?
Coaching in a single session has made executive coaching much more affordable to my employer, and as a result they have been able to offer it to all staff rather than just top executives. So, my clients come from all parts of the organisational hierarchy. For those in more junior roles, it is their first experience of having help like this and often it is the impetus for a reinvigoration of their career. The senior civil servants I coach value the fact that the coaching is by self-referral, so they don't need to have an uncomfortable discussion with their managers about the challenges they are having in their role. The thing that unifies my private clients is that they all have something they want to change in their lives but are struggling to make it happen.
What are some of the issues and opportunities you coach around and what kind of impact is the coaching having?
I am very interested in whether my coaching has an impact and I survey my clients six months after their session because it gives time to see if changes have been made whereas if I surveyed them immediately after the coaching it would only assess whether they have had a good experience. And the findings are impressive - 83% of people have made sustained changes six months after the session. The most common thing I help with is confidence. 47% of my clients say that their confidence has improved with a high proportion of them getting promoted - often after languishing at the same level for a long time.
You specialise in coaching people in one intensive-two-hour session with 96 per cent of people getting what they need from single session coaching. How are you achieving this?
My philosophy is that my clients are normally capable of taking action in their lives, and the reason they have come for coaching is that something is blocking them. My job as the coach is therefore to help them understand what is holding them back and how they can overcome it. Once this is clear they don't need my help anymore and can make the changes themselves without needing further sessions for me to support or guide them. I call this a problem-focused approach (in contrast to solutions-focused coaching) because it is focused on overcoming the problem that is holding the client back.
Whilst respecting confidentiality, can you tell us about a coaching situation that has had an impact on you?
The sessions that have the biggest impact on me are those where we touch on something very delicate and profound for the client. I love it when I reach that "aha" moment with my clients when we touch on an unexpected but crucial issue that is the cause behind all their current difficulties. Delicately balancing healing a painful past issue, whilst keeping the client safe and supported, is the art of truly being in the moment and often leads to big shifts in their energy for life.
You monitor the diversity statistics of your clients and BAME staff are 67% more likely to come for help than their white colleagues. Why do you think this is?
People with diversity characteristics face more challenges in life and therefore may feel they have a greater need for coaching. Fear of being stereotyped, can lead people to hold themselves back from progression. Sometimes there are issues related to having an immigrant background (feeling more vulnerable in belonging or being self-conscious about their accent), Many of my BAME clients get a new lease of energy from coaching and are promoted within months.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a coach?
At its best coaching is a healing experience. I love helping my clients come to terms with difficult periods in their life that led them to develop self-limiting beliefs that were essential in earlier life but are now holding them back. We then work together to develop new beliefs that feel authentic and life affirming. This can lead to transformational change - from healing family and work relationships through to reinvigorating a career that has been going nowhere for a long period.
Our sincerest thanks to Stephen for sharing his personal experience of coach training.