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Iain Blatherwick came to executive coaching from a hugely successful background in law. As a partner with Browne Jacobson, Iain has put his coach training to go use by introducing the firm’s executive coaching offer Space + Time. Here he talks about his experience of doing the AoEC’s virtual, live Practitioner Diploma programme during the coronavirus pandemic.
You have an impressive background in the legal profession as a partner with national law firm, Browne Jacobson. What were your main reasons for diversifying your skill set into executive coaching?
I stepped down as managing partner of Browne Jacobson in April last year, after 11 years in the role, so I had to address the ‘what next’ question. I knew I wanted to make use of all I had learned as a leader (good and bad!) to support our clients, but needed a framework to place that in. I had often been told that I had a coaching leadership style and therefore it seemed that this was something to explore further. My hope was that training to be a coach would help give me a qualification alongside my experience which could be readily explained to clients, which would be familiar to them (albeit not usually through their lawyers) and which could help strengthen ties.
I haven’t completely given up the law though, as I do still provide legal advice to partnerships and LLPs and to family businesses – where in each case, particularly where succession issues are under discussion, my coaching skills can be very useful!
What were some of the positives and challenges you experienced while doing the Practitioner Diploma programme?
The first challenge was the thought of being tested – it had been a long time since I had had to pass anything! It also quickly became apparent that I never did have a coaching style after all. I love collaborative problem solving, but that usually meant me throwing out as many ideas as whoever I was working with. I quickly had to learn to sit on my hands and to understand the power of a good silence. Regular feedback in the early stages of the course was ‘to ensure that the coachee is doing most of the work’ and I do sometimes still need to suppress the desire as my coachee is talking, to think about what I would do in that situation and what my next question will be and to absolutely focus on what is being said and to trust that the next question will come.
Overall the experience was hugely positive though. When I stepped down as managing partner, I had a sense that my career had peaked and it really was just a matter of finding what to do next. I feel completely different now. Whilst there was pride in leading a business, I have to confess it hadn’t ever been a role I aspired to. I am proud of all we achieved (and we did achieve a lot), but I would never say I loved it (not sure what my fellow partners will say if they read this!). I did however love the course and the coaching sessions (both on the course and with my coachees) and now know this is what I see myself doing in the future. I can therefore now look on my time as managing partner as simply another step on the way to something I love doing and which hopefully I can develop the skills to do and do well.
You completed your Diploma during the first lockdown. How did you find the experience of doing your coach training virtually?
Having wondered how it would work when the e-mail came through that the course was going to be run virtually, I have to say it worked incredibly well. The bonds we forged as a group too – it’s hard to believe that we’ve never even met in person.
I’m now in the strange position of never having coached in person. In fact I am due to have a chemistry session with a potential coachee this week, outside in our garden (hope the weather is ok!), which will be my first in-person coaching experience.
How did you go about finding your practice clients during the lockdown period and did coaching them virtually pose any challenges?
We have a broad client base at Browne Jacobson and although my background was corporate finance, I have had a lot of support from across the firm in relation to coaching. Our education team in particular have been very supportive and helped find my practice coachees. I do enjoy coaching people from sectors other than professional services, it helps achieve the equality of relationship which you want between coach and coachee, as they bring all their experience and knowledge of the sector to the discussion.
On coaching virtually, I sense everyone adapted very quickly, through necessity, to everything being online, so (apart from the occasional wi-fi issue…) it has worked remarkably well. In recent sessions though we have all commented on looking forward to meeting and coaching in person.
What would be your top piece of advice for anyone thinking about doing a professional coach training programme?
Do it! Even if you aren’t considering becoming a coach, you learn so much about yourself and so many new skills, but more importantly how to help get the best out of people that you work with. Also keep an open mind – I know some of the approaches did not come naturally to me, particularly the more creative ones, after all I am still a lawyer… - but when I got out of my comfort zone and gave them a try they did produce results. A useful reminder that coaching sessions are not about you as the coach, so just because an approach might not work for you, it could for your coachee.
You have gone on to become accredited at Practitioner Level with the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). How easy or difficult was it to work towards gaining this professional certification?
Having done the AoEC’s Practitioner Diploma, I am pleased to say it was relatively straightforward, which was important for me as I wanted to be able to say I was qualified and accredited right from the start.
What personal qualities and values do you bring to your coaching work?
One advantage of having recently stepped out of a senior role is that you do get a lot of feedback on the job you have done, so there were mentions of trust, good listener, calm, decency, fairness, getting the best out of people and a sense of humour. I believed these were all factors which should help me to coach and I still believe that to be the case. I have also always had a curiosity, particularly about how things work – not so much in a mechanical sense - but about people, teams, relationships, businesses, supply chains.
I also bring the experience of truly knowing what it is like to be a leader. By the time I stood down we had over 1,000 people, 150 partners (who all had their own view on how the business should be run!), five offices… the pressure, the responsibility, the occasional loneliness, the highs but the inevitable lows, the challenges in addressing a scarily long list of tasks which need to be done – I know what this can feel like.
I can bring these qualities, values and experiences together to help leaders find the time and space to step back from their desk to a non-judgmental place of calm and creativity to properly assess what needs to be done, where their skills, time and energies are best deployed and to put all of these challenges into perspective.
Can you tell us more about your personal coaching model and how this has evolved since doing the diploma?
A priority for me is that the model does not become a distraction. It should be there in the background to check in on from time to time to make sure we are making progress, but not as a process which we must follow. I remember a few references during the course to poor practices where coaching was ‘being done to people’, which clearly should be avoided.
There are aspects of most of the coaching models which have appeal, but I kept getting drawn back to the simplicity of the GROW model. As it was the first approach we were taught I feel I have to leap to its defence, but its simplicity is the key to its success. I do describe it as a GROW model taking a scenic route – so you can travel back and forwards, side to side. There are elements of other models I which incorporate into my approach to GROW – the levels of listening in co-active coaching, being in the moment from Gestalt techniques, taking a more ‘O’ (from OSKAR) approach to Goals and definitely making use of timelines and different perspectives.
You have recently stepped down after 11 years as managing partner at Browne Jacobson and unveiled the firm’s executive coaching offer Space + Time. How are you using your coaching skills and what is your long-term vision for Space + Time?
The firm has ambitious plans to become a national powerhouse with a focus across a range of markets: SMEs and entrepreneurs, education, health, government, financial services and insurance and large corporates. For all of our key clients we aim to be more than ‘just the lawyers’, we want to work alongside them as part of their leadership team, helping solve their issues. Coaching will be an integral part of developing those tight knit relationships.
Interestingly, although my background is more corporate, initial interest has come from the more public sector parts of our client base, where the idea of being coached by someone from a commercial background appeals.
What are some of the issues you coach people around?
Most of my coachees are not coming with a specific issue or challenge, they just value the opportunity to take time away from work to reflect on where they are spending their time (sometimes not just at work) and value the opportunity to have the time and space to think things through. That can sound a bit passive though, the reality is that often that feeling of a safe space does means that the sessions do become incredibly powerful and creative.
What has coaching taught you about yourself and other people?
It sounds a bit trite, but the main thing it has taught me is that I love coaching. I guess I knew that the part of leadership I enjoyed most was working with people and helping them to fulfill their potential. The trouble was that could only ever be a part of the leadership role. I can now focus on that as my primary role, albeit with people outside the firm.
I have to say the coaching community is incredibly supportive too, as lots of people have reached out - so anyone who wants to make contact after reading this don’t hesitate to get in touch. There will be opportunities which aren’t for me – for example I can’t exactly give career coaching to a key individual at a client, so opportunities for referrals will arise.
How do you see your own role as a coach developing over the next few years?
It is very early days coaching as part of a law firm so hopefully we can build momentum on what we have done to date and become integral to client relationships. A large proportion of my coachees are currently from a professional services background, but I do want to make sure I have a diverse range of organisations I work with.
One other aspect I think needs looking at is support to people stepping out of leadership roles. I feel very fortunate to have answered the ‘what next’ question by discovering something I love doing, but I see plenty of people for whom the leadership role has been such a key part of their lives and neither they nor the organisation have given proper thought to what comes next.
Organisations are getting better at developing the next generation of leaders and at supporting those in post but supporting those who have led feels like an omission which should be addressed, so possibly another avenue to explore here over time.
Our deepest thanks to Iain for sharing his personal journey and experience of coach training with the AoEC.