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May Ireland is an experienced HR professional and certiﬁed executive coach specialising in leadership and enhancing organisational performance. She has extensive experience in organisational development and leading complex change management, and can provide a blend of coach-consultancy services. Training with the AoEC in 2016, May spoke to us about her experience of the Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching and her work as a qualiﬁed coach.
You have worked in HR and organisational development roles for brands including RSA, Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest. Who or what introduced you to coaching and led to you signing up for coach training with the AoEC?
The person who introduced me to coaching and to the AoEC was my former line manager at NatWest. She used me as one of her test cases and would practice her coaching with me! She talked admirably of her experience and of the course itself.
At the time, the bank was moving towards a coaching mindset and culture to help leaders implement change more eﬀectively. This was an opportunity for me to shift my career focus and move away from programme management to working at a much more personal level with leaders and supporting them in leading transformational change within their business.
What were some of the positives and challenges you experienced while doing the diploma?
The challenge that I personally faced was remembering to take my consultant’s hat oﬀ when coaching others. This is because coaching incorporates very similar traits – where you are taking an inquiry-based approach and trying to understand things from their perspective so you can help them.
As a consultant, you are the one who is producing the solutions, but in coaching, it is all about helping the coachee ﬁnd their own path and leveraging their own knowledge and experience to identify solutions that will work for them.
What is your top advice to others considering coach training?
Be prepared to do some deep work on yourself. To be able to take part in the programme and get the most out of it, you must bring your whole self into the room and be prepared to be vulnerable.
This is because throughout the programme you are also being coached. You need to experience what it is like to be coached well to have a sense of what it means, to be an eﬀective coach.
Looking back at doing your diploma, what has been its lasting impact on you as a person and you as a coach?
The biggest impact it has had is that it has helped me really appreciate the complexity of organisational change.
Having worked in leading organisational change at a programme level, it is very easy to forget the people and the personal drivers and motivations that really play into how well change comes about in an organisation. So, coaching really opened my eyes to that and gave me a new and far more eﬀective way to support leaders leading change.
I realised how powerful coaching can be because when you are able to work at quite an intimate level with someone, you can really feel and see the impact your coaching can have on people and the diﬀerence it can make in their lives. You don’t often have opportunities in life to see the impact you can have, so this is really gratifying.
Can you tell us more about your personal coaching model and how this has evolved since doing the diploma?
My coaching model has evolved from being one-to-one, to one-to-many.
While coaching one-to-one has many real beneﬁts in terms of the support you can provide a coachee; for them to realise any real change, at some point you must bring other people into the mix, so it is not just one or two voices in the room.
That is why I am such a big fan of group or team coaching because when you work alongside other people who have a shared experience, goal or challenge, you tend to be much more open to a diﬀerent way of thinking and the insights you get are so much richer. There’s a fresh perspective on things – on life, on work, on relationships.
When I think about what I do as a coach whether it’s within VirtualCoachWorks, VirtualPeer or BETA100, all of those have one thing in common and it is around connection and collaboration. Working on things together.
When I stepped back from NatWest and moved to the United States I wanted to continue working as a coach and set up VirtualCoachWorks. This helped me to kick start my coaching practice.
With VirtualPeer I wanted to democratise coaching and make it much more accessible and aﬀordable for people. I did this by introducing a one-to-many approach where several people could come together and work with one coach on a shared goal or challenge. With two co-founders and a few other coaches we started running leadership peer groups. It was a good experiment in the sense that it proved my assumptions that people really did get a lot out of learning from each other, but it also made me realise how hard it is to curate these groups. It was a very intensive experience from which I decided to move VirtualPeer towards a more product-based solution. Currently we are in the process of building a mobile app.
When I moved back to the UK last year, I had the opportunity to join a venture studio here in Cornwall and I met my current co-founder. We were brainstorming ideas and settled on this idea of building an investment platform that recognises and rewards sweat equity. BETA100 helps match people to start-ups and people can track, value and bank their time contributions and at the point when the founder secures investment or achieves an exit, they can realise a return on that investment.
The common thread across all three businesses is the multiple ways people can connect and collaborate to help one another.
What are some of the issues and opportunities you coach clients around and what kind of impact is the coaching having?
Leaders I work with come from the health, education, ﬁntech and startup sectors. Topics range from vision, values and business strategy - right through to working on challenges around conﬁdence, stakeholder management and delegation.
Irrespective of what leaders bring to the table, I always ﬁnd everything is interconnected. At the end of the day, it is all about the assumptions we hold about ourselves and each other that aﬀects how we relate to one another. We need to ﬁnd ways to always constructively test our assumptions if we want to challenge and change our perceptions.
Measuring the impact of coaching can be tricky. For it to be truly objective you need to bring other people into the room who can provide feedback on the behavioural changes you want to see taking place. People ﬁnd this awkward to do outside of the conﬁnes of a managerial relationship. So, it becomes a mostly a subjective experience.
At the end of every session, I always ask what worked well, what are the key takeaways from this session, what could we do diﬀerently next time? The biggest compliment is the
word-of-mouth referrals and I’m not shy when it comes to asking for references which I use on my website and LinkedIn proﬁle!
Whilst respecting conﬁdentiality, can you tell us about a coaching situation that has had an impact on you?
I think the biggest one was when I was working with a leadership team all individually
one-to-one. They were all part of the same team, but they all had a very diﬃcult relationship with each other. This was the turning point for me in why I know team and group coaching can be so powerful.
I could only go so far with them because they needed to work with each other. I got their permission to help bring them together and I designed and delivered a programme around team coaching that both educated them about what team coaching is, what it comprises, how can we work together more eﬀectively through team coaching and contract with each other around that relationship. I got them to a good place where they were working on it themselves and I could step away. That made me realise how much more powerful your learning can be when you bring other people into it.
What do you ﬁnd most rewarding about your work as a coach?
Very simple, I love helping people! The most important thing for me is that someone feels they are not alone and they have someone who can be their sounding board, who is there for them with no agenda. It helps them be more honest with themselves having a coach there.
Our sincerest thanks to May for taking the time out to speak about her coaching journey.