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Nora Hutson has over 20 years' experience in HR, in both the public and private sectors, specialising in employee relations, pay & reward and performance management. Now working as a qualified executive coach, Nora coaches senior managers to achieve their goals both as corporate and individual clients. Here she shares her personal experience of the AoEC’s Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching and gives us a peek into her work as a coach.
You are a highly qualified HR professional with extensive senior-level experience within the public and private sectors having worked at organisations including Surrey Police and Petrochem. Who or what introduced you to coaching and led to you signing up for coach training with the AoEC?
I was looking for a new challenge having had the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy. One of my main gripes in the corporate world was the lack of people management skills, and how, in spite of years of HR promoting this as an essential skill, it still seemed rare. Executive coaching seemed an ideal way in to help businesses and managers get the best out of their staff. I was considering ILM Level 5, when a catch-up with someone I’d worked with presenting for CIPD, persuaded me AoEC was the most hands-on training organisation. I had a lot of respect for this coach, and the more research I did, the more I felt this was the right training for me.
What were some of the positives and challenges you experienced while doing the diploma?
So many positives! Our group gelled very quickly, in spite of many different backgrounds and personalities. The atmosphere was supportive but we were really stretched out of our comfort zones from day one. Our main trainer was very experienced and ensured everyone was involved equally. We all had different anxieties but were encouraged to do our best. It was a bit daunting having to actively try to coach straight away with a small audience, but I am convinced this was the biggest benefit of the AoEC approach.
What is your top advice to others considering coach training?
Look beyond the fees. Online and remote methods may be cheap but there is NOTHING like actively practising, making mistakes and learning from them, under professional supervision. I qualified prior to the pandemic, so this world will have moved on, but I am convinced it was having to practise in class and have pro bono clients which has made all the difference to my coaching. It is a bit like learning a language: you might be able to write and read and parrot, but if you are not making conversation in real time, you can’t really speak the language.
Looking back at doing your diploma, what has been its lasting impact on you as a person and you as a coach?
That everyone would benefit from competent coaching! Also the importance of really listening to people, including friends and family, and actively trying to put aside pre-conceived notions and assumptions. Tolerance, understanding and compassion are underrated values.
Can you tell us more about your personal coaching model and how this has evolved since doing the diploma?
Devising one’s own model was very daunting to begin with. Mine developed mainly from Co-active Coaching, but I had a lot of influences. As a (now rather rusty!) salsa dancer, I saw a dance metaphor in coaching. In a partnered free dance, if you have learned the steps, you can follow the lead without knowing a routine. The lead (the client) is in control but you are an integral part of the relationship: without you there is no dance and together you make up so much more than the sum of your parts. The client chooses the steps and you follow, but you add your own style and way of coaching that makes it a different experience from any other the client has. The better a coach, the better a partner you are, the more skilled and experienced and able to follow, the better the lead can ‘dance’ – take more risks, try more difficult steps, and ultimately produce fantastic results.
I have found myself talking less and less in coaching sessions: the use of ‘tell me more’ is invaluable! But you do have to have courage to challenge, and I have become much more comfortable doing this when warranted, to help the client. I have a lot of varied exercises in my back pocket, that I can call upon, depending on the client and the issue.
I regularly dip into my coaching books, and consult new ones, to refresh my views and challenge myself. I am careful what I read, though, there is a lot of stuff out there and not all of it is worth digesting.
It gave me great confidence to set up my practice, knowing my Diploma was so highly accredited. In a world where anyone can set up as a coach, this was very important to me, that I had been assessed against such high standards. Not everyone passes first time: assessment is rigorous, quite rightly.
You now work as a self-employed executive coach with your own successful practice. Can you tell us about the type of clients you are working with?
My focus is on corporate clients, and senior managers in particular, as invariably they have staff-management issues, which is my particular passion. Allowing them the opportunity to voice their fears or concerns in a safe environment, where they will not be judged, is immensely helpful. However, I have coached at different levels, including people with no line management responsibilities.
Private clients can feel very different, and there are different challenges. Roughly 90% of my clients have come via recommendation, either by other clients or by ex-colleagues or bosses. I feel that is testament to my professionalism and work ethic.
What are some of the issues and opportunities you coach people around?
A lack of confidence is very common, at every level, as is feeling vaguely discontented with their role. So often people’s stated goals are more about what they feel they ought to want, rather than what they really want! Coaching can really help uncover our true feelings and help set us on a happier, more fulfilling path.
Line managers are often very uncomfortable with emotions in the workplace, and then cannot deal effectively with staff in high-stress situations. They often don’t have the confidence and courage to have the ‘difficult conversation’ with a member of staff, which can have a terribly negative impact on the whole team. Learning through chair-work, role play or visualisation combined, with calming techniques to manage those uncomfortable feelings, can really assist line managers to cope much more effectively with individual staff’s issues. This reduces stress all-round and can inspire confidence, which is incredibly enabling.
How are you measuring the effectiveness of your coaching?
I always provide clients with a feedback form and ask them to complete it within a reasonable time frame. Of course, most people won’t want to criticise, but by adapting techniques used in our coaching training (what should I do more of, less of, using scales) as well as being client-centred (what worked best for you, what worked less-well), I believe I receive constructive and useful feedback. I do always stress to clients that, just like in their coaching sessions, it is important to express their true feelings and beliefs! I always write up anonymised notes after sessions, and note what went well, and what went less well, for my own learning.
Whilst respecting confidentiality, can you tell us about a coaching situation that has had an impact on you?
I do recall a time when I suggested to a client who was having trouble expressing their feelings, and moving on, that they draw what they felt. It made such a difference to their experience and allowed them to get over that barrier. Very simple, but incredibly effective in this instance. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best. Another time, a client who was struggling to manage their team, many of whom were older than they were, told me that not only were they communicating much more effectively with their staff now, but also with their children. That was quite moving, and perfectly illustrates the power of coaching.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a coach?
It won’t be an original answer, but the feeling that you are making a real difference. And that the difference might well be like the ripples in a pool, reaching out further and further, not just restricted to that client, but to those within the client’s circle, not just at work, but at home.
Our deepest gratitude to Nora for sharing her personal experience of coach training with the AoEC.
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