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Kerry Freeman has worked in human resources for over twenty years. After working as head of culture at RBS where she shaped and led the transformation of the culture post the financial crisis of 2008, Kerry is now running her own successful business Freehuman. We spoke to her about her coach training at the AoEC and how she is now using coaching skills in her facilitation and consultancy work.
You started working life with Alliance and Leicester as graduate recruitment manager and then moved onto the Royal Bank of Scotland where you had a variety of roles before becoming head of culture. Who or what introduced you to coaching and led to you signing up for coach training with the AoEC?
I’ve always been passionate about the power of conversations to build relationships and self-awareness – it’s amazing how some pretty simple questions can unlock so much understanding and empathy, and how important that is in the third of our lives we spend at work.
I think I had a natural affinity towards coaching, so when the opportunity arose to do the AoEC's Coaching Skills Certificate, I jumped at it. Through those two days I found myself answering questions I’d never been asked before and saying things out loud that I didn’t even know were there! I knew that once I left the bank, I wanted to explore more about coaching through the AoEC and so privately funded the Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching.
What were some of the positives and challenges you experienced while doing the diploma?
Firstly, a shout out to my cohort – lots of us are still in touch, we encourage each other, offer each other support, and we are very much each other’s cheerleaders. And we’ve never met - our cohort was entirely online and just proves that strong relationships can be built up via Zoom.
Secondly – doing the diploma helping me through a really hard transition period. Leaving an organisation I’d been with for almost 20 years and doing that during a pandemic was tough. A lot of my identity had been wrapped up in my career. The diploma helped me unwrap that, let go of it, and actually find myself again.
There were challenges though. You can get huge benefit from the diploma just by taking it all in and practicing the techniques – but the biggest benefits come from really deeply involving yourself, and that means you do need to be vulnerable, and you have to talk about yourself. I found that challenging to start with.
Looking back at doing your diploma, what has been its lasting impact on you as a person and you as a people development professional?
There was a phrase used throughout the diploma – describing the co-active coaching model - ‘People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole’. I think adopting this mindset, into my personal and professional life, has had a great impact on me. My role is to help people tap into that, not to ‘fix’ everyone and every problem.
Can you tell us more about your personal coaching model?
In the diploma’s assessment, I described my model as the ‘Marie Kondo’ coaching model (a very well know decluttering expert with a very particular approach). Basically, I facilitate people unpacking and untangling things that are on their mind, and then sorting them into manageable ‘piles’. I absolutely love a metaphor and use them a lot, so it helps me to imagine my coaching model like opening up the ‘junk drawer’ and having a good old sort out!
You have absorbed your coaching practices into how you consult and facilitate sessions with teams and leaders. Can you tell us more about how you are using your coaching skills in this context?
For me, the ‘magic’ equation of using coaching in my consulting and facilitation work has been the combination of simple, clean questions, silence and deep listening - giving people the space and time to unpack and explore what’s on their mind.
Rather than ‘teaching in’ techniques and models or making a whole lot of recommendations on the first meeting, I use coaching skills to help people explore problems and opportunities without judgement, understand what they already have that can help resolve any issues, and what they can deploy to try something new.
You now run your own business Freehuman and describe yourself as a culture, engagement and colleague experience specialist. What kind of clients are you typically working with?
In the first 18 months of business it’s been enormously varied - from fintech to forestry, education to energy, with a bit of legal and IT along the way. One thing I would say my clients have in common is curiosity. They’ve all been willing to explore a ‘presenting problem’ deeply before deciding on a course of action. They’ve all been willing to involve people and co-create solutions, listen to new ideas and try new approaches. Having a deeper understanding of coaching techniques has really helped to know when to reign in the ‘consultant’ (with all the ideas and suggestions and answers) and dial up the deep listening to get to the core of what’s really going on.
Whilst respecting confidentiality, can you tell us about a situation where your coaching skills made a tangible difference for the client and had an impact on you too?
I’m currently facilitating some wellbeing sessions for teachers; on behalf of a consultancy I work closely with. I use simple, clean, questions – providing space to consider and reflect, and really listen to each member of the cohort. This means people are opening up about their wellbeing warning signs and they’re starting to share actions and ideas with each other. They are hugely creative, resourceful and whole, and I’m just giving them the space to realise that. It’s enormously rewarding to see them emerge from workshops calmer, more confident and refreshed, responsible for their own action plans.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a people development professional?
I love the breakthrough moment – when you can see someone’s mindset shift, or they gain a deeper level of empathy into someone else’s situations, or they gain a deeper insight into their own behaviours and actions. I find it really rewarding to think that a question I might have asked or prompted has led to that.
Our deepest gratitude to Kerry for sharing her personal journey.
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