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Neil Mackinnon came to executive coaching following a hugely successful career in the arts where he worked in tour management and arts administration. Now running his own practice, Neil works as a leadership coach and consultant within the cultural and creative industries. Here he talks about his experience on the AoEC’s Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching.
You started life as a professional musician before moving into tour management then arts administration, working with organisations such as the British Council and Serious International Music Producers, and 12 years at London’s Southbank Centre. Who or what introduced you to coaching and led to you signing up for coach training with the AoEC?
I was introduced to coaching in 2012 by my manager at Southbank Centre, himself a trained coach, to work through a particularly complex professional challenge. I did a course of sessions with an external coach, and it was transformational, both personally and professionally. I found the agency I gained through getting really clear on what I was trying to achieve, dispelling some unhelpful limiting beliefs, and creating an actionable plan, both powerful and effective. Within a few months I had achieved my goal and was onto the next phase of my career. This sparked an interest in coaching as a mode of working which resulted in me reading a lot of books and working with several coaches on and off for the next few years.
By 2018 I was heading a department at Southbank Centre and was offered the opportunity to take a ‘coaching as a style of leadership’ course alongside a few colleagues and other senior leaders from the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House. It was another transformational experience, and I knew then working as a coach was going to be part of my future career.
I left Southbank Centre a year later for a one-year fixed term contract at a classical music agency, Intermusica, as a stepping stone into consulting and beginning my journey as an independent coach. When I was furloughed mid-way through the contract, I used some of my time to research various coaching providers, talk to a few coaches and see what was available. I signed up to the Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching with AoEC as a result of a hugely positive experience at the open day and a pivotal conversation with an alumnus of the course.
What were some of the positives and challenges you experienced while doing the diploma?
I’ll start with the challenges so I can end on a high! I had in my head it was going to be a challenge doing the course online and almost postponed starting, hoping it was going to return to face-to-face. When it became clear things were locking down again, because of the increasing rate of Covid, I got out of my own way (with the help of a coach!), decided to go for it and am so glad I did. Which segues to my second challenge, balancing home schooling, consulting work and the programme during lockdown. In some respects, it was a great lesson in building resilience and preparation for managing the many moving parts of running a consulting and coaching business!
The positives are people, content, and format. The calibre and diversity of my cohort was terrific, and I learned so much from going through the process with them, expertly guided by our outstanding faculty. The quality of both the material and the method of delivery provides a thorough education in a wide range of approaches to coaching. It is all delivered through clear materials, with lots of opportunity to put it into practice during the contact time of the modules and with practice clients.
What is your top advice to others considering coach training?
It’s a big investment of time and money. Get clear on why you want to do the training, perhaps through working with a coach! There’s a wealth of providers, so do your research and attend some events/open days, which most of the reputable training providers offer. I was particularly struck at the AoEC open event by the clarity of course content, honesty that it’s not for everyone and no heavy sell at any point. For me, I knew it was going to be a part of my professional practice for a long time, so it made complete sense to make the investment in a quality programme. I also felt this programme in particular would be a good addition to my skill set from my 20 some years working in the cultural and creative industries.
Looking back at doing your diploma, what has been its lasting impact on you as a person and you as a coach?
A higher level of self-awareness has been the lasting impact on me as a person, really investigating who I am and why I do this work has helped me better understand myself. As a coach, the diploma was a catalyst, it connected me to the wider wisdom and guidance that exists both in written form, and from or the many other coaches out there.
Can you tell us more about your personal coaching model and how this has evolved since doing the diploma?
My approach is informal and friendly with an underlying seriousness of purpose. It’s a balance between the free-flowing energy of what emerges in the session and the structure provided by a combination of the following models and philosophies: Inner Game Theory, Flow State, Zen thinking and Humanistic Psychology. I also integrate the wider learning from ongoing reading, alongside my meditation practice and background as a professional musician (practice and patience!). I’d say the evolution since the programme is I’ve become more confident in slowing things down in sessions and, when appropriate, offering challenge.
You established your own coaching practice in November 2020; can you tell us about the type of clients you are working with?
The demographic of my client base is mainly cultural and creative industry professionals: artists, creatives, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople. However, I’ve also worked with a managing director of a recruitment firm, a consultant with a leading professional services company, a director in big tech and a department head in retail buying.
Psychographically, the people I work best with show up to sessions with lots of questions and areas to explore. They are committed to the process, willing to think deeply, go on a journey to understand themselves better (even if parts of it are uncomfortable), work to articulate what they want and establish steps towards getting it. They are typically people who take action and reflect on what has and hasn’t worked.
What are some of the issues and opportunities you coach clients around and what kind of impact is the coaching having?
This is a tough one to answer as the combination of issues and opportunities is so unique to each client. The following are a few headline areas/themes that tend to come up:
- Working on vision, mission, and values
- Achieving clarity in thinking and decision making around a particular issue or area
- Building confidence and developing courage
- Career planning
- Adapting to change
- Overcoming limiting beliefs, building self-reliance and resilience
The impact for each client will also be unique, but if I had to pick a common outcome of all successful engagements it is positive change
Whilst respecting confidentiality, can you tell us about a coaching situation that has had an impact on you?
One of my core beliefs is the certainty of change, regardless of whether it’s passive (happening to us) or active (guided by us). One of the greatest joys of working as a coach is supporting and witnessing purposeful change in my clients, which never fails to have an impact on me. I find the moments when clients more deeply connect with their agency enormously impactful.
How have you seen the need for coaching change as we have gone through the coronavirus pandemic?
One of the primary reasons I believe coaching is such a powerful mode of working is the potential to add value in so many areas of our lives. As such, I think any change in the need for coaching during the pandemic is directly correlated with the change in our wider need as a species. And what comes up for me there in relation to the pandemic is a greater need for empathy. Recognising everyone is likely fighting internal battles we know nothing about and many of those have been exacerbated by the pandemic. As with any good coach, I love questions, and one which helps me to connect with more empathy is ‘What if this person before me is trying their best with what they have available to them at this moment?’
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a coach?
I’ll answer this in the short and long term. The immediate is during sessions, connecting to the energy created when a client makes a discovery or unlocks something. I get a spine-tingling excitement when a conversation is resonating, connected and alive with possibility and vitality. The impact, right there in front of me. The client may not have taken the action yet, but you can sense the forward motion already, the energy shifts.
The long term is the compounding interest in the quality and structure of my thinking accrued through listening deeply to, and working closely with smart, engaged people. I have found this has also increased my depth of presence and generally supported me gradually becoming a better coach and human.
Our deepest thanks to Neil for sharing his story.
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