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We had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Mark Mulligan who completed the Practitioner Diploma in Executive Coaching with the AoEC in 2012. Founder of the hugely successful Thriving London practice, here he shares his very personal journey, experience of being stressed and how he is using coaching to support people to be holistically successful.
You went to Trinity College Dublin before embarking on a very successful career working in financial director roles with BT and Cable & Wireless. What or who introduced you to coaching and led you to enrol in the AoEC’s Practitioner Diploma programme?
I’d already been coaching for a few years when I enrolled with AoEC. I’d found a coaching niche working with people, mostly men with similar backgrounds and experience to myself. Senior leaders, in demanding roles, working in complex matrix organisations. I focused on helping them change their behaviour to be more successful in their roles.
Although this was working for me commercially, I recognised that I’d settled into a comfortable rut, I wanted to expand my reach and impact, but I didn’t know how to do this myself. I was curious about different models of success that work for individuals, teams, organisations and beyond to our communities. I also wanted to work with more women who I see as driving positive cultural change in organisations and help them achieve their vision. I wanted to bring more of myself to my coaching, my values, my beliefs and stretch myself to learn.
So, I came with quite a long shopping list on day one of my course.
In one of your vlogs you talk about living in Paris, being in a topflight job but that everything was not as rosy as it seemed and that you were on the verge of a breakdown and realised you needed to make changes. How did you turn that around and recover from that period?
Yes, that was a very difficult time for me and the journey to full recovery took a while with an interesting detour on the way.
Paris was amazing, I was living on Isle St Louis in a 17th century apartment with a living room the size of a ballroom overlooking the Seine. I had all the external trappings of success but inside was a different story. I was working crazy hours, coming home late every night, and relying on food and alcohol to unwind. I was exhausted, fat, and toxic. I remember one night, being wide awake at 3 am and sitting bolt upright in bed. My partner woke and asked me “What’s the matter?” and I heard myself saying “Nothing’s the matter, everything is absolutely fine”. Hearing myself say those words, I realised everything was far from fine. I was on the edge of a breakdown and something had to change.
Not being one to do things by half, I re-structured myself out of my role, negotiated my redundancy and went to India and opened a yoga retreat with a friend. Over the next five years I went from working 16 hours a day to 16 hours a week, from being fat and stressed to being too skinny and un-stimulated. In the end, I was bored. I missed the challenge and excitement of corporate life and I realised that I had just gone from one extreme to another.
It was only when I came back to what I do now; supporting others to be healthy, happy, and fulfilled, that I felt I had recovered fully.
You set up Thriving London back in April 2014 to help individuals and organisations be healthier, happier and more holistically successful. Can you tell us a little bit more about the kind of clients you are working with?
We’re really lucky to work with a wide range of individuals and clients from a diverse backgrounds and sectors. From large successful organisations like Deloitte, Bank of England, London Stock Exchange and Barclays to small charities like The Pret Foundation who help homeless people and ex-offenders get back to work.
What’s really interesting for me is that since we’ve become clearer on our vision … to help individuals and organisations be healthier, happier and more holistically successful, we’ve begun to attract clients who are progressive, think big and want to effect a positive change not just for their teams and organisation, but beyond.
What does your personal coaching model look like and how has it evolved since doing your original coach training?
My coach training at AoEC was the single best investment I’ve made in my professional development, by a mile. On the course I developed my thriving coaching model which has since helped tens of thousands of people to bounce back quickly from challenge and be their best selves. Initially I used to model to coach people one-to-one, then this expanded to group coaching sessions for leaders, then we trained in-house coaches to use the model to run resilience programmes and most recently we’ve developed the thriving digital platform which allows easy access to coaching.
The thrive coaching model has not changed very much, but how we use it to support people has. We’re lucky to partner with amazing organisations who support us in our one-on-one vision, that’s for every licence we sell we gift a licence to a charity who cannot afford it. So now we can help anybody, anywhere, anytime regardless of income.
What are some of the issues and opportunities you coach people around?
I think it can be summed up in one phrase; supporting people to be holistically successful. That’s successful across all the areas of their lives at once. A big issue at the moment is resilience and the ability to bounce back quickly from life’s inevitable setbacks quickly and learn from the experience. With the Covid pandemic this has never been more needed. We work with people to help them find their passion, create a vision and make that vision a reality. We help people unblock the barriers to their success whether that’s their mindset, how they feel or behave or helping them to unpick the complexities of our fast-changing ambiguous world to find practical solutions.
What kind of impact is coaching having for those you are working with?
We find the coaching has impact for people in so many ways. Firstly, people feel happier and healthier. We ran a thriving programme for Barclays and people reported a 40 per cent uplift in their wellbeing. People say things like ‘I feel equipped to fulfil my potential both in my work and much more widely’ or ‘I now have simple strategies to help me be my best self more of the time’ .
When we run wider group coaching sessions we see a systemic shift, with clients saying, “Thriving has entered the lexicon and we now have a framework for supporting each other to thrive no matter what’s going on.”
Have you seen the need for coaching change in any way as we have gone through the coronavirus pandemic?
For sure! People are struggling, there is a real sense of Ground Hog Day with every day seeming the same. As we move towards winter with long dark nights and tighter lockdown restrictions people are finding it hard to raise their mood. I’m seeing people putting in longer hours and being less clear on the boundaries between work and home life. I think ambiguity about the future and having little to look forward to are making it even more challenging.
So, there has never been a greater need for coaching. More people need help to navigate this uncertain world. It’s so important to focus on the things you can control which makes it easier to take action which helps improve mood, energy, and wellbeing as well as performance.
How do you manage your own stress?
The first thing for me is to know that I’m getting stressed. When I was living in Paris, I was so in it I couldn’t see it for myself until it was too late. Our bodies give us early warning signs, but we need to be looking for them. If I’m having difficulty getting to sleep or waking up in the middle of the night then that’s a red flag for me to stop, pay attention and think about what I could be doing differently.
I have a simple practice to make sure I’m managing my stress. Each day I give myself a thriving score out of 10, I even track it on a spreadsheet, I am a recovering accountant after all. I then spend 10 minutes journaling and reflecting on the score and what’s impacting it. Over time I’ve developed a wide range of strategies, simple things I can do to move more quickly from feeling stressed to really thriving. Since lockdown in March, I’ve gone back to phoning my friends regularly for a chat and a laugh, it’s so simple but it works a treat.
What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about your work as a coach?
The most challenging part of being a coach for me is not getting emotionally involved with the challenges my clients are facing. A few years ago, I was coaching a young man who had become homeless and addicted to drugs. I had such a strong desire to help him that I found it hard to remain detached. I care a lot about the people I work with and sometimes that can be painful when you see them suffering.
The most rewarding part of being a coach is witnessing those light bulb moments and seeing a positive shift in a client. I get a particular kick from helping people find that sweet spot where they are thriving personally and being a catalyst for positive change in the world.
Our deepest thanks to Mark for sharing his inspiring story with us.