Like many local authorities, Tameside in Greater Manchester had consistently rejected the idea of using coaching as a management learning tool, because of the cost.
However, that position is likely to change after its assistant chief executive Mirriam Lawton joined a pilot project to see how coaching could help sharpen the sector’s strategic leadership skills in HR. She says the experience has changed the way she works, and convinced her that coaching has a significant role to play in her authority.
The pilot was initiated last year by the Employers’ Organisation for local government. It has since been followed up with training for Lawton and a dozen other senior HR professionals in how to become coaches themselves. By coaching their peers in other local authorities, they aim to make strategic leadership development relatively inexpensive for the sector.
Lawton, who is head of people and resources at Tameside and leader of the organisational development group in the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (Agma), believes she already had the ability to think strategically before going on the pilot. “But it helped me get to where I needed to go faster, and with more clarity and focus,” she adds.
“When you are left to your own devices, you usually deal with the daily stuff and don’t take time out for thinking and reflection. With coaching, all those ‘how’ questions that you don’t challenge yourself with were posed by my coach. It’s about challenging people to step outside their comfort zone.”
She says one example of this was tackling her lack of confidence in giving presentations. Thanks to prompting from her coach, she read up on the subject, learned some key tricks of the trade, and ended up speaking at two London conferences.
“This was about challenging myself to do something that I knew was going to be pretty uncomfortable,” she says.
Another benefit was the ability to talk in confidence to somebody without any fear of her ideas being ridiculed for being too radical or impractical.
She says senior HR people such as herself must be seen to be completely independent of other departments, and not to be linked to any particular group within the organisation.
“Where do you go for your own advice?” asks Lawton. “You can’t be seen to be anyone’s particular friend. It is often silly things such as talking to someone who has struggled with similar things as you that you actually need.”
Her coach from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) conducted four one-and-a-half hour sessions with Lawton over a six-month period.
The initial session was used to explain how coaching worked, and to set short-, medium- and long-term goals. Subsequent sessions looked at how these goals had been tackled and, where they had been reached, new targets were set.
Her main criticism of the project was that it did not incorporate a 360-degree diagnostic tool to help participants set their objectives.
“Some people came to the process not really knowing what they needed to improve themselves in,” she says.
Lawton also believes that coaching is only really effective if participants are properly motivated. “It’s only a powerful tool if the person you are doing it with wants to grow and be challenged and do more than they are already doing,” she says.
Although Lawton only received around six hours coaching herself, it does appear to have had a lasting impact. Tameside’s chief executive Janet Callender says: “Over the past year, she has demonstrated increased leadership skills and greater effectiveness in dealing with difficult people and situations on behalf of the organisation.”
Part of the reason behind the project’s strong impact is that Lawton has since found informal coaches of her own.
“I have replaced my coach with other people who have these coaching skills, but aren’t necessarily coaches,” she says. “Networking is so important to people in key jobs like this. It’s impossible to learn it all.”
Lawton started her coaching training in May, following a two-day session with IES. She is now working with two volunteers to put what she has learned into practice. “Both of them are heads of training and organisational issues in their organisations,” she says. “They have to give feedback on you.”
She expects to qualify after a final training session in September.
Lawton believes the techniques and skills she acquired as a trainee coach have changed the way she interacts with colleagues.
“You can actually coach every time you have a supervision session or meet with a member of staff,” she says.
“Another good thing about it is that it puts you in a mindset for constantly looking for positives in people, and finding ways to help people seek solutions rather than problems that can’t be overcome. The whole experience of coaching somebody else helps me to grow as well.”
Lawton’s coaching tips
- Know the areas where you need to improve before being coached
- Use coaching to step back from daily work pressures to reflect on bigger issues
- Bounce far-fetched ideas off your coach to avoid upsetting colleagues
- Look for informal coaches once the formal coaching programme is complete
- Consider coaching other people as a means of further personal development