“I facilitate, you lead” (directed at the leader of the team) gave me the orientation I needed to approach my work from a perspective that could empower everyone involved.
Facilitating vs leadership
Leading a team and coaching a team are two very different things and honouring this distinction as a coach can be more challenging than it sounds. Before I became a coach I was a leader and manager, responsible for overseeing large retail stores and hundreds of people. I was the accountable person, the driver, asking how fast, how much, by when? I was in the heart of the organisation and the teams I was responsible for.
When I began coaching and developing teams the risk was that I still acted as if I was part of the team that I was supporting, their success felt in part my success. I felt like I had some accountability for their results. I realised this was not the best role I could play. I was not the leader and I was not part of the team, or their system. If I could shift perspective I could be more useful to them.
Pinpointing my stance
I've recently been studying the principles of systemic coaching. One of the key ideas behind systemic coaching is that we all belong to many systems (each with different patterns, values and beliefs) through which we make sense of the world. Sometimes these systems conflict with each other, which can create confusion and loyalty issues. Systemic coaching provides a way to better understand one another and align ourselves to work together more effectively by mapping out the different priorities and approaches that are shaping the business and those within it.
My studies and experience of using systemic coaching with teams have led me to become increasingly interested in the concept of stance. The dictionary says stance is "the way in which someone stands, especially when deliberately adopted or a way of thinking about something". When applied to coaching, this is about deciding my intention in how I approach the work. I find it’s best to take the stance of being neutral, non-judgemental and in service of the whole system, not the individual, and initially acknowledging everything just as it is, even and especially if it is not how the team or organisation would like it to be.
Now, before I facilitate a team intervention, I “map the team” to better determine the most appropriate stance in relation to them. Mapping involves using different objects or post-it notes to represent the team, myself and other factors within the system, laying them out in relation to each other. This process can be very insightful and reveal factors that may otherwise remain hidden - for example blocks or limiting assumptions that I might be making about the group and my position. It can also show where there could be opportunities and enables me to find the best place from which I can facilitate. From there, I can go into the session with greater awareness of where I am, what the team might be experiencing and how I can best serve and support them. You can read more about the mapping process in this blog.
An example: In this image I am the yellow figure with brown hair on the left. Initially I placed myself behind and to the side of the team, observing the dynamic, but actually feeling slightly separate and distanced.
Next, I experimented with where to stand, eventually moving myself in front and to the side of the team (top right corner in this picture). This changed my orientation and led to a shift in my perspective, with a mindset of wanting to facilitate bold conversations to support the team on their journey.
Going beyond the people in the room
As well as understanding your place in relation to the team, as a coach it is also useful to map out the whole system, including customers, stakeholders and other external parties influencing the team. Doing this helps you think more broadly about the whole system, not just the individuals within it or specific parts of it. Just having this perspective can be a key enabler of organisational health and flow. It can be really useful to complete this stakeholder mapping exercise with the team too.
Find out what’s influencing you
You can go even further and examine the systems that you belong to and could be influencing your coaching behaviour, often subconsciously. In the book Systemic Coaching and Constellations, John Whittington explains this clearly:
“We all come from systems. Complex and overlapping relationship systems each with their own, mostly unspoken, rules of belonging. Our belonging in each system is unconscious but we carry with us an embodied sense of it, knowing when we are acting in alignment or out of alignment with it.”
These rules of belonging influence our behaviour. Systemic coaching as a process helps you to explore these influences and hidden loyalties. It can enhance your ability to remain neutral and accept people and situations as they are, without the need to label things as right or wrong.
So that’s been my journey in moving from a perspective of leadership to one of facilitation and team development. The more I’ve developed my awareness of those in the room and my understanding of where their systems extend to and what systems I am bringing into play from my own life, the more effective and empowering I’ve found that team development sessions can be, both for the team and for the wider organisation.