Is there a growing coaching culture in your law firm or company?
In a coaching culture, in addition to enjoying the benefits of being coached, the skills of coaching can enhance the effectiveness of lawyers, leaders and managers and improve working relationships in professional and corporate environments. Coaching has transitioned, in many law firms and in house from being an add on for a privileged few to a sought-after skill, for lawyers and other professional support functions.
What is coaching?
Timothy Galway, in the ‘Inner Game of Tennis’ (1), described coaching as the ‘unblocking of a persons’ potential to maximise their own performance, helping them to learn, rather than teaching them.
Coaching can move within a continuum of push (directive) and pull (facilitative) or be a combination of both. Lawyers can naturally fall into the advisory and more directive approach, as legal specialists, reflecting their training and clients’ expectations. However, using coaching skills to learn more about the other and how they can maximise potential can be honed as a management or leadership style, in addition to being the domain of fully trained and accredited coaches.
The evolution of coaching alongside training?
In the early days, coaching was sometimes perceived as remedial. As the use of coaching was normalised, the take up became greater. When executive coaching was seen to support successful leaders, it could even be perceived as a badge of honour.
As firms grew, many Associates began to benefit from professional development programmes, as they rose through the firm, learning skills beyond the law. Some but not all of these included an element of training in the skills of coaching.
However, many senior lawyers progressed to partnership without going through such programmes. So external coaches could support partners to gain wider skills, in one-to-one sessions, delivered confidentially and often under the radar.
Executive development programmes for senior lawyers also evolved, with the recognition that the skills for leadership and running the business did not necessarily follow on naturally from establishing a specialised legal practice. Coaching could then also run in parallel with and support the application of learning from these programmes.
Coaching as a flexible leadership style
Coaching was one of the flexible leadership styles identified both in Hersey-Blanchard’s situational leadership model (2) and Daniel Goleman’s seminal work on leading with emotional intelligence (3). Such influences led to the recognition that a trusted advisor (4), also benefits from honing the skills of the coach, both internally to create high performing relationships around them, for example through skilled delegation, giving and receiving of feedback and managing people and externally by using the coaching skills to truly understand the client’s business and their needs.
Playing to strengths and authenticity as a leader
For some preferred ‘push’ leadership styles, identified by Goleman (3), such as the ‘commanding’ or the ‘pacesetting’ leader, a coaching approach may not be obvious. Leading effectively and authentically (5) may mean playing to the leader’s strengths and finding a way to supplement their natural style by developing coaching skills and awareness, to achieve their goals, by bringing people along with them. It is the essence of flexible leadership, to be able to adapt to different styles, as appropriate.
Recognising the foundations of coaching
Coaching is also evolving as a discipline, becoming more professional, regulated, and multi-faceted. Coaches from different backgrounds draw on an ever-wider range of influences inspired by their training and beyond – leadership and management models and techniques based on an adaptation of transactional analysis, neuro linguistic programming, gestalt, solution-focused or person-centred therapy, positive psychology, and a range of relational, systemic, and integrative models. Many coaches carry a treasure trove of potential interventions, informed by their background, theoretical orientation and above all, the interests and the needs of the coachee.
The applications of coaching
As coaching as a profession evolved, so did the breadth of its applications. Coaching can support many different needs, for example: stepping into leadership or a new role, business planning, preparing for partnership, designing and implementing change, improving internal and external relationships, developing people management skills, managing the imposter syndrome, enhancing performance, honing presenting skills, gaining awareness of the impact of behaviours on self and others, managing stress, health and well-being at work and so much more.
Coaching can be delivered one to one or in teams. It can be for lawyers and for the other professional and support services who complement and enable the smooth running of the firm. The pandemic also meant that remote working was supported by remote coaching. Coaching and training can enhance the effectiveness of home and hybrid working, as lawyers still need to support those who report to them and managers still need to oversee the wider support services, delivered remotely.
Selection of coach
The selection of coach may be defined by the coach’s background, their speciality and strengths and most importantly, the preferences and needs of the coachee. Chemistry meetings enable coachees to find their best fit for a coach. The power of the coaching relationship contributes significantly to the positive outcome of the sessions. This does not necessarily mean the most comfortable relationship, as many coachees benefit from challenge, if rapport and good working relationships are established.
There has also been a trend, often driven by learning and development and human resource professionals to train internal coaches so that more people have access to coaching. With internal coaches, there are questions of confidentiality and the duality of roles, to be considered, but these can be navigated with awareness and sensitivity.
Encouraging a coaching culture
Perhaps another indicator of a move towards a coaching culture, is the encouragement for lawyers to adopt a coaching approach, where appropriate in their roles. This recognises that the skills of coaching benefit both the lawyers, in their professional and management roles and those with whom they work. It is increasingly expected that alongside being trusted legal advisors, lawyers can demonstrate coaching and other leadership styles.
Assessment Centres for partnership frequently include exercises to give lawyers the opportunity to show their coaching approach, for example when managing a difficult internal relationship, or truly understanding a client’s business. The skills of coaching, such as asking open questions, focused listening for what is said and not said, awareness of incongruent body language, deepening understanding and summarising are seen as valuable tools in managing internal and external relationships.
Refining coaching skills for lawyers, earlier on in their career, therefore makes complete sense. Coaching skills training may be run internally, to promote a coaching approach, in addition to sending key people on more formalised training and accreditation paths. This reflects a recognition that coaching is not only the domain of more formalised coaching sessions, helpful though they can be, but also an ongoing management and flexible leadership style.
Coaching across different global offices
It is also significant that many firms, working across different jurisdictions, will be managing people with different cultural norms. Awareness and sensitivity is needed about the extent to which a coaching approach fits with the local culture of the office, as explored for example, by Erin Meyer, in The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead and Get Things Done Across Cultures. (6).
There has been a recognition in many working environments that a coaching approach can enhance the performance of both the ‘coach’ and the ‘coachee’. The inclusion of a coaching approach and the skills of coaching, in leadership and management, can complement the advisory work of the lawyer and other professionals and help move towards a culture in which coaching is encouraged, as a complement to other leadership styles.
1. Galwey W.T. (2015) The Inner Game of Tennis: The Ultimate Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. Random House.
2. The Hersey Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model https://www.business-to-you.com/hersey-blanchard-situational-leadership-model/
3. Goleman D (2003) Leadership that Gets Results https://hbr.org/2000/03/leadership-that-gets-results
4. Maister D.H. Green CH. Galford R.M. (2021) The Trusted Advisor .Simon and Schuster:
5. Betti Coffey encourages authentic leadership, integrating respect, integrity and trust. http://betticoffeypresents.com/speaking/leader-youd-want-follow/
6. Meyer E. (2016) Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead and Get Things Done Across Cultures. Public Affairs