Getting To The 'Why'

April 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — They're coaches, but their arena isn't the football field or baseball diamond or basketball court — it's anywhere you want it to be. 

These coaches are different because their goal is different; it's to help you find a better way of living and working. 

Basically, coaching is about helping people to self discover and unlock their own potential.

Coaching is neither therapy nor counseling nor consulting; it's a relationship in which the client is accountable for taking action and moving forward and the coach is responsible for providing the client with insight, guidance, and challenges.

The client not only sets the agenda and the focus, but also has the expertise because all the answers lie within him, said Stanlee Greene, who coaches individuals in professional and career pursuits as well as in life transitions.

The coach and client work together to define the purpose — the "Why" — and the vision that will propel the client forward.

"They really call on me to help them hold up the mirror so they can hear the words and feel what those words mean to them and then chart their own path," he explained. "The coaching relationship focuses on 'Where are you now and how do we move from this point forward in time to some desired future?'  There's a real focus on defining where I am, who I am, why I am and where I want to go."

The coach serves as a sounding board and helps the client assess the situation and design a course of action focused on an end goal. The coach holds the client accountable and assists him in staying focused on his objectives, offering support, encouragement and resources along the way.

"If you discover it on your own it's much more meaningful," said Suzann Foerster, a business coach and founder of Accelerated Solutions. "I think that's one of powerful things about coaching. It's really about self responsibility and taking responsibility for your own personal growth and development."

Foerster has been coaching individuals, organizations and teams for two years. Her focus is working with business professionals on improving their leadership and team skills.

Some of her clients are looking for a specific result, such as improving sales, while others are looking to develop a particular competency, such as leadership skills.

Another area, she said, is helping people adapt their communication style to communicate better with members of their organizational team.

Coaching doesn't always center on career issues. It could involve the desire to learn and personally master something, or improve social interactions and relationships, or achieve a better balance between work and home life. 

Many people seek a coach because they want something more, or something better or, something different, Greene noted. In many cases, the quest becomes part spiritual journey as well.

These days, people make five to seven significant career changes in a lifetime, so it's important to become good at making transitions. He thinks that's the environment that really gave birth to coaching.

Many people seeking a coach have simply come to realize there are other things they could probably do well that are more closely aligned with their true passions, Greene added.  

"A lot of us have been very, very successful at our competencies and have ignored our passions. Part of my role as a coach is to give them the freedom to say 'I know I've been good at this and have built a very successful career at this, but what I really love is this other thing.'"

Coaching sessions are held either in person, over the phone or by e-mail or a combination of all three. The number and duration of coach-client meetings varies and the length of relationship can run from three months to two years, with the average being about six months.  

Organizations and groups can use the coaching approach too. Any milestone that might require an organization to re-examine the way it does something is a coachable moment, Greene said. That would include situations where there has been a change of ownership, or the introduction of a new program or initiative, or formation of a new internal team with new responsibilities.

Kathleen Ribbens, a professional life and leadership coach and founder of Ribbens Resource Group LLC, works primarily with executives on maximizing their personal potential and their organization's performance.

Her practice includes individual coaching on worklife issues and group coaching for managers and management teams, as well as training managers in the coach approach. A key component of her leadership coaching is training in "emotional intelligence." 

In the two years she has been a coach, she has worked with clients across the country. She's currently coaching a 10-member division of a locally based international company to optimize each individual's leadership and raise the division's functionality and profitability.

In the business arena, Ribbens is often called upon to coach an employee who is highly valuable to an organization but who, for some reason, is not performing up to capacity.

Coaching, she said, "brings out the brilliance" people don't even know they have. But coaching isn't about changing personalities.

"It's really about taking action to make changes. I like to think of it as leveraging their strengths to be the best they can possibly be, and that trickles down to the organization.

A manager, for instance, may be unaware of the way he's treating people, or unaware of his communication patterns or the perception that other people have of him, Ribbens pointed out.

"Typically what happens is incremental change. They try something new or they try a little different style. They gradually see that they're feeling better about themselves; they're getting a more positive response back from the people they work with."

When the client has experienced changes and the people around him have experienced changes that indicates the goals are being met, she said.

Foerster believes coaching is a better approach for companies that want to help their people develop professionally because, unlike traditional training and development programs, it's personalized to each individual and involves an ongoing relationship and accountability.

Ribbens believes coaching coupled with training is powerful.

"A lot of organizations spend money on training but are never quite sure whether the individual really gets it or uses it," she said. Coaching helps assure the training is both understood and applied.

Part of coaching is recognizing that when one piece of the puzzle changes, it affects the other pieces of the puzzle, so helping clients work through those different elements is part of the job, Greene noted. 

"It's an exciting process to watch when people fully claim the things they've always wanted to do and see things start to happen," he observed. "It's a tremendous power that they can bring to bear when they really focus that energy."

A successful coach has to be an adept listener and observer who asks provocative questions and is genuinely interested in the client's progress. Ribbens believes intuition plays a role as well. 

A successful client has to be open and committed — a person who is able to recognize both personal strengths and weaknesses and has the willingness to work to achieve the desired end goal.

The concept of coaching has been around since the 1980s but has begun to attract more followers in recent years.

Foerster thinks coaching's growing popularity is due, in part, to people feeling overwhelmed with the pace of change and the amount of information they have to deal with everyday. 

Having to deal with the stresses of today's fast paced lifestyle is part of it, Ribbens said. People want a more sane life; a life less cluttered.

But she thinks the other part of it is that people simply hunger for someone to talk to about what's most important and meaningful to them. 

"A lot of people need someone who can be a sounding board and a co-creator of a new reality for them. I also think people are starting to take more interest in their own careers and their own lives; they're taking charge. They're taking responsibility for having a good life." 

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