A client once described me as a “bulldog with no teeth.” She meant it as a compliment! Along with a colleague, I was working with this client to support her commitment to diversity and inclusion. Yet as intentional as she was, she was also fearful and subtly resisted the change at the same time. So a vital part of the work included individual coaching to support her to clarify goals and to voice and work through her concerns.
What Is A “Bulldog With No Teeth”?
The executive described my coaching as steadfast—like a bulldog, I didn’t let go—but in a supportive way (it didn’t hurt, hence “no teeth”). Through this wonderful phrase, I believe she identified a core reason why coaching can be so valuable.
As gently but firmly as I could, I asked her to directly confront her fears and go deeper to her beliefs about power and leadership. As a coach I asked her to look how her emotional responses were both moving the work forward and inhibiting it, despite her very strong intention. I asked her to listen to feedback (not criticism!). And, most importantly, I supported her taking concrete action.
At one point during an all-staff retreat, I provided in-the-moment coaching and asked her to explore the interactions she was having with staff right there-and-then. Her strength and values shone through at that moment, because rather than defensively dismiss me, she engaged and explored aloud. All could hear the difficult mixed thoughts and feelings she was experiencing.
She was willing to practice new ways of responding, which had an immediate impact. Her modeling inspired other staff people to speak up and, together, they made progress building a more cohesive team.
Overall the work was so successful that the client, my colleague and I presented our case study at a national conference. The client was very open in sharing with this audience about the support and challenge she experienced and the role that one-to-one coaching played for her.
Impacting the Whole System
Coaching impacts more than the individual being coached, if the emphasis is on identifying results for the organization that further the mission. The ripple effects through the organization can be great.
Coaching can be valuable for executive directors, program managers, board members and teams, whether experienced or emerging. Rather than being “selfish” or a “luxury” as some in the nonprofit sector see it, effective, results-oriented coaching helps improve leadership insight and action—critical as nonprofits adjust to changing realities. In the corporate sector, coaching is seen a plus to help valued leaders move to the next level of effectiveness.
Changing the Culture
Another example of individual coaching having much wider impact can be seen at a national organization experiencing tension at the top.
A new executive director was intent on changing the culture of the organization and how her senior leadership team worked. The prior executive was a charismatic leader who tightly held the reins of power. Senior managers were competitive with each other, seeking the leader’s praise. This led to conflict at the top and departmental “silos” that did not work together as well as they could.
A colleague and I provided individual coaching for the executive and the COO (who worked together in attempting to change the organizational culture). We also conducted meetings and a retreat with the full senior leadership team, supporting the executive to clarify her vision for the team and the organization and to facilitate discussion of new expectations.
Everyone Participates, Everyone Benefits
The executive’s openness to feedback and role-modeling encouraged her team to start to take risks and air some of the “dirty laundry” that had been hindering collaboration. Long-standing resentments, typically tied to the previous executive director, started to surface and be discussed.
The leadership team began to identify ways in which they could move the organization forward, including more open communication, greater cooperation, improved problem-solving, and decreased conflict . It was exciting to see the new behaviors develop and hear the new level of communication. Two leaders brought up and found common ground on an issue that had plagued them for over two years! Senior leaders started to meet and plan with each other more readily.
And the new ways of doing things benefited the organization as a whole as they coped with two big crises: one, a political setback, and the second, restructuring due to the sour economy.
Coaching can be a wise, long-term, investment in the most important resource a nonprofit has: its staff and leadership.