How many times have you been excited about fresh learning and spot-on insights, only to return to the harsh reality of the old problems you left behind? How many times have too much work and a demanding personal life quickly and permanently dulled your innovative ideas and dampened your motivation to use them?
Most of us experience the highs and lows of leadership development regardless of the venue: conference, seminar, or on the job training. But the challenges of sustaining novel approaches to managing and leading can be even bigger when a coaching relationship comes to an end. Whether we’ve been in team or individual coaching, as “coachees,” we may worry that our new knowledge won’t stick when the support and discipline of formal coaching ends.
Most of us thrive in customized coaching relationships that offer us the chance for personal reflection and solutions that are tailored to our unique needs. When these arrangements conclude, we may think that what we’ve achieved is because of the coach, even though we are the ones who tried out new behaviors and created better outcomes. Although good coaches can be sage and timely guides, these same good coaches will be the first to say that we are not dependent on them to keep growing as a leader.
One case in point is Rich, the rural health nurse executive who inspired a previous Coaching Forum column entitled “What Do You Choose to Animate?”1 Rich’s leadership life was fraught with a heavy workload, constant change, a lot of travel, and health and interpersonal challenges. Rich was a capable executive, but the excesses in his work life proved a lot for him to handle, so when he came to coaching, he was eager to transform his thinking and ways of working.
One of his early realizations was that he was focusing on all the wrong things—he was letting his own stories of the insurmountable bigness of his position script the increasingly difficult challenges of his job and much of his life. In his coaching, he learned to notice this and reframe his thinking; he no longer enlivened the worst of his feelings and his own fatalistic renditions of his work environment.
He also learned to let go of his strong wish for perfect solutions to complex and intractable problems.
Rich learned a great deal in his coaching, but when it came time to end the engagement, he feared that he would lose his momentum and his new leadership ways. So, he asked for his final coaching session to focus on how to sustain what he had learned. Here is what Rich’s post-coaching “tool-box” looked like. As you review it, keep in mind that this list can easily be modified to apply to any significant learning journey.
1. Make a short, succinct list of the major takeaways from your coaching. Create the list in language that is meaningful and memorable for you, regardless of whether the coach used these terms or not. Reflect on what you’ve written and remember the key ideas in the days and weeks to come. You might want to post this brief list on your mirror or at your workstation as a daily reminder.
2. Celebrate your success. Appreciate your own hard work, your discipline, and your coaching accomplishments. Give yourself the credit and acknowledgment you deserve.
3. As you go forward, prioritize reflection on a daily basis if you can, or a weekly basis if you can’t do it more frequently. Consider how you are leading now: are you employing what you learned? Are you adjusting and strengthening it? Or are you reverting to old habits that don’t serve you or others? Remember that reflection will be especially important if you are action-oriented and/or if your position is highly demanding. In these circumstances, it is all too easy to be swept up in busy-ness.Then, your old ways will return, and even the best coaching outcomes will fade quickly.
4. Remember that slips happen. If you find yourself reverting to old reactions and patterns, take comfort in knowing that it’s normal. We all do this when are learning new leadership skills. We all need to practice and then practice some more. We can’t acquire the uniquely polished versions of our new behaviors until we experiment, try them in different circumstances, and occasionally even fail at applying them appropriately. What’s important about slips is that they are opportunities for learning and change. We can consider why our effort didn’t work, and what we will do differently the next time.
5. Remember what was most helpful about your coaching. Was it the structure of regular meetings? Was it having the opportunity to speak confidentially with someone knowledgeable? Was it having an accountability partner who was supporting you? How can you bring the most useful aspects of coaching into your post-coaching life?
6. Develop a plan for continued learning. What would you like to learn in the next quarter? What skill could you improve that will have the greatest impact on your career and your leadership? What learning goals would you like to set for yourself and how will you achieve them?
7. Engage with a learning partner. Be explicit about what you want from the relationship: perhaps it’s a listening, nonjudgmental “ear”; perhaps it’s someone to respectfully challenge your thinking or your behavior; perhaps it’s someone to help you stay on track and remind you of your goals.
8. Watch your positive role models. Let them inspire you.
9. Keep practicing. Don’t relegate your hard-earned leadership growth to the “over and done” category, and put it on the shelf. As we all know too well, fresh learning is short-lived if we don’t practice and refine it.
This is a big array of options to keep learning alive when a formal coaching relationship ends. Like any toolbox, you won’t use all these components all the time, but if you select those that are most helpful, you will be well positioned to benefit from your coaching for many years to come.
* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.