“Think back to a time when you were really confident, really believed in yourself, when you were invincible,” said my coach. The answer was crystal clear and arrived in an instant: I was leading a team of Fleet Air Arm personnel to support operations in Afghanistan; I was also skippering racing yachts for the charity Toe-in-the-Water. I was proud of what I did, confident, and most importantly, as a leader first and foremost, thriving on the responsibility of helping people to identify and achieve their potential.
What was the purpose of such a question? Nostalgia can be a precarious emotion, but there were no tearful pricks in my eyes. Instead I was experiencing the objective power of hindsight. To reconfirm your capabilities and your drive is the starting point for analysing your own success formula. You’ve done it before, you can do it again; you can aim higher too, and apply it to current challenges that weren’t even embryonic in that previous part of your life.
I had the reference and the context. In developing the Vertical Coach, I could see how those roles supported my belief in the importance of finding the right environment for realising potential. In both scenarios, people were thriving. They were stretching their comfort zone too. It wasn’t necessarily comfortable for any of us, but it didn’t cement itself as a lifetime high for being easy. It’s easy to doubt yourself when venturing into a new life chapter, but the clarity behind my mission was upheld by the ability to understand its provenance.
In terms of understanding the detail of how my story supports The Vertical Coach, once I had found the defining chapter of my story, unpicking it to relate it to now was simple. The key had been finding the chapter. And further, not only did the chapter reinforce the identity and credibility of my current endeavours, it also gave me a secondary level of context for clarifying what The Vertical Coach was all about.
The growth I saw in my team on the Squadron when we challenged them to lead activities in support of the Prince’s Trust, or gave them, through necessity, the responsibility of taking on the challenge of recovering an unserviceable helicopter from an austere location somewhere in Helmand, was exponential and intensely satisfying. From the other part of that chapter, seeing injured service personnel who had never sailed before stand shoulder to shoulder with seasoned yachties (in the bar as much as on the water!) was much the same.
What we were doing both on the Squadron and at Toe-in-the-Water was built on this concept of providing just enough of the ‘spans of the bridge’ to create the perfect environment to give individuals and teams enough of a 'gap' to explore and develop potential, without making it so huge that they weren't willing to step into the arena in the first place.
We had a framework, a foundation if you like that provided most of the spans. My responsibility in leading those individuals was to ensure that they were all brought together.
My teams on operations had extensive training, specialist equipment, support from a very hierarchical experience base, a good knowledge of what external resource they had at their disposal, and so on. So, when they faced what was, to them at least, a new challenge, the actual gap they had to bridge was exciting and empowering as opposed to it instilling fear and all the negative traits that follow.
At Toe, we gave the injured guys and girls training, kit, support, set weather and individual’s limits so that we never risked undermining the core purpose, and made sure they were surrounded by suitable people. Their ‘gap’ was made to be just the right size to give them the level of challenge they needed to support their rehabilitation. And in getting that right the results were outstanding. Watching one of the injured guys proudly march into the yachtie pub in Cowes after only a few days on the water to show off his ‘Legless’ tattoo and regale his day’s racing was as hilarious as it was true evidence of the positive effect what we’d challenged him to do was having on his life.
Similarly, in taking on these leadership roles, I had to make sure the spans I needed to succeed were in place. For Toe-in-the-Water, I had decades of experience sailing, managing racing yachts, teaching beginners how to sail and take on the various roles required on a yacht, and a track record of delegating and empowering to make this happen pretty quickly. I also had spent masses of time in the locations we sailed at and real empathy with the injured guys through my own first-hand experience of operations in the war zones of recent years. The last piece was working out how to resolve the challenges that some of their injuries represented. Not insignificant for sure, but that much more in the empowering bracket than fear because of all the support in place. The gap I needed to bridge was manageable.
Relating this to coaching was easy. Coaching put me in the driving seat for helping people to identify what pieces of the bridge needed to exist to get them from A to B. The skill, which I had practised on so many occasions before informally, is to help those individuals or groups to work out what they needed to build – the smaller steps that bridge the gap, and to figure how much of that sits in the known and ‘experienced already’ camp and how much is new. By building the foundation of the former two strongly, the challenge of addressing the new is underpinned and much easier to stomach.
Returning to the importance of one’s story then, the foundations, the spans of the bridge that you don’t need to build from scratch are all contained within it. But your story doesn’t just contain evidence of the resources that you have developed and experienced over time that can help your current challenge. It also exposes your values, attitudes, traits and motivation and indeed where they stem from. Without these to provide the ‘why’ for what you’re trying to achieve, those resources, the spans that you can simply put in place, rather than have to build, are of limited value. Potentially you are trying to put the proverbial square peg into a hole whose shape isn’t properly bounded by a reason for being there in the first place.
Coaching prides itself on sitting in a place where the vision is all forward: how to get to next as opposed to review and analysis of the past. In a world where we love data, where there is real value in understanding previous errors in order to avoid future ones, coaching takes a different perspective in terms of what benefit there is in looking back. I’d like to think it’s a more positive one: one that extracts the highlights and turns them into powerful tools to accelerate and promote success in attacking the next challenge.