Our hyper connected age brings exponential change and, with it, increasing uncertainty and unpredictability. We’ve entered the so-called VUCA world, a world that is characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This shows up in the trajectories of both our personal and our professional lives. I believe that partnering with a professionally trained coach provides a way to negotiate – and learn from – the challenges we face in both.
Complexity in our personal lives
The challenges of the VUCA world in the personal realm include the increasing complexity of relationships over time – the endings and beginnings, managing long distance partnerships, blended families, the pressures to start a family pitched against the need to progress at work…. Add to this mix the expectations that fall out of the modern world of work: of being willing to uproot and move location to follow work; of being always online and available; and the lack of job security in most industry sectors. Under these pressures many people come to coaching because they are tired, stressed and lonely; they have lost sight of what brings them joy and excitement. Or they know that something needs to change but are at a loss to know what that ‘something’ is. It comes as some relief to people to know that they are not alone and that what they are experiencing is a systemic consequence of the way we lead our lives and organise our workplaces.
Finding our simple truths
Through coaching, people can peal back the layers and retrieve the things that really matter to them in their lives and, as they start to nurture the things that give them energy and purpose, they also build robust and regular habits of self-care. It comes down to very simple things. I know when someone is making a breakthrough in coaching because they often say: ‘It’s so simple’ or ‘I can’t believe it’s that obvious’. The simple truths are often the most profound. But we have to find our own truths – somebody else’s won’t do.
The simple truths are often the most profound. But we have to find our own truths – somebody else’s won’t do.
Coaching is described by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” For me, the critical verbs in this definition are ‘partnering’ and ‘inspiring’. Coaches work in a partnership of equals with people who want to make the most of their lives and who want to excel at their work. A qualified coach is trained to help clients recognise their strengths, build their resilience, tap into their vision and take extraordinary action. A coach does not offer advice but, in the context of the coaching relationship, can spot what brings their client energy and what depletes it. In coaching jargon, we look for ‘resonance’ and work with that.
Coaching at its most powerful is transformational – the changes that a client makes from this place of resonance and choice opens up new possibilities and new ways of being that make a real difference to the client’s ability to meet the everyday challenges of our modern complex world.
New challenges, new solutions
For many of us there are no role models we can follow. I was the first generation in my family to go to university: my life, and the course it has taken, bears no resemblance to my parents’ lives. The gap between my experience and that of my adult children is even greater. Many of the challenges their generation face are new, never encountered before by me or anyone else, so the skills they need are personal skills: resilience, communication, empathy, self-awareness and problem-solving. These are the skills that are forged in the crucible of coaching. As a coach I work with a person’s present lived experience – what is happening now – and, using the client’s own resourcefulness, we find ways together to harness strengths and develop habits that serve the person better. This process brings greater self-awareness: the ability to observe oneself and to make choices about how to respond in certain situations.
A third age
It’s not just the younger generations who can benefit from this impartial guidance. Even in later adulthood, I continue to feel my way forward into an uncertain future. My generation is the first in the history of humankind who are experiencing the gift of a third age – an old age that is potentially as long as the life expectancy of a person living in my country a few centuries ago. I expect to continue to grow and thrive for a good thirty years yet. My personal and professional development will continue unabated and I will seek my own coaching support on and off during that time. I believe that coaching will one day be as commonplace as turning to a fitness instructor when you notice you’ve got a little out of condition.
Coaching will one day be as commonplace as turning to a fitness instructor when you notice you’ve got a little out of condition.
Complexity in the workplace
Jobs for life are a thing of the past and for many people the ‘gig economy’ (where contracts are short and even salaried jobs are subject to constant change) is the only world they have known. Many are managing ‘portfolio careers’, juggling different part time jobs, and even those with more stable contracts are increasingly working on a project basis requiring them to establish new relationships with shifting team members. When I went freelance in the late 1980s I felt like a maverick – but today working for oneself is an attractive option for those who want to feel more in control of their work lives.
A survival kit
To remain resilient in this economy we all need to develop a survival toolkit – one that our education system has failed to prepare us for. In this toolkit I’d include: knowing how to learn continuously on the job; strategies for staying flexible and adaptable; being able to form healthy workplace relationships; negotiating work that aligns with your values; and knowing how to set limits and look after our own health and wellbeing.
Working with a coach, you have a mirror and a sounding board; you can see yourself reflected back by someone else who is impartial and non-judgmental and you can explore topics from different perspectives to gain new insights into your most wicked problems. You do the work but the coach provides the structure and the powerful questions. Whether you are in a salaried job or working for yourself, coaching provides a fast track for better decision making and for developing a career or work lifestyle that aligns with your values.
Coaching provides a fast track for better decision making and for developing a career or work lifestyle that aligns with your values.
Learning on the job
No one is immune to the challenge of how to keep up to speed and up to date with the knowledge and skills that you need to stay employed and employable. Old methods of training are giving way to more integrated ways of learning as you work. We hear a lot about ‘modern workplace learning’, which looks very much like reflective practice in new clothes and new technology.
Reflective practice and design thinking
Reflective practice, which is based on theories of experiential learning and action research, is a longstanding tradition in nursing and teaching and is now being repackaged in the corporate world as an important way to learn and to innovate.
Through reflecting on our work and the specific challenges we face in the complexity of lived experience we can adapt our habits and improve our practices. A coach will generally use more open-ended structures than the Gibbs model, shown here, but will still help you develop habits of reflective learning with a focus on learning from experience and applying new learning to future actions. She can also help you question your assumptions and open up new ways of looking at a topic or issue. Journalling and specific reflective strategies can be used alongside a coaching process to build the muscle for reflective practice.
Some coaches may also encourage you to apply ‘design thinking’ processes to iterate into an uncertain future, providing a safe place to explore risk and to prototype new ways of doing things in a controlled way. Change of this type may be transformative, taking a person beyond the simple and predictable transactional change into new and unexpected ways of thinking and being.
The skill mix of the future
Many of our work challenges are not topics we can google or ask a manager or colleague to fix. They are often fresh problems where old solutions are not a fit, or they are in the realm of emotional intelligence where we need new ways of relating to others, or to develop an empathic understanding of how others are feeling. The World Economic Forum report, The Future of Jobs, predicted in 2016 that:
‘Overall, social skills—such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others—will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control.’
More recently, Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends confirms the trend, reporting that:
‘…companies list complex problem-solving, cognitive abilities and social skills as the most needed capabilities for the future. Businesses are clamoring for workers with this blend of skills, not pure technical competency.’
Simply put, all the expertise and technical skills in the world are not going to get you where you want to be if you don’t have the communication skills and self-awareness to negotiate the VUCA world. This is where coaching plays a pivotal role. Research conducted by PWC on behalf of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) shows that the most commonly cited outcomes from receiving coaching were improved communication skills, increased self-esteem and increased productivity.
The upside to managing this world of complexity is that the people who invest in their personal and professional development, alongside their subject-specific and technical skills, may be the ones in the future who call the shots. As the Deloitte report suggests:
‘As the line between work and life blurs further, employees are demanding that organisations expand their benefits offerings to include a wide range of programmes for physical, mental, financial, and spiritual health. In response, employers are investing in wellbeing programmes as both a societal responsibility and a talent strategy.’
Negotiating this complex world is like surfing the waves. Those who are able to develop the resilience to ride the waves will have an exhilarating ride. The risk is that many people could get left behind and the people most likely to be struggling in the deep waters are those who are in less secure employment: gig workers, part timers, freelancers, carers and those who work in non-governmental organisations and charities.
Trained and qualified coaches are ready to support and guide you as you negotiate this complex world.
Without the luxury of a professional development programme or an HR department, it falls to individuals to find ways of looking after their own development. Trained and qualified coaches are ready to support and guide people, wherever they work, as they negotiate this complex world. If you are thinking about employing one, sample a few to find out who is a good fit for you: most coaches offer free consultation sessions. Coaching relies on being able to form a creative partnership and you need to know that the ‘chemistry’ works between you.
Putting oneself first is difficult when budgets are tight and other priorities are competing for attention but the right coaching partner is an investment in yourself and your future. It’s a simple answer in a complex world.
- Deloitte (2018) The Rise of the Social Enterprise: Global Human Capital Trends Insights https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/human-capital/articles/introduction-human-capital-trends.html
- Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Oxford: Further Educational Unit, Oxford Polytechnic.
- PwC/ICF (2017) ICF Global Consumer Awareness Study, https://coachfederation.org/app/uploads/2017/12/2016ICFGlobalCoachingStudy_ExecutiveSummary-2.pdf
- World Economic Forum (2016) The Future of Jobs http://reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/
To see more about design thinking applied to personal and professional development, take a look at Designing your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. http://designingyour.life/the-book/
Design thinking diagram by Wikimedia Deutschland e. V. (Wikimedia Deutschland e. V.) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons