What do you mean by High Performance Coaching?
Interview with Peter Creutzfeldt about high performance coaching
To begin with, what is usually your coaching process?
First of all, it’s important to understand what I mean by High Performance Coaching. In the USA, the term “performance coaching” is often used to describe the support of a coachee to achieve specific performance objectives. This is NOT what I mean. My understanding is that objectives, if they are properly defined and delegated, are generally more easily achieved when coachees use their full potential. Our coaching is therefore generally focused on the coachee’s development. As they develop, they will deliver better results. High Performance Coaching is a uniquely effective way to access coachees’ potential in order to support them to perform at their best.
At the start of a coaching process, my main concern is to have coachees formulate a powerful approach goal (a positive goal, for example: “to listen better” as opposed to an avoidance goal which is negative, for example “to be less impatient”) for their development. I gently guide coachees to this point, so that they can focus on this goal throughout the coaching process.
The coachees’ way of describing this goal, as well as their description of why they feel they need coaching to achieve it, reveal important information to the coach: It tells me how they interpret and evaluate things and events, how they “construct their own world.” Subsequently I ask coachees to describe their attempts to reach this goal to date, and the impact of these attempts. I then encourage them to find additional alternative approaches to help them achieve their goal, and the impact that would probably occur if they pursued those alternatives.
Once coachees have decided which alternative is most likely to help them reach their desired outcome, I ask what they will do about it: in concrete terms, what will they do, when and how. At that time, it is really important for the coachee to overcome an inner threshold of hesitation. I sense the moment when this is possible, and I then “insist” on a clear commitment and path of action. Afterwards I move to debriefing of the session.
Sometimes this is like “high speed” coaching, although I am not the one who steps on the accelerator. Often it is one goal-oriented question that reveals the insight that makes the difference. I neither know the best time nor the right question in advance, because there are no predictable reactions in working with people.
I sometimes check on coachees’ “homework,” but only when they ask me to do so. I might call coachees at an agreed upon time or write them an email. However, ideally the coachee works autonomously on tasks to transfer their insights to their day-to-day life. Autonomy is the key to sustainable development.
You focus a lot on what you call the “inner posture” or “mind-set.” Many of your colleagues claim to do this as well, but most stay focused on the level of behavioral change. How is your work different?
What I call inner posture is a tendency to think, feel or act in similar ways in certain contexts. These patterns develop and then get fortified through multiple experiences. The relevant behavioral result in any given situation is a by-product of this inner posture. If you try to work only on changing behavior, the underlying inner posture – the mind-set consisting of patterns cemented through evaluation of experiences over many years – as well as the clearly tangible emotional states associated with it, remain untouched. It’s like pulling a rubber band. As soon as attention goes elsewhere and you let go of the rubber band it reverts to its original shape. You slip back into your original pattern, your original posture, and your predictable behavior occurs once again.
It is important to point out that there is no good or bad inner posture. Rather, there are favorable or unfavorable postures vis-à-vis desired impacts in certain contexts. Inner posture as such is not an inherent question of ethics, although it is generally understood that way. Posture is not intrinsically positive; in fact it is a neutral term. However, each of us unconsciously develops an inner posture reflecting our own evaluation of experiences. In other words, our posture reflects what we consider good or bad.
Consequently, any inner posture turns into a limitation when it is rigid and we lose the flexibility to adapt to situations.
What exactly do you do in coaching?
Inner posture is always involuntary: I cannot voluntarily adopt a certain inner posture. In large part I use coaching to make posture transparent, conscious. This is a prerequisite for the possibility of sustainable development. When coachees honestly look into the mirror (“Okay, so that’s the way I am”), this kind of awareness takes them halfway home. There is no point in denying our weaknesses or prejudices because there is no development potential in such denial. There is no way around to avoid taking a deepter look inside: “Interesting, here I recognize a pattern,” instead of “Oh God, I can’t accept this in myself because it is bad.” Counterintuitively, if I try to fight a pattern to get rid of it, the pattern gets fresh energy from the fight and actually grows! All the coach does is shine a light in the direction of dark, unconscious areas. It is the coachee’s insight that then leads to the change: The re-evaluation on the part of the coachee associated with the insight inevitably leads to a new posture.
Coachees’ willingness to look into the mirror, to maintain a meta-perspective, to want to work on their mind-set, is the key to success. However, the metaphor of the mirror says much about the coach’s own mind-set as well: for example, if as a coach I sometimes contradict the coachee, I do this only for the benefit of the change of perspective, to inspire coachees to expand their range of thinking; I’m not at all concerned about the position itself. As a coach I don’t have a position other than the full commitment to support coachees to achieve their coaching goals. I also work in a similar way in leadership development programs and in team development: not primarily focusing on behavior, but much more on inner posture. What helps immensely here is mindfulness practice, which I use as a coach and which I offer to the coachee.
Since you mentioned this, what about your own inner posture as a coach?
First of all, as I just said, I am 100% committed to the coachee’s development process. I am, therefore, most concerned about the alignment between the goals of the coachee and the client (i. e. coachee’s employer or manager). These goals are stipulated in a contract. They are my definitive orientation in the coaching process. I require such a contract to fulfill my claim of being even-handed. I need to be able to relax and be present in coaching. Otherwise I cannot do my work well. But this can only happen when I really truly believe that my role is not to solve the coachees’ problems but to support them in doing so themselves.
And what about the coachee?
I can only fulfill my objective if the coachee is genuinely interested and sees meaning in the coaching process. My job is not to motivate coachees to enter into coaching; it is to coach them! All learning is always emotional; the more emotional the more sustainable. From a neurobiological point of view, sustainable development of human beings is only possible when they really embrace it. You can’t force someone to develop. And people embrace solutions when they arise from their own insights. I am very good at inspiring this type of interest, this sense of meaning in the coachee. This is exactly what my coachees tell me and what their managers like in my work: that the coachee has often had significant insights and proactively moved in the direction of solutions.
Then what about the third party to the equation: the clients or sponsors, generally coachees’ bosses: What do they have to contribute?
The coaching goal has to be realistic in order for coaching to work. This means it must be based on the coachee’s potential. When I am not sure this is the case, I ask clients what impact they hope to see from the coaching. Their answers to this question often reveal their underlying hypotheses of how to solve the problem. But problem-solving in this sense is the coach’s work with the coachee! I see it as my job to get the client’s agreement to a common goal but not to have them determine a concrete path towards the goal. This is a requirement for creative high performance coaching. When I find that the client cannot agree with this approach, I reject the assignment.
“Weaknesses,” in the sense of missing talent, provide no potential for development. The potential for people’s development lies in their talents and strengths. This is proven by numerous studies. Trying to get out of someone what is not inside of them in the first place is a typically unrealistic outcome clients tend to attempt. When leaders are very attentive during their coaching they will realize that there is an opportunity to lead their own direct reports via a “coaching mind-set.”
When they move from a mind-set of “I show you how it works” towards a posture of asking more questions, they help their direct reports to develop themselves rather than making them feel dismissed. Note, however, that potentially conflicting interests with their accountability towards the company and its goals can prevent leaders from fully being in the role of an impartial coach.
Do you have an example without naming a person?
Let’s take someone who is rather dominant in the perception of others, appears outwardly confident and seems to care more about his career than about others’ needs. The client’s expectation of him is to develop a more self-reflective attitude. And let us assume this is a matter of inner posture rather than of absence of talent. So in the coaching process we reflect upon the coachee’s strengths but also the impact of these strengths as they become limitations: a rather superficial relationship to other people, a lack of recognition of others’ emotions and body language, a lack on the the coachee’s part of reflection upon his own impact on other people, and so on.
In the past, psychologists tended to think that these were unchangeable traits of personality. But recent research on emotional styles and the plasticity of the brain has shown that such characteristics can change dramatically throughout someone’s life – notably through mindfulness practice and the active management of one’s inner state.
Another factor is the inner posture and presence of the coach which, combined with the right questions, can trigger a different form of presence in the coachee. Thus, an “outside the box” reflection becomes possible: in this particular case the coachee started to reflect, and through a change of perspective became more empathic. This type of experience goes very deep! It is the first step towards sustainable change. Additional “homework” tasks support the positive impact: The coachee is now motivated to seek out new experiences and to learn from them. The result is the development of a new mind-set, a new inner posture.
Do you exclusively work with issues of inner posture in coaching?
Having committed 100% to the coaching goal and subject to prior agreement with the coachee, I usually use any method that can help. In my understanding, coaching ultimately always serves the purpose of supporting coachees to get access to their potential and thus experience as many moments “in the Zone” as possible. Sometimes I can give coachees access to their own resources through the analysis of their personal emotional styles or their personal strengths. Using simple mindfulness techniques or the heart coherence method, people can become more self-aware, develop more resilience, and regulate their emotions and stress more easily. Or I may teach coachees new methods of developing their teams or analyzing their stakeholders. I give my coachees recommendations about what to read or point out their possible belief patterns. However, I never do the latter until coachees are fully in touch with their own resources and strengths so that I can feel quite sure they won’t feel “looked down upon” or “taught to” when I work this way. In other words, I never take the coachee’s responsibility away. Given this, whatever serves the coaching goal is acceptable as an intervention.
Do you have another example of a successful coaching?
One particular coachee often got feedback that he didn’t pay enough attention to relationships at work. Where earlier he used to create an impression of being absent-minded, of not noticing people or of not listening, he now tells his counterparts: “just a moment, I will be with you in a second. I just need some time to take a few notes. No offence, this is just really helpful to me.” This is an example of how an undesirable trait can be turned into an acceptable one simply by being more aware of it. It is also an example of how you can work around your weaknesses and really improve the impact you have on others. It shows how important it is to know your own patterns, and how, instead of hiding your idiosyncrasies, making them transparent can be particularly helpful. This example may sound like a minor development to some. But for this coachee, a VP of Finance in a mid-size company, it was a major improvement in the first impressions he left with stakeholders.
Finally, why would someone choose you as a coach rather than another person?
The feedback I get from my coachees is that I have strong motivation and passion. There is a congruence between what I say and what I do. People see me as calm and poised, as passionate and engaged, and that I communicate in a convincing, plausible way. I have been striving to go through life in a “yes mind-set,” an acceptance of people as they are, both now and before my time as a coach. I have very high expectations of myself.
We often assume or interpret things involuntarily on the basis of outdated knowledge. This misleads us and inhibits our success. I really value and seek to apply the latest scientific findings in my work, particularly those in brain science research. 90% of what I read today is science. I rely only on tried and tested findings published by eminent authors. I then translate these into the context of coaching. I try to communicate the most recent scientific findings and experiments to my coachees and training participants.
Thank you, Peter
Interview with Peter Creutzfeldt about high performance coaching