Lessons from Career Coaching

             

In the autumn of 2022, I got an opportunity to attend an external leadership course. One of the things that it involved was some coaching sessions. I didn’t really think that talking to someone about work was something that I _needed _(and honestly probably didn’t understand what a coach did…), but engaged with it anyway.

Cue the start of 2023 — Google went through some big changes, and unfortunately, my health took another downturn. At the same time, I was personally struggling with balancing the work that I was doing leading a wider technical team (especially with layoffs impacting their direct management), driving an innovation project (which I was mostly doing out of hours), and keeping myself healthy.

I’d found the discussions with the coach I’d met through the leadership course really interesting — encouraging me to look up, and distance my nose from the grindstone a little. I found that having a coach at work is a bit like having a therapist personally — giving you an external space to reflect in, with someone who can help structure conversations, reflect things back to you, and ask questions that you might not have asked yourself. I found the “work counselling” and guidance that was very self-centric (rather than necessarily company-centric, or even role-centric) to be extremely valuable.

With the challenges I was facing, and a coach as a member of my wider team — I engaged in 6 months of coaching. These thoughts are the distilled key lessons that I had from that engagement, shared here because one of the things that I believe in is being open. Some of these lessons might apply to you, they may not — but they all meant something to me. As always, I’m very open to questions and discussions that come from sharing here!

Know your strengths, and work with them.

Organisations need different types (archetypes) of leaders (for example, those that can drive innovation, those that can drive execution, those that can clearly communicate). At any point in those an organisation might need a specific balance of them. Often other leaders will have their own value systems that prefer one of these archetypes over another, and push for other leaders to more embody their preferred archetypes. Even if you’re the best leader in the world, you will not embody all these archetypes. You have one or more strengths, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have other strengths, but those are the ones that you’ve probably exercised most and grown your career on.

It’s really important to recognise those strengths – and build on them in your work identity. You can bring value to your organisation by exercising those strengths, even and especially if they are different to other leaders in your team.

Personally, I’m an innovator and a communicator. I thrive in taking new challenges, especially where we don’t know whether they can be done, and taking that idea from zero to something that is tractable. Along the way I can communicate across different teams to get other engineers and leaders on board. My career is built on this – and a role that embraces this is both where I’ll be happiest and where I will be most effective.

To have focus, you have to clearly define your role.

It is extremely easy as a leader to pick up new tasks. Whether it’s mentoring new team members, supporting employees that are going through new challenges, picking up that new critical project for the company, or rescuing something that isn’t going right. You cannot do all these things, and you especially cannot do all these things whilst maintaining enough focus to be effective in your core role. To really be able to maintain focus, you need to clearly define your role, and then determine what you’re going to do, and what you’re not.

But how do you actually do this? Sometimes it’s just a way of thinking. For example, having a flowchart that you take each new engagement through before you engage. In other cases, it’s the way you communicate – moving from “I will help”, or “I can pick up” to “what we need to do”, or “what I would do” type communication can feel like you’re shirking your responsibilities, but really you’re making time to keep having your focus.

For me, my role is in helping define things that we don’t know how to do and driving the strategy from zero to something that can be delivered. I am also a trusted, experienced technical expert who can engage across critical areas where other TLs need support. I have my own decision tree I am using to work through this and make sure that I am focused on driving the things I’m responsible for, and supporting other TLs to ensure things that are already in execution are being delivered.

Boundaries are personal. And folks are more understanding of them than you think.

Everyone has some work-life boundaries – some are very evident and societally accepted (e.g., needing to pick the kids up from school). Others seem atypical and circumstantial, for example, dealing with health issues that are sporadic. Whatever they are – everyone has these boundaries. Enforcing these boundaries is something only you can do – because they are personal. Blocking time on your calendar, or using do not disturb-like features is a clear way you can do this.

When you start asserting this – it’s probably going to feel awkward (or at least for me it really did). But once you start doing it is very likely that you’ll find that folks are more understanding of these boundaries than you would have expected. Why is that? Well, remember that folks all have their own boundaries and are probably doing the same thing.

Having clear boundaries as to when I work, and when I need to eat, exercise etc. to keep myself healthy is something that I’ve focused on through the last couple of months. It’s the right way for me to stay healthy and be as effective as I can be. Through defining these boundaries and asserting them I’ve found folks to be very understanding. In some cases this has needed a little more _self-disclosure _than I would have typically been comfortable with, but I’ve found this has been a critical part of building more empathy for my more atypical boundaries.

Determine who the sponsor/patron of your work is.

Different types of work have different customers. Sometimes it’s really obvious – for example, you’re delivering to an account team, or directly to a team that asked for your work. In other cases, it’s not that obvious – you’re driving a long-term programme that will disrupt the way that your current organisation does things for example. In all these cases, it’s really important to know who the customer of your work is, and use their feedback to guide what you’re doing. It’s super important to communicate with that customer/sponsor/patron of that work to ensure that you get the right guidance to keep you on track.

Sometimes, the patron of your work will not be your immediate manager, or maybe even your skip-level. However, it’s important that your manager understands what you’re working on, what the expectations for it are, and why this matters for your organisation. You might need to do more work to glue this together.

Optimise for your work enjoyment, not just what your organisation needs!

You’re good at what you enjoy doing, doing things that are just organisational necessities without thinking about what you enjoy isn’t sustainable. This doesn’t mean that you can just do things that you find enjoyable all the time - but looking back at a week, and definitely over a month it shouldn’t be that you’re just doing things that aren’t something you enjoy. This reflection might not come naturally to you – if that’s the case, it’s worth setting aside some time to step off the hamster wheel and reflect on what you’re enjoying.

I like to build things. I don’t particularly enjoy designing organisations. During 2022, I spent entirely too much time doing organisational gymnastics in a situation where we were clearly understaffed to meet the goals that we’d set (rather confirmed by the inception of Project Quattro). I didn’t manage to have this insight at the time, and one of the things that led to me engaging with my coach was starting to get this realisation. Feeling energised makes me more effective for Google too - it’s win-win! This lesson is something that’s directly endorsed by conversations I’ve had since — with multiple L9+ folks commenting on my effectiveness now vs. when I was focusing on the organisational problems that are far from my core strengths!

Self confidence is important in a leadership role.

When you’re leading things, there are often a lot of challenges to your ideas – and a need to address these challenges (note: not necessarily by dismissing them, but by listening, addressing and absorbing them). When your self confidence is low, often these challenges and questions can feel overwhelming, or like attacks – and your response to them becomes different. Equally, you start to take on the emotional load of this continual challenge – rather than looking at them as opportunities to educate yourself, or others, or to tweak the plan to make it even better.

Of course, “getting” self confidence isn’t easy – but it does often come from the other lessons (doing something that you’re good at, doing things that you enjoy)!

Closing thoughts

If you read through my thoughts here, I hope they were useful to you. As said in the introduction, I’m more than happy to discuss and share my experiences via chat, or over a coffee (physically or virtually). For me, applying these lessons has really helped me reach a healthier, more effective place, and overcome a number of those struggles that I mentioned.

On a final note, your interactions with a coach and what type of person you’d like to work with is clearly very personal. I worked with Linda Lucas, and found the experience eye-opening and Linda to be warm, kind, extremely approachable, insightful, and open to some levity and can’t recommend her highly enough.