Early experiences – On being Coached / Mentored

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I wrote just before Christmas that I was actively seeking coaches and mentors who can help me develop and improve my productivity and impact.

I’ve previously had informal coaching/mentoring relationships with a range of people and still value those links and I don’t think people should be limited to just one as I believe that we all constantly need support and advice and we are always developing mentoring and coaching relationships without realising and without ever formalising them.

For example the following people have probably had the most significant impact on my career over the last 5 years due to their informal mentoring and coaching relationships over the last few years and in some cases much longer;

Andrea Siodmok – the first time I met Andrea I was inspired, her outlook and her experience in Design disrupted my thinking and broke me out of a world which I felt comfortable in and it is her influence, advice and support which has helped me to find a balance in how I look at the way I work. The approaches I take and the constant opportunity of working with people on the ground. She never stops making me think and inspiring me to consider new perspectives on problems.
Dave Briggs – I’ve always valued my conversations and interactions with Dave and would very much consider Dave a friend. I find every conversation engaging and memorable and not always for their coaching value :). Dave has provided a huge amount of advice, challenge and support whether he knows it or not which has helped me at critical times and he deserves a huge amount of recognition for his work and influence on a wider number of people in the sector.
Martin Howitt – for someone who had to put up with my constant questioning for a two year period when we actually worked in the same team and opposite each other in the same office, Martin provided some of the most valuable support and guidance at a time I felt out of my depth, lost and full of self doubt. Martin should know he is a valued friend and I always look forward to our informal conversations over coffee.
Catherine Howe – one of the most intellectually stimulating people I’ve ever worked for and with and Catherine has always been supportive of me and I am personally grateful for her encouragement, challenge and honesty. She is one of the people I hope I could see more but fear that my brain would explode if I did 🙂
Sara Cretney – I’ve only really started to get to know Sara over the last 18-24 months and in that time she has provided some of the most timely and fundamentally honest coaching I’ve received. I have to thank her for providing a balanced viewpoint and reflections which stopped me at times resigning from the council. Looking back and looking ahead, I’m hugely grateful to her for that support and she is very much a kindred spirit and some of the best work and progress I’ve made in the last 18 months is also down to her support, advice and influence.

So last week I had one of my first coaching/mentoring sessions with my Chief Executive (Phil Norrey) and found the experience hugely valuable for a variety of reasons which I aim to explore in this post. I’d like to thank Phil here for agreeing to be my coach/mentor and I hope I can offer some value back to him during the process.

Before I continue with reflections from Phil, I have also now set the date with my second coach/mentor for 11th February so will be able to share reflections and details after then. This year is going to be a significant year in many ways.

So reflecting on my first coaching session with Phil. Firstly it was VERY productive and HUGELY helpful to me in thinking differently about my role, my professional development and the opportunities ahead. It was also initially strange having a very personal conversation with someone whom previously I’d only had professional based conversations, but those feelings disappeared pretty quickly once we get stuck into conversations.

One of the reasons I asked the Phil to coach/mentor me was because I believe it will be valuable to me to be challenged by a strategic leader who does not fully grasp the digital agenda and that is ok, I don’t expect him to understand it all, however he is clearly aware of its potential, opportunity and its transformational capabilities. The key aspect for me was to be challenged around relevance, strategic alignment and reframing the story the needs to be told around digital locally…whether we like it or not the county of Devon is not the same as a major city and presents very different challenges around digital and whilst it is fine for me to believe in a digitally enabled future, unless I fully understand the strategic picture in Devon I’ll never be able to exert the right kind of influence to see a digital Devon emerge.

One of the conversations we covered was around my career so far in the council (I started in 1996) and how I have got to where I am today and the very organic nature to the way I’ve moved around the council and how in nearly every single job I’ve had, how I always seek out opportunities and activities outside of any formal Job description I was assigned to do…I realised that I’ve never had a job description in my time at the council which completely satisfied my curiosity and my skills…which is why I’m very grateful to my current line manager who allows me to discover and explore new things whilst also focusing on my core activities.

The question Phil asked me in response to this was simply but yet, no one had ever actually asked me and it really made me think – he asked “are you happy with the organic nature of your career so far?”

That question really made me consider what it is that is important to me and what it is I really want to do…the answer to this was after some reflection simple. It is fundamentally important to me that any job I do or if I were to apply for something, that it allows for and encourages personal and professional discovery, or to put it more simply, that I actually have inbuilt 20% time but with a broad purpose and for me this has since I started working for the council in 1996 about improving public services. The consistent them in my time at the council has been around and how technology, people and democratic participation / accountability can help reshape what this can and could be…

One of the benefits of taking to Phil was that we could simply talk and have a conversation around such a wide variety of things, I shared my thinking and vision for digital in Devon and asked him questions about the internal and external political landscape, we spoke about the future of Devon and pondered some random opportunities looking forward to 2050. One of the most reassuring things about the process was how similar (to a degree) our thinking was….ok my thinking is at a very different level at the moment as I’m working in an operational context and not the high level strategic context Phil and the rest of the corporate leadership consider and deal with all the time.

I always had a lot of time for those people who become chief executives of local authorities and always thought that it would never be a role I would envisage myself doing…I have even more respect for those people who have to deal with huge amounts of complexity on a daily basis and who, at least those I have met, maintain an engaging personality…I appreciate My reference points are those who I meet at conferences, meet online and those are clearly making a different statement because of how they behave, but it demonstrates and reassures me that it is something that perhaps one day I would want to do…but not for a long time yet 🙂

Phil and I agreed to meet every 6 weeks which I am grateful for and am looking forward to the personal development journey.

Tomorrow, Later today or on Friday 23rd (depending when you read this) I start my first session coaching Sarah Lay from Nottinghamshire County Council. Sarah is a friend, someone who I have a huge amount of respect for, we have been on a journey together and she has provided support and guidance to me over the years and I just hope I can help her through coaching achieve what she sets out to achieve.

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