Coaching Presence: managing with an empty Head.

coaching presence

Brains, convictions and intuition

Managers use their brains to think. And to offer solutions for sometimes complicated problems. That’s what they’re managers for. So they better have a head filled with brains.
Managers regularly use their convictions to come to conclusions. They’ve seen A happening in situation B for so many times. This time they would want to prevent A from happening again and so they take proactive decisions when they see situation B emerging again.
Managers also regularly use their intuition to take steps. Intuition is not necessarily some kind of “magical” extra sense. In my view it’s nothing more than experience that has been built up and that makes you “unconsciously” aware. This is information about some things you should or should not do in a given situation you’ve encountered before, perhaps in another form. I am not a psychologist, but by experience I would call intuition a kind of “unconscious conviction”, where convictions are clearly very conscious.

People questions

Managers also use all these beautiful tools of the mind, to deal with their people. These are examples of questions they answer:

  • How do you know what you can delegate to whom ?
  • How do you setup a development plan and how do you guide the development meeting ?
  • How do you prepare for a performance review ? And how do you hold one ?
  • How and whom do you recruit ?
  • How and whom do you fire ?
  • How do you coach ?
  • Etc.

Our brains, convictions and intuition arevery powerful instruments when answering them.
But, one also needs to be aware of the pitfalls they bring. Especially convictions and intuition. There are two questions that can help.

Am I sure ?

“Am I sure ? And if I am, what makes me so sure ?”
These are two meta-questions that I ask myself when I deal with one of the people questions above.
If the answer on the first question is clearly positive and confirmed by many factual arguments on the second question, I will use everything my head has to offer in order to proceed and come to good solutions. My head will even pass the steering wheel to my heart, when there is more need for humanity and empathy, than for processes  and solutions.
In all other cases, I try to do exactly the opposite: I empty my head. And that is a challenge.

An empty head

It means that a lot of great approaches, convictions, skills, habits and reflexes all of a sudden become burdens rather than qualities. Emptying your head means that you can allow yourself not to know and not to provide solutions. Then you can  ask questions and double check if the answers you are getting, match with what you’ve always thought or not.
This requires you to ask apparently evident questions and to get evident answers.
Sometimes you will wonder if you’re not wasting time asking and listening, as your initial assumptions are valid after all. Still, as you were not 100% sure, you cannot have wasted your time. On the contrary, you’ve won time by being sure now and not having to doubt again.
The empty head is a metaphor that is sometime used to describe a very important coaching competency: coaching presence.

Coaching Presence

According to the definition of the ICF, coaching presence is the ability to be fully conscious and create spontaneous relationship with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident. Someone who establishes coaching presence is open to not knowing and takes risks.
As much as I like the link to coaching, coaching presence is also a rather dangerous concept. It gets even more tricky  when the notion of “the line manager as a coach” comes knocking at the door.

The line manager as a coach.

When we talk about “the line manager as coach” there is a lot of confusion. First, thousands of line managers have gone through a training with that very title. Second, it’s also an ideal of how a good manager should behave. And third,  it has become an indicator of being a good manager.
The ‘line manager as a coach’ suggests that coaching is something that has to be done on top of the normal things. There has indeed been a huge rise of counseling, mentoring and coaching skills programs that came above the usual Introductions to Leaderhip. I cannot count the managers any more who have asked me: “So we must also be coaches now? When will we find the time for this ?”.
If a line manager is indeed to become a coach, he should develop the necessary  competencies. The International Coach Federation prescribes 11 competencies to develop of which coaching presence is only one. A developmental program to become a certified  coach can take up to 3 years. It is therefore not realistic to expect all line managers to go through such a program and develop all the necessary competencies.
So let’s not complicate life with a container concept like coaching and keep it simple.

Core Competencies

I suggest that there are 2 competencies that any line manager should or could develop.

  • Listen with empathy and without prejudice: Ability to focus completely on what the collaborator is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the collaborator’s desires, and to support collaborator’s self-expression.
  • Be fully present and conscious: Ability to be fully conscious and create spontaneous relationship with the collaborator, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident. This is what we refer to as coaching presence.

The purpose is not to develop a manager into a a coach. The purpose is to enable him/her not to take convictions and intuition for reality, in case of doubt. It’s not about only practicing when once the coaching hat is on, but to apply these simple competencies when appropriate. It’s important for a manager to integrate these competencies in the personal leadership style, and not to see them just as something that comes on top of the rest. The ultimate goal is to become indeed a good manager who can lead with an empty head when needed. And just being present when dealing with people might be the strongest competency to become a good leader. Coaching presence is a good place to start.

4 thoughts on “Coaching Presence: managing with an empty Head.”

  1. “The International Coach Federation prescribes 11 competencies to develop of which coaching presence is only one. A developmental program to become a certified coach can take up to 3 years. It is therefore not realistic to expect all line managers to go through such a program and develop all the necessary competencies.” Why starting this ? It has nothing to do with competences but the natural attitude of being a coach.

  2. In my experience as a Coach and also as a Manager, I look at Presence slightly differently. Allow me to share. It is important for a manager to reflect on, “What does my presence bring to my people?”Are they happy when I’m present or happier when I leave the room/office?
    Presence for a manager is more about making his people feel resourceful and competent and safe to share mistakes rather than coverup for mistakes and feeling judged.
    Managers who do not think in the present moment will always be either reflecting on the past or worried about the future. This will make the subordinates do the same.

  3. in an era of knowledge/brain workers it is even less the manager’s role to do the thinking for his/her collaborators, but on the contrary to improve their thinking. Rethinking the managerial role this way also requires rethinking the necessary competencies. By delegating more they can empty their job and shift to adding value to collaborators(‘tihinking) instead of getting in their way.

  4. Thank you for this great article! The metaphor of the empty head is definitely powerful, understandable and “cliks” immediatly in full heads!
    The presence is key to build strong relation, respect, trust, showing interest, develop other’s confidence, progress, engagement and empowerment as a consequence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *