March 1, 2019

Branches of thought

A collection of words and videos reflecting on the world of coaching and mentoring and related disciplines.


How 20 years at Board level taught me to value clarity and confidence, and how they are central to my work as a qualified and accredited coach.


To freshen things up a bit this week, instead of worrying about the elephant in the room why not try spotting a HiPPO instead?

The most common type of HiPPO often brings discussion to an early conclusion. Because after all, who wants to go up against the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion?

And this opinion might well be right, based on expertise and experience, insight and intellect.

But it might also be wrong, trading too heavily on status and precedent.

If you’re lucky, you might come across the lesser spotted HiPPO – the Highest Paid Person’s Openness.

Openness to change, new ideas, new voices, and the possibility that someone might know more than they do.

You can find both types of HiPPO all over the place.

They might be easy to spot when the CEO or MD emerges from the undergrowth, but with some patience and perseverance you might spot them in more unlikely settings. Like when an account manager briefs their more junior team. Or even when the account exec updates the trainees and interns.

They’ve even been known to crop up in mirrors.

Which would be intriguing, because then you’ll be able to decide which type of HiPPO you want to be.

Happy HiPPO spotting – and do let me know how you get on!


I started a new year in November – a new financial year, that is. And, in search of inspiration for the year ahead, I used a framework that I found challenging, uncomfortable and thought-provoking.

Ikigai (ee-key-guy) hails from Japan and the westernised, career-focused version asks you to identify four things: what you love, what you’re good at, what you can be paid for and what the world needs. Where the answers overlap, that’s your ikigai, or reason for being.

My answers to those questions crystalised during a long forest walk and a pencil-chewing stop at my favourite café.

The result is a shift in how I’m thinking about my work, and, as you can see from the profile headline above, how I’m talking about my work. It feels to me both vibrant and invigorating, and going in to my ninth year of self-employment, that can only be a good thing.


I won’t lie, this post won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I was put in mind of one of my favourite scenes from Gavin & Stacey in a coaching session earlier this week.

It’s the one where Nessa teaches Neil the baby the difference between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden.

They might sound very similar but as Nessa says, they’re “very different people with very different ideas.”

In the session, I found myself caring more about our progress towards the desired goals  than my client. I wasn’t coaching. I was coaxing. Two words that sound the same but, to borrow from Nessa, they’re clearly two very different behaviours with very different outcomes.

Sharing the thought helped to break through our mutual frustration and to recalibrate not only the session but the assignment. We quickly moved back to the finessing of an authentic leadership style, which as you-know-who might say, was definitely tidy.

Coaching’s rarely a linear journey and sometimes what looks like a wrong turn can turn out to be the route to a breakthrough. What’s important its how it’s handled – on both sides of the coaching partnership.


I’m going to the match* with my mates tomorrow night – and with a wonderful sense of irony I’m really looking forward to the outbreak of competitive listening that will accompany the pre-match drinks.

The irony stems the fact that listening skills, and the pitfalls of competitive listening, have featured heavily in my coaching this week.

Competitive listening is when you’re just about hearing the other person’s words but you’re really just waiting for them to finish, patiently or otherwise. Then you get your share of the limelight by jumping in with your own even taller story or crack your even funnier one-liner.

Competitive listening isn’t great when you’re trying to cement a relationship or help a colleague find a new perspective. But I’ve come to realise that within an established friendship group it plays an integral role in getting the evening off to a flying start.

Later, maybe in the queues at half-time and on the long walk home, there’ll be time for active listening. News of parents and children, health scares and house moves will be shared and met, not just by me, with open questions that encourage the speaker to carry on for as long as they need to. Key phrases will get played back, and we’ll all get a real sense of being heard.

But early doors, as the pundits like to say, a pint of Peroni please and you think you’ve had problems with the neighbours this week? Let me tell you what happened to me!

*It’s a big match, by the way. My local side Woodford Town vs table topping Stanway Rovers in the Essex Senior League.



When I graduated from the University of East London early in September, it took me a while to decide what I wanted to say about it.

As an introvert with a reflective learning style, it often takes a good long walk to figure out what it is I really want to convey about something.

And the thing I want to say about graduating as a Master of Science in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology is simply, that it leaves a wonderful and vibrant legacy in my life.

This legacy has four inter-related strands.

Immense gratitude. For the learning experience as a whole, fuelled by inspirational tutors. And, in particular, for being blessed with a loving family who’ll support me when the going gets tough.

New and splendid friendships within a highly supportive learning community.

An enriched and prospering coaching practice, that leans heavily on evidence-based approaches.

And a thirst for greater knowledge about how the mind relates to the other human components, like the body, the spirit and the soul. I think it’s in this realm that my future focus lies, exploring and experimenting with an open heart to put a few more pieces of the jigsaw in place.

I’m not sure that any of this will culminate in the Blackadder-esque pomp of an academic procession, but the legacy of my UEL chapter will definitely colour whatever comes next!


Don’t you just love elephants? This is how I like them best – out in the open, wandering off to do their own elephanty thing. Elephants up close, I’m not so keen on. Specially when they’re in the room with you.

Taking up psychological space. Sucking up emotional energy. Squashing creativity.

Most people know how to get an elephant out of a room.

Name it. Talk openly about how it got there. Agree a way to stop it coming back.

On top of this, it strikes me that what you really need is courage.

To be the person who does the naming, and to start a conversation that could go absolutely anywhere. To back yourself. Not to win, but to stay curious and receptive to whatever is said next and whatever comes along to fill that elephant-shaped space.

Which might be uncomfortable initially, but probably less so than continuing to be squeezed up against our trunk-swinging friend.



What are the ingredients that make for successful executive coaching? And what happens when you get the mix right?

The research is pretty clear about what the coach needs to bring to the party. It suggests the coach can best help the working partnership along by behaving in ways that include being: non-judgemental; empathetic and respecting; able to balance challenge and support; able to offer alternative perspectives; able to work within the context of an organisation.

But it’s not all down to the coach.

The client has to play ball too.

And the research suggests the client can best contribute to the coaching partnership by being: ready for change; receptive to feedback; willing to disclose thoughts and feelings; ready to try new ideas between sessions and spend time preparing for the next; accepting of vulnerability.

There’s evidently a lot to get right in setting up the coaching relationship. But it’s well worth the effort because when an effective, trust-based coaching partnership is established, the research shows that results include: sustained behaviour change; positive personal and professional growth; increased goal attainment; greater confidence and self-regard; greater self-reliance and problem solving.




Big day today. Lots of new stuff. Definitely time for creativity and enthusiasm, and for looking at all sides of a problem.

Sounds like a day for my trusty ‘Try Hard’ Driver.

Until its downsides come in to play. Like not finishing one project because I’m distracted by another and a nagging suspicion that I’m more committed to trying than achieving.

No problem. I’ll switch to my shiny ‘Be Perfect’ Driver. Its handy quest for perfection will see me right – unless I overplay it and a deadline is missed because of excessive checking.

Try Hard and Be Perfect are two of five intrinsic motivators, or Drivers, that we all have to a greater or lesser extent. Each one, as identified within the psychological school of transactional analysis, can be helpful, or a hindrance.

Knowing that they’re there in the first place can help you to play the right card at the right time – and to switch off your autopilot response when something more helpful is required.



Really pleased to see my research, into the role of courage in the development and practice of coaches, published this month in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring – a lovely way to round off my MSc journey.

The study seeks to understand the role that courage plays in the development and practice of coaches. Courage is mentioned frequently in the coaching literature, but this research is the first study to investigate its significance. It was found that courage enables coaches to deliver their best work and is integral to an ongoing cycle of increasing self-awareness and professional development.

Here’s a link to the published research if you’d like to know more:


Avoiding noise and news seems to be a theme at the moment and at a time when there’s one jaw-drop story after another, I’m finally managing to control my addiction to media – thanks to a book and an alarm clock.

I’ve found it a tough journey. Not only are the headlines ever more fascinating, but for 20+ years in PR, knowing, and making, the news was my stock-in-trade.

But the clock is helping because I’m no longer using my phone as an alarm. So I don’t get tempted to check the news last thing at night or first thing in the morning. The book, meanwhile, is lighting up my lunchtimes in a way that puts my previous hot date, The World at One, firmly in the shade.

Every day, I’m listening to a piece of classical music from Clemency Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder. Some of the music leaves me cold, and some of it, I love. But it always engages otherwise neglected parts of my brain and being. A soaring choral piece called ‘O virtus sapientiae’ is particularly moving. Might the emotions it inspires in me – awe, humility, tranquility – reflect the audience’s response when it was first performed, about 900 (NINE HUNDRED!) years ago? Here’s a link if you’d like to hear the piece for yourself:


Ever felt like this? I know I have – and it’s a phrase I’ve been hearing in coaching more frequently of late.

And when I do hear it, I like to ask:

‘What might it look like, if sometimes you were your own best friend?’

How might things change for you, if you were to act like your own best friend?

(Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash)


I’ll be dusting down my bio this week. For years I’ve included a line about being a fair weather cyclist. No more. Desperate to ‘get out’ and escape lockdown, I layered up the lycra and headed out into the rolling Essex countryside yesterday.

Yes, it was damp and chilly. But also fresh, golden and exhilarating.

It was a balm to my eyes to see new things; things that weren’t framed by a screen or a window.

And as I pedalled patiently up the hill towards home I thought:

What other things am I saying and believing about myself, that it might be time to change?


How’s your awe been this week? Mine was struck with a wonderful dose of history and nature in the unlikely setting of the City of London.

Unlikely in that I’ve been coaching in the same building for a couple of years and only because I didn’t want to sit in a cafe with my pre-match coffee, did I discover Salter’s Gardens.

Sitting between office blocks and sky-scrapers, the garden was built to celebrate 600 years of the Salter’s Livery company and nestles against London Wall, which predates our salty friends by another 1,400 years. Thinking about those huge expanses of time while sitting next to flowers that were still in bloom was an awe-inspiring experience, taking me far beyond modern-day concerns and setting me fair for the day.


Being curious and asking great questions is right at the heart of good coaching – but so is spotting which questions NOT to ask.

So far this week I’ve avoided the temptation to ask my clients about:

The ways in which they believe company culture is holding them back.

The view that good leadership means coming up with the right answers on your own.

The factors that caused them to walk out of a meeting.

The belief that everything must be perfect, at all times.

The suggestion that promotion would be a step too far.

Not that these aren’t fascinating areas. I’d love to know the answer to them all. But in that particular coaching moment, they weren’t going to help us shed light on the matter in hand. More incisive progress, greater enlightenment, was to be found elsewhere.

So it seems to me that curiosity is a great coaching asset, but not if it’s unfettered.


January: “My manager is a tyrant. Always on my case and undermining me. I’m leaving this job as soon as possible.”

June: “I’ve just extended my contract. I’ve never had such a supportive manager.”

Same coaching client. Same manager. Same highly-pressured, complex job.

So what happened here, to stop the endless and damaging butting of heads?

The turning point seems to have been when my client found the strength and courage to share their feelings. To stop the manager in their tracks and to speak from the heart.

The manager’s response? They listened. And then listened some more. And offered genuine acknowledgement.

Together, they then figured out a way of being with each other – how they could best get along.

And from that came a way of working together – how they could best get stuff done together.

What I love about this turnaround story is that the breakthrough came when they talked human-to-human rather than employee-to-boss. From that came a relationship within which they could tackle their work.


How’s your ego doing this week? Mine’s definitely been giving me some gyp.

Wanting to know. To schedule. To plan.

Weeks and months ahead.

Mate, I say, look at the world. How are we to know?

But ego likes to charge around, and when it doesn’t get the answers it wants, throws up lamentation, angst and self-doubt. Puts up barriers between me and the best of me, puts a sharp stone in the shoe of life. At least, mine does.

But I’ve found, or rather, rediscovered, the way to corral my ego.

I’ve been purposefully reconnecting with my strengths and my inner certainty, breaking through the division and the barriers that ego likes to create. Mindfully connecting with people, nature, meditating and generally dusting down some of my spiritual practice.

My ego is responding well, getting stuff done, allowing self-compassion to settle. Like a child secretly pleased with the restoration of a little order and normality. A bit relieved, perhaps.

I’ve come to the conclusion that whereas ego builds walls, spirituality opens doors.

You just have to know where the keys are and make a determined effort to pick them up.




All this week our beautiful apple tree has been shedding these tiny apples. It’s part of a process known as thinning, by which the tree decides where best to spend its energies – for the good of this year’s crop and its long term health.

Taking a lead from nature, I’ve thinned a few projects – personal and professional – so that I can focus on the things closest to my heart and where I feel I can make a real difference.

What could you thin out of your schedule and workload, to make next week really productive and to boost your wellbeing?


“I’m feeling really happy to be home with my daughter. But we’re all supposed to be so sad about things.”

“I’m feeling very sad about my blank diary. But we’re all supposed to be so strong about things.”

How are we supposed to feel at the moment?

My two coaching clients, with their own very personal takes, can’t be alone in trying to figure that out.

I know I’m the same. At different times this week I’ve felt determined and dejected, loved and lonely, peaceful and perplexed.

And right now, writing this, I feel…vulnerable…and yet…steady.

And with the steadiness I know what I really wanted to say:

There is no right or wrong about feelings.

Supposed doesn’t apply.

Let your emptions be what they are.

Acknowledging them means that your mental energy isn’t being hoovered up by corralling your emotions into the under-stairs cupboard of your mind.

Knowing how you feel clarifies your thinking, leaves your brain free to get on with what it needs to get on with.

So embrace the rollercoaster, and trust your liberated brain to then figure out an appropriate response to the world around you.

And how about you? Stepping away for a moment from all the onwards-and-upwards rah-rah, how are you feeling? In a word or two?


Instead of focusing viruses, lockdown and quarantines in our daily calls, my Dad and I are reverting to type – we’re talking about football.

We’re not letting the sporting shutdown stand in our way. To give him more to think about than when he might get out of the nursing home, we’re naming our All Time Stoke City XIs. One player per day.

Dad’s got a lot to think about – he saw his first game in 1946.

Positive reminiscence has been shown to correlate with well-being, patience and self-esteem – and I can really see this as my Dad’s eyes light up as he goes through his shortlists, reveals his selections, and shares his memories. Like the one about watching his favourite goalkeeper, Denns Herod, finish a match on the left wing, playing on with a broken arm in the days before substitutes.

It’s proving to be a lovely way to add some light to some fairly dark conversations, something we’re both looking forward to.

What reassured memories could you share with a loved one?

What’s the best thing a coach can do? (MARCH 2020)

Sometimes, it’s simply to say nothing, to pay attention and to leave you to your own thinking as you figure something out.


This story of the two wolves really resonates with me.

Partly because it conjures memories of being steered at an early age by a wise and loving grandfather.

Albeit one whose stories were less likely to be about wolves than Wolves, the football team.

But in main because of the beautiful way it captures a simple truth about a fundamental choice that we all make, knowingly or not.

It’s a choice that certainly goes to the heart of my own inner world. In this morning’s battle, ego got off to flying start as soon as the alarm went off. Before a mindful walk to the tube, actively noticing things (that spring is really springing! There’s moss on the garden wall! A neighbour’s front door is now a rather natty burgundy colour!) created the opportunity for peace, hope and joy to come racing back to the fore, where it seems set for a decent, though of course never permanent, innings.

Which wolf are you feeding today?


“I wanted to be happy, so I decided to be,” says Toby Jones in one of my favourite films.

But is it that easy, to be happy? The science says not.

Apparently 50 per cent of our ability to be happy is genetic and 10 per cent is down to external factors.

But that still leaves 40 per cent to play with – and there are plenty of interventions that can make that play productive, and the player happier.

So Toby’s character in Marvellous (Neil Baldwin, a 1990s kitman at the Greatest Team the World Has Ever Seen) was definitely right in that we can all decide to be happier – but for most of us there’s more to do after the initial decision. Like adapting our behaviour, persevering and even acknowledging that happiness need not be a stranger to someone like me.


Leaders know that sorting out team issues can be a real drain on their energy.

Take Helga and Harry. They were supposed to be your Dream Team solution on your biggest account. But they can’t get along. Deadlines and targets have been missed. Voices have been raised, fingers pointed.

They are definitely Not OK.

Helga is nursing her grievances and thinking about how to make things OK – for her.

Harry is nursing his grievances and thinking about how to make things OK – for him.

Both want to win.

But a cunningly simple psychological model from the school of transactional analysis suggests that as long as either of them remains Not OK, the relationship as a whole will stay Not OK.

Their first move should be to put their own demands to one side as they help their colleague get to an OK place. By concentrating on helping each other, there’s a much better chance that the relationship as a whole will be OK. Meaning the account might get back on track. Leaving your energy free for the pitch, the board meeting, the review meeting, getting home vaguely on time…

The power of metaphor (October 2019)

Working with metaphors in coaching can be revealing and highly effective. We often use them without noticing, but they say so much about how our subconscious is framing our view of reality.

Beware the drama of the Drama Triangle (September 2019)

Two colleagues can’t get along.

People are talking and it’s down to you to sort it out.

Because that’s what leaders do, right?

Very often, leaders get drawn into an explosive drama triangle. Trying to help a seemingly downtrodden colleague, the Victim, they can’t ignore the aggressive behaviour of the Persecutor. If the leader plays along, there’s only one role left to take. The Rescuer, swooping in to save the Victim, coming up with all the answers.

At best, the Rescuer protects the Victim and placates the Persecutor, papering over the cracks of the toxic relationship. At worst, there’s an unexpected plot twist. The Persecutor takes umbrage and starts to play Victim, enlisting the original Victim as their Rescuer to help deal with their meddling Persecutor-style boss.

Awareness of the potential drama triangle is the first step to avoiding it. Followed up by supporting the Victim to build a sense of empowerment and encouraging the Persecutor to add a note of enquiry to their accusatory style and a little fairness to their firmness. By rejecting the Rescuer role, you’ll be doing everyone a favour – and freeing yourself to focus on the more rewarding roles in your leadership repertoire.

There’s more to smart goal-setting than S.M.A.R.T (July 2019)

SMART goals work really well for many people and businesses. But there are times when it might pay to look at alternatives, not least because research suggests that the majority of people would find other frameworks more helpful in terms of motivation and achievement of the goal.

How are you approaching you goals? (June 2019)

We often  focus on how we’re approaching our goals, but sometimes, the trick is to phrase them in a way that makes them ‘approach goals’ rather than ‘avoidance goals.’

How do you feel about that? (June 2019)

Try asking someone how they feel about something and the chances are that they’ll answer by telling you what they think. Many of us confuse and conflate feelings and thoughts on a regular basis. But bringing clarity to how you feel about something can be the first step in enhancing the quality of your thinking.

How are you spending your energy today? (May 2019)

It pays be aware of where your energy is going – is it being spent on exploring possibilities or coping with consequences?

Maslow. Revisited (may 2019)

Here’s an image you might well have seen before – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Problem is, Maslow himself came to believe it was wrong. He came to believe that the ultimate level of personal development is not self-actualisation, when we become a well-adjusted and fulfilled individual. He came to believe that we have maxed out on the personal development front when we reach the level of self-transcendence, when we put our own needs aside and reach out to others. Here, he said, lies peak experience and a real understanding of what is to be. To be human. Which, in Mental Health Awareness Week, seems to me a thought worth bearing in mind when a society so focused on the self is caught in a cycle of perpetual self-harm.

The power of your personal story (May 2019)

How your personal story and narrative can be used to create positive change in the future.

Is there a place for spirituality at work? (April 2019)

That question is almost impossible to answer, because spirituality means something different to everyone. But if we could agree some core thoughts and ideas, then spirituality becomes something that would be very much at home in the workplace.

Changing your attitude to change might be the key to achieving it (April 2019)

Change is more achievable when we realise that it’s unlikely to be come around instantly; there’s a process to go through.

Play to your strengths – so that others benefit too (April 2019)

One of the central pillars of positive psychology is that by playing to your strengths you’ll improve your career prospects and enhance your well-being. There’s a stack of evidence to support this.

In reading up for a forthcoming research project, I discovered that according to the principal character strengths inventory* a strength is only a strength when its use does not diminish other people.

That really made me stop and think.

The corollary seems to be that if you’re putting others down, you’re not playing to your strengths, however ‘strong’ you might appear at the time. Everyone loses. Much better, then, to play to your real strengths and help everyone else rise up with you.

(*Petersen & Seligman, 2004)

How taking back control boosts well-being (March 2019)

Understanding what psychologists call your ‘locus of control’ can have a big impact on your state of mind.

Something for the weekend (March 2019)

Writing your thoughts and feelings out free-style has been shown in research to be of real benefit to people.

Step into someone else’s shoes (February 2019)

Is stepping in to someone else’s shoes as far as you can go when it comes to understanding their point of view?

What is resilience? (February 2019)

Resilience is about more than determination and diligence. Learning from current experiences and getting back to your best are just as important, though often neglected.

Well-being: fluffy bunny or soaring eagle? (January 2019)

It’s easy to  dismiss well-being as a concept built around mung beans and yoga. But there are plenty of evidence-based approaches to creating and measuring something that will enhance company performance.

The uncomfortable truth about making a presentaion (January 2019)

Lots of people simply don’t like the idea of being looked at – and that can make the thought of delivering a presentation seem like an insurmountable hurdle.