The Drive to Become a Coach: A Personal Story

Lately Vicki and I have had requests to share more about how we entered the world of coaching. Here’s the path I took, and Vicki’s story will follow shortly.

My own trajectory into coaching began as an occupational therapist specialising in psychological injury in the workplace. You could say fate positioned me at the intersection of therapeutic and organisational life.

My role was to rehabilitate individuals who had suffered serious psychological injuries and support their return to work.

In that role I engaged regularly with the workplace, which helped me to develop a strong systems perspective. I viewed the individual in context. I reflected not only on their personal psychology, but assessed the demands of their role and their environment. I understood that the needs and pressures of the workforce had to be encompassed, as well as the needs of the individual, in order to achieve robust outcomes.

Looking for a Preventive Model

Whilst I gained great insight into these systems, I felt like a paramedic, always responding after a crisis. Though I knew I’d done some great work with individuals, it would have been ideal if my services were no longer needed.  So, I was drawn to a preventive approach, but my brief did not authorize me to address underpinning dynamics – such as poor leadership and management practices or excessive workloads – that so often resulted in injury.

It was my desire to get ahead of the game, to prevent crises before they happened, that ultimately led me to coaching. The path was initially unclear, but I followed its scent. We all have moments like this; a knowing that arises within us, that there must be a better way.

With the understanding I now have as a coach, I see my commitment to the goal drew me forward into unfamiliar territory. Having travelled that path myself, I have a deep confidence that when an individual lets go and follows their deepest knowing or instinct, the information, support and resources they need will show up. I knew I could be having a greater impact and over time this proved itself to be true.

My journey saw me drawing on my knowledge of personal development to teach in leadership development programs. Through my clients I learned more and more about the challenges they faced. I developed an ear for the different patterns underlying common organisational challenges, diverse ways to respond and the consequences. These were skills I had learned in my early training as a therapist, and they transferred to this new field. I was also fortunate to work with some great Action Learning pioneers, on methods of enquiry that tap individuals’ tacit knowledge.

Supporting the Client to be Their Own Expert

However, it was when I discovered coaching that I truly learned to work beyond the limits of my own expertise. In coaching, I learned to resist the compulsion to be an expert. I learned to collaborate with my clients and facilitate their own enquiry.

Coaching opened new doors. These days as I coach executive teams in strategic planning and decision making contexts, coach individuals and groups embroiled in conflicts and pursue my fascination with leadership development, I am grateful for these expanded horizons.

I know I am supporting the creation of healthy workplace cultures, using my skills to their fullest.   As a bonus for myself, I also get to travel much more as a coach.  Since a lot of sessions can be done online, I can now do my work from the beach!


What is the vision that draws you into unfamiliar territory?

What do you sense even before it has taken form?

Being Our Role Models

Who are your role models? What do you love most about them? How have they inspired you?

One of my role models is my former high school principal, John Tindley, an approachable and progressive leader who was out and about in the school yard chatting with us on a regular basis.  However, what comes to mind as I think of him today is that he threw his job in at the height of his career and became a truck driver.  What do I love about that?  I feel inspired and somehow stronger knowing that he wasn’t caught by the trappings of status but that he followed a path that while unconventional, was uniquely his.  When I heard, many years after the fact, about my principal’s career change it didn’t surprise me.  He brought that same sense of freedom to his role when he was in the job.

Reclaiming Our Potential

Whilst role models inspire us, we don’t always make the most of our attraction to them.

Buddhist scholars describe the process of splitting off from the world around us and our own potential as separation.  When we stay split off from the traits that we admire in our role models and think our interest in their lives is about them, more than us, we miss the point. We fail to capture and act on the power of their inspiration in our own lives.

In Coaching, Flea Markets and Identity I spoke of the challenges our own identities can present.  I argued that as a consequence of our identities we start to think of qualities, characteristics and traits as ‘me’ and ‘not me’.

We are usually drawn to our role models because they possess qualities that we admire, but don’t fully recognise in ourselves.  Often they are qualities we think of as not-quite, not-yet or simply not-me.  By paying attention to the people we admire, we can start to reclaim some of those attributes we think of as not-me.

Our role models provide a chance to reflect on our own lives.  My former headmaster’s story is a reminder to think about whether status holds an undue influence in my own life.  It’s a prompt to question whether and where I am seduced by the trappings of success. It’s also a chance to get honest with myself about who I am and what I want in life and to develop a plan for working on any attachments or things that hold me back from pursuing my genuine goals.

Of course, it’s easy to falsely elevate the achievements of others, seeing the success without the sweat.  We can admire people who’ve made courageous decisions, assuming that they have done so without doubts or anxieties.  The problem is that we don’t know their backstory.  We project our own ideals and fantasies onto others.  What’s interesting is that we are drawn to those fantasies in the first place.

The Traps of Comparison

Throughout my life, I’ve set myself various stretch assignments. I’ve looked at other’s achievements as a way to spur myself on.  While there have been benefits, there are distinct disadvantages to this approach.

A deficit-based approach to thinking about our role models relies on comparisons that can make us feel smaller.  It focuses our attention on areas we believe we’re not doing as well as we might.  Rather than drawing on our role models as resources, we can measure ourselves against them as illustrations of our own inadequacy.  Can’t you just picture it?  There’s my former headmaster (the ultimate free spirit) or Anita Roddick or Martin Luther King and well … then there’s … me.

Comparison is a risky strategy.  To the extent that your self-esteem is strong and your confidence robust, you’ll probably make steady progress.  However if you’re having a bad day and lack inner support it may not be the most effective approach to take.   If your self-critic gets hold of you, it’s an invitation for them to have a field-day.

We can draw on our role models in a ways that either motivate or discourage us, and that learn from or idealise them.  It’s important to notice the impact your way of thinking about your role models has on you.  Does it elevate you or put you down?  Do you feel closer to their attributes and achievements or further away?  It’s not so much the role model that’s healthy or unhealthy as the way you relate to them.

It is You  

Another approach when thinking about role models is to start with the assumption that you already possess the qualities you admire.  Perhaps it is only your identity that needs to catch up – to reboot itself, so to speak.

Viewed from this perspective our role models become invitations to appreciate the occasions, both large and small, when we’ve acted in ways similar to them.  When I hone in on times I’ve responded to a deeper calling, I remember leaving a specialised role in neuroscience to become a consultant; something I knew very little about at the time.  This approach immediately connects me to my own inner resources, such as my courage and resilience. It activates important capabilities that will make a difference to the way I tackle today’s challenges. Reflecting on our role models is a chance to appreciate characteristics in ourselves that we usually take for granted, underestimate or forget.

It’s interesting to contemplate why certain role models come to mind at certain times.  Ask yourself: what part of me needs to hear their message?

Why did I think about my former headmaster today?  He ranks as a lesser deity in the world of my role models than say the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela.  What might having a sense of adventure and willingness to take risks allow me to do in my life right now?   I have an idea, I’m not quite ready to share it with you yet … but I will, soon.

Here’s a short exercise that invites you to reclaim attributes that might be valuable but overlooked in your life now.


  • Think of someone who is a role model for you
  • What is it in particular that you admire about them?
  • In what ways do you possess this attribute?  Think of specific examples.
  • When do they emerge?  What supports them?  How can you get to know this part of yourself more?
  • Why did you think of that role model today?
  • How might these attributes be of value in your own life right now?  How can you activate them?


I’ll be interested to see what you discover – write and tell me. Who are your role models?  How have they influenced and inspired you?  What do they reveal to you about yourself?

The Coaching Roadmap

Coaches are miners who go to work each day armed with acute observation skills and powerful questions. We are privy to our clients’ aspirations. Coaches work with respect with their clients to reveal their interior worlds; the thoughts, feelings, mindsets and motivations that underpin their decisions and inspire their capabilities. We learn about the worlds they live and work in. With our clients, we investigate the situational demands that call for their growth and strive to help them understand the cultural considerations, resourcing, political and environmental dynamics of the landscapes they traverse.

As coaches we encounter a rich array of information, offering a window into our client’s inner experience and the organisations they work in. Our role as a coach is to help clients to pick through all of this data, to wade through the white noise of their lives, in an effort to find new insights and meaning. We know that our clients hold the secrets to their own development and ultimate success in their endeavours. We also understand that some of this information may be more important and useful than other pieces.

The question for novice and experienced coaches alike is: Where to begin?

Where do we shine the torch? This is not just a question of how to focus our own attention as we listen to the client’s narrative, but of how and where to deepen the client’s investigation and enquiry. These should not be random choices made by each coach depending on their own interests and curiosities.

Coaches may be miners, but they are often well paid miners, reflecting the precision with which they are expected to track the learning and change process in each client.

A deep understanding of the dynamics of cognitive, emotional and behavioural change informs the GCI coaching practice. Our understanding of individual and systemic change is captured in the GCI Coaching RoadmapTM.

We will introduce coaching practitioners to the GCI Coaching RoadmapTM  in our forthcoming program of the same name.

The GCI Coaching RoadmapTM  helps coaches understand how to best support their client’s development and the achievement of their goals. It informs our choice of coaching interventions.

Coaching, Flea Markets and Identity

Recently I went to the Camberwell market in Melbourne.  It’s a fabulous place, full of old discarded bric-a-brac, furniture, records and clothing deemed to be of little value to the original owner.   The same items can prove to be treasure for those who discover them.  All it takes is a little imagination and know-how to put them to good use.

As I wandered down the aisles, rummaging through trestle tables and peering into car boots, it struck me that coaching in many ways is like going to a jumble sale.  A good coach has the knack of helping people to spot what’s needed in a situation.  Sometimes that involves reclaiming talents, traits and characteristics we abandoned years ago.

As a child, developing a sense of who you are differentiates you from the people and environment around you.  It’s how you know you are ‘you’ and I am ‘me’.

Yet as surely as we form an identity that embraces certain characteristics, qualities, values and beliefs, there will be things we don’t identify with – things outside our sphere of experience or interest.  We come to think of these things as ‘not me’.1

Our identities are shaped by our life experiences.  In the course of our early development some traits and behaviours are rewarded more than others.  Our family, ethnic and social cultures have a way of filtering our understanding of the world.  They reinforce certain ideas and beliefs, while frowning on others.  As a result we tend to focus on and master specific skills.  We learn to act in certain ways and avoid other behaviours like the plague.

The process continues as we enter our chosen professions and are influenced by the expectations of our bosses and the cultural norms of the organisations we join.  We can carry these influences from one job to the next, forgetting to re-examine the validity or usefulness of these internalised expectations.

In the process, we marginalise and fail to cultivate important capabilities.

Have you ever noticed that you feel nervous about displaying certain characteristics or taking on specific challenges at work?

In my practice as a coach I’ve noticed that managers who value getting along with others, can be reluctant to provide corrective feedback. Though situations may escalate they put off difficult conversations.  If their identity as a peacekeeper has the upper hand, they might avoid assignments that require them to assert themselves.  Often a member of their team becomes a de-facto leader challenging their authority, becoming excessively demanding of others or forming coalitions with the manager’s own manager, in an effort to fill the void.
Others who have a strong task and outcome focus may find they can’t manage situations that require diplomacy.

I personally find I get impatient with indecision, even though I struggle with tough decisions myself.  I don’t find ambivalence in myself or others easy, I prefer to know where I stand.
Leaning on our strengths, we can avoid situations that challenge us.  We tend to gravitate to situations that validate and reinforce our identity.  When our identity becomes too fixed we can struggle to adapt to, or even notice the unique demands of new roles.

Our identities cast a shadows in which certain ways of behaving become hidden or temporarily unavailable to us.2  While under-developed, these capacities are rarely lost or beyond our reach.  That’s where a good supervisor, mentor or coach comes in.  They help us to rediscover and develop our latent and forgotten potential. An important coaching contribution lies in helping individuals and teams to explore beyond the limits of what is usually thought of as ‘me’.  Once coach and client are in the territory of ‘not-me’, or what might be described as ‘Not how I usually approach these things’ new possibilities are discovered.

At the edge, or the boundary between the territories of ‘me and ‘not-me’, the coach and client discover subtle influences that shape choices and behaviour.   Growth occurs as we learn to cross the unmarked border between what is known and what is less well known.

Like bargain hunters at a market we can try on different attitudes and ways of being, in search of a better fit.   We can ask ourselves what’s suited to a given situation or how we need to engage a specific individual.

Periodically throughout your career you might find yourself sorting like a rag-picker through the beliefs and potential you regarded as unimportant in your life, to reclaiming the latent potential hidden there.  I hope you discover real treasures.

Here are a few questions that might help you in your search:

  • How do you think of yourself?  How do you want others to see you?
  • In what ways does your identity influence your choices and the actions you take?
  • How does it limit you?  What are the consequences?
  • How can you expand your sense of who you are and what you’re capable of?

I’d love to hear your strategies or stories of stepping beyond your usual identity.

1Arnold Mindell, River’s Way: The Process Science of the Dreambody. Arkana, London, 1989.

2Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self. New American Library, USA, Printing, 2006.