On March 1, 2019 I was interviewed by Aryel Cianflone for Season 3 of her terrific podcast series Mixed Methods. The following is an approximation of our conversation that day. The audio version of the actual interview can be found here.
MM: Will you briefly introduce yourself?
LW: Yes, and thank you for asking! An ongoing challenge of mine is figuring out how to succinctly describe “what I do”. Here’s one version:
I am a facilitator, mediator, consultant, and coach for creative professionals (and others). In all of these roles, I help people design and lead better conversations.
When you really think about it, the creative process is a series of “mediated conversations”. There’s something in the middle - initially it might be divergent ideas, but ultimately there’s a concept or a prototype that’s the focus of attention or discussion.
Even with individual coaching there’s a dialogue - which often starts with the stories we tell ourselves about how we view the world.
MM: You are wearing a lot of hats, today I want to focus on your role as a career coach. How did you get into that?
LW: This could be a very long story - but I’ll try to tell you the short version.
My own career has two distinct parts - the first part was very deliberate, very planned. When I was about twelve I decided I wanted to be an architect. And amazingly by the time I was in high school applying to colleges I still wanted to be an architect. So I earned two professional degrees in architecture, got licensed, worked for several different firms, and taught in an architecture program at the university level. Everything was fine - except that I realized that other things were beginning to interest me, and after several years of trying to ignore the feeling that my career was meant to evolve in a slightly non-traditional way I accepted that I probably wasn’t going to be an architect for the rest of my life.
So while the first part of my career was focused on being a designer, the next part became increasingly focused on the process of design - specifically the human interactions that make any kind of design, innovation, or change effort possible. The specific pathway to coaching came out of my many years’ experience as a facilitator of innovation workshops , then an interest in mediation and conflict resolution as an outgrowth of creative collaboration challenges, and finally a focus on the development of individual leadership skills.
I like to say that I’m now involved in a new kind of “interaction design” (human-to-human instead of human-machine or screen). Which is really an old-fashioned kind of interaction design, isn’t it?
MM: What interests you about career coaching?
LW: In hindsight, my entire career has involved facilitating ‘change’ of some kind - as an architect it was a change in the built environment, in design consulting it was via new products or services….but all of those things took time. With coaching (or facilitating or mediating) you can often witness the change or a shift happening in real time. That’s really satisfying.
MM: What do you do as a career coach? How is that different than a therapist? Life coach?
LW: I actually don’t consider myself to be a career coach. While it’s true that many (perhaps most) of my clients come to me at a point in their lives where they are in some kind of career transition - either seeking a new role within or outside of their current industry, or seeking to grow into a leadership role with their current employer - my training and my philosophy is much more holistic. We may compartmentalize “career” in our lives but in reality the decisions we make about career affect our relationships or where we live or how we spend our free time. So while the topic of career might be the trigger for seeking out a coach, it’s not the only aspect of one’s life that can be addressed through coaching.
There are some important differences between coaching and therapy. With therapy, there is something that needs to be ‘healed’, often connected to a past event or set of experiences that impair an individual’s emotional functioning in the present. Coaching, on the other hand, is fundamentally future-oriented and is based on an underlying belief that nothing needs to be “fixed” - that the client can be capable of determining their best path forward if guided in new ways of seeing the possibilities and making deliberate choices. Coaching helps us “get out of our own way” so to speak.
It’s also worth distinguishing between a coach and a mentor - those two terms are more often confused or used interchangeably. Typically, a mentor or adviser will draw upon their own personal experience to make recommendations for addressing a need or a challenge presented by the client. A coach, on the other hand, will guide the client to generate their own solutions based on an increased knowledge of self – this approach leads to far more sustainable outcomes given that they are the experts of their life, not the coach!
MM: How would you describe what your role is as a career coach in someone’s life?
LW: There’s an analogy I like that relates coaching to learning to ride a bicycle. A coach will put you on the bike and then walk or run beside you as you do the pedaling. They are not talking to you about how to ride the bike and they are not riding the bike for you. The goal is to get to action as quickly as possible, and to use that experience as a source of learning about what’s possible.
MM: How is this influenced by your work as a designer and particularly your time at IDEO?
LW: Where I am now is definitely a result of my experience as a designer. During my time at IDEO I became really curious (and frankly a bit frustrated) by the fact that so many of the great concepts we would develop for clients never came to fruition. I mean, we were solving real problems for real people in real ways. So, I decided to leave the consulting side of the problem-solving business to go inside of organizations that were trying to build an innovation capability. And what I discovered was no surprise - the main obstacles to innovation and change were humans. Everyone it seemed was focusing all their attention on “the big idea” or the latest technology, but in reality, we should have been focusing on how humans work together - within teams and across teams. This is what got me interested in focusing on design leadership and skill development. Coaching is just one of the tools for developing that.
MM: Let’s talk about the activities that you do with your clients. What is the purpose of the session tracker?
LW: The Session Tracker is essentially a form I use to keep track of the coach-client agreement (also known as “the designed alliance”), the client’s goals, and what was learned during each session plus the homework they agree to do between sessions.
Although this started as a simple note taking convention, the fact that it’s one of several documents in a shared Google drive folder that I set up for each client represents the empowered relationship between client and coach. We are partners in this effort, we collaborate - so the notes are a shared resource. It also helps with accountability.
LW: The true value of coaching actually happens *between* the sessions - when the client has to put new insights into practice, or try an experiment in order to derive new insights. The coach typically makes a request or states a challenge, and the client always has three options - to accept it, to reject it, or to make a counter-offer. Sometimes we’ll design the homework together. This can be as simple as a re-frame. For example, I was working with a client who was an intrepid world traveler but was lacking confidence with a new job search. So, we re-framed the job search as a “walk-about” in a foreign land where there were new people, places, and ideas to be discovered. It worked like a charm!
There’s also an exercise called “The Dinner Party” that I invented sort of accidentally when I was trying to help a client identify her values, which were just buried under a lot of analytical thinking. It was so successful that I’ve made it a central element of the discovery session I conduct with each client when we start working together.
MM: Who do you think needs a career coach?
LW: Last year I wrote a blog post called “Do You Need a Coach?” to address this kind of question. The truth is, no one actually needs a coach. But if you’re feeling stuck, or sense a yearning for something else or something more, then great coaching can be the difference between a passive approach to life that perpetuates the status quo or yields only incremental shifts, and an active approach that enables transformative change. Coaching can help reveal who we truly are and want to “be”; those truths in turn can help reframe our stories and make room for real change.
MM: Who is your perfect client?
LW: I think anyone can be a great client if they come to coaching with a goal and a certain mindset - specifically, a curiosity and love of learning, a willingness to collaborate, and preference for action over reflection. Perhaps it’s not surprising that these are the same characteristics of a good designer :-)
MM: What do you hope that they get out of your sessions?
LW: The best possible outcome of any given session is a new way of seeing things and a desire (and commitment) to take action. That action will hopefully lead to some new insights and learnings about what is truly possible for that individual, in pursuit of a specific goal or goals. Coaching is a supported form of prototyping - you have a question, you try something, you learn something and that informs what you do next. It’s a process of discovery.
MM: Does this vary a lot client to client or is it pretty consistent?
LW: This is a consistent goal of coaching - but ultimately the responsibility for making progress sits squarely on the client, not the coach.
MM: Any final thoughts you want people to walk away with?
LW: I’m developing an emergent belief that the future of design leadership will benefit from what coaching can offer because ultimately leadership, and the ability to lead within a larger system, is your greatest currency as a designer. I’m a big advocate of cultivating those skills along with all of the technical ones
One of the greatest things about being a coach is that I literally use these skills every single day. For example, the ability to “hold space” for an individual or a group to do their best thinking is what’s common to coaching, mediation, facilitation, and consulting. I love being able to do that.