Creating the conditions for thinking is one of the key factors of effective coaching. Take time to switch off the noise, says leadership coach Neil Jurd OBE

How does coaching boost performance?  

Working with the headteacher of a school, he tells me that coaching gives him enforced reflection time. It’s the one time when he just has to stop and really think. Turn off the phone, shut the door, and only be available to his own thoughts. The biggest power of coaching is creating the conditions for thinking. It’s less about the brilliance of the coach and more about forcing the pause. The hour where there’s nothing else other than the leader and the things in their mind.  

The first thing we covered with that headteacher was his purpose: what he was trying to achieve. He’d been extremely busy. In schools – and I think it’s the same in any organisation –the process hides the purpose. You forget why you’re there. Through coaching, we re-established what his vision for the school was. Focusing on the things that are important has led to higher staff morale, and better exam results.  

Leaders get bogged down in routine tasks that stop them even thinking about what the next big move is. Most people fill their lives with noise that prevents thoughts breaking in. Coaching switches off the noise. We have several coaches who suit different types of client. I’ve coached heads of department at leading universities, people in pharmaceutical companies, import/export businesses – a huge range of organisations. In all of them, staff really just want their leaders to lead. They’re not watching to see whether they’re putting in ridiculous hours. What they want is clear direction. Coaching will often bring out the fact that a lot of the stuff that’s worrying leaders, when it’s examined a little bit, turns out not to be a problem.  

Coaching helps morale because it helps leaders clear their heads. It helps them feel less overwhelmed and more able to focus on what’s important. People are often very distracted by what they think other people think of them. In a school, that can mean playing to the audience of other teachers and pupils. You can step back and work out what the truth is. When I’ve probed it, they’ve normally realised that other people aren’t thinking about them as much as they imagine.  

The framework of coaching is very simple. Coaching is a structured conversation which follows a series of stages that allow a person to consciously make the right decision. The role of the coach is to create space, be curious, and provide an invisible and weightless framework to the conversation which helps move it towards a decision. At some point the conversation shifts from talking about the problem to talking about the solution. It’s as if the framework tilts slightly, encouraging the person you are coaching to reflect and think their way out of the situation. 

It’s a force to move, but not in any particular direction. It’s an energy that will go where the coachee chooses it to go. A bad coach will have the direction that they want the person to go in, and they’ll lead them that way. The refined coach creates the energy in the person, then the person chooses where to go. That’s much more likely to stick, if the person has chosen their own direction.  

They know their situation better than me. They know what they want to do better than me. And they’ll feel inside how much they want to do it. I might question them, but I try not to guide them. I’ve coached a head of biosciences at a top university. I don’t understand his job, but I can still coach by creating his space and exploring his feelings. Feelings are really important in coaching. How someone feels about something will give a big clue about what they want to do and how energetically they’ll do it. A big part of coaching is breaking down the nonsense of faux professionalism, which is more about suppressing feelings and emotions. It’s important to understand those feelings and emotions in order to unleash the energy that comes with them. Or to deal with suppressed negativity which may be holding you back or distracting you.  

For me, coaching works best as a long-term relationship. I work with people who are immensely successful. They might not need me for a few months. Then they come back. That framework is always there.