Coaching Case Study By Elena Chen
(Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES)
The main players for this case were my client, an investment banker who wonders whether his current career path suits him, and myself. My client received a law degree from a top university and graduate school. Post-graduation, he chose to work in a government institution rather than a law firm because he didn’t think that his aspiration was to move up the ladder of law firms and become a partner. A few years later, he realized that industry experience was highly valuable to a government official role, so he left his job and went to work at a local investment bank.
The Coaching Session
The core problem is that my client is not motivated in his current job due to a lack of sense of achievement and purpose. First of all, he didn’t have any finance background, so working as an investment banker was challenging for him. In addition, he didn’t find his day-to-day job interesting or meaningful. When he looked at other senior bankers in the firm, he didn’t aspire to become like them. However, his current job offers decent pay and a good platform. My client knows that he would like to work as a government official, a college professor or an entrepreneur. However, there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward path for him to switch to any of these paths. Also, these paths are riskier and less well-paid than his current job.
My client has been facing this problem for more than 1 year. The misalignment of who he is as a person, what he wants to do and what he is currently doing makes him very torn.
This problem has been challenging for him because he knows that he cannot switch careers so freely because he can tolerate less risk as when he just graduated from college. Another obstacle is that the career paths that he is potentially interested in don’t have clear entry points for middle-aged professionals. Most of these paths recruit young people who just left schools.
The worst thing about this problem is that since my client is not motivated in his current job and he doesn’t have a finance background, he couldn’t perform as well as his colleagues and, as a result, he has started to lose self-confidence. In the past, he has always been very motivated and confident in whatever he is doing.
Specific coaching skills
Power listening – My client is a very expressive person and has put lots of thoughts on this problem. Therefore, I have been an active listener throughout our coaching sessions. I demonstrated that I am observant and present. I let my client talk for most of the time and didn’t interrupt him. I also commented on his tone of voice, use of language and energy shifts.
Powerful questions – I asked a few powerful questions to bring awareness to my client. For example, I picked up a lot of contradicting words that my client has used and asked what he has learned from them about himself and his situation. One time, he mentioned that he wanted to specialize but at the same time believes that he performs the best as a generalist. I found that is an interesting pair and probed deeper.
Visualization – As the topic, my client would like to discuss involves a lot of abstract concepts, beliefs, and emotions, I invited him to do a visualization exercise. It turned out that my client is not used to organizing or processing information in a visual way whereas a more analytical approach is more effective. Therefore, I didn’t insist on the exercise in the end.
Acknowledgement – The client brought strong negative emotions to the beginning of our sessions, e.g. frustration, upset and unfairness. I used the acknowledgement to encourage my client to look at what he has already achieved this far. For example, he has a very strong self-awareness about his strengths and career interests. He also has clear ideas about what other career paths he would be interested in and his constraints. The acknowledgement has been very effective in motivating my client to move forward.
Creating trust – I had a similar background to my client because I used to work in finance and found my previous job transactional and not meaningful. I built the trust and rapport by expressing my empathy for my client’s situation and the dilemma he is facing with regards to career choice. I created a safe space for him to express his beliefs, values and goals by letting him talk and showing acknowledgement and support along the way.
Process in detail
My client and I talked about this topic for 2 sessions or 3 hours in total.
The first 1-hour session was mostly focusing on contracting. We discussed potential coaching topics, including evaluating career interests and core values, brainstorming alternative career paths, increasing confidence in the current job, etc. In the end, the client decided that he would like to focus on brainstorming and evaluating his ideal long-term careers.
The second session lasts for 2 hours. In the beginning, we revisited what we discussed about the coaching goal from last time. Interestingly, the client would like to focus on increasing confidence in his current job instead of discussing his ideal long-term career. I used direct communication to reflect this observation to the client. We then went into a deep dive into the client’s current professional and personal priorities. After elaborating on his current financial constraints and concerns about the unclear pathways to other ideal careers, he double confirmed that his current goal is to improve confidence and performance on his current job instead of switching jobs.
Then we discussed potential reasons that are holding him back from performing the best at the moment and narrowed down to his lack of systematic training on financial knowledge. I helped the client reframed perspective from focusing on his weakness to a more positive mindset of leveraging strengths. My client has very strong communication, project management and leadership skills. It would be extremely helpful for his career after being promoted to a more senior position. He also recognized his fear of technical finance knowledge and the only way to make up for it is to spend time and learn. We went into designing action plans for improving finance knowledge. Some action items include meeting with junior colleagues to study transaction documents together, learning from other agencies on the same deal and communicating this learning goal with his manager.
In the end, the process was effective in two folds. On one hand, I worked with my client to bring more clarity to his current career decisions. He understood that even though his current job is not the most ideal one, he is making a very conscious career choice. He has a strong awareness about his ideal careers but at this stage, he understands that he would take a more passive approach and wait until better opportunities surface. On the other hand, my client was more motivated to overcome the barriers of lack of technical background and created a learning plan so as to succeed in his current job.
My coaching was effective because I have been present with my client and put his need at the centre. When he shifted his coaching goal, I recognized, reflected and accepted it quickly. Therefore, we were able to build a healthy coaching relationship. The client felt the trust and support from his coach and therefore was willing to open up, and even being challenged. In addition, as mentioned earlier, I had been in the same shoes as my client and therefore I could fully understand his situation. Contextual knowledge is very helpful for me to help this client achieve his goal.
My client has been extremely expressive and gave a lot of details in the session. If I would do it again, I will provide him with feedback that being more succinct will be helpful for us to move forward more quickly. Secondly, I will spend less time analyzing why my client shifted his goal from exploring his ideal career to how to perform better in the current job. I noticed a selfish drive inside me of convincing the client to be more open-minded and not simply believing that investment banking is the only good career path. Therefore, I was even trying to convince my client to change the topic back to what we agreed at the end of the first session.
First, for clients who have never been coached before, it would be helpful for the coach to explain how coaching works. This is because my client has given me a lot of details, which were not very helpful for achieving his goal. Also, he has been asking for advice and my opinions throughout the sessions. If I had communicated that with my client at the beginning of the session, my coaching could be more effective and successful.
Second, I learned that my coaching style could be more conversational. My client provided me with the feedback that he sensed that coaching has some frameworks, e.g. listening, asking short questions and playing back what the client said. My next learning goal would be to practice using client’s languages and making the coaching session less structured or mechanical.
Third, coaches need to work very hard to stay away from our own biases and judgments. Especially when the coach and the client share common life experience, it is very difficult not to share your own experience or opinions. However, by doing so, we are not helping the client but hindering his or her learning.