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In Conversation with Sarah Ellis, careers-maestro and co-author of You Coach You

Sarah co-founded the careers consultancy Amazing If with her business partner Helen Tupper, and together they've also co-authored the best seller Squiggly Careers as well as hosted a bounty of podcast episodes all dedicated to helping make work better. Most recently they've published You Coach You, a suitably-titled take on self-development packed with hyper-practical tools and techniques for building belief, resilience and effectiveness in the modern world of work. Here Sarah shares her take on the power of self-coaching, using self-doubt as data, and ways to keep our coaching mindsets on track.

Why was now an important time to publish this book?

As great as personal coaching is, it’s generally only available to the fortunate few. And if you do have access to professional coaching, it tends to be something you have for a period of time and then it stops.

What we really wanted to do was help broaden the definition of coaching, beyond the coach as a person, to taking a 'coaching approach' to our careers. People can often do more of the thinking and actions of a professional coach than they give themselves credit for. We can all learn to coach ourselves, but that can feel like quite a big ask if it’s something we’ve never done before.

Where do you see the particular power in the self coaching approach?

The power of coaching yourself is that when you come up with your own ideas in terms of the actions you’ll take and the areas you can explore, it’s particularly personal to your growth than if you got there with the support of someone else. It’s definitely easier when a coach gives you actions to take, but those actions might not be the right fit. It's all about you; about your mindset, your skillset, having the right tool-kit to be able to coach yourself.

And doing some of the thinking first means that, when you do go and have career conversations, you improve their quality and make progress quicker.

You Coach You spread, photograph by Rob Parfitt

You talk in your book about 'thinkers' and 'doers', and the benefits and pitfalls that each mode has. Can you tell us more about how we can make the most of these mindsets?

At different points in the self-coaching approach it’s helpful to ask yourself ‘do I need to put more of a thinkers hat on here or do I need to swap to my doer hat?’ I’m naturally more of a thinker. I like reflecting and looking for different options and possibilities, I’m a good scenario planner, I like to know what other people think. And if you’re a doer, like my co-founder Helen, you’re probably good at progress over perfection, taking action quickly and experimenting. But we’ve all got a bit of both in us.

When we coach ourselves, we need to bring two things to the fore: self-awareness and action. That 'thinker' part of us helps with self-awareness. It stops us from moving on too quickly, it makes sure that we dive deep and really think about our challenges. And that 'doer' mindset will help us when we need to stop thinking and start taking some action in the real world.

So the first step is to recognise if you’re naturally more of a 'thinker' or a 'doer', and then to notice the points where it’s time to adapt. If you’re a thinker, when do you feel like you’re going round in circles? Have you spent a long time thinking about a problem without anything concrete to show people? It’s at those moments that you need to try some different tools and techniques that are going to be a catalyst for a doer becoming more of a thinker, or a thinker becoming more of a doer.

A good, practical example of a step to take would be to ask yourself this simple question; who do I need to be more like? Who can I channel? I’ll ask myself ‘What would Helen do?’ What would Helen say? What would be the first action Helen would take?’

The idea is to walk in someone else’s shoes to help unlock your own thinking. It gives you new ideas, new impetus, new ways to adapt. It’s a catalyst for acting or thinking a bit differently.

You Coach You cover, photograph by Rob Parfitt

You Coach You is full of exercises for every area of modern work and careers. Which have you personally returned to the most?

I always find the ‘fly on the wall technique,’ incredibly helpful. It’s based on the idea that when we have distance from our doubts it gives us a different type of data.

Let’s say you’re in a meeting with a very ‘confrontational’ person. You’re experiencing it in the first person and you’re finding it difficult to separate the facts from your feelings and see the situation with clarity. You might be thinking, afterwards, ‘well, that was a disaster. I didn’t say what I was thinking because I was getting so frustrated with this person, and then I got mad at myself afterwards for not speaking my mind.’ Perhaps your inner critic is kicking in and you’re beating yourself up for not acting a certain way.

That’s when we should ask ourselves, ‘what would a fly on the wall say about that same situation?’

A fly on the wall can’t see feelings, they just observe. And they might have a very different point of view or different perspective on what happened in that meeting. My perspective might be ‘that person was acting really inappropriately and creating all of this unhelpful confrontation.’ But the fly might say ‘Sarah’s manager has a direct style of communication. They like facts, and they communicate in a very black and white way. What I notice is that’s very different to the way Sarah communicates.’ It just helps to challenge a lot of emotion-driven, often untrue, assumptions, and lean into the ‘so-what?’

Whenever you can’t see the wood for the trees or you’re trying to get unknotted and gain some clarity, imagine the fly on the wall version of yourself. What would they tell you, rather than what you would tell yourself?

We loved the quote in You Coach You ‘Confidence is like a muscle.’ Why is that?

Confidence and self-belief are learnable skills that need practice and continual investment. No-one is born 100% confident and no-one’s self belief stays constant. There are things outside of our control, things that we’ve not anticipated, that will always lead to tough days or tough weeks.

The thing that we think is really helpful in terms of overcoming those ‘confidence gremlins,’ is making sure you are investing in your ‘resilience reserves’.

Asking for help is a great example of something that helps to do this. Like strengthening a muscle, it does take practice, but it’s important to remember that asking for help is a strength not a weakness. It’s not something we need to apologise for. And people really like helping others, so you never need to worry about asking for help.

Reminding ourselves that we are making positive progress is also really important for building resilience reserves too. At Amazing If, for example, the team logs onto Microsoft Teams every Friday and we all tell the group a personal or professional ‘win of the week.’ We share and then affirm and support each other by saying ‘that’s amazing!’ or ‘that’s been so useful that that project has happened,’ or ‘I’m so glad you got to go and see your kid’s school play this week.’ Our brain’s negativity bias means we focus so much on mistakes and negatives, so it’s really important to make sure we’re seeing all the small successes.

Nobody succeeds by themselves. Everybody needs good people around them, people who can help us to find our way through those knotty moments.

You Coach You and company, photograph by Rob Parfitt

This ties in with the work of psychologist Susan David, who you mention in the book and who coined the idea of using our doubts as data? How do you think we can most practically do this?

The first step is to recognise that everyone has doubts. The next is to ask yourself what your own doubts are. Do you worry you’re not smart or experienced enough? Is it that you’re worried about being put on the spot?

After that, have a think about how you can challenge those doubts. Our beliefs are works of mental architecture that inform how we see the world, and we create scaffolding around them to reinforce what we think is true. The problem with that, in terms of negative beliefs, is that we intentionally look for evidence that the belief is true. Even if it’s not, we build these beliefs up in our mind, which only get in our way.

What we have to do is look for evidence to the contrary. Rather than say ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough,’ say ‘I am good enough, I am smart enough,’ and look for evidence and examples throughout the week to prove what you said is true. Commit to spending ten minutes at the end of each day to remind yourself of that good conversation you had, or that good presentation you did.

What you’re doing is slowly replacing a negative belief with a positive one; reframing a limiting belief to a limitless belief.

How can we make this idea of self-coaching a habit?

New habits are really hard to form! So if you want to commit to coaching yourself I would encourage you to try these four things.

First, attach coaching yourself to something you already do. If you’ve got a local coffee shop that you like going to once a week, have half an hour of just sitting and thinking about the week, and another half-hour for a bit of coaching yourself. Combine new hard to form habits with a nice one that already exists.

Second, coach yourself with someone else. That really helps you with any habit; finding someone to hold you accountable (and vice versa) and saying ‘right we’re both going to do a resilience rating, and when we catch up next week or have a chat over zoom we’re going to talk about what our resilience rating was and what it made us think about.’

Third, try and think about your motivation for ‘why?’ Why are you coaching yourself? Link it to something that’s important, and that matters to you. Is there something you want to be true in twelve months that isn’t true today? Do you want a better work-life fit? Are you just keen to learn? Whatever your ‘why,’ is, it will make coaching yourself more motivating and meaningful.

And finally, find a time of the day where you can focus your energy. For example, I’m not a morning person so coaching myself first thing would be a disaster. My brain is not very switched on, I don’t think I’d be coming up with very good ideas, I’d probably find ways to distract myself. Whereas I’m quite good in the evening, so around half-eight, after my boy has gone to bed, is best.

You've had some many awesome authors on your podcast. What books should we be adding to our library in 2022?

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is certainly one. I’m a big fan of his work, and Lost Connections, his previous book, is also brilliant. And then there’s a book out later this year called Fortitude by Bruce Daisley who wrote The Joy of Work. I’ve seen some early versions and early thinking of Fortitude and it’s a really good reflection on resilience in our world today. It moves away from resilience just being about ‘I’ and moves into resilience being about ‘we.’