Interview with the Academy of Executive Coaching in London

In September 2022, the London based Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC) approached me to give them an interview about their systemic team coaching diploma training that I completed in 2021 as well as about my experiences as an executive and team coach. I found it a valuable time to reflect on the past 15 years of my career, and I’m happy to share it below. The original article is found here.

You come from an immensely successful background with experience as a business coach, mediator, project consultant and lecturer at Budapest Corvinus University of Economics. Who or what introduced you to coaching?

The first phase of my executive and team coach career lasted three years, and it started during the global financial crisis in early 2009 after I got dismissed from a managerial job at a multinational company due to collective downsizing. Like many others at that time, I found the experience traumatic, and it took me a sabbatical year to regain my balance and start working again. During that time, I set up my own coaching and consulting firm, as I made the decision not to go back to employment for a while. Interestingly, my first clients were company leaders who asked me to coach them how to downsize or reshuffle their teams to cope with the aftermath of the financial crisis, similarly to the film Up in the Air. I learned important lessons during these years about leaders, teams, organisations, and leadership challenges that inform my work as a coach even today.

The second phase of my executive and team coach career started in 2018, after I left behind my corporate career as a senior program manager at Vodafone Hungary, due to a burnout that seriously damaged my health. This time I decided to make a complete career shift and started my academic studies in psychology, at the age of 40. Over the past years I also completed more than 450 hours of coach training in various Hungarian, American, and British coach schools and conducted some 800 hours of individual and team coaching sessions with private and business clients. Last year, I became a Master Practitioner in Systemic Team Coaching at AoEC and I earned a Professional Certified Coach credential through the International Coaching Federation (ICF). I also started to teach social and emotional intelligence and team leadership at Corvinus, one of Hungary’s most prominent universities.

I realise that losing my job during the global financial crisis and then going through a managerial burnout later helped me enormously to redesign my career and lifestyle. For this, I am very grateful, as I now follow a path that is much more fulfilling for me.

What led you to signing up for the AoEC’s Systemic Team Coaching® Diploma course?

It was three years ago, in October 2019, at a global ICF conference in Prague, when I first heard about Systemic Team Coaching (STC) in a workshop where the key principles and Peter Hawkins’ five-discipline framework of effective teams was presented by AoEC founder, John Leary-Joyce, and two Hungarian team coaches from Purpose & Company. The whole concept of coaching teams systemically immediately aroused my interest because as a former project management professional I knew how critical it is to think systemically in a complex work environment, to continuously learn from our mistakes as a team and to engage our stakeholders properly to ensure that we deliver what is expected of us. I was genuinely surprised to learn at this ICF workshop that similar principles could be applied when coaching (leadership) teams.

Prior to my STC training, I had already coached a couple of teams but always with an internal focus to improve team members’ interaction with one another, rather than with their external environment, and ignoring the systemic forces that impacted the team’s performance. When I coached executives, the focus was again limited to their individual needs rather than the needs of the system they served. Therefore, my development goals when I entered the STC diploma programme at the AoEC was to know more about the framework and to train my mind to see and think more systemically when supporting teams and individuals.

What were the most beneficial learning experiences on the diploma?

One of the greatest benefits of the year-long training was that it helped me shift my focus from the individual and the team to their wider systemic context. I realised that as a systemic coach my goal is to transform my clients’ ‘system blindness’ into system sight (as Barry Oshry puts it in his book Seeing Systems) so that they develop a more adaptive and collaborative behaviour. I became more conscious of my role as a coach to help leaders ‘connect what is disconnected’ in their system. This is beautifully described in Touchpoint Leadership by Hilary Lines, who was the lead trainer and my tutor in the diploma programme.

Another key learning was that team coaching should not be limited to the internal functioning of the team but should step across the boundary of the team to look at the team’s relationship with the outside world. A key difference between systemic team coaching and other internally focused team coaching approaches is that it helps the team focus both on its internal as well as its external relationships, shifting team members’ perspective from the inside-out to the outside-in. As a systemic team coach, I believe in what Peter Hawkins writes in Leadership Team Coaching: it is the collective and systemic aspects of the team and its context that can either enhance or undermine team performance and this should be the focus of any team coaching interventions, rather than the individual.

Can you please tell us about your own coaching model and how this has evolved to include systemic team coaching?

My work as an executive and team coach is underpinned by general systems theory, and Lewin’s social field theory, as well as the various team effectiveness models developed by Belbin, Lencioni, Hackman, Katzenbach, and Hawkins. I use an integrated approach when supporting teams and individuals, which includes transpersonal and somatic psychology related tools, and techniques, such as systemic constellations, mindfulness, and Gestalt, as well as projective methods like transactional analysis and associative cards which help explore the subconscious or hidden dynamics in teams and relationships. I also do my best to follow Carl Rogers’ client-centered coaching approach, according to which my role as a coach (and psychologist) is not to provide answers but to facilitate my clients’ learning so that they arrive to their own solutions.

I prefer the so-called Gestalt approach in team development to help team members perceive information in a non-verbal, sensory, or spatially represented way, as it facilitates their systems thinking and creates new insights for them. In my STC diploma programme, I learned several Gestalt techniques such as ‘team sculpting’ to represent in space how team members relate to one another, ‘drawing a team timeline’ to envision the future by mapping the present and future states of the team in space, and ‘stepping into the shoes of the stakeholder,’ which helps bring stakeholder voices into the room. As western languages shape and distort our perceptions and are biased toward a fragmented and linear view of the world, we need to use such embodiment techniques to sense more accurately the social field we live and work in.

In my work I also apply Peter Hawkins’ framework about effective teams which focuses on both the external and internal relationships and functioning of the team, and I follow AoEC’s SIDER process of team coaching (Scoping, Inquiry, Design, Execution, Review) to design a team development programme with the client.

What were the benefits for you of working on a live case study as part of the diploma programme?

I gained lots of benefits working on a client case systemically while doing my studies at AoEC. I realised early on in my assignment that when we step into a complex client system, we cannot but encounter uncertainty, and the ‘unknown’, therefore a lot of self-reflection, supervision, or peer coaching is needed not to get entangled in system dynamics as a coach and to better understand the unfolding of systemic patterns. I find intuition and coping with the uncertainty of not knowing to be major skills to develop as a systemic coach. It was therefore very important for me to engage in self-reflection by journaling and meditation throughout my assignment. It was usually during deep meditation that I grasped the meaning of certain behaviour or the chain of events. The brain looks for logic and patterns to manage complexity and, on several occasions, I felt very subtly while meditating that the way I looked at my client’s system and saw it in the forms of Gestalt patterns, also had an impact on the way the events unfolded. This deepened my understanding as to what extent I am responsible for my emotions, thoughts, and behaviour when interacting with systemic forces of my client’s organisation.

You have your own practice – Who are you working with and what are some of the typical challenges and opportunities you help teams and individuals work through?
I recently graduated as a work and organisational psychologist in Hungary, and I am in the phase of aligning all my coaching, consulting, and mediation services with my psychological and management knowledge to provide individuals, teams, and organisations with complex solutions to their complex challenges. I typically get engaged by a manager or a company leader to coach them individually regarding some personal challenges then I often get involved with supporting their teams, or the entire organisation.

A key challenge leaders and teams face nowadays is how to adapt seamlessly to their constantly changing internal and external environment, and how to cope with the enormous complexity that comes with it. Complexity management is a new trend in the field of leadership, and helping leaders and teams see and think systemically can be a valuable skill to manage a highly dynamic and fluid business environment.

How have you seen the need for team coaching change as we have gone through the coronavirus pandemic?

The first phases of the COVID pandemic significantly disrupted team cohesion and inter-personal relationships within teams. Unhealthy group dynamics emerged within the entire organisation that needed to be addressed quickly and efficiently. At the later stages of the pandemic, the focus of team coaching seemed to be more about how to heal the damage caused by the disruptions and to develop new ways of working and collaborating.

How do you measure the effectiveness of your systemic team coaching work with clients?

Because systemic team coaching is not a one-off intervention with teams but a longer development process spanning over a year or more, I usually start and end my team assignments with a team survey that helps measure key parameters at the start and at the end of the development programme, such as clarity about the team’s purpose, and the roles and responsibilities within the team, the quality of relationships and collaboration within and outside of the team, as well as the team’s stated performance indicators. With the client we consider the assignment successful if the survey results reflect at the end that there is a positive shift in each of these parameters.

Whilst respecting confidentiality, can you tell us about a team coaching situation that had an impact on you?

The STC diploma training helped hone my somatic awareness skills to become more present when working with teams and more aware of any unfolding team dynamics. Being somatically aware as a coach means that I trust and share with the client what I experience mentally, emotionally, and physically in the moment, while checking with them whether my ‘felt sense’ resonates with them, too. As I am a very visually oriented person, I often have a spatial image of the client’s system in my mind while I am listening to them talking. I know I am in resonance with their system when they find accurate the inner picture that I share with them.

An example of this is when I was in a team coaching session with a Hungarian start-up company which was jointly run by two managing directors. I had already been in contact with them for a couple of months because of the conflicts that resulted from the dual management role, when I was asked to facilitate a vision, mission, strategy development workshop for them. I put a couple of flipcharts paper on the wall to draw a timeline for them from the present day to the future. After about an hour or so I felt tense and suddenly became aware of a thick wall which would not let the team move beyond a year or so in their thinking. I turned to the team and shared with them this wall metaphor and asked them if it resonated with them, too. The team got embarrassed and admitted that they could not see beyond a year. We stopped the planning there and we explored instead what this meant for their future together as a team. I believe this was a decisive experience for them as one of the managing directors resigned from the start-up company soon afterwards, of his own accord.

Experiences like this make me more confident to use my ‘Self’ as an instrument to gain reliable information about the team and trust whatever is emerging in their information field.

What do you find most rewarding about your team coaching work?

The journey over the past years has been rich for me with new learning, experience, and experimentation with client systems. I believe I achieved the development goals I had before joining the STC programme at the AoEC, namely, to train my mind to see and think more systemically and to hone my self-awareness skills when supporting teams and individuals in team coaching. One of the most rewarding aspects of my work, however, is when my clients also start to see and think systemically and change the way they relate to one another and to their external environment.

Our sincerest thanks to Julianna for sharing her inspiring and candid insight into her work as a team coach and experience of coach training with the AoEC.