Exploring an alternative approach to support

I have been fortunate to have access to strong supervision throughout the majority of my speech and language therapy life. Reflecting on my supervision journey the high points have been when I have had a solid relationship with my supervisor; when the supervisor has been someone I have trusted and respected, and whom I have felt comfortable and confident to share my thoughts, my reflections, my ambitions and importantly for me, my ‘questioning myself’ moments with.

We are all busy in our professional lives and it is very easy to get into a mode of running from one thing to the next, with a to-do list as long as your arm, and little space for reflection, or just simple thought! I have always found supervision to be a great space for a bit of time to get off the treadmill, take stock and give space to the things that have been buzzing about in my head in  a whirl. A bit of me-time and self-care.

When I started out in my speech and language therapy career, straight from university, I didn’t have a 5/10/20 year career plan. I felt like my life journey tended to map out where I would go next, and I was just fortunate that good job opportunities conveniently popped up in the right place, at the right time, allowing me to progress in a field I grew passionate about.

When I take stock and look back (with the help of supervision!) I realise that I have actually had a part to play in steering my career progression. It hasn’t always just happened, as I initially thought! A few years back I chose to move out of the ‘safe’ NHS world and into the 3rd sector, taking on a lead role for a small multidisciplinary team in a national charity. This took me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to a whole new world of things to learn. A big component of the role was service evaluation and development, alongside the everyday operational and people management. I was fortunate that my employer supported me to continue in a well-established supervision relationship. This enabled me to question things, seek support and guidance for problem solving, as well as explore all the aspects of me and how I felt in the new role, and promote self-care. My role, and the service I led continued to evolve and having a safe space to talk this through was important as we journeyed through a fair bit of change. Naturally, the themes I took to supervision evolved as my role did.

Then, the opportunity to pursue leadership coaching arose to support me to grow and take on a more senior role, and support bigger organisational change. I was offered the chance to approach things with an experienced occupational and performance coach from a very different world, outside of healthcare and with a range of industry experience, with a specific focus on my development as a leader. Initially I questioned what this would look like and what this would add, indeed would it add anything?  My supervisors have always been from the SLT world; I have found this beneficial, and if I am honest, comfortable and safe, as I have felt they know me, ‘my world’ and healthcare, as well as being good facilitators of communication and reflection – important for supervision. Would I ‘gel’ with this new person, would they understand me and my role, how would I feel about sharing my thoughts with someone completely new? Would they ask me tricky questions? And, importantly, how would coaching sit alongside my supervision? Did they need to be mutually exclusive, or could they could complement each other? Could there even be a conflict?

I decided to approach with an open mind and talked it through with my supervisor. Together we discussed some of the questions above, particularly about what it might add, and the idea of conflict. Could they continue alongside one another, or was this a time to pause supervision? Importantly we talked about how good supervision makes time for self-checking and self-care, and explored if leadership coaching would give this space. We agreed it would be an interesting ‘experiment’ to pause with supervision while I focused on the leadership coaching, and also thought it would make an interesting topic for a reflective blog!

So far my experience has been very positive; I have found definite similarities to my supervision experiences – coaching started with a joint exploration of the key themes/focus for the sessions. The coach took time to get to know me, how I like to approach things and my reasons for pursuing this and what I wanted to get out of it – drawing up our ‘contract’. But perhaps slightly differently to supervision, the coach also wanted to gain an understanding of my employer’s reason for supporting this, and what they were looking to get out of the investment in me.  Were there specific goals or outcomes that the organisation required?

A detailed strengths questionnaire supported the initial exploration of me, my make-up and approach to situations and tasks. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, and one of many tools out there, but I found this one useful to help shift my tendency to focus on what I am not very good at, and think more about the strengths I have and which I can draw on in my role as a leader.

The coaching has pleasingly turned out to be a place for reflection, but perhaps slightly different is that the focus of reflection has been on specific leadership aspects or scenarios rather than the more holistic reflection approach I have been used to in supervision. Being questioned and challenged has featured, focusing on certain situations and asking why I approached them in a particular way and encouraging me to think about alternatives, and posing ‘what if’ questions. And definitely encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and worry less about imposter syndrome! I am naturally a talker and don’t tend to need much encouragement to talk through situations when I am given the space, so I think this has definitely been an advantage! I believe that both supervision and coaching are about what you bring to the table and put into it.

I think it has been beneficial to step outside of the healthcare world for a while and look at things through different eyes, and even bringing in more of a corporate perspective. This has been helpful, as working in the charity sector brings different challenges with a need to grasp other influences, dynamics and competing priorities.

I’ve not yet finished my leadership coaching experience, however I feel I have drawn value from it so far. It encourages me to look at situations in a different light. And it helps me to identify my strengths, and acknowledge what I can bring to the table. I don’t think supervision and leadership coaching have to be mutually exclusive and there is overlap of approaches and themes, but unlike supervision, I see this type of coaching, for me, as more of a finite experience. It has been useful to focus on the specific leadership themes and serves a specific purpose for where I am now in my career, and promotes a level of challenge to help me through this stage. Perhaps surprisingly it has allowed for more reflection and self-checking than I thought would be involved. It has been the right thing at the right time, but for me, it doesn’t replace the role of supervision and the space for that important time to get off the treadmill, a place to take stock, check in, breathe and allow for self-care.

Katy James