The King’s Speech: The first executive coach?

May 26, 2011 by
Vivian Vella , a Cranfield MBA visiting professor, explains why the movie The King’s Speech is a great example of executive coaching in action.

speech

A script of the interview follows the video.

 
Steve Macaulay
The film The King’s Speech has attracted a lot of attention. Now, it did so at Cranfield  too, but for different reasons probably from most people. Lionel Logue, the speech therapist, in our eyes, looks to be the first executive coach and we thought it worthwhile asking somebody that knows about executive coaching to explore this further. Vivian Vella, you have got a lot of experience of executive coaching, can you see parallels?

Vivian Vella
Absolutely – a brilliant film. There were two main parallels for me. And I think the first thing that really shows up in that the relationship is key between the coach and the coachee, in terms of the coach creating a safe environment where leaders – and in the film’s case, the King, a very high leader – where it can be quite lonely at the top. And to be able to have a space where a little bit of vulnerability can be shown, so that some things can be addressed in a safe and challenging, a supportive and challenge environment that is provided by a coach.

Steve Macaulay
Now I noticed that one of the things the King did was to rebel a bit and that Lionel tackled him on this and there was really quite an emotional moment during the film.

Vivian Vella
Absolutely, and that brings me on to the second point really. I think what that relationship and the coaching process shows, is there are two different types of coaching; there is developmental and transformational. The developmental part is the skills and techniques that are absolutely appropriate to learn and to develop strengths and to do things differently, to exercise the metaphorical muscle that isn’t used as much. And of course, in the film it was very literal in terms of using muscles that you didn’t use. So that is absolutely valid. And there is a transformational piece and I think it was in that relationship where there was a bit of rupture and the King got connected to something very different – a very different place in him. I think he got connected to his anger actually and passion and when he came back he was absolutely ready to do the real work because it is not easy necessarily. And that was a transformational piece; it transformed their relationship and the real work could be done at that point to lead to success.

Steve Macaulay
Now executive coaching seems to have become, almost from nowhere really, something that has become very popular in the business world – why do you think that is?

Vivian Vella
I think it is something about pace, actually. We live in a frenetic world and leaders and managers go from one place to the next and increasing demands are made on them and I think a coaching process supports their learning and gives them an opportunity to have a reflective space, actually. Evidence has shown, in terms of studies – it is up here on our website – around formal learning, it’s about 10% effective and it has its place. Twenty percent of effective learning is done through others and I think programmes encompass both of those elements, experiential programmes. And the 70% piece in terms of effective learning is on the job learning and I think the coaching process really offers that. Because when you set up an initial contract with a coachee you have certain goals and objectives that you want to achieve. Those might have come out of some 360 or psychometric profiling – in The King’s Speech there was a very definite speech that had to be done and delivered correctly. But the on the job piece is that you have these very special conversations that address what is absolutely relevant at the time for the coachee in service of achieving those ultimate goals. So it is not a linear process necessarily, although ultimately you want to see a visible difference in the business, but you address what is key for the coachee at that time. And I think that is what makes the relationship very special, in terms of having this place to be able to do this and have those sorts of conversations .I think Peter Hawkins refers to the coaching conversation and he is Chair of the Bath Consultancy Group and has written about coaching ,mentoring and consulting and he calls it ‘a robust dialogue born of fearless compassion’ which I think really sums it up; and you don’t often get that sort of quality in a conversation in service of helping somebody’s learning.

Steve Macaulay
So is that what makes it special – you have got some goals to aim for and you have got this fearlessness about tackling issues that maybe wouldn’t get tackled otherwise?

Vivian Vella
Absolutely; in a trusted environment and that is key. So that you have the relationship there and there is a lot of learning actually within the relations and I think we saw that in the film as well. Because what goes on in the coaching relationship will be observed because it can actually be reflecting what goes on outside. So your experience of the coachee will be in part how they are experienced back in the business. And a coach can make those observations, which can be really useful learning for the individual.

Steve Macaulay
One of the things that I noticed in the film was that over time the King started to say well I don’t need to see you so often now, to Lionel; is this the sort of thing that you would expect or is a bit of lifelong relationship?
 
Vivian Vella
I think that is really appropriate actually and it comes to working with an ethical code. I think that normal practice would be to contract at the beginning, with the coachee, what it is that you are there to address in terms of their learning, how many sessions you would want to initially contract with so that there is a checkpoint that could be re-contracted at any point, but that you have some boundaries around that. And of course, the main focus of supporting the coachee in their learning is that they become independent learners so that they don’t foster a co-dependency in that relationship and that is another reason it is important for the supervisor to check that that is not happening.

Steve Macaulay
So there is more to this coaching than meets the eye, but I think what you have done is give us some very useful pointers there. Thank you very much, Vivian.

Vivian’s contact details are shown here.

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