Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years.
We are More Effective as a Coach
Navigating a Growing City
Denver, the community in which Women’s Bean Project is based, is booming. Unemployment is low, wages are increasing and housing prices are sky-rocketing. For the mainstream, everywhere you turn, there are reasons to feel optimistic about the current economic landscape. But even in times of prosperity, people at the margins in our community get left behind.
At the Bean Project, we are experiencing the boom first-hand and it has forced us to take a closer look at how we might best serve the women who continue to struggle, even when others are doing well. Last summer Denver’s official unemployment rate was under 3%. In a low unemployment environment, nearly everyone can get a job. It does not necessarily mean people will keep those easy-to-get jobs, but they can move on to the next easy-to-get job quickly, at the first sign of challenge. Not only does this present problems for employers, it means that employees will never get ahead in their careers and never be forced to address the underlying issues that will prevent them from getting a job when the economy inevitably slows.
Not All Boats Rise with the Tide
In our work we define chronic unemployment as having long gaps of employment, as well not having kept a job longer than a year in one’s lifetime. Chronic unemployment is typically a result of multiple, significant and interwoven barriers to employment. It occurs for those who lack stable housing, are in violent or controlling relationships, whose sobriety is recent and tenuous, or who are recently released from prison. Even a strong employment environment does not typically help the people with these barriers. These are the characteristics of the women who are applying to the Bean Project today and, I believe, represent the women we were meant to serve. They also are the women for whom I am convinced a traditional case management approach does not fit.
Traditional Case Management Mat Not Be the Answer
In my layman’s terms, I think of case management as telling a client what they need to do to in order for their life to be better. It often involves doing at least some of the work for the client because of the strong belief that it is what’s best for them. Case workers are trained to take charge and solve problems. In a well-meaning way, they take action on behalf of their client. But too often the case manager ends up working harder than the client
I often say that the bane of human services is free will. Because even our best case management efforts will be futile if we are not working in partnership with the individuals we hope to serve. If we, as professionals who want to help, change our own idea rather than our clients’, we set ourselves up for the clients resisting and choosing the opposing path. Unless clients are choosing their own paths and are enlisted in the results, any efforts we make to help are likely to be futile. When we tell someone what is best for them, we automatically set them up to oppose us. It’s human nature.
Define Goals Together
By contrast, coaches hold back. They listen to their clients and hear what their clients’ goals are. Through reflective listening, coaches allow the clients to hear stated back to them what they have said they want for their own lives. Coaches help clients navigate the challenges of setting goals and defining the steps required to reach these goals. A coach then checks in periodically, asking how particular decisions and actions align with the client’s goals for who they want to be and what they want their lives to become. The process may be slow at first, but there is undeniable power when every player recognizes their role and is enlisted in a successful outcome.
Coaching as a Culture
I’ve learned that coaching is the difference between something being my idea for you and your idea for yourself. I’ve taken these lessons from our work with the women of the Bean Project and applied them to my life. I’ve learned that playing the role of coach makes me a better parent and a better manager. For instance, it allows we to think of my interactions with my children as part of a journey, rather than merely a series of transactions. While at this time we are on the journey together, at some point, they will launch onto their own paths. My job at this time is to help them, serving as a coach, rather than doing for them, so that when they launch they will be able to do for themselves. My job as a manager is to serve as the coach, helping my teammates set goals, listening, and asking questions about how the actions taken are helping them reach their goals. The most important thing to remember in all of this is that the goals are not my goals. They belong to each person who has created them. My job is to be the best coach I can be.