The Natural History Museum is one of the most recognised and respected scientific institutions in the world. The School of Coaching co-designed a coaching skills programme for managers and supervisors.
The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is one of the most recognised and respected scientific institutions in the world. The Museum began in 1753, when physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane left his extensive collection to the nation, and first opened its doors to the public in 1881. Today, The Natural History Museum’s permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions attract over three million visitors per year. Behind the scenes, the Museum has over three hundred scientific staff members and an ambitious ongoing programme of research to better understand the natural environment.
Over the past six months, this most established of organisations has been teaching its managers one of society’s newer skills – coaching. As with many other large organisations, the impetus for commissioning a coaching skills training programme partly came from the need to move away from a directive culture and partly from the wish to be able to offer in-house coaching rather than relying excessively on an external roster of coaching suppliers. However, the Natural History Museum had an extra reason to commission a coaching skills programme; there are one hundred and fifty post-graduate students in the Museum, being supervised through research degrees that will hopefully prove the start of long and fruitful scientific careers.
A good post-graduate supervisor will support their students through a four-year process of achievement. However, postgraduate supervisors have not traditionally received training or development for this role. Add into the mix that postgraduate supervisors are chosen for their exceptional scientific abilities rather than their ability to oversee individual development and it is not hard to see that there can be a variable quality of experience for post-graduate students across the United Kingdom.
For Sue Kidd, Senior HR Manager at the Natural History Museum, coaching seemed a natural fit towards helping the Museum’s post-graduate supervisors learn the tools they need to support their students. Kidd had trained in coaching to EMCC Practitioner Level with The School of Coaching and had found the non-directive ethos both personally and professionally inspiring. As Sue says, “we saw the potential of changing the nature of conversation for managers and postgraduate supervisors in our environment.”
How The School of Coaching Helped
The Museum decided to ask The School of Coaching to design a coaching skills programme, with the aim of giving managers and supervisors a solid grounding in coaching skills, and then enabling them to take the first steps towards putting those same skills into practice. After an initial consultation, The School put together a course that began with a preprogramme coaching session for each participant - allowing them to both set out personal goals for the programme and experience coaching themselves – and continued with a series of four workshops teaching participants core coaching skills. Workshops were spaced roughly eight weeks apart, to allow participants to practise coaching with their direct reports and post-graduate students between each workshop session.
The initial two-day workshop was built around core coaching skills such as GROW, arguably the most widely-recognised approach to business coaching in the world, which was co-developed by The School of Coaching’s Founder, Myles Downey. Further workshops helped participants understand the boundaries between coaching and counselling, examine how to integrate their personal insights into a non-directive approach, and develop an understanding of how to use coaching within the specific organisational context of The Natural History Museum.
Once a bespoke programme had been designed to meet the Museum’s needs, Sue Kidd put a call out to find staff who wished to participate. Almost overnight, forty interested individuals came forward. Twelve initial participants were chosen, with diversity and seniority as the sole criteria. Amongst them were seven scientists - researchers, curators, laboratory managers and science policy-makers - as well as leading managers from the IT, commerce, exhibition and development sections of the Museum.
The theories and models of coaching are now fairly well established. It has been more than twenty years since the development of GROW, and the associated tools of Rogerian approach, FLOW and Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game have all withstood rigorous analysis. Nonetheless, the coaching programme leaders Virginia Brown and Judith Firman had some trepidation about teaching coaching to leading scientists, trained in high levels of theoretical analysis.They need not have worried. In the event, the participants were engaged and thoughtful, quickly realising that – like any other practical skills – coaching can take years to master, if not a lifetime. The real challenge in coaching is to be able to engage fully with a conversation, to listen as openly as possible, and to deal with your personal agenda in such a way as to benefit the other person. Kidd points out that if the Museum’s participants were predisposed to take well to the coaching programme, it was not necessarily because of their theoretical expertise but rather that such high achievers were excited to grapple with a new challenge.
The School of Coaching has always had a firm belief that coaching should only be taught by highly experienced practising coaches, and as such has drawn their programme leaders from some of the best performance coaches within the UK. This was especially crucial to Sue Kidd in finding a coaching provider. She mentions that many of the issues which the programme challenged people on were highly sensitive, so that it was essential to have programme leaders who were qualified and experienced enough to lead participants through fairly tough personal development, rather than trainers who were merely ticking boxes.
Today, the participants on the programme glow about their experience. Their feedback has not fallen short of high scores, and the Museum has enough volunteers to fill a further three programmes, should they wish. Sue Kidd said that afterwords she had the sense “the people were talking about the programme, their peers were asking about it, it was being mentioned in the corridors.”
However, what Sue Kidd is most excited about is the effect that the coaching has been having in the workplace. She says that it put it into perspective for her when one supervisor said, “I want my students to be able to put a smile on the face of the person they are presenting their work to.” Other participants have commented that the programme has changed the way they behave in both their personal and professional life, making them calmer and more understanding. Supervisors want their students to follow their own individual agendas in a way that gets recognition with their peer group - and coaching has helped them gain the tools to do just that.
The success of the programme has confirmed the Natural History Museum’s desire to extend the place of coaching within the Museum. Sue Kidd hopes that someday all of the Museum’s managers and supervisors will understand the principles of coaching and be able to conduct a coaching conversation. And ideally, there would be a few dozen internal ‘expert’ coaches, with strong training and a continuous professional development plans for their coaching skills.
Discovery is, after all, at the heart of what the Museum is about. And what better place to look for new insights than in the colleague sitting beside you?
We saw the potential of changing the nature of conversation for managers and post-graduate supervisors in our environment.”
Sue Kidd, Senior HR Manager, The Natural History Museum