Karen Morley knew there’d be no problem writing about the principles of leading like a coach, and she found it relatively easy to structure her ideas and practice into a methodology. But how to bring that alive for a reader?
The answer of course was to use stories, and Karen developed a brilliant system of writing as reflection woven into day-to-day practice that allowed her to find the stories as they happened and transform them into business book gold. Find out how in this fascinating conversation.
Karen’s website: https://www.karenmorley.com.au/
Major Street Publishing: https://majorstreet.com.au/
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And it’s a pleasure to be here today with Dr Karen Morley, whose passion is accelerating leadership careers and inspiring inclusion.
She’s delivered assessments, coaching, team and leadership development programmes in organisations far too numerous to mention. Just to pick out a few: Aviva, KPMG, National Australia Bank, University of Melbourne. And she regularly writes and speaks on gender diversity and inclusion.
She co-developed a gender diversity measurement tool that’s been used to drive the diversity strategies of lots of organisations such as QBE. And she delivers Leading Beyond Bias and Leading More Inclusive Teams workshops, which help leaders better understand what bias is, how to avoid it and what to do about it.
And she’s the chair of Emerge, a women and children’s support network, which provides support services to women and children affected by domestic violence. She’s a registered psychologist, a member of the Australian Psychological Society, a member of the APS Interest Group on Coaching Psychology. She has a master of psychology, an MBA and PHD in leadership, and she’s the author of several books, most recently – and the one we’re going to talk about today – Lead Like a Coach.
It’s quite a CV, Karen. Welcome to the show.
Karen Morley: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here.
Alison Jones: Let’s start with that whole question of leadership and coaching. The difference between them, how they work together. What are you really trying to get across in this book? What are you trying to communicate to leaders?
Karen Morley: I think what comes out of the coaching that I do with leaders is that they’re feeling quite overwhelmed by the demands that they face. They’re doing so much they don’t have enough time to think, yet they’re still not doing enough. And the treadmill just seems to get faster and faster.
And what I’m trying to do with the book is to show leaders that there’s a better way to be a leader. Even if they don’t necessarily get a lot more time from coaching their people, they can certainly feel more satisfied with the work that they do.
Alison Jones: I can imagine that coaching is quite misunderstood and confused with other modes such as mentoring and training and so on. Is that something you … to just illustrate to people … when you talk about coaching, what are talking about in terms of leadership?
Karen Morley: In terms of leadership I’m talking about leaders who spend time supporting and developing their staff. And they do that in a particular way. So they ask questions so that the team member can come up with their own ideas, their own suggestions and options for doing things differently. And so they’re learning through that coaching process.
Mentors tend to be experts so they’re imparting their wisdom to team members. So they’re much more the expert, still somewhat in telling mode. So there’s a bit of a difference in terms of where the expertise comes from. In coaching it’s about developing the expertise whereas in mentoring it’s about transferring the expertise.
Alison Jones: And that’s why I think it’s interesting for leaders because typically a leader is going to be an expert in the topic that they’re coaching in. I find it very helpful as a coach to know almost nothing when I’m talking to somebody about their expertise because you genuinely can ask really open and innocent questions, can’t you?
Is it harder do you think to do that as a leader when you feel that you know the right answer, as you tend to lead them to it?
Karen Morley: I think that’s one of the big problems for leaders.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Karen Morley: When we talk about the demands that they face and they’re doing too many things it’s because they still see themselves as the expert and they still want to give the answers. If they know the answer, they provide it. But that gets in the way of others learning the answer for themselves. So I think that moving away from the idea of being a technical or professional expert and instead seeing yourself as a leadership expert and somebody who’s very good at developing others and making the team work well together is a better way to think about expertise.
Almost everyone that I coach has this particular, I guess, challenge in thinking about, “What’s my value now that I’m leading, I’m not doing? What am I the expert in if I stop being the expert in the work? What can I do?”
Alison Jones: Yeah, like an identity crisis when you shift up, isn’t it?
Karen Morley: It is. And a lot of the time I’m working with identity and leaders really shifting their identity to see the value in how they lead others. Which is why coaching is so important to that.
Alison Jones: And what I was going to say was, you made the point as well that it’s not just about empowering the person and getting them to develop and so on. It’s also as a leader you might think you know the answers but we live in such disrupted times and such uncertain times that actually they might have a perspective that you don’t have. So it’s a two-way thing, isn’t it?
Karen Morley: It is absolutely. One of the leaders I was coaching recently, she said that in adopting much more of a coaching style with her team leaders, she was finding that they were actually coming up with solutions that were really interesting, things that she hadn’t thought about before. And so she was finding it really developmental herself to coach others.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Brilliant. So it’s a win-win.
Karen Morley: It is.
Alison Jones: But what do you think are the dangers? If leaders are trying to shift to a more coaching style, what dangers do you see? What sort of problems do they face when you’re coaching people? And how do people overcome them?
Karen Morley: I think there are quite a few. One is that giving up that idea of being the expert in your professional area and being more focused on the organisation or leading on strategy, et cetera so that identity transition is one of the big pieces. And being able to think about yourself in a different way. And thinking about having a different reputation is an important part of overcoming that.
I think one of the biggest challenge is the time it takes to coach. Or the perception of the time it takes to coach.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Karen Morley: It’s something that you need to invest in certainly initially. So it might actually take much longer to do things in the short term.
I talk in the book about micro-coaching and taking small opportunities to coach. So you might be having a corridor conversation, someone asks a question. Instead of answering the question you can ask back and give someone the opportunity to come up with the ideas there. So it’s possible to do coaching in small moments.
Alison Jones: Which of course is a great parenting trick as well, isn’t it?
Karen Morley: It is, yes. Sometimes staff need to be parented.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. So just tell us a little bit more about the book itself, about Lead Like a Coach. When you wrote it, what were you hoping it would achieve for you, personally and professionally?
Karen Morley: I started a book that was along these lines a few years ago. And to be honest, I gave it up because I thought there were so many leadership books around, how could I say something interesting or different about leadership?
Alison Jones: I’ve been there so often.
Karen Morley: Yes. And I think my experiences in coaching have continued to tell me that there are a number of things that leaders keep struggling with and that coaching would be really useful for.
So I think the impetus was having something to say and maybe not necessarily knowing just how to say it. But I am doing a development programme that’s for consultants like myself to help us run our practices better. And one of the expectations is that you spend time writing a book.
So one of the things that has been really helpful for me is having that discipline and the expectation that this is something that I would do. And there are also some pretty interesting ways for breaking up your ideas, your intellectual property into very small pieces.
So in fact the way I wrote it first up was by thinking about the things I do when I’m coaching and writing about them. What is it? How does it work? And then later when I had a whole lot of these pieces I put a mind map together to think about, “What was I trying to say?”
And then I talked to people about the book and that helped to shape it further. What would people find interesting? And it was at that stage that I really settled on the idea of using stories about people I’ve coached or ordinary leaders and focusing on the things that they were trying to do to change the challenges that they were facing and how coaching had helped them rather than relying on case studies or well know names.
So there was a bit of pressure on to write the book. There was a real interest in sharing what I know about coaching and an interesting process to follow.
Alison Jones: That’s really fascinating to hear how it developed. So when you talk about those stories … I’m going to come back to quite a bit here actually. But let’s talk about the stories first. And you’re right. I loved the way that you give these people names and we know that we can … Say again? Well, that’s what I was going to ask you, so you’ve anonymized them.
Karen Morley: Most of them.
Alison Jones: And the stories are really interesting because sometimes you can almost fictionalise them. You can almost aggregate people’s experiences together and come up with kind of composite figure who is sort of fiction but is sort of real as well because it’s made up.
But you took real people but you simply changed most of their names to protect the innocent, yeah?
Karen Morley: That’s right.
Alison Jones: And with their permission?
Karen Morley: With some of them. Yeah, most of them. Some of them there are little case examples that are quite small. And they are probably representative of quite a lot of people I’ve coached. So I’ve picked up common themes. And occasionally I haven’t told the whole story.
There is one story that I’ve put together two different stories to make one. But mostly it’s a conversation or a process over time.
Alison Jones: But that’s really interesting because a lot of people struggle with this. You know, how real does it have to be? Is it true? And you have to be quite clear in your mind on how you manage that, don’t you? Because, of course it’s going to be true because this is going to reflecting what you have seen in practice over all the years. But it doesn’t have to be the name of the person. It doesn’t have to show the exact… If there’s something that’s irrelevant you can leave it out because what you’re doing is abstracting the principle. You’re using the story as a tool to write the book. And I think that’s quite an important principle.
Karen Morley: That’s right. And to bring it to life.
Alison Jones: And that’s perfect, isn’t it? Because we are hardwired to connect with people and we get emotionally engaged when we read a story in a way that we don’t when we think about a principle, an abstract idea.
Karen Morley: It was the most challenging part of writing the book because it’s easier, as you say, to focus on the principles, and here are the steps, and there are activities throughout the book. So putting those together was the easier part. Thinking about the stories and writing the stories in a real and human way was more the challenge.
Alison Jones: Yes. It required more of you as a writer.
Karen Morley: I started blogging earlier in the year and did that by thinking about the last coaching meeting I’d had and conversation, and thinking about what was the issue that the person had brought to me and wanted to discuss. And when I did it like that it made it so much easier to write a story.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s smart. So you were actually using real-time interactions with people and capturing the learnings almost in the taxi home?
Karen Morley: Yes, that’s right.
Alison Jones: That’s smart. I love that.
And then you said when you were talking about how you went through that process of the book of actually almost uncovering what it is that you did, that your unconscious competence and making it explicit, what did that do for you in terms of your role as a practitioner now and in terms of your understanding of what you do?
Karen Morley: Oh, I like that question. Thank you for asking it.
Alison Jones: It’s a proper coaching question, isn’t it?
Karen Morley: It is. You’ve very good.
One of the things that really struck me when I received the first printed copy of the book was how much I’d enjoyed the finishing processes. Normally with a project, and especially with writing, it’s just, “Let’s just get to the deadline. Let’s get it done.” And then you feel like, “I’m so pleased that it’s been done that I’m going on to the next thing.”
But I think what happened through the book was it helped me to feel much more congruent about being a coach. And everything in the book I believe in. All of the activities I use, it’s all very real. And so it was helpful for me to think about what do I do and how do I do it. To stop being quite so intuitive.
And so it was developmental for me to revisit that and to think about what I did in a more structured and thoughtful way. And so, it was a really pleasurable process.
Alison Jones: That’s really heartening to hear. I’m sure there will be lots of people will feel encouraged by that.
So we talked a lot about that personal process and what it has done for you as a person, as a coach as well. In terms of how it will work with your business, what are your hopes and expectations there?
Karen Morley: I hope that the book helps to confirm my credentials as a coach. I’m really interested in building the individual coaching and the small group coaching part of my practice. So I hope that it will spread the word that coaching is worthwhile and fulfilling, and that I can help leaders to be better coaches.
Alison Jones: So it’s perfectly aligned with what you do, isn’t it? It’s just so congruent. Yeah, that’s great. That’s when it becomes really helpful professionally.
Karen Morley: Yes. And I also hope that leaders can enjoy leading more. I do think that there are so many pressures that they’re facing that sometimes it becomes about just getting through the week, getting through the month, getting through the year.
And I do think that coaching is a process that’s so much about caring for people, supporting people and the developmental process is so much more inspiring and energising. And I think that’s for the person who coaches as well as the person who is coached.
And so if leaders are able to shift their practices then I think they can find leading much more worthwhile and enjoyable.
Alison Jones: And there’s an awful lot of very miserable people at work these days, isn’t there? Yes.
And let’s talk about the writing. Are you a natural writer or is it something that you had to work on?
Karen Morley: My automatic response is to say no. But I can reflect back on being a child. I have always loved reading and I had a dream that I’d write books although I guess I thought I would write fiction.
Alison Jones: Very few children dream of writing a business book. I have noticed this.
Karen Morley: That must be it then. I think I’ve been distracted from doing other things and haven’t made time for writing. But I think it comes relatively naturally to me.
But I think I’m a how-to book writer. I think it’s more about the extension of coaching and teaching for me, conveying an idea and then how you can put that idea into practice.
Alison Jones: And actually you used the word extension completely unselfconsciously there but in a sense that’s exactly what it is, isn’t it? Because when you’re coaching it’s typically one to one. When you’re training it’s one to a small group. When you’re writing a book it’s at scale and you have no idea who’s going to be reading it and how many people could read it. It’s not limited in that way. It’s a different mode, isn’t it?
Karen Morley: It is.
Alison Jones: And if there’s anyone listening to the show who is ploughing through the early stages and getting maybe discouraged writing their book, what would be your one best tip for them?
Karen Morley: I guess my main tip is to hope that they’ve picked something they love and care passionately about or are insanely curious about. And if they’re not already doing that to find a way to build that in to what they’re doing. And that just makes it much more entertaining and engaging. You can enjoy the process. And that means that you might stick to the discipline of finishing it.
Alison Jones: Was that a problem for you? Because I know the starting energy is wonderful, isn’t it? And it’s lovely when you’re within sight of the finish line. But there’s an awful lot of sort of saggy middle in the middle, isn’t there?
Karen Morley: Yeah. I did have a saggy middle. And that was because … I told you about this process of getting the smaller pieces down then putting it together. When I initially put it together it was big mess and it took a lot of time then to think about what I had to take out and how I was going to organise what was left.
And that was where the process of talking with people and talk about this is what my book is, and this is what it’s about, and what I’m trying to do. And in some of those early conversations I couldn’t actually say what it was. But the discussions were really helpful in clarifying my thinking.
And I had one particular conversation with a woman who kind of walked me through a series of questions, which is when we came up with the title of the book. And once I had the title, it was like, “I know what this book is about.” And I went back. I was able to actually cross things out, add them in, and that’s when the focus really gelled.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. And I’m sure that will be so useful for people to hear as well. Because so often people say to me, “Oh, I’m not quite ready to talk about the book yet. I just need a little bit more clarity.” I say, “Do you know what? This is how you get clarity, is you go out and you talk about it to people that you trust. And it will be messy and you won’t be able to articulate quite what it is. But as you articulate it you’ll find out what it is you’re saying. And as they ask you questions, you’ll find the answers.”
So it’s really interesting to hear you say that.
Karen Morley: And it was interesting to find out what the book wasn’t about. The pieces that I couldn’t really get quite clear in my own thinking. Or what didn’t seem to appeal to people. Or was just a little fancy of mine.
Alison Jones: Even though you were really in love with it you had to ditch it.
Karen Morley: Yes.
Alison Jones: That’s hard, isn’t it. I know.
Karen Morley: Yes. That’s another book.
Alison Jones: Do you know what? There’s a book called Write Like a Coach in here somewhere, isn’t there?
Karen Morley: Yes. Oh, that’s good. I like that.
Alison Jones: We’ll have you back on.
Karen Morley: Maybe you could do that one.
Alison Jones: Oh, no. I see what you did there.
Listen, changing the subject quickly. What one business book do you recommend that everyone listening to this show should read apart, obviously, from Lead Like a Coach? What’s the one that’s really stuck with you?
Karen Morley: There are quite a few. I would say at the moment one of my favourite books is Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein.
Alison Jones: What a great title.
Karen Morley: Yes, it does relate very clearly to my book. But the subtitle is The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.
Alison Jones: I don’t know that. It sounds fascinating. And I love that title and subtitle.
Karen Morley: Yes. Edgar Schein is someone who’s been working in organisations for a long time as a consultant and has a very big reputation. He’s from the US and he’s got a fabulous style. And this Humble Inquiry, yeah, it’s a great read.
Alison Jones: And do you know, you just illustrated beautifully something there which is that this a book that’s not dissimilar to yours in some way. Some people would be, “Oh, this is competition. I don’t want to …” But actually the wonderful thing about books is that people buy lots of them if they’re interested in a particular field. And authors who write similar books aren’t competitors, they’re just having a conversation in the same space. And it’s really lovely to see that.
Karen Morley: Yes. And really the way some of the online bookstore’s work now that works in author’s favour too. If you bought something then you get sent recommendations about other things that are very similar that you might like to read.
Alison Jones: I love the way you carefully avoid any brand names there. Other online stores are available but you all know what we’re talking about. Yeah, brilliant.
Wonderful. Now Karen, if people want to find out more about you, more about Lead Like a Coach, where should they go?
Karen Morley: They could go to my website which is KarenMorley.com.au. Or to the publisher’s website which is Major Street, who have been absolutely fantastic to work with.
Alison Jones: Good. Well, it’s been such an interesting conversation. Thank you so much for your time today, Karen.