Gill Smith has worked tirelessly as chair of the Association for Coaching UK. She continues to live purposefully, despite her recent cancer diagnosis
Gill SmithBy Liz Hall
Sharp, tenacious, hard-working, warm, inspiring, a consummate professional – these are just some of the ways Gill Smith, the Association for Coaching (AC) UK’s chair for the past three years, has been described.
Smith, winner of the Coaching at Work 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to Coaching, has worked devotedly in recent years to help professionalise the AC UK, and the wider coaching industry, and to boost collaboration across the professional bodies – so she has championed publicising the Global Code of Ethics, developed by AC in collaboration with European Mentoring & Coaching Council (EMCC).
Smith is not someone to just sit back and let life happen to her. And having been diagnosed this May with Stage 4 cancer, she’s not going to start now.
Smith is determined to make her remaining time count – in all her relationships, her legacy to coaching and to the world. Smith’s approach to her illness highlights some of what she’s made of – bravery; determination and knowing what she wants; enthusiasm; creativity and commitment to loved ones, for example. She’s writing a book about her experiences from the moment she was diagnosed. She’s making sure she’s informed about her illness and in control of her healthcare regime. She doesn’t want to hide underneath a wig, and was adamant she appear in this magazine in all her newly bare-headed glory. She’s determined to have lots of quality time with her loved ones – and her recent diagnosis has underlined for her more than ever just how important relationships are.
Smith says she has had a “lifelong interest in what makes people who they are and behave the way they do”.
An introvert, she has long been a keen observer of people, a role fuelled by early experiences. She says, “I was uprooted aged four from a very happy childhood in Edinburgh, when my family moved to London. I was bullied in reception class at school and developed a sense of being ‘different’ – an observer rather than fitting in with the dominant group. I only overcame this relatively recently, through the development work I have done on myself in my coaching journey.”
When Smith was 16, she read Games People Play by Eric Berne, based on Transactional Analysis. It was an eye-opener. “This made sense of what I had been observing in other people’s behaviour and shed light on motivation, which has fascinated me ever since.”
She went on to read Psychology at the University of Oxford, hoping to learn more about people and behaviour. “Disappointingly for me, the course turned out to have very little to do with people, as their brains were considered too complex, so the focus was more on animal behaviour, particularly rats. I was allowed to switch courses to PPE [Politics, Philosophy and Economics].”
After graduating she had a career in advertising and market research: “At last I could spend my time looking at what makes people tick. I honed my deep listening skills through in-depth interviewing and running focus groups, and translated the learnings into strategy for brands, marketing and creative development. All were transferable skills into coaching.”
Smith initially joined the AC’s media committee, run by Gladeana McMahon. In 2009, she joined the AC UK Council as the AC restructured to enable international development.
Among her projects were the organisation of AC UK’s first three conferences, with the themes of Leadership Coaching; Resilience and From Inner Game to Neuroscience. For the latter in 2012, she had the privilege of doing a live interview with Tim Gallwey. Another project, to celebrate 10 years of AC, involved her acting as executive producer of a film in which AC interviewed practising coaches, organisational and corporate members as well as the founders and people who helped shape AC (http://bit.ly/2aLQsmR).
She developed a strategic partnership for AC with Paul Brown, and AC UK has run a series of one-year programmes and shorter two-day courses on applied neuroscience, called The Science of the Art of Coaching.
“I am very pleased to now have some answers to the questions I had when I first went to Oxford as a Psychology student in 1975!”
For Smith, who has volunteered with the AC for a decade, legacy is key – even more so now. During her time as chair of AC UK, she sees her main contributions as having been around collaboration and professionalisation. She’s helped AC UK be more professionally run, for example, ensuring there is data protection compliance, good governance, and the requisite policies and procedures.
“It is a very complex leadership challenge to chair an organisation which is both volunteer-based and virtual!”
Leading a volunteer-run virtual organisation has presented its challenges, says Smith, and has required a certain style of leadership akin to coaching – facilitative rather than directive. As Smith says, the AC “runs on volunteer time and energy. We have very few paid roles, mostly administrative. We are blessed with some excellent and committed volunteers, although clearly a discursive, consultative leadership style is needed, rather than just telling them what they need to do. It’s more time-consuming, but also more productive.
“Things look very different today. We have more structure with better governance and reporting. AC Standards and Accreditation has developed over time and is now better resourced, thanks to Declan Woods, Lynne Cooper and Jeannette Marshall. We have a very vibrant CPD programme of events around the country, and many local co-coaching groups, run locally by AC member volunteers and currently led in the UK by Helen Bullock, building on foundations laid originally by Angela Dunbar,” says Smith.
“We are beginning to move towards applying for the Investing in Volunteers (IiV) award, led by Andy Stephenson. Caroline Cole is strengthening our links with members, and Lee Cannon is developing new services, while also being director of this year’s conference on 1 September: In the System.”
During her time as chair, the AC, EMCC and ICF have been collaborating more closely, producing clarification of the journey to becoming a professional coach, and comparison tables of their competency frameworks and accreditation schemes: http://bit.ly/2aLQsmR and http://bit.ly/2aOTx7v
In addition, during this time the three bodies have collaboratively organised events. These have included live events with Roger Steare on Leadership, Culture and Ethics – The Coaching Challenge and Alison Hodge with Katharine St John-Brooks on Ethical Dilemmas, and virtual webinars with Clive Mann on the Ridler Report, and Peter Hawkins and Eve Turner on their research into Multi-Stakeholder contracting. And Smith participated with ICF and EMCC at an event organised by the London Coaching Group on Emerging Trends in Coaching and also on a live webinar organised by the Foundation for Wellness & Recovery Coaching.
Before coming to coaching, Smith worked in London advertising agencies including J Walter Thompson, Saatchi & Saatchi and GGT. As an account planner, she was responsible for developing the brand strategy for many household name products and services, and she won an IPA Effectiveness Award for Toshiba.
She has run her own consultancy business, Visionpoint, since 1994.
She does both executive and personal coaching, and is a coach at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. She has worked with individuals and teams, including business leaders, social enterprises, NGOs, politicians, academic institutions, professional partnerships and many commercial organisations.
She describes the kind of coaching she does as “at the transformational end of the spectrum.
“So I am interested in connecting people with who they really are. Usually they are only dimly aware of it because it’s so close and deep inside that they haven’t looked at it. I do that by looking at values, meaning and purpose and at key moments in their past history that have resonance for them and often have information about what matters most to them. That is what I enjoy most.”
She was around 45 when she “started noticing various calls towards coaching”. She started off with distance learning programmes run by Newcastle College, on life and business coaching, going on to train in executive coaching with the Academy of Executive Coaching, and becoming a Master Practitioner in NLP. In the years since then, she has done “an enormous amount of CPD across very many different approaches, and these have all informed the way I practise now”.
Smith spent five years in Christine Thornton’s monthly Reflective Practice group, learning a great deal from her and the other participants in the group. She trained in Action Learning Set facilitation with 3D. “I am much better informed now. I use mindfulness, the Karpman Drama Triangle, I have good supervision and recognise the need to slow people down, including myself, to ground them and balance them and look at them through the lens of what matters to them most.”
What matters to Smith most?
“I have very strong values around fairness and kindness, which probably came from being bullied at a young age, which means that I tend to take up causes. Not as a campaigner who wants to solve the world’s problems, but small issues I don’t think are being done right.
“I believe that everything comes down to relationship and communication.
“Honesty is another strong value for me, and authenticity. I don’t like fake people. Honesty and truthfulness are not the same thing, which took me a long time to work out. Sometimes you have to withhold some information, but I tend to be a bit of an open book.”
Smith’s term of office as AC, UK chair ends this month (September) and she will be succeeded by vice chair, Jeannette Marshall.
“This will free up an enormous amount of time for me.”
She will continue with her coaching on programmes at Saïd Business School in Oxford, and the pro bono coaching she does for the Marketing Academy and the New Entrepreneurs Foundation (NEF). However, her main focus will be on developing a new business.
Smith has launched a business around brain science with Virginia Brown, co-author with Paul Brown of Neuropsychology for Coaches (McGraw Hill/OUP, 2012) and programme leader on The Science of the Art of Coaching, a year-long programme with Paul Brown, designed to equip professional coaches with a practical knowledge of neuroscience. The programme has run three times to date through the AC and is an initiative Smith is very proud of.
Of Virginia she says: “We established an intention to work together when we attended a day session by Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight, back in 2013 (http://bit.ly/2bfVgVc).
“We have been gestating ideas about how to take the relevant knowledge from the brain sciences into organisations, to help them develop better as leaders, teams and purposeful, empowering places to work. We are now ready to launch The Brain@Work (www.thebrainatwork.com), and we have built a small and inspiring team who will be working with us.
“Certain management practices are guaranteed to evoke a fear – avoidance response in people which closes down their creativity and collaboration as they go into survival mode. Organisations need to be encouraging the relationship building side so they need to look at their organisational culture and know what underpins this and know that people are different because they are different, people are the product of their narrative up to date.
“My vision for organisations is that they become more human-centred, and that coaching will change from fixing problems and onboarding people to focusing more on human values around how can who I am contribute and fit in here?”
Of the cancer, Smith says, “Although it’s too late for life-saving surgery, I’m fortunate that drugs are available which can hold back the advance, hopefully for a few years.”
She is on a regime of drug treatment to delay the spread of cancer, which includes chemotherapy for the first few months. She hopes that when the chemo stops, “after Christmas I will get my hair and my life back”.
Before becoming ill, she was the captain of the ladies third team in the Muswell Hill Methodist Lawn Tennis Club. She loves reading, belonging to a book club, and enjoys theatre, films and food. When she lost her hair, but regained her sense of taste recently, she felt this was a fair swap.
She’s writing a book, Because You Can, a journal of her cancer journey, mapped into four parts: finding out about the illness; identifying the plan; getting the treatment, and finally, “living the life because you can”.
“I thought the world was full of too many books, so why should I add to these unless I have something really original to say. But then someone said, ‘because you can’, and that’s the title of my book.”
One message that’s coming through for her is that many people, including coaches, forget to tend to themselves first.
“Are coaches doing a good job in terms of self-care, are they stressed, are they looking for big status contracts, should they be managing more sustainably? With coaching clients, we often need to slow them down, but coaches need to do that themselves first of all.
“The cancer has reinforced what I have always known – it is our relationships with others that are the most important things in our lives. This is beautifully encapsulated in a poem by the multi-talented Paul Brown, which he has allowed me to share (see page 26).”
“Although this all seems like a grim prospect, I can honestly say that I have come to accept and even embrace my drastically shortened life expectancy. A few short years living purposefully in the present seem more valuable than decades of living less intentionally. Although still by nature a Doing person, I am focusing more on Being.
“My family members are seeing the benefits, and I wish I had prioritised my time differently since my two daughters were born. They are now 21 and 25, and they deserved more of my attention, as did my husband. I put work first and I wish I had done it the other way round. So now is when I get to redress the balance and put things right!”
Death Does Not Triumph Over Love
I had a nice presentiment of Death
Walking, though quietly, beside me
And yet a little way apart, not quite engaged
As if he came to say: “Not yet, but breath
Is something that one day gives out, and then
You will be as it is with other men
Returned to earth; a memory that fades
From others’ minds.”
‘Faded?’ I wondered. Is that all it’s meant –
This life of three score years plus ten
That has already passed its mark; and when
Breath ceases, are we lost to others’ minds?
Not so. Most definitely not. Death’s certainty
Can sharpen memory, not make it fade.
The pain of loss may go, but not the love
That made life worth the living.
‘Forgotten not, then?’ No, for all the giving
Each to other, love unbounded, lasts –
Perhaps not bodily, but in the spaces
Where connection’s known;
In connectivity no fixed connection lies
But in the sum of all experience
That is transmitted by experience
That only life well loved makes possible.
In circularity lies certainty.
Life cycles do not just begin and end:
They come from deep connection and return
To others through the same relatedness
That made the first connections possible.
It was not sin in Eden but the start
Of infinite belonging. So we know
We do not fade. Death does not triumph so.
Paul Brown, December 2014
Find out more
- AC 10th anniversary celebration film: http://bit.ly/2aLQsmR
- Becoming a professional coach: http://bit.ly/2aZZr8F
- AC UK accreditation tables: http://bit.ly/2aOTx7v
- Dan Siegel interview: http://bit.ly/2bfVgVc