Just weeks after the lockdown was put in place, an internal coaching network in the south east of England had launched coaching initiatives to help leaders adapt their skills and to manage remote teams. Lisa Burroughes reports


Covid-19 took hold in the UK, the internal coaching network at East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC) created a valuable space for managers to reflect on how they could quickly respond to the changing demands on their organisation.

For some managers Covid-19 meant putting in place emergency measures around adult and child social care. For other managers lockdown meant closing community centres, libraries and other customer facing services.

Like the rest of the country the majority of staff were now working from home and so these major changes, happening at great speed, were being put into place through remote teams.

Two coaching initiatives were set up within the first weeks of lockdown to support managers through this change: all managers were offered one-to-one coaching to reflect on how they needed to adapt their leadership skills in the changing environment; and managers were also offered group coaching on how to manage remote teams effectively. This was in addition to the existing coaching offer to all staff of longer-term personal performance development coaching.

The two councils share a coaching network with around 60 internal coaches, all of whom are council employees trained to a minimum of ILM Level 3 in coaching. The coaches bring a wealth of experience to their practice, with many also holding qualifications in social work or mental health support. They implicitly understand the system, culture and leadership competencies in which managers operate and are therefore able bring that into their coaching practice.


Systemic coaching

The emphasis on systemic coaching is increasingly important for managers delivering integrated health and social care services. During the crisis phase of Covid-19 council staff were working closely with colleagues in NHS organisations, and as part of integrated teams, to adapt and accelerate processes to facilitate a smooth transition between hospitals, community NHS services, and nursing homes. They also needed to consider resourcing issues such as the use
of agency staff from a whole system point of view, so they were not competing against each other for staff. Coaching managers through this time provided support for them to think through the complexities this presented and the wider perspectives of all the stakeholders in the system.

One of the coaches, Jo Murfin, works in adult social care and holds an ILM Level 7 certificate in coaching. She said the managers she coached appreciated having the space that coaching creates to slow down and reflect on the changes they needed to put in place.

She noticed that having to work differently allowed managers to see long running issues from a different perspective and the coaching helped them re-frame and resolve it.

Often the issues related to disruptive behaviour of a colleague or team member which, when taken out of the normal group dynamics and put into a remote working context, became more obvious. This meant some team leaders needed to manage performance issues in a remote working setting and the coaching helped them work through the challenges this presented.

The coachees reported a sense of relief that they had time to reflect on challenges specifically related to Covid-19. One coachee said it helped her put into perspective the changes her team was going through, which helped build her own resilience and gave her time to think through how she could build resilience among the team.

Another senior manager said the coaching gave her the confidence to assert her leadership style and make critical decisions about how to address the growing levels of anxiety about working with patients in a clinical setting. For many leaders there was a temporary shift to a more autocratic decision-making style. At the same time they also needed to dial up their compassionate leadership style. This meant being sensitive to the wellbeing of others and to their own personal feelings of distress, noticing any changes in behaviour that might indicate when things are not going well, accepting and validating the person’s experience, showing empathy, and taking appropriate action. For many of them their own coaching skills became a highly valuable tool during this time.


Virtual working

For the coaches, one of the biggest shifts was moving their practice online through Skype or Microsoft Teams. Initially some coaches were unsure about how it would impact their ability to establish a safe and trusting space for the coachee, but once they had established the basics around setting up the coaching space on each end, they soon discovered they could form a strong connection with the coachee. Some coaches reported even stronger connections than when they worked face-to-face with staff because the medium forced intense concentration.

One reflection all the coaches shared was the need to put in extra steps to prepare for the coaching sessions so they had any tools or practical exercises ready to bring into the sessions if they needed them. Many coaches agreed that the intensity of working with coachees online made it very important to fit breaks around the coaching for them to reset.


Team coaching

The sudden shift to managing remote teams threw up a whole range of challenges for council managers. Offering group coaching was a pragmatic way of being able to respond quickly to common questions managers were asking. Each week six 90-minute sessions were held, in which managers were coached about how they could create connection across the team, as well as support the wellbeing and performance of each team member.

As the sessions were conducted online they were limited to small groups of four or five managers, so each participant was able to reflect on their experiences and think through what they had done well and what steps they would need to take as the lockdown restrictions were eventually eased.

One surprising impact of delivering the sessions online was that coaches found each person was more inclined to take turns and give each other the space to complete their thinking than they had experienced in face-to-face group coaching. This also created additional challenges for the coach as it meant playing an active role by inviting people to speak, reflecting back, or inviting responses to what other participants had said. All of which is very much in line with Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment. It is hoped this subtle shift in behaviour can be maintained in face-to-face group coaching when the time comes.

Most of the managers were experienced members of staff who had demonstrated excellent leadership in bringing their teams together through regular coffee mornings, pub quizzes and team meetings. However, managers admitted some team behaviours had become established without explicitly agreeing what would best help the team achieve their immediate short-term objectives during lockdown.

Not being explicit about expectations can lead to conflict and in a remote working environment this is magnified as there are no other communication cues to pick up on. The coaching helped the managers think about the communication experience from the point of view of their team members, how they can adapt their communication approach to meet their individual needs, and how they could get feedback on what was and wasn’t working.

Almost all the managers said the coaching session had increased their confidence in the way they were managing their team remotely, but they also took away specific actions to implement, which they had learnt from other group members.


Ongoing needs

When the lockdown was first put in place, a short, quick, coaching conversation was all staff were looking for. By the end of May staff were starting to emerge from the crisis phase and felt ready to reflect back on the lessons learned, and to project forward to plan for recovery. At this stage there was an increase in the number of requests for longer-term coaching sessions. The crisis had shaken people’s personal constructs, changed their connections with other staff, and opened up new ways of working and rapid responses many wanted to hold on to.

The coaching network in East Sussex and Brighton and Hove was able to respond to this sudden change in demand because it was well-established and had reliable centrally managed processes that meant coaches could be quickly matched with new requests. Both organisations have placed a strong emphasis on developing a coaching culture by equipping leaders with coaching skills, which has built an appreciation for the value coaching offers in terms of supporting personal and skill development among staff.

The one-to-one and group coaching sessions will continue to play a central role in supporting managers as the councils transitions through the different stages of recovery. It is hoped that in creating a reflective space for managers they will be able to establish new behaviours to underpin a resilient working culture that is able to adapt easily to change in the future.


  • Lisa Burroughes is a coaching psychologist and manager of the workplace coaching network for East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council. She works in organisational development and specialises in delivering lasting behaviour and culture change.


About the internal coaching network

The internal coaching network was first established in East Sussex County Council more than four years ago. The council runs coaching skills training for all staff. Any staff member who wants to further their coaching skills is then able to apply for the ILM Level 3 coaching course delivered by the learning and development team. When they have completed this course coaches are able to join the internal coaching network. As they are all staff with other roles in the organisation they will often only coach one person at a time. Each request for coaching is received by the coaching team and they are matched using a combination of logistical criteria and knowledge of the individual coaches and the strengths in their areas of practice.

More recently, the Brighton and Hove coaching network was established along the same principle, and the process is managed centrally across both councils by the coaching team which allows significant flexibility. Coaches can be matched with staff from the other organisation, as well as partner NHS organisations, which is particularly valuable for senior leaders who are more reluctant to be coached by someone in their own area. At the end of the coaching relationship evaluations are sent out to measure the benefits the individual experienced from the coaching, and to collect feedback on the coach’s skills.