I’m a leader, not a personal counsellor

We once held an amazing workshop with a junior football squad (development team) in London, and connected them with a group of business leaders to share learning and ideas. One of the greatest pieces of advice that was shared came from one of the coaches. He shared the challenging lives that many of the young footballers led and the impact that has had on their behaviour and therefore performance on the pitch. While the coaches find it difficult to get too involved in their personal lives, they know they miss out on some of their greatest opportunities for improvement if they don’t.

One junior player who was acting out on the field with aggressive fighting (and would have otherwise lost his place), revealed he’d been sleeping on friend’s couches due to some violence at home. Had the coaches not investigated the background, they would have never known. This player went on to become one of the greatest in the premier league, and the club’s most valuable asset. The coach’s advice to business leaders: “If you don’t know your players off the field, you’ll never get the most out of them on the field.”

This lesson has stuck with me through years of coaching.

Navigating this space has become increasingly difficult with the rise of hybrid work and other factors that blur the distinction between our public and personal lives. Business leaders are finding it hard to decipher where work support should end, and personal support begins. One leader said to me recently “I really feel like a counsellor at the moment, and not a business leader. Where do I draw the line? My energy is spent.”

If you’re not trained in personal support then yes, it can feel like counselling and yes, it can be very draining on your energy. So, some tips to get you through. We know that the people are asking a lot from their employers right now, more time, more space, more flexibility, maybe even more pay for what they do. Things are challenging as the goal posts shift again and again. The biggest support you can offer is to create an environment that is supportive but focused on self-responsibility.

If everyone in the business is truly self-responsible, there is much more likelihood that individuals will take action to support themselves and seek other approaches to take care of their personal needs. However, self-responsibility also must come with skills and tools. As a leader, bringing in workshops that help individuals to feel equipped with how to care for their energy, their mindset and their health will greatly reduce their dependence on you to do it for them.

Secondly, the culture of the business must be psychologically supportive (safe) for people to thrive and really care for their own energy. This is not a quick fix but a commitment to open conversation, two-way constructive feedback and a carefully crafted set of values to drive the behaviour you want.

You do not have to be a counsellor to your people. You just have to create an environment where they know how to take care of themselves, feel safe to share and know that you are doing your part to create a workplace that they can thrive in.

You’re the real Ted Lasso!