Coaching On Operations in Afghanistan

By Lieutenant Colonel Eliot Glover

The British Army has over 100 uniformed solicitors and barristers, recruited from civilian practice, commissioned and put through their military paces at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. One of the principal roles of the Army Legal Services is to deploy its officers on operations as specialists in military and international law, which is how I ended up in Kandahar province, Afghanistan in May last year.
Operational deployments require working 7 days per week and often in excess of 15 hours a day. There is very little time available to do much else. Making a visit occasionally to the gym, catching up on emails or watching DVD’s is the norm. I ran coaching sessions.

Obtaining a clientele on a military base of 35,000 multinational personnel in Afghanistan has its own unique challenges. In the height of the summer, the temperature at Kandahar airfield registers off the thermometer’s scale and certainly above 50 degrees. The working day is incredibly long and unpredictable. Beyond one’s duties there is very little time, energy or will to begin to explore issues that are of a personal nature. Added to this is the unpredictability of the situation. Insurgent rocket attacks occur on a regular basis and there was an ever-present threat and several failed attempts made from suicide bombers trying to infiltrate the base.

Having already deployed on three operational tours in other theatres I had a good idea of what to expect from the ‘battle rhythm’ and therefore could appreciate the limitations of trying to introduce any coaching practice. Against that, I was adamant that I did not want to stop coaching whilst on operations and was excited by the prospect of trying to arrange sessions in what I knew would be a unique working environment. That was a constant motivating factor for me and one that helped me go the extra distance at times when I could easily have justified to myself not having the time to do it.

I decided to advertise executive coaching on a pro bono basis on posters displayed around the base. It was not possible to judge with any accuracy what potential clients might be looking for in coaching in that environment. Once people started showing an interest, however, it was much easier to assess and target specific areas of need. The majority of the people I worked with were looking for transition coaching from the military world to begin another career in civilian life. Helping them to appreciate their existing skill sets, to identify areas for development, factoring in timescales and evaluating options was gratifying for me as a coach. More importantly, it assisted the coachees by allowing them to focus their minds on their immediate operational responsibilities in the knowledge that they were taking steps towards tackling this important issue.

Due to the environment, the coaching sessions were always going to be on a makeshift basis. Finding a suitable coaching location and time was always an issue. Obtaining a room with air conditioning was a real bonus. Making the best of one’s surroundings also meant having to use external locations, which brought new definitions to the word ‘interference’. Passing colleagues wandering over to talk operationally related work, coachee’s mobile phones ringing (being out of communication is not an option) and the deafening sound of the afterburners from fast jets taking off, all played their part.
On occasions due to the demands of the day, sessions had to take place at night, which was far from ideal and did take its toll upon motivation and energy levels. However, within a few minutes of the session starting it is surprising how those levels resurrect. Perhaps one of the most interesting of sessions involved working with a senior civil servant. How could he better integrate into a military environment and adjust his briefings to connect with and impact upon a military audience? Given the lateness of the hour of the session and having worked alongside of this individual in my daily operational role, there was a temptation to consent to his request for immediate feedback. However, I resisted the urge. Whilst the coaching session took longer, my colleague arrived at his own conclusion. He subsequently felt better equipped to monitor for himself the atmospherics of the room he was briefing and was more confident of understanding his audience. I doubt that would have occurred had I just given him my feedback.

Another memorable but impromptu session started out as a conversation over lunch in a packed food hall but rapidly turned into an off loading exercise. A family thousands of miles away, problems at home moving house, juggling financial concerns and fast approaching an important career decision, whilst working flat out on operations undoubtedly takes its toll. To then assist the individual to reconstruct the scenario choosing viable options, create priorities and then buy into a course of action was a great use of the time. It was not until afterwards, that he realised I was a coach.

During the 4 months I was in Afghanistan, I was fortunate enough to be able to coach military and civilian personnel from a variety of countries including Australia, USA, Turkey and Canada. Whilst my primary role as a military lawyer was concerned with developing the rule of law in Afghanistan, it was also extremely gratifying to coach in a voluntary secondary role in support of the colleagues I served with. Now that I am back in the UK I am still coaching one US soldier over the Internet.
Looking back upon the experience, I would argue that there is a clear role for coaching in support of future military operations. Prior to any deployment this could be addressed through a structured approach, such as programmes designed to enhance leadership performance and civilian-military personnel management. When deployed in the field, which is often a hostile and stressful environment with limited access to external resources, a military or civilian with coaching experience can provide real value added through timely and confidential support.

Secondly, I am conscious that none of the coaching sessions I was involved in took place in the kind of environment that we, as coaches, are taught and encouraged to recreate. There was a distinct absence of a calm, quiet place and strategically placed furniture. Does this question the importance we should place on the universal principle of creating coaching ‘space’? Whilst I suspect that most coaches would aim to create the kind of conditions associated with a thinking environment, I would argue that this principle can be overridden in times of necessity. Of course, there is the risk that the quality of the coaching will suffer as a result. However, where both coach and coachee have acclimatised to an extreme environment, that for them has become the norm, the risk may well be less. Even so, is some coaching better than no coaching at all?

Email: eliot@corporatecoachingplus.com

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