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Is Every Social Worker a Good Coach? — Moving Forward After the Pandemic
By Liz Lasky, PhD, MSW, LCSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 3 P. 20

Coaching and social work are different professions but share some common goals. What determines a career decision to be a coach and how can coaching help people recover from the life-changing event we have all experienced?

Responding to crises is a backbone of social work. Like in other difficult times, social workers can lead the way moving forward. Communities and clients need helping professionals now more than ever. But how will the profession of social work meet demand when we have been dislodged from our moorings? Will traditional social work interventions meet the needs of people in a post-COVID-19 world? No. One good thing that may come out of this crisis is an expansion of social work practice and theory; another important tool individual social workers might want to embrace is coaching.

Coaching is well matched for our post-COVID-19 world because the moment is emergent and we are creating the future as we live in it. This article addresses what coaching is and why it is important. It will also answer the question, can and should every social worker be a coach? This article also serves as an invitation to those of you who are coaching curious.

It is hard for me to write this article without sharing a small bit about myself. I am both a social worker and a coach. A week does not go by without a social worker asking me about being a social worker and a coach. These social workers usually ask me how to coach and how I’ve built my practice. Some social workers face me with criticism about coaching too.

Like other social workers, I wear many hats. I am a licensed clinical social worker in New York City holding an MSW and a PhD in social welfare. I am also a certified coach and a fellow at The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital at Harvard University. I am an adjunct professor at Fordham University. I have a small private practice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and, after 15 years of working in New York City public middle schools, I also supervise a team of educators who provide workshops in New York City public schools (and we have moved to a virtual setup because those kids need us more than ever). I provide social work and coaching services to universities, the private sphere, and the public domain.

The current coronavirus pandemic has put social workers on edge in every level of the system. People in many professions are questioning how to move forward in a new reality. Many social work colleagues and students have come out of the woodwork asking to learn how social workers can use coaching right now. Some of these social workers should jump into coaching, and some of them should not. How do any social workers know whether they are cut out for coaching? As social workers question and take inspired action around how they will give back to communities after COVID-19, this article serves as a guide to see whether coaching is right for you.

Coaching in Practice
In the last year, I have taught about 75 Master of Social Work students, and, once COVID-19 was the cause for canceled classes and the subsequent upheaval took place, I received several concerning e-mails and calls from my very stressed students. I decided to invite them all to a special online gathering. While I knew that I didn’t have all (or maybe any) of the answers, I knew I was able to offer some time to provide guidance, hear their questions, and create a place where we can gather together.

My graduating students showed up in droves. I began our gathering by asking them how they were feeling. The feelings were heavy, sad, and fearful. Moving forward did not make sense. They are worried for themselves, their families, graduation, and job opportunities. After acknowledging these feelings and addressing our looming uncertainty, I moved on to ask them three questions that shifted our entire time together. They were the following:

• What if this crisis was the best thing that ever happened to you and your career?
• Who do you want to be in this crisis?
• How do you want to show up as a leader?

I asked these questions, which I encourage you to examine, too, and it was as though a veil of doom and gloom was lifted from their faces. They took notes. They generated ideas. They shifted their mindsets. They began to see potential. What did I do? I coached them, and it worked.

It is impossible to teach someone how to be a social worker with just one essay, when it takes social workers years to acquire a BSW, MSW, licensure, and institute training. It is also impossible to teach how to be a coach in one essay. Like social work, it takes years for coaches to learn, study, and fine-tune their skills through continuing education. It is impossible to teach how to be a coach in one article, nor can someone learn to coach from a simple cheat sheet of how to be a coach. The profession of coaching should not be watered down, as it is a robust field of study and practice that cannot be limited to a checklist.

What Is Coaching?
Coaching is a profession governed by the International Coach Federation. The profession has its own set of values, ethics, and guidelines that are consonant with those in social work, especially with regard to the focus on the dignity and self-determination of the individual. Similar to social work, coaching is an amalgam of theories including neuroscience, behavior therapies, systems theory, and psychology. Like social work, coaching is not teaching or training clients or patients in a way of thinking. It is not directive, judgmental, or pejorative. Unlike social work, coaching is not inherently healing or therapeutic, nor does it aim to fix dysfunction or disease. It is not focused on the past or on problems. It aims to expand potential and deals with the here and now. Coaching is ultimately future focused. It is strength based and builds on the functional aspects of a person’s life. It is solution focused, self-directed, and focuses on questions and critical thinking. The art of coaching allows one to create a new reality and capture potential, which is ideal for a time such as this.

Why Coaching?
Coaching is perfectly suited for a time when moving forward does not make sense. When I look back on my work with clients and team members during this pandemic, 100% of my conversations have been around COVID-19, whether I’ve been talking to a 12-year-old student or a 65-year-old dean at a university. All of our conversations are the same. Everybody wants to feel more certainty, more control, and more hope. For me, the quickest way to get them there was through coaching.

The profession of social work must go deeper into what it is doing well and where there is potential to grow. One of the ways that social work can serve the unknown future is to develop new skills in helping people to move forward with strength and ingenuity.

Building on our strengths is a clinical choice and helps us do our work with more success. Being aware of our innate gifts and challenges can guide us in the growth of our professional identity. Not every social worker is cut out to be a coach. In the social work realm, countertransference makes some well suited, and others not well suited, for certain populations. Social workers acknowledging and understanding strengths and limitations is a gift to themselves and their clients, whether or not coaching is involved.

Social workers must revisit our purpose at times of crisis such as COVID-19. If social workers are truly agents of change, then social workers have to change, too. Social work cannot rely on its old toolkit to provide new types of services needed to cater to today’s world. Social work ought to embrace a paradigm shift. Social workers owe it to clients to change the conversation.

Coaching may be one of the ways to expand social work repertoire. Some may want to expand practice to include coaching, but I urge you to explore and question whether coaching is the right fit for you. Part of this consideration is being honest with oneself. One must ask themselves, through self-assessment, if the right strengths and aptitude are present to become a coach. If yes, this is a perfect time to learn and develop new skills and take stock of what a social worker might need to learn moving forward.

Goodness of Fit
It is a social worker’s professional duty to look within oneself to assess the fit of their chosen profession with their own strengths and skills. In coaching, just as in any other profession, it is important to honor the “goodness of fit.” Professional success thrives when one’s skills, values, and strengths align with one’s adopted profession.

If a social worker is interested in coaching, they may have to release some of the familiar patterns associated with conducting professional work. Some social workers are weary of this departure from traditional work. There is a time and place for coaching just as there is a time and place for social work.

During times of uncertainty, the human spirit needs support. That being said, not everybody wants to go to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker to be analyzed and pathologized. Some people want support that is user friendly, self-directed, and has a quick return on investment. The coaching engagement does not necessarily have the same demands and commitment as long-term therapy has. Social work has a strength in processing thoughts, feelings, and situations even if there are demands on a client’s time, resources, and ability. Coaching does not have the same focus on the therapeutic process. Coaching is not a replacement for social work. In fact, coaching may be less effective in many ways. Coaching would not be my first choice in addressing serious and persistent mental illness or helping someone bypassing stages of grief.

Coaching can provide shorter-term support, making it less expensive than longer-term therapies. This is an important point to consider in agency practice and for people who cannot afford long-term and expensive therapeutic demands because of socioeconomic status and new burdens brought on by the pandemic. Through coaching, we can help others create clarity on upcoming goals and structures for forward thinking. Clients can cultivate a sense of control through vision and action.

Every professional, regardless of profession, ought to be well matched with their profession. Because of the current pandemic, social workers are being forced into change and have the flexibility to include new ways of doing things. Social workers have the opportunity to reconnect with core values of social work and to expand delivery of services within the realms of what feels comfortable to each social worker individually.

Taking a Look in the Mirror
All social workers who may want to coach should think about this very slowly and clearly. Some may think that coaching may be the most direct way to more clients, more money, and a sounder business plan. Some social work students are graduating with the belief that it will take years to acquire sufficient clinical hours to attain your clinical license. Some think coaching is a faster path to clinical work and hanging up their private practice shingle. This is not necessarily the case. Some of the things mentioned above are true. Coaching is a commodity in the corporate world that is often accompanied by a hefty price tag, but social workers must not forget that they are a social worker first. Social work comes with values, ethics, and direction rooted in high standards. These don’t disappear when a social worker becomes a coach. If anything, social workers must work harder to uphold these standards.

Just like social workers want to maintain, to the maximum extent possible, the highest level of quality in social work for our clients, it is the same for coaching. Social workers should not diminish our standards of care. Coaching is not the way to do that. Coaching is a separate discipline that can enhance social work practice.

The pandemic of COVID-19 brings a darkness to communities, but times of uncertainty, crisis, and grief often result in an opportunity for growth. This is a time of reckoning for many who want to calculate a new future personally and professionally. It’s a new opportunity to embrace a personal sense of freedom. As the world changes, we can change too. There is also an opportunity to create a new meaning of how you want your work to contribute to the world. So, what if coaching is right for you? What are next steps?

Some people want to jump directly into action, but this can be dangerous. Action is most meaningful if there is intention behind it. There are some ways to start reflecting on what you truly want and how to move forward. First, take a figurative X-ray of your practice right now. What is working? What is not working? What would you change, if anything? Second, create a compelling vision of what you want. How would you be spending your time? With what population would you like to make a difference? Where would you be working? How does this vision make you feel? Be careful to not allow yourself to become paralyzed by analysis and doubt. Social workers often have intuition as a sharp tool in their practice wisdom toolbox. Third, ask yourself whether you are truly open and willing to seeing things in a new way. If so, take action! If your wish is to be a coach, now is the time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all of us to revisit our own personal and professional strengths, weaknesses, and desires. This is the time for reflection—for all social workers to look inward and ask themselves the three questions I asked my students.

This article is meant to plant seeds about how social workers can rise up and still be rooted in values, ethics, strengths, and the highest level of standards. This message may be for a social worker who is also a coach, or it may be for someone else. Either way, every social worker should do their due diligence and explore how they want to contribute to the world. Trust yourself in making the right choice for you, your clients, your communities, and our profession.

— Liz Lasky, PhD, MSW, LCSW, is a certified coach and a fellow at The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital at Harvard University and an adjunct professor at Fordham University.