Chris Dyson and The Big Blue Box: Unlocking Potential
Chris Dyson is an executive coach who runs a company called The Big Blue Box Ltd. He founded the company in 2002 as a vehicle for his emerging coaching practice, however, he’s been coaching full-time ever since. According to its founder, the mission of The Big Blue Box is to ‘unlock potential’ and its aim is to make a client’s working life more enjoyable, productive, fulfilling and, as a consequence of this, happier. This is achieved through coaching in a style which facilitates, supports and challenges people and, in doing so, brings about positive, life-changing results, both inside and outside the workplace. Here Chris tells us more about it.
What would you say makes you and The Big Blue Box ideally placed to provide coaching?
Whilst I did not consciously plan my career to bring me to this role, everything I have done in my life and career has contributed.
My coaching style has been informed and shaped by my experience in senior leadership roles, both inside corporate life and outside of it. I’ve experienced and worked through many of the things my coachees bring to our conversations. Rather than basing my practice on a single specific doctrine or pure theory, it has developed through my own experience and by observing what works for different coachees in different situations. My coaching practice is eclectic, integrated, flexible, practical, pragmatic and evolving. It plays to my strengths and draws on my capabilities.
I keep in mind my coachees come wanting tangible results and structure coaching accordingly. I come to the coachee’s chosen meeting location and ensure they get value right from their very first session with me.
Can you tell us a bit about your background career prior to setting up The Big Blue Box?
My career started as a graduate in retail, moved on to managing teams, then larger teams and ultimately - a nationwide organisation. I transferred to the supply chain, logistics and distribution side of things and moved through a series of general management roles before gaining Board experience as an Operations Director. An MBA enabled the step up to Managing Directorships through which I gained invaluable experience managing investors and shareholders and shaping leadership teams, operations and strategy.
How did the idea about The Big Blue Box come about?
Before starting the Big Blue Box, I’d always worked for other people. What I really wanted was to have control of my destiny. Initially, I became a bit of a serial entrepreneur - experimenting with a portfolio of business ideas and structures.
During this time, I was undertaking some consultancy when a client said: ‘Chris, can I have a word…?’ We went into a quiet office and the client asked if they could just talk to me about some things that were on their mind and had nothing to do with the project. I said OK and they started to tell me their concerns about their job, their boss, their career, their life!
It set me thinking - the client clearly found value in the conversation and applying what they’d gained from it had potential for greater immediate impact than the project I was working on. Equally clear was that I seemed to have an aptitude for this style of conversation. Back then in 2002, in the very early days before coaching was as mainstream as it is now, HR were cautious and senior leadership sponsorship was hard won so marketing was tough. However, early successes proved the concept and I developed my style and skills.
Coachees became advocates and my business grew organically. People I had worked with in one organisation moved on and introduced me to their new organisations.
What is The Big Blue Box, how did you decide upon that name?
I became intrigued by the simple idea of a tool box - somewhere to find the right solution for a problem, to find that special tool, to use it and then to put it back till it is needed again. Somewhere solid and stable to keep things – somewhere safe and secure with a lock and key. It is blue because that is a cool, calm, natural colour – but also suggests blue skies, space (and the cliché about ‘blue sky thinking’).
People find the image intriguing, it has the unforeseen benefit of being a great conversation starter when people ask about it! The phrase ‘The Big Blue Box’ is a bit tricky to pronounce, making it memorable. I also liked the anonymity of the name: like my coaching, it’s not about ‘me’. The name and logo just seemed to be right on so many levels.
What motivates you most about coaching? What inspires you to press further into your work?
Many people have said that they wish they could have my job. I love coaching, it seems very natural to me, and it doesn’t feel like work. I get to meet interesting people and to have engaging conversations with them. More often than not, there are ‘significant moments’ in the conversation, perhaps an insight, a connection, a moment of reflection or a realisation. A coach is like a catalyst - enabling a change to happen but unchanging themselves. Changes happen and it’s incredibly rewarding.
For a coachee, a coaching conversation is unlike any other conversation they might have with anyone else in their life – it’s not like a conversation with a boss or a colleague, a life partner, family member or a friend. Because it is confidential and like talking to a stranger, people open up.
People really value their coaching, almost every person says it is the only time that they can legitimately stop everything, and talk - the only time that it is just about ‘them’, when they can get some perspective, to reflect, think and plan. You can see their mood change, they often look different, smiling, calmer, clearer and focused, energised, resolute and decisive. Often, when we meet for the next session, people can’t wait to tell me about the things they have achieved.
But coaching is also part of my life in other areas – in my spare time, I work in a charity as an advanced motorcycling instructor.
How is coaching perceived?
In the early days, I recall one organisation responded to our marketing outreach by saying ‘Oh no, we don’t believe in coaching, they [our people] should be able to do their job’.
Until a few years ago, coaching was seen as a remedial activity, individuals would have been concerned about even engaging with a coach because of the signals it could have sent.
The balance is shifting, coaching is now seen as a powerful, premium intervention. Individually, people are now actively seeking out and engaging with coaching. Leading organisations are integrating it into their culture - they now understand and actively support coaching for their key people. Senior players in an organisation would usually seek out an external coach, for the stimulus and challenge but also to avoid any internal conflicts of interest or confidentiality issues.
What are the typical ‘coachees’ that you work with?
My coachees are almost exclusively employed within organisations. They are 30+, mid-life and mid-career, highly ambitious, experienced in their role and with significant responsibilities. They could be part of the talent pool, the high potentials, or the emerging or current leadership cadre through to Board level, C Suite. Their roles have titles such as: Head of, General Manager, Director, Managing Director, VP and Chief Officer. etc. They can be from any functional area or expertise and are highly skilled. Their professional skills are not an issue.
I also have a small number of private clients. These are often coachees who want to retain the coaching relationship beyond their corporate’s sponsorship. Several of my coachees and corporate coaching sponsors have even engaged me privately, to work with members of their family or recommended me to their friend’s.
What kind of challenges do you find your coaching helps with?
All my coaching is focused around improving the performance of the individual - at work. But if the ‘whole person’ comes to work then their performance can be influenced by factors inside and outside work. And the benefits can be outside the work context too.
Most coachees have complex lives, they are ‘time poor’ and have significant demands made upon them. They could be stressed or even overwhelmed, their behaviour may deteriorate, and relationships become strained.
They are often struggling to achieve a balance - between work and home, their own career and their partner’s, between ‘carer responsibilities’ for children and sometimes for aging parents. Support and resilience is tested. They don’t have time to care for themselves, their diet, exercise, or rest.
For some, the ‘rules’ change: before and after promotions or restructures, they struggle with detail and perspective, with the change from professional to manager or leader, moving from operations to strategy, from control to influence, and with understanding politics, negotiation and compromise. Some other challenges are: delegation and managing upwards, conflict – and how to manage it, time and personal effectiveness - perhaps with significantly overfilled in-boxes of ‘unread’ messages.
They don’t have somewhere to talk about many of these things, so decisions don’t get made and the cycle continues. That’s when coaching can help.
Do you work in particular industry sectors, what kind of organisations do your coachees work in?
Client organisations tend to be substantial, structured and with international reach. The organisations I coach in are diverse – I work across sectors including financial services and banking, industry and professional bodies, automotive and airlines, engineering and architecture, IT and media, consultancy and design, the NHS and central and local government and agencies, restaurants and entertainments. It’s interesting but whilst some organisations take comfort from knowing that I have experience in their sector, but really, it’s all about people, and actually, the ability to ask the apparently simple question opens up a new understanding.
Whilst the majority of my client organisations are UK-based, I have worked in Europe and I’ve continued to work with clients in the USA over several years.
How does coaching work?
Emerging understanding of the workings of the brain is very informative, particularly around stress and emotions. Change can be a challenge but raising self-awareness is a good starting point.
The key to unlocking our understanding of ourselves is often hidden in plain sight, but it may take someone else to help us to see it, coaching helps to find the key and implement the solution. For example:
The 50-year-old leader of the ‘stand out’ business unit in a global organisation had recently developed a fear of reporting at the global quarterly reviews. Asked to explain how that felt, the coachee said: ‘It feels like I’m back in the headteacher’s study at school’. From that insight, identifying the key to understanding their behaviour identified the precise trivial incident that triggered this fear, originally experienced in the headteacher’s study, but replayed in the board room.
Tell us about your coaching, is there a process that you go through with your coachees?
I may be given a briefing by the organisation about the coachee and I would decide to proceed if the brief fits my capability. Contact details would be exchanged, and an initial phone call would seek to answer any of the coachee’s concerns before a first meeting is arranged.
It may be an obvious point, but coaching sessions are held at a venue that is comfortable and appropriate for the coachee. This could be at their place of work, perhaps a quiet meeting room, or ‘off-site’. For me, having the flexibility to travel by motorbike is a great advantage, but it’s also often a connection, a conversation topic, and a useful metaphor.
One of the single most important factors in the effectiveness of any coaching project is the relationship between the coachee and the coach. One objective at this first meeting is a simple ‘Chemistry Test’ – can the coachee and I work together? I would also clarify the understanding around items such as ethics, boundaries, confidentiality, the initial objectives and the process. Almost invariably the coachee engages, the relationship is established, and the coaching happens ‘naturally’.
I undertake a ‘diagnosis’ with the coachee. Whilst there may be ‘presenting’ issues, sometimes the ‘real’ issues are only revealed by careful exploration.
The conversation gives the coachee time to tell their story. As the coach, my initial role is simply to listen, ask questions, observe patterns, unravel the details and illuminate them for the coachee. Challenges and suggestions may be appropriate. Sometimes, it may be helpful for me to share my own experiences, but it is all about helping the coachee raise their self-awareness.
There is usually some significant moment in the first session when something happens for the coachee. The conversations are often ‘emotional’ and can be life-changing.
I ensure that I have a clear understanding with the organisation that the coaching conversation is confidential. This means that I don’t report back to the sponsors about the discussion, the issues or the outcomes. Any reporting back to the organisation has to come from the coachee. Trust is essential.
Initially, I limit any coaching project to just 4 sessions – everyone expects results and a limit to the number of sessions tends to focus the attention. However, each session is of ‘indeterminate duration’ – as long, or as short as it needs to be. Usually the first two sessions can be 2 – 3 hours long, some are even longer. The purpose is to fully explore the coachee’s story, not to cut it short by time constraints.
I ask my coachees not to have important meetings just before or after our sessions. On several occasions, the immediate outcomes have been powerful enough for the coachee to want to go home after the session to reflect.
Later stages in the coaching process move to explore ways that the coachee could enhance their self-management and ability to be aware of and influence other people effectively, based upon their understanding of themselves.
I often encourage coachees to invite their sponsor or boss to join us for a 3-way conversation in our final meeting in the coaching series. This can be very impactful. In one case, over a period of time, a coachee had made themselves ill, striving for the recognition which had not been given to them as a child. Hearing praise from their boss in our 3-way meeting brought tears, and changed the boss’s behaviour too.
I ask all my coachees to complete an evaluation questionnaire as they move through the final stages of the coaching series. This captures their reflections and assessment.
What kind of outcomes can be achieved, how could our readers measure the outcomes?
Almost without exception there is one outcome all coachees achieve – they remark that the coaching conversation is the only time in their lives that they stop, have time to talk, to think, to reflect.
My coaching usually creates a multitude of outcomes which can be across any area of the coachee’s life, these outcomes could have an immediate and direct impact at work. Other outcomes, perhaps outside the work context, could be confidential for the coachee.
This creates a challenge for measuring coaching. Anecdotal, observation and self-assessment may capture the extent of the outcomes but not quantify the change. The coachee and those closest to them are most likely to have the best opportunity to determine the real outcomes. A report from the coachee and sponsor at the conclusion of the coaching and a further review after the passage of time would be a pragmatic approach.
Sometimes, an outcome could be a simple ‘quick win’. Email is often a significant cause of stress and poor performance, leading to poor communications and decision-making and the culture of the organisation is in part responsible. Strategies to achieve a ‘Zero Inbox’ might be a simple outcome and a quick win!
Hard outcomes, unlocking the potential in coachees include: winning competitive promotions, supporting succession and promotions to board level roles, accelerating career, team performance outcomes, behaviour changes in senior leaders – with consequent impact cascading through the organisation, catalyzing culture change within an organisation - introduction of a coaching culture, helping board members negotiate new roles and become strategic and politically more aware, enabling a leader to understand their response to conflict, enabling delegation with improved performance and engagement from direct reports.
Softer outcomes include finding or rebuilding a balance in life, improved relationships with work colleagues and crucially, also at home, being clearer about a career direction or career choice, gaining a greater sense of purpose, enhanced confidence, self-esteem, but also losing weight and getting fitter.
Life-changing outcomes, when significant change is achieved in several areas, are exemplified by the case of assisting a key person to return to work after an absence caused by stress. In the coaching sessions they re-examined their values, drivers and purpose, which changed their behaviours. This changed relationships at home and at work, and also rebalanced their lifestyle, which improved resilience, and their performance at work. Their talent was retained by the organisation.
What are your main goals for the future?
I’ve seen the business grow organically and by recommendation. I envisage that is how it will continue. It’s about the personal connection and I want to retain that.
I’d now particularly like to grow my business into the USA. I’ve got a significant number of coachees and a good network out there and I’ve tapped into some of the Government-funded support available. I’d like to see my US client base expand over the next few years, developing both my existing clients and connecting with new ones. I have been particularly successful in California, so that is a specific target area.