Coaching through a crisis

By Aldis Brennan and Vanessa Racine, Canadian Red Cross
Can you think about the last time you started a new job? How everything was new for you, processes were confusing. How it almost felt like everyone was speaking a different language. Now, imagine that this new job is responding to the resurgence of Ebola in a neighbouring country during a pandemic. This is the tough job Jimmy Zaka Mansongele had to face when he was sent to the Republic of Congo as an Operations Manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).
“There were difficulties related to communication, road conditions, travelling thousands of kilometres, housing and I had to learn how to manage the tools IFRC used in the operation,” Jimmy said.
Two Red Cross members dressed in personal protective equipment in response to Ebola outbreak in the CongoBut Jimmy wasn’t alone. Jean-Baptiste Lacombe, then Rapid Response Manager for the Canadian Red Cross, was asked to be his coach. The idea is that an operations manager with more experience supports a newer team member by providing guidance, knowledge and building their confidence navigating the systems and processes.
“It’s very interesting and quite a new concept,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I’m coaching a guy that has a lot of experience with Ebola and response management, but he’s quite new to the Federation and he has a very key position as Operations Manager in Congo.”
There are many ways the Red Cross provides these kinds of training supports to its staff, the most common being in-person job shadowing which are referred to as ‘developing missions’. This allows the more junior team member the opportunity to observe and learn what it takes to perform in the role. With the onset of COVID-19 making travel much more challenging, there has been a shift to more remote coaching and a recognition that it is a totally different experience with its own value.
“They get to learn by doing, by making mistakes, by having this additional resource if they need support,” Jean-Baptiste said. “If what’s missing is more understanding of the Movement, the process of the Federation, or some key component of humanitarian negotiation, cost management, schedule management, or this kind of stuff, it’s a really good approach.”
There is still an explicative element certainly. A person new to a role will need to understand the ins and outs of this new working environment. They need a frame of reference. But that’s not the goal with coaching. It is less about being directive, and more about asking thought provoking and reflective questions.
“A lot of coaching is just asking questions like, ‘What is the problem you’re facing?’ ‘What have you already tried?’ What do you think would work that you haven’t tried?’ Jean-Baptiste said. “So, you’re orienting the person in a way, but most of the time you’re helping them to develop their thought process to find the solution themselves.”
Red Cross team members exiting a Red Cross van dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE)The conversations Jimmy had with Jean-Baptiste built his confidence and allowed him to better handle leading a team in the field, conducting staff evaluations, and managing a relief fund.
“Having a coach is important for me. It is a support that helps me to be able to stay on the IFRC course of action,” Jimmy said. “It is very useful because at each exchange we learn a lot of things that allow us to progress in the management of field activities.”
It was important for Jean-Baptiste to make sure that the expectations were clear from the beginning because what allowed these open exchanges to take place was trust.
“One of my main concerns was that I didn’t want him to think that I was there to monitor him. That’s not my job. I’m someone that he can talk to confidentially,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I think the first conversation we had was really reassuring for him. The fact that I worked in two different Ebola operations, one in Guinea and one in DRC, was a reassuring factor and for him to realize that I was a support and not a watchdog. That put the foundation of a constructive relationship between him and I.”
Of course, it also wasn’t without its challenges. Jimmy was often out of contact in remote areas of the country. His schedule fluctuated wildly. But whenever he was able to reach out, Jean-Baptiste was there to listen. Jean-Baptiste was there because he also knows from his own experiences how valuable it can be to have a coach.
“When we’re deployed, we’re surrounded by our team but because [operations managers are] at the top of the pyramid the relationship is always one of power which is a bit weird. It’s a very lonely job,” Jean-Baptiste said. “A lot of the challenges we face we can share with our team and find solutions together, but some we need to deal with on our own. So, to have a coach that is not your line manager to be able to use as a sounding board is incredibly useful.”
Jean-Baptiste is feeling the pressure. The formalization of remote coaching is relatively new and not only is coaching important to him personally, but he also sees it as the way of the future for the entire Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

“I think that this kind of coaching should be done all the time. You have very, very smart capable people everywhere on earth. The only thing that’s missing is training support,” Jean-Baptiste said. “To me, the more localized, the more we can change the humanitarian system, the better it’s going to be. It’s going to be faster. It’s going to be cheaper, and more dignified.”

While the coaching mission was officially three months long, this didn’t mean the relationship had to end. It could be a connection that continued for the rest of their lives.
“If he feels that it would be good to talk once a month or as need be, I’m available to continue,” Jean-Baptiste said. “But if he feels that he’s learned what he needed to learn and he’s good to go then I’ll let him manage things on his own and leave the door open for him to reach out at any time if he needs support.”
This conscious effort to connect people with various skill levels and experience helps to foster a supportive community where ideas can be shared, questions asked, and problems solved collectively. It’s not just the person being coached who grows, but the entire network.

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