Dr. Gaby Schilling, Coach for Scientists in Management Positions, spent many years working in industry after having gained her PhD in inorganic chemistry. She held the position of Director of Product Safety supervising 120 people before she decided to work as a coach.
Here, she talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews.org about her motivation to support people in their career and the challenges involved.
Can you tell us a bit about your career, please?
I am a chemist and I have had a rather standard career: After my PhD, I started as a research chemist in a big international company in Düsseldorf. I was in research for three years, then in development for adhesives in different positions for nine more years, and then I took over the position as Head of Regulatory Management for the adhesives division worldwide. I did that for another five years. So, in total, that was 17 years in industry.
It was a really good time and I’ve learned a lot. Of course, I went through personal development, as you have over such a long time, and I found out that to support people in a personal way in their career and life is what motivates me most. Basically, my interest has shifted from chemistry, from science, more to the human side of the business. So it was a natural step for me to end that employment as a manager after 17 years and to start my own business as a coach, so that I can fulltime support people, managers in this case, in their professional development.
Why did you specialize in coaching scientists?
One reason is that it is an area I am very familiar with because I have been a scientist in a managerial position for so long. I know the situations people face, the challenges, the problems if you want.
On the other hand, chemists or scientists communicate differently from other people. We strongly rely on facts. Conversations, that we feel very comfortable in, are – as I found out pretty late – different from other people’s communications. Being a scientist myself, it is easy for me to build up a good relationship pretty fast. I am not so “alien” as maybe somebody with a psychology background may appear; and that is how I got to where I am now.
What kind of questions or problems do your clients come to you with?
It is all around their performance in their job. I am not working on any partnership or other private conflicts. It can be a leadership question, where the client faces challenges as the boss of his or her team or it can be communication issues like how to present oneself, how to manage conflicts with colleagues, or how to manage the relationship with the superiors. But it can also be something more vague like how to widen your scope. For example, sometimes you react in a particular way to similar situations, you have the feeling that something forces you to react like that in that kind of situation, but you would like to have more options. That is what coaching is all about: The coach works with you to look at your topic from different angles, so that you can see different ways to handle the problems related to your topic.
And any solution will be your – the client’s – solution. The idea is not that I am the very smart coach who can tell you how to solve your problems and how to live your life better. You know that for yourself. But I can help you to look at your topic differently so that you can find out different solutions, different ways that are possible for you to go.
So what other skills besides your chemistry and managerial background do you need? Did you do any additional training?
Of course, I have an education as a business coach.
What skills do you need? Firstly, you need an intrinsic motivation to do it, which is something that I have found in myself already at my former job.
To give you an example: Most of my former colleagues were not fond of the regular feedback dialogue meetings with their co-workers and were done in about 30 minutes, whereas I really enjoyed them and it always took me about two hours. I appreciated the chance to actually talk to people, in this case the people who were reporting to me. I could talk to them about what they wanted, what their expectations were, and what was difficult for them. And then what I found very interesting and motivating for me in my role as a superior was, how I also could support people in their personal goals. As a manager, of course, there are restrictions to that because you have your own professional role and your own interest, which is to be successful with your department, in your job. As a coach it is all about the client and his or her ideas.
Secondly, I think what you need is an attitude that you are working with an equal and that your client or team member can solve his or her problems themselves. You need trust in them and you need to let go of the idea that you know everything.
You mentioned that coaching is not about knowing the better answers. Can you please explain this?
When a team member approaches the boss with a problem, many managers have the reflex to solve that problem and think that this is expected of them. However, this might not be true. It might not even be the best approach for their team members, if the manager solves their problems instead of enabling them to do it themselves.
As a coach, solving other people’s problems is a no go.
We all know that situation: there is this really tricky situation, we have tried a lot to solve it, but nothing helped in the long run. We tell somebody about it, a friend, a colleague, anybody. That person listens for a couple of minutes and gives advice. Are we happy with this? Or annoyed? How big is the probability that somebody else has a ready-made solution for our specific challenge? Something that we haven’t thought through already? And would we really expect anybody to be an expert with regard to our life?
This is why as a coach, I cannot and should not know the answers to the client’s challenges. I can ask questions, apply tools that make you explore your situation from a different angle, and help you find your own expert advice for your individual solution.
What do you like most and what is most challenging for you in your job?
What I like most is the coaching itself, working with another adult, another manager, just the two of us.
Part of my job, of course, is acquisition, finding clients. I find this sometimes pretty challenging. That is something that I have never done before and it might be a typical scientist’s problem. I have never been in sales or marketing and now selling and marketing is something I enjoy considerably less than the coaching itself.
Over the years that you have been coaching, have you noticed any changes in the needs or topics managers have?
The pressure that people face in a business context is rather increasing. Also changing companies and job-related reorientations are more frequent. But apart from that, the topics stayed similar.
Do you have some kind of supervision?
I understand this question in two different directions:
On the one hand, on a professional basis, it helps you to stay a good coach. That is related to how you make sure you don’t overlook things because you have your own blind spots. I have supervision and I am a member of an intervision group, which is a group of coaches that meet and discuss the topics and challenges they face. This way I make sure I get feedback from others and get another perspective. That is very interesting because depending on the background people have, they may have a totally different approach. Just imagine, for example, you wore glasses with yellow lenses: you would see the world somewhat yellowish, and your first answer would be relevant to the yellow world. If they were blue, your first answer would be relevant to the blue world.
Coaches with a background in psychoanalysis, for example, may interpret difficulties a young manager has with his senior female supervisor in the light of his relationship to his own mother. This would not be my first approach. The interesting thing, however, is not which approach is right and which is wrong. They are both relevant. They might be, depending on the client, helpful in different ways. My approach says something about me and my background and my beliefs. It is interesting to see how other people very naturally answer differently. I see something very interesting and new, and for them it is very familiar. It is important to reflect where you come from, where could you come from, and what other approaches could be there.
… and the second direction?
… and then it helps to keep a professional distance. It helps to reflect about, for example, if difficulties that may occur during the coaching process are related to me as a coach. Other coaches or supervisors can help me to see things from a different perspective. And that will widen my scope and increase my options – just like I try to help to increase the options of the client.
If a student would like to go into this job area. Do you have any recommendations on how they could do that?
I think, and this is just my personal opinion, that this would not be such a good career path for chemistry students right after a masters or PhD.
Let’s change perspective: Imagine you are a manager in your 40’s and you have lots of experience in your business field. Who would you easily trust to be a helpful coach? Somebody who understands what you are talking about, maybe not somebody with no business experience and no other relevant profound training.
I would recommend getting a few more years of experience on the job – also finding out in which direction your personal development will take you. Parallel education to build some theoretical foundation may be helpful in this respect.
Thank you very much for these insights into your job.
Dr. Gaby Schilling, born 1966, studied chemistry and gained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from Hanover University, Germany. In 1995 she joined Henkel, Düsseldorf, Germany, where she became Director of Product Safety in 2007. After training as business coach, in 2010 she started to coach scientists in management positions.
- Dr. Gaby Schilling Coaching, Düsseldorf, Germany
- All interviews of the ChemistryViews.org series Chemists Talk About Their Jobs