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04 February 2021

Finding self-compassion in your career with Executive Coach, Ellie Scarf

Published on 04 February 2021

As lawyers adapt to the challenges thrown up by COVID, many are asking what career development looks like through a global downturn. Executive Coach Ellie Scarf, a former lawyer, is working closely with leaders, partners, practice areas and in-house legal teams to help legal professionals reflect and grow through unpredictable circumstances. Insights spoke to Ellie about her three key tips for legal professionals, and what she finds rewarding about her work as a coach and facilitator.

Ellie’s own career has taken an unlikely trajectory, informed by her experiences in law, recruitment, learning and development, and building Fuji Xerox's national sales capabilities. It’s a path that has led her to executive coaching and facilitation, alongside a personal journey exploring mental health and psychology.

She is now Managing Director and Senior Partner of OSC Leadership Performance, a global organisation with over twenty coaches and four partners worldwide. Clients include major multinational law firms and organisations.

“I absolutely love what I do,” said Ellie. “You get to make a difference for individuals and for organisations. You help people across their whole lives, not just as professionals. You work with people to explore the patterns they repeat, how they make meaning in their life, and how they might take different perspectives on a situation. You also give people space to voice things they might never have voiced to anyone else in their lives. I feel so privileged and trusted to be able to have these discussions with people.”

Building a reflective practice

Ellie suggests three quick and achievable tactics individuals can implement to improve performance and even flourish over the longer term.

“The first step is to build a reflective practice,” said Ellie. “This is one of the foundational elements of working with people in the context of ‘vertical development’.”

Vertical development exists in contrast to ‘horizontal development’, in which people learn new skills, tactics and ways of doing their work.

“Horizontal development is very much based on capabilities, competencies or knowledge,” explained Ellie. “Vertical development is about how you show up to the world, how you make meaning of things, consider timeframes, perspectives and think strategically. It’s much more about expanding our views of the world rather than expanding our skill sets.”

She likened the process to ‘upgrading your operating system.’

“Vertical development is most closely tied to performance,” said Ellie. “You start to become aware of what’s happening internally, in terms of your emotions and responses, and how this drives your reactions. Generally, your reactions are unconscious; we have automatic responses. One action we encourage is to practice noticing our responses. You need to think about this proactively and reflectively. What has happened in your life that might be triggering your responses now?”

This, in essence, is what building a reflective practice involves.

“At the end of each day, you could record any strong emotional responses you had, particularly those that surprised you,” said Ellie. “What might have triggered these responses? Where do you think they are coming from? Is it an echo from an earlier time in your life? Does it reflect a pattern of behaviour for you?”

What reflective practice comes down to is taking notice of your personal behaviour patterns.

“It’s this process of noticing that allows us to crack just the tiniest gap between stimulus and response. In that gap lies choice.”

Focus on self-compassion

Self-compassion ideally complements this process of noticing your emotional responses.

“Once you have noticed your emotional responses, can you normalise it for yourself?” asked Ellie. “If you had a friend going through your situation, would you have compassion for them, and avoid judging them harshly? Can you turn that lens of compassion to yourself? This means acknowledging that yes, you’re doing the best you can in the circumstances you’re in.”

In Ellie’s experience, high performing people are not great at ‘giving themselves a break.’

“We’re really good at setting ourselves extremely high standards,” said Ellie. “But we’re not so good at saying, ‘It’s OK. You’re doing the best you can right now. You’re not a failure. You’re not an imposter. You’re human, and you get to have a hard time sometimes.”

Lawyers frequently fall into these patterns of thinking and behaviour, which is what makes self-compassion such a valuable exercise.

Know when to ask for help

Her third tip flows on from her first two: know when to ask for help.

“When I say, ask for help, I simply mean, do you have someone to talk to? This could be a friend, counsellor, psychologist, or coach. The right person for you will depend on what’s going on in your life. Each challenge will be different.”

“We’re all in the same ocean right now,” observed Ellie. “We’re weathering the same storm, but we aren’t all in the same boat. Our individual challenges are different. Some people will be best served by having a chat with a friend. Others might need a coach who can help them set some challenging goals or explore issues that might be coming up. Others might need a psychologist who can proactively support their mental health. However, the core of what we need to do is the same: we’ve all got to ask for help and be willing to lean on other people.”