I recently met up with another coach, Daniel Doherty of the Critical Coaching Group. Although we have been in some of the same networks, I hadn’t met him before. After our meeting, over a cup of tea in a hotel bar, he emailed me a summary of what we’d spoken about: the topics of mutual interest we had covered, the areas and people we had in common, and a summary of what we had agreed to take forward.
This wasn’t a coaching session, simply a meeting, but I was moved by the care he had taken to thoughtfully summarise what was said. I felt valued, and deeply listened to, because he had taken the time to do it.
It struck me how precious a resource time has become, and how rarely we have the privilege of someone helping us to reflect upon our words and actions. Certainly within the workplaces I’ve been in it is rare to receive such a summary, and even rarer that it is comprehensive and covers more than the agreed actions. I know that I often intend to follow up meetings, particularly developmental ones such as coaching and supervision sessions, in this way but am not always as consistent or thorough as I would like to be. It is so easy to feel the pressure of things to be done next and lose the preciousness of the moments that have just gone.
I feel this is one reason why coaching has flourished. Time and attention are limited, and to have someone spend theirs on and with you, particularly if they are trained and practiced in helping you use it in a generative way, is invaluable to our wellbeing and growth. Just this week I ran an internal coaching skills training for Occupational Therapists and their teams, and they were surprised how valuable and how much ground could be covered in just ten minutes of focussed peer coaching. Coaching is not only one way to access this precious resource, but it is an increasingly popular one because it does not require you to be simultaneously part of a family, social, organisational, educational, spiritual or other relationship that can shift the balance away from what you really need to engage with most.
Although I adore working as a formal, one-to-one coach, one of things Daniel and I discussed was the maturity of the external coaching market and the increasing emphasis on building coaching skills within the workplace. A growing strand of my work, such as this week’s workshop, is to equip those who hold influence over the wellbeing and development of others in organisations – primarily managers – to have high quality conversations. Receiving this written summary reminded me once again just how important listening is, and how simple practices can contribute to building organisational cultures that support thoughtful and reflective dialogue.
I was recently invited to join a Whatsapp group of coaches for the SheLeadsChange women's leadership programme.
When the other women introduced themselves, I was overwhelmed and deeply impressed by the calibre, experience and passion of the group.
And yet, as someone who had been invited to support and provide opportunities for development and supervision to the group, it also, unexpectedly, triggered a huge impostor response.
It took a couple of days to figure out what the feeling was, but then I sat down quietly and faced, explored and challenged it in much the same way I would with a client: using deep listening, compassion, questioning enquiry and postive reframing. I've mapped below my thoughts, responses and mental and emotional process as an illustration of how coaching works, in this case internally, to shift aspects of ourselves.
How do I respond to all the amazing introductions in a group like this?
Do you hear how everyone sounds like you, but in a good light, perhaps on a good day, maybe on one of your best ever days?
Do you assume the others must have been in bright, shiny groups for so long they’ve forgotten how not to be confident, polished, gifted and self-aware?
Do you, like me, find your mind comparing their skills and experiences to yours (and finding yourself lacking)?
Do you wonder if you are in competition, that we may be playing at collaboration ('cos when the buck stops, whose interests are gonna come first)?
Blinded by the bright, shiny light of the multiple lenses of leadership champions, change consultants, directors of social enterprises, published academics, executive coaches and positive champions of everything important and meaningful (that you would have championed if you had only thought of it first), do you feel your own bright, shiny light dimming?
Does it make the doubting, introverted part of you escape into its swirly shell or put on its performer’s cloak? (Neither of which really help you be truly authentic, which further reinforces the self-critique)
Or, when you look more closely, do you see in yourself only the distorted reflections, the warts, the bulges and the scars of your less salubrious and traumatised angles? Because when we look deeply enough the whole world reveals this (Climate Crisis? Refugees? False news?)
When I am supposed to be there to support, guide and inspire you all, and am intimidated by the phenomenal weight of that task?
So… I decide I need to shift the lense, to acknowledge but guide this old voice that has surprised me again, as its perspective is too weighty, too ancient and hung low in the rusty habit patterns of my mind.
I ask myself to draw on my inner wisdom, act as a coach to myself, recalibrate as I help others to.
The questions flow…
What unmet need may be colouring my response from a quite unrelated part of my being? (These beautiful, sunshine-filled mornings have filtered through the bedroom blinds at 5am and disturbed my final hours of deep sleep. And yes, I’ve been a bit too busy and with a house full of visitors and crave some quiet time. And, if I pause and listen further, there’s a shiver of residual trauma from a few years back, almost healed but sometimes its ghosts re-emerge where there's a lack of safety suspected…).
What beliefs or assumptions are you making that may not be valid here? (That I’m not sufficiently experienced or qualified – an old but deeply engrained habit, and I know this immediately to be untrue).
What does this part of me need right now? (to be acknowledged, soothed, and calmed. I invite compassion to flow towards the voice, softening the edges of the physical sensations, offering kindness and a space to feel).
The final question - what might be possible if I were to step beyond this old way of thinking? - is no longer required. Because once acknowledged and calmed, an insight naturally arises that it is amazing that all these brilliant, shiny women are able to sustain themselves in our imperfect world – whether this is emotionally, financially or both. And that means that the world is recognising that what we offer has value.
I can now appreciate how wonderful it is to see that others hold a similar faith. I can now believe that we can begin to harmonise and balance the dark underworlds we may have traversed or know deep in our ancestral bones (and which often feed those unhelpful inner voices). To do this requires many of us to meet, and expand, our desire for good into its rightful place as a foundational pillar of the way we live.
We certainly can’t do that alone. The world is held up by all of our shoulders.
So… isn’t it amazing that we can come together to celebrate what we have already done, share what we are doing, and support each other in what is to come?
For not all corners of this world have the right pillars, and many spaces are still dark. It will take a whole band of bright, shiny women to light those places up.
Guiding the old impostor voice in this direction helps me see all your resplendence, and reveals its shimmer within me, too. I can now honour your difference, and welcome you - on your best days and equally on your worst (because I know what that’s like, too). Now I am ready to co-create a space with you all and help us reach further than the doubting voices within would ever consider possible.
I have delivered a few workshops on Belbin Team Roles recently, a system of exploring individual and team strengths that I rate highly and have used many times over the past decade. What I love about it is that it enables people working together to have constructive conversations about difference, and how understanding our preferences helps to improve productivity while managing stress levels.
After one of these sessions I was stacking the dishwasher at home and realised that even how we approach a simple task like this can provide insight into our preferred behaviours, ways of behaving and interacting with others.
Which of these most reflects the role you take in your household?
A Monitor Evaluator will be able to effectively critique everyone's stacking technique
A Plant will experiment with different ways of stacking (with mixed results)
A Specialist will have done the research and bought the dishwasher with the most efficient stacking arrangement in the first place
A Shaper sees it as something that needs to be done as quickly as possible
An Implementer will use their tried and tested approach of grouping items together so it’s easier to unpack later
A Completer Finisher will rinse everything first and double check the washing surface is exposed on all items before starting the wash cycle
A Coordinator will identify who in the house will gain the most from doing this task and encourage them to take it on
A Resource Investigator will probably get distracted by their phone when they’re doing it
A Teamworker will do it to be helpful when they realise nobody else really likes doing it.
If this has piqued your interest, do get in touch to discuss how Belbin might help you and your team.
I recently participated in a meeting of coaches for the peer learning programme She Leads Change. It was a vibrant and rich meeting of a group of impressive women. One of the questions asked was: why do we coach?
As with any good question, it made me think, and then the answers came and revealed some perspectives I hadn't seen before. So, with gratitude for the opportunity to reflect upon my practice in this way, here’s my list:
Because it transformed my life, and I see it transforming other lives
Because the skilled and dedicated attention of another is empowering
... and when we empower others, we are uplifted too
... and the best leaders empower those around them
Because telling someone else you’ll do something means you’re far more likely to get it done
... and celebrating each action you've taken builds confidence and momentum
Because it’s fascinating to hear about other people’s lives and work
... and an honour and privilege to help others navigate them effectively
Because there are some stories that need to be told to someone outside the story
... and when stories have been told they can then be rewritten
Because our wisdom becomes greater when it is cultivated by another
... and our vulnerability becomes our strength when it is honoured by another
Because it is great to have good and inspiring company on our life’s journey
I’ve experienced first-hand the tremendous rate of unsettling change in the NHS. Within one six month period two reorganisations affected my team. The first one, which happened only six weeks after two of them were appointed, led to both their job descriptions changing and one being moved to another department. Then, just five months later, a formal consultation began for a restructure of the wider team which affected our remit and the reporting structure we worked within.
In terms of Tuckman’s theory of team formation (1), it makes it very hard, if not impossible, for a team to move into a stage of high performance with so much in flux.
Given how unpopular constant restructuring is (2), the struggle to retain and recruit staff, and high sickness rates due to stress and anxiety, why does this continue?
As a curious organisational development (OD) practitioner I did some research and came across a blog (3) indicating Penny Camplings’s research proposing that the constant need for change is a way of managing organisational anxiety that comes from holding patient wellbeing – and often lives – in its hands. That makes sense, because when we’re anxious it’s really hard to sit still and do nothing, but often the activity is a way to displace the nervous energy of the emotion, rather than a productive way of dealing with its cause. To sit with the huge pressures the NHS is under, including the constant public scrutiny and increasing funding and staffing pressures, to acknowledge the discomfort and perhaps listen to what it is telling us might be a more productive, if much harder, strategy.
However I think there’s something else afoot, too. Following the King’s Fund report (4) earlier this year, revealing that many Board-level roles last as little as a couple of years, coupled with an established culture of interim appointments and secondments, there is also the pressure to show very quickly in a new role that you can perform as an effective ‘leader’.
I use the quotes intentionally, for I believe that this term is often misunderstood. When you google leadership and management, this kind of summary commonly comes up:
Management is today often conveyed as being conformist, old-fashioned and static. Now that the field of management development is rapidly being renamed leadership development, if we understand leadership only as it is conveyed above (which contradicts the emerging discourses around compassionate, mindful and distributed leadership), it is imperative for short-term appointees, or those in substantive roles who understand they may only last a few years, to make an impact early on, to challenge existing practice and be seen to transform and change things. So sitting with and listening to the underlying anxiety of staff and teams without doing anything about it is quite likely to be seen as a weakness instead of a strength.
And we all endorse this in many ways. When was the last time you asked someone in a job interview: ‘When did you lead a challenging new project or initiative?’ and not: ‘When did you decide to keep things the same?’. If you don’t expect to stay long in a role, you’re going to want to instigate change as quickly as you can, so you can talk about the impact you created in your next job interview – because, for sure, that’s what you’ll be asked about.
In both the examples from my own story, the change was instigated by individuals appointed on six-month contracts who were acting, or advising, at Director level. Asking around staff who have been working in the NHS system for decades, this is not uncommon.
So here is a plea, and a personal commitment, to speak well of the continuing need for good management, and be clear that leadership can mean leading change but also protecting the status quo if and when required. Because only in this way will enough NHS staff maintain the psychological safety to keep themselves well and deliver the patient care we will all, sooner or later, require of them.
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