Monday, 24 April 2017


One of the issues that has come up for me, reflecting on the Daring Way workshop I attended a while ago, is the question of humility. BrenĂ© Brown's work seems to me to ask two things of us; the first is to believe that we are wonderful, and the second is to attend to how we are being wonderful (and how we could be more wonderful) all the time. 

Yet I still set great store by humility; not of the unctuous Uriah Heep type; but the genuine humility that recognises that I am not perfect, that I am not more important than anyone else, that I should not be the sole focus of my interest and attention.

I love this C S Lewis quotation on the subject of a truly humble man: He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. 

I have mentioned before my interest in the work of C W Metcalfe (Humour, Risk and Change) and in particular the moment when he draws a quick map of the Universe on a flipchart, explaining solemnly that it is expanding in all directions.  He then marks a point in the middle and explains it is the Center of the Universe (sic: he is American, after all). He then marks another point, and says: 'That's you - and when you confuse the two, you have lost the plot!'

It gets a laugh: the joke is good, and his delivery and timing are excellent - and it touches a nerve.  Because we all know that we frequently react as though we are in fact the centre of the Universe (because we are the centre of our own...) So we say: 'How could they do this to me?' when in fact we weren't in their thoughts at all...

So that is my problem with this kind of work: it not only encourages us to look searchingly at ourself, which, I think is a good thing from time to time (we all know how difficult it is when we encounter someone with absolutely no self-awareness or insight); but it also encourages to judge ourselves in the most positive light possible (and when I see others doing that, it seems problematic to me); and also to keep looking searchingly at ourself, all the time. And that I think is also problematic (and again, we can all think of people who are so consumed with working on themselves...)

So there is a balance to be struck, I would argue, between a regular self-examination, which is essential (the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates is said to have observed) and maintaining attention on other people and the world outside us, as though they too are important and worthy of our consideration and attention...

Work in progress...

Friday, 7 April 2017

Team Coaching

One of the fascinating areas of my work is team coaching. At its best, this is very rich and powerful. It consists of working with the team collectively, and also coaching individual team members.

I mentioned this at a meeting with some other coaches recently, and a couple expressed some surprise, and said that they would never work in that way. Their view is that coaching both the leader and people reporting to that leader is very risky: it can set up conflicts of interest for the coach. I was surprised by that, and have been reflecting on it since. And then this morning I had a very interesting conversation with another coach, whom I respect and admire, who took just the opposite view.

She often works like that, and believes it to be highly effective: one can build a richer picture, help the team, and individuals within it, to see and understand some of the dynamics going on, and generally support and challenge both the team and individual team members more effectively.

That tallies with my view (so of course I think she is wise...) but further she said that some years ago she had raised this with another very experienced coach, who advises the ICF on ethics and good practice, who had said that she, too, thinks this not only an appropriate but a very powerful and helpful way to work.

The coach has to be confident in managing the boundaries, of course. And all team members, likewise, have to have confidence that the coach can do so. But with those conditions in place, it seems to me to be a very productive approach.

As ever, I am interested in others' views, pro and contra, so do let me know what you think.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Why I don't own Aston Martin

My grandfather, Bill Renwick was a  brilliant engineer. In the 1920s he sold the family estate in Scotland, and with his business partner ‘Bert’ Bertelli, bought Aston Martin. He designed a revolutionary engine (with a wedge-shaped combustion chamber, which gave it some advantage I don’t understand) but was swindled out of his money by the perfidious Bertelli, and had to leave the country in ignominy (he rode the railroads of America as a travelling bum for many years.)

1937 Aston Martin featuring a Bill Renwick engine
Or so I was told.

In fact, it was not true. Most of it was; but he was not swindled by Bertelli at all. That bit was family legend. We discovered the truth of it when my nephew Joe wrote to Aston Martin to ask why Bill Renwick didn’t feature in a book about the history of the marque. That prompted an enthusiastic answer from the Aston Martin archivist, Alan Archer, to say that they knew little of the Bill Renwick story, and would like to meet Joe and learn what he could tell them.

Joe, of course, knew little too; but my mother (Joe’s grandmother and Bill Renwick’s daughter) did know some bits of the jigsaw. So Joe and my mother were invited to Aston Martin at Newport Pagnall to meet Alan Archerthe archivist; and as neither of them had a car, I drove them there and crashed the party.

We were treated like royalty: given a tour of the factory, and taken to lunch. The head of the plant sent his apologies; he was in a meeting elsewhere or he’d have loved to meet us…  And my mother and Mr Archer swapped what information they had about Bill Renwick. He was fascinated by the story of Bertelli’s swindling my grandfather, and thought it most unlikely.

Crucially, my mother was able to tell him the name of my grandfather’s estate in Scotland. So after the meeting, Mr Archer did some investigation and was able to establish when it was sold and for how much. He then went though the Aston Martin books, and was able to demonstrate that all the money had been invested in developing racing cars.

The prosaic truth was that my grandfather had never been swindled; it was simply that he was a great engineer and a poor businessman, and had sunk the family fortune in racing fast cars.

Where the legend of the Bertelli swindle came from, I do not know. However, he was divorced from my grandmother (in an age when such a thing was scandalous) so it may have been a face-saving story of some sort...

The only other story about him is that he liked, when stopped by a policeman on point duty in London, to grind his gears in such a way that they played God save the king. I do not know if that story is true, either.

But I love such stories - and found it fascinating to watch the truth that I had grown up with as a child disintegrate when the facts were put together.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Tango and Leadership

On Friday, I went to a session on Tango and Leadership at Cumbria Coaching Network  led by Sue Cox. I nearly didn't go - I mean, me and dance... (ask my children...) 

But it was very valuable and very enjoyable (both to my surprise). I went partly because of my heightened awareness of shame as a blocker, due to Jacqui Sjenitzer's workshop - so thought I should ignore that and go anyway.

Not so much this...
Sue was excellent. She started with a brief introduction, including an explanation of the difference between show dances (precisely choreographed) and the kind of tango she is interested in (co-created in the moment, danced by two people who probably have never met before, in response to music that is not of their choosing and which they may not know, and in a crowded space, full of others also dancing...). She also set the context in terms of leadership: the fact that complexity, change and systemic interdependency mean that one can neither predict the future nor prescribe the response: one needs to co-create in the moment...
... more this

She also talked of her own experience: having got good at Tango in the UK, she went to Buenos Aires, and quickly realised that she had to unlearn a lot; and she then learned some wrong things by naive observation (stick your bottom out, for example). But the posture of Argentinian women dancing the tango is driven by their core, not by an intention to stick their bottom out: and that makes a huge difference.

And then we started to think about dancing. And again, Sue wrong-footed me, as it were, by saying the one thing we would not be doing was learning any steps. She demonstrated a few formal ballroom steps and asked if that was dancing: the way she did them, it clearly was not. Dance, she explained is something different - especially the kind of dance she is interested in.

So we started, instead, by truly connecting with ourselves - familiar stuff to those of us who have done any work with mindfulness. The next thing was to engage our core. Those who are familiar with Pilates, and most athletes, will know about the importance of the core muscles: that group of muscles including the abdominal muscles and the muscles around the bottom length of the spine. For me, it is the place from which I sing (when I am singing well), and indeed speak. Sue's point is that good dance movement originates from the core, and that legs and arms are free to move when the core is engaged and the focus of attention. The third thing we learned to attend to was our connection with the ground: pushing our feet into the ground, even as we engaged our core to allow our backs to lengthen and widen and our limbs to move freely.  I quickly found that I was moving quite differently; and also that my concerns about my two left feet seemed entirely irrelevant (which was very welcome).

What has all this to do with leadership? In Tango, this is what the leader - and also the follower - need to attend to before they are ready to dance. Sue described this as personal leadership - connecting with ourself, engaging with our core, and being properly grounded. The parallels with leadership in organisations are not merely metaphorical...

And then we moved on to consider how to lead and be led. Again, we did some interesting work on creating a connection that was energised; rather than just leading or being led, actually engaging with the other, with a true desire to do something creative together. That is something so visceral that you can tell the difference in the way your partner holds your arms. Then it is possible to project your intention by the smallest of movements, inviting the other to respond, either as you expect, or possibly in an unexpected but creative way, contributing to the co-creation of the dance, in response to the music. We practiced the difference between leading a truly engaged follower, one who might push back, as opposed to a passive follower who merely did what was expected, and how much more creative the process was with the engaged follower. Indeed the distinction between leader and follower often fell away, as both engaged in the co-creation of something that could not be choreographed in advance.

So that is the second set of connections with leadership: Connecting and Collaborating - and the notion that the quality of the relationship is at the heart of leading and being led. In fact, the Argentinians don't talk of leading and being led. The verb they prefer is marcar, which might literally be translated as to mark, but has the connotations of to suggest, invite, open up space for...  So the key issues were the importance of engaged connection, clear communication of intention, co-creation and mutual trust, and responding to the changing external stimuli; and again the parallels with leadership in organisations are not merely metaphorical...

We were running out of time (and puff - it was all surprisingly tiring) but had time for another set of brief reflections, about the language we use around leadership, and the interesting things that can happen when we use language (and thinking) that is not all about power.

I don't think I have quite done the session justice, but it was very good indeed. You can see Sue's TEDx talk on the subject here:

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Coaching Supervision, Seven Conversations, and Useful Fictions

I was unable to get to David Clutterbuck's recent workshop for the EMCC, unfortunately. However, some colleagues who went told me that it was very good, and passed on various snippets. The topic was 'How to co-manage and get the best out of supervision.'

One of the things that struck me as helpful is the concept of the seven conversations that the coach could review with his or her supervisor.

The first two are before the meeting: the coach's internal conversation, and the coachee's internal conversation. The next three are during the meeting: the conversation between the coach and the coachee; and (of course) their respective internal conversations. And the final two are the respective internal conversations after the meeting.

When talking about the coachee's internal conversations, we are, of course, making it up. We cannot know for sure (even if we ask) what the coachee's internal conversations are. Nonetheless, it is a valuable area to explore, as it provides access to other aspects of the coach's thinking and processing, that we might otherwise not explore. Thus it is what I categorise as a 'useful fiction.'

For example, if a coach tells the supervisor that she thinks the coachee's conversation prior to the meeting revolved around a sense of guilt for not having done what the coachee said he would do at the last meeting, that opens up a very interesting range of issues for the supervisor to explore with the coach, that might not have come up otherwise. These could include how accountability is contracted for and managed; whether the coach felt adequately prepared for the meeting (ie is this projection?); and so on.

So while it may be nothing like what the coachee's internal conversation was in fact, it is still a useful thing to explore. That is what I mean by a useful fiction. In fact, that notion of 'useful fictions' is looming large in my thinking at present: I may write further about it in due course...

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Power of the BATNA

Recently I have been working with a few people preparing for forthcoming negotiations. As always, I lean heavily on the wisdom of the Harvard Negotiating Project, as captured in the seminal book, Getting To Yes. 

Once again, I have been struck by the simplicity, power and simple rightness of the approach. In particular, the power of the BATNA.

The BATNA is the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It provides the final criterion to judge whether or not you should accept a potential agreement. If the agreement is better than your BATNA, then you would be wise to accept it; if your BATNA is preferable, then refuse the agreement, and implement your BATNA.

It sounds simple, and it is; yet people rarely negotiate like that. Too often, people have a 'bottom line' approach to evaluating an agreement. But that is fraught with problems, particularly in a situation which is changing in live-time, or where there are many factors to consider.

But the other thing about the BATNA is that it tells you where the power lies in the negotiation. It is easy to believe that the power lies with the party with most wealth, resource, influence etc. Yet that is not the case. The power actually lies with the party who can walk away from the negotiation most easily; that is, the person with the best BATNA.

From that it follows that there are two key things to do before negotiating, if you can. One is to develop the most attractive BATNA you can for yourself: not because you necessarily want to adopt it, but because you will negotiate with more power if you have it available to you. It is like going to a job interview with another attractive job offer already made: it affects your performance. The second thing to do is to understand the other party's BATNA. If it is unattractive, then you have more power; if it is very attractive, you have less. Knowing that is very valuable.

For more on this, the book, Getting to Yes is highly recommended. And I also comment on it in relation to my book Shifting Stories, over on the Shifting Stories website.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Flawless Consulting

One of the books I return to again and again is Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting. It is packed with good advice, and the overall message is as powerful as it is simple: the need to behave authentically and to understand and complete each stage of the consultancy process effectively.

The reason it has come to mind now is that I am just back from spending a couple of days interviewing many of the members of a senior team. I used a very simple interview structure with just four questions, and listened to each of them for an hour.

As a result, my head is buzzing with the richness and complexity of all that I have been told, and wondering how best to feed it back into the system in a useful way.

And then I remember Peter Block’s words of wisdom: frequently the most useful thing a consultant can do is to offer a clear and simple picture of what is happening.

So I asked myself that question: if I had to offer a clear and simple picture of what is happening, what would I say?  And there, beyond the complexity, is the clarity I need. There are just a few things to focus on, at least initially.  Complexity sits behind them all, of course, but I am quite clear that if we address these few issues effectively, we can make significant progress.

So if you are engaged in consultancy, or if you use consultants come to that, I highly recommend Flawless Consulting: a true vade mecum.