Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Meeting

This morning, as I was driving down the M6 to a meeting, the traffic came to a halt and we could see heavy black smoke ahead. The opposite carriageway was completely clear, and it was quickly apparent that the motorway had been closed due to a vehicle on fire (we soon learned, from those who wandered up the central reservation to have a look, that a large crane had caught on fire).

So I sent a message to the person I was due to meet, and also texted Jane at HQ (we were at a complete standstill, and had been for some time, I should add...) to let her know what was going on. She replied that the person I was due to meet had also got in touch to say he wouldn't be able to get to work on time, so could we postpone the meeting.  I had visions of him being a couple of cars ahead in the queue...

So I then typed up a quick briefing note of the issues I had wanted to update him about, and the questions I had hoped we would be able to discuss, and emailed that through to him. In the meantime, he had texted me his mobile number and agreed we should talk by phone.

And that is what we did. I called his mobile (it turned out he was sat at a train station, awaiting the  next train to get him to work) and we had a very productive telephone conversation, in about 15 minutes.

And then I had to wait for the motorway to reopen, before I could go to the next junction and then come back home the back way (the northbound carriageway was still closed as the crane was on that side of the road).

All of which made me reflect that I should conduct more meetings by phone.  Had I gone to his office, the meeting would doubtless have lasted longer - not least because both of us would, at some level, have felt that it should, to justify the journey.  But in fact we sorted everything in quite short order.

Yet I had had, I thought, good reasons for seeking a meeting rather than a phone call. I was suggesting some changes to a plan of work, and wanted to gauge his reaction. I wanted to have a creative conversation with him about some possibilities, and elicit his best thinking. I wanted to continue to build the relationship: we had only met twice or thrice, and that over a twelve month period.

But in fact, the meeting we had by phone was more than adequate: it was quick, efficient good-humoured and productive.  I was able, I think, to gauge his reactions, and he certainly had some very good ideas that took our thinking forward. And writing the briefing note had really focused my thinking, and also gave us both a written record of the key issues.

So my conclusion is that I need to be more confident in the power of a phone call both to transact business, to enable creative conversations, and to build relationships.  And I am sure my clients will appreciate the time saved by shorter conversations - and I certainly will, once travelling time is added on top...

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Listening and power

I ran an event for the senior team of an organisation recently. The team has an annual retreat for a couple of days every year: this was the sixth one since the current Chief Executive has been in place, and first I have facilitated for them.

After some discussion with the CE (and knowing the organisation and the senior team quite well) I suggested that we use Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment approach. (See the Nancy Kline tag for my previous posts on this topic).

So we recast the agenda as a series of questions, and included an initial round of 'What's going well for you?' followed by a reminder of the Thinking Environment components (most members of the team had come across them previously - indeed they had resolved to work accordingly last year, but had forgotten to do so...)

And then each agenda item was treated in a TE way: we took turns to speak; we listened to each other without interrupting; we truly attended; we shared the time fairly; we split into smaller groups for some items; - and we had some great discussions.

What I noticed was that this approach re-distributes power towards those who are normally disadvantaged by the traditional meeting behaviours: those who are slightly less quick at articulating their thoughts, those who are more likely to be interrupted, and less likely to interrupt; those who like to reflect, even as they try to express their thoughts. I have, of course, noticed this before.

But what really struck me this time was that power is not a zero-sum game. The increased power of those people was not at the cost of others; rather the whole team seemed more potent. The CE, who spoke less than he normally does, increased in both understanding and stature. Wiser decisions were made with a higher degree of consensus; and difficult issues were addressed with a greater degree of mutual understanding.

At the end, the CE, and many others, said it was the best retreat they had ever had - and they resolved to work in this way in the future.  I will be checking in with them to see if they are more effective in implementing this resolution this time than last (and I did just happen to remind the CE of this resolution just before the next senior team meeting...)

Friday, 22 September 2017

Invisible Facilitation

I have blogged before about Invisible Facilitation (here and here) and was reminded of the idea this week, when I ran an awayday(-and-a-half) for the senior team of a University.

As before, some of my most valuable work was done beforehand (getting the agenda cast as questions, for example, and agreeing the whole approach with the Vice Chancellor, which informed how he introduced the day and ran various discussions). On the event, I said very little.

One thing I did say was a brief (10 minute) introduction to Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment (qv) and the implications of the 10 components as they might apply to this awayday.

I also sorted the groups for the group work, managed the timing and so on; but 90% or more of the talking was done by the participants, and (and this is the important thing in terms of the Thinking Environment) the airtime was shared pretty evenly between them.

At one stage I also passed the VC a note about a change to the meeting process, when I thought the Thinking Environment principles weren't being honoured (ie a few were doing all the talking). He changed the process, and the thinking took off again.

The last thing I did was invite them to comment on what they had taken from the event, and their reflections on the Thinking Environment as a methodology for such meetings.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive: indeed a number of them said it was the best awayday they had ever had as a team.

So once again, nearly-invisible facilitation proved a very valuable approach: and fortunately the group were sophisticated enough to recognise the correlation between my (very few) interventions and the success of the event.

Another blow struck for introverted facilitators!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Risk taking and prudence

I have been reflecting a bit about risk-taking and prudence; and my different relationship to physical and emotional (or social) risk.

That has been prompted, in part, by a recognition that over the summer I made a number of imprudent decisions about physical risk; one of which led to my damaging my ankle quite severely, taking a fall from a rock-face, and another leading a group of friends over Striding Edge in fairly adverse conditions (I learned later there had been a severe accident that very day with someone falling from the ridge; and a fatality two or three days previously).

And then, in discussion with some other coaches, I was reflecting on taking risks as a coach, and recognising that I had never regretted taking a risk in that context, but had regretted occasions on which I had failed to do so.

At the level of physical risk, my conclusion is that I should start to act more like the venerable grandfather that I am, rather than the teenager I was thirty-five years ago. That is simply a matter of growing up.

But with regard to social or emotional risk, I have been reflecting on the excellent analogy in Daniel Nettle's book on Personality. He talks about smoke detectors, and points out that a smoke detector can fail in either of two ways.

On one hand, it can go off when it is not necessary; which leads to people standing outside in the rain waiting for the fire brigade to arrive and give the all-clear to re-enter the building. On the other hand, it can fail to go off when it should do, which leads to possible loss of life.  Naturally enough, manufacturers over-calibrate smoke detectors, so that the first error occurs, rather than the second.

Nettle's point is that our response to risk can be over-calibrated like that. Clearly, over the years, I have managed to over-compensate with regards to physical risk, but, like many people, social and emotional risk remains over-calibrated; so that there is always a tendency to over-react to perceived risk and refrain from, or withdraw from, situations that feel risky. 

And as with physical risk, the way to re-calibrate is experience: regularly pushing the boundaries of perceived risk, until I am more comfortable with it.

So if I offend you next time we meet, put it down to experimentation with calibration: it’s nothing personal!

Friday, 8 September 2017

Things we don't want to do...

Some time ago, a coaching client pointed out to me that there are only two types of things one can put on a to do list: the things we are going to do, and the things we are not going to do. His point was that life was much more pleasant (and productive) if we simply don't put on the list the things we are not going to do.

I remembered this twice during the week; once was in a meeting with a client who had realised since the last time we met, that the reason he had been unable to make time for the one really big priority that he had been procrastinating over for years, was that fundamentally, he didn't want to do it.  That realisation released a lot of energy (and some guilt and sense of incompetence). In particular, it freed him to identify what he really did want to do, and to get on with doing that.

And I had a similar experience myself. I was discussing with my coach various ideas to market my book, Shifting Stories, as sales have just started to slow down. (Did I mention I'd written a book? And that it's really very good?...) 

And we generated a number of ideas, including trying to get it reviewed in some of the professional journals, and what that would take (research, finding the right contacts, sending out copies, badgering the contacts etc - all with little prospect of success...). And I realised I just didn't want (or intend) to do those things. So instead of pretending (to myself or my coach) I simply said that I wouldn't. And that liberated a lot of energy for considering what I will do. Which includes more workshops for interested groups (I've a couple lined up already for the next month or so, and will seek to build on those); more conversations with people who already like the book (or the ideas it contains) about how they are using it, and how they might share the ideas; more use of social media (I quite enjoy blogging and writing Linked-In posts occasionally), and so on.

These are all activities I can commit to without my heart sinking; and as a result, not only am I more likely to do them, but I am more likely to do them in such a way that they are likely to be successful.

So I am now reflecting on where else in my planning this might apply: what else feels as though it deadens the soul, and how can I remove such items from my to do list, and replace them with activities that energise and excite?

So that's my top time management tip for this week: strike off the things you really have no intention of doing, and use the time and energy released for something more enriching.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Caxton Kafka

Some years ago, my wife organised a Caxton card for Mike, our son, to use on his travels. She also put my name on it, so that I, too, could use it.

We haven't used it for a while, and a replacement card arrived recently; which posed a problem. The problem arose because since last using the card, we have changed various email addresses, forgotten the passwords, and forgotten in whose details (d.o.b. mother's maiden name etc) the card was originally registered.

I know, I know, we should have had records of all of these, but we didn't. To register the new card (and transfer the balance from the old card to the new) we had to log in. For that, we needed to enter the correct email address, and the password. Forgotten password: no problem - they'll email it. But as we had also changed email addresses...

Clearly the thing to do was to call the helpline. I explained the situation, and the young woman at Caxton asked for my date of birth and my mother's maiden name, which I gave.

Caxton: Sorry, that is incorrect.

Me: I see. But those are in fact my date of birth and mother's maiden name. Perhaps we used my son's date of birth and mother's maiden name when we opened the account: 9/5/96 and Plasom.

Caxton: Sorry, that is incorrect.

Me: Oh. What should we do then?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: I understand that. But given I can identify myself by other means (I could send you a copy of my passport for example) I am wondering what we have to do to move this forward.

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: So do I have to write to Caxton, or what?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself. You could phone back, if you can remember the details you may have given when you registered the card.

Me: So I should keep phoning with different combinations of my own, my son's and my wife's details until I hit the right one? Is that what you are saying?

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself.

Me: Yes, I understand that; but I want to know what I should do next, to establish my identity.

Caxton: I cannot continue this call, as you have failed to identify yourself (and hangs up).

This is a shortened transcript: I tried various tacks and questions; she was almost unvarying in her response. It really was like something from Kafka - or possibly Vaclav Havel - that almost overwhelming despair of banging your head against a bureaucracy that isn't even malevolent, simply stupidly unmoving...


I conferred with my wife and tried again later. I got a much more amenable young man, who asked me several identifying questions, and told me that I had got one wrong, but the rest were all correct, so on that basis he was happy to accept my identity. The one I had got wrong was my mother's maiden name. It transpired that my wife, in setting up the account had used all my details (date of birth etc) but given her mother's maiden name... I could have phoned many many times before hitting on precisely that combination, so was grateful that the second Caxton employee was less Kafkaesque than the first...

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Intuition or co-creation?

One of the discussions I often re-visit with my coaching supervisor, Jan, is the issue of non-directionality versus making suggestions for how to think (differently) about an issue or sharing new insights about it, when one is coaching. 

Some of our purist friends would argue that the minute coaches make a suggestion, they are taking autonomy away from the client and thus working against the primary goal of coaching: increasing client agency.

Interestingly, and although I am sure they would deny it, I think that understanding springs from a view of the client as 'broken' - as necessarily lacking in autonomy or agency. That is not a view I share.

However, I do recognise that offering suggestions is not the first thing to do; that encouraging people to think through their own issues in depth is generally more productive (cf my frequent blogs on Nancy Kline's work for example) certainly as a starting point.

But I also think that where I have a piece of theoretical knowledge (eg the research on Negotiating) or specific experience, it would be a failure, as a coach, not to share that appropriately. And it is rather over-optimistic to imagine that skilled questioning will help an individual to come up with the fruits of twenty years' worth of research, or pluck from the air the idea that reading Getting to Yes might be helpful.

Perhaps it is the nature of the people I coach, who are mainly academics or senior professional people, but I don't find that they swallow my ideas whole, or that there is a huge power imbalance whereby they credit me with some spurious authority. On the contrary, they are typically highly autonomous and characteristically intellectually critical. So the danger of my imposing my thinking on them seems relatively minor. Of course I take care to make sure that I pose things as suggestions or options to consider, and the feedback I get from my clients is that this is a helpful part of the process.

What we were discussing at my last supervision, and which I found particularly interesting, was the sudden insight one sometimes has, as the person one is coaching describes their issues in depth.  There are several risks attached to these: they can be a distraction ('when will she shut up, so I can share my brilliant insight?' or 'I'd better remember that, so I can contribute it at the right time...'); or they may not be so wonderful or relevant an insight as one thinks. And, of course, they are the nearest one gets to imposing one's own ideas on the coachee. 

In discussion with Jan, we agreed that sometimes these are very valuable; indeed the discussion arose because I had had that experience in a session we were reviewing as part of my supervision. But we also agreed a few other things. One is that it is very valuable to wait before offering them; to put them aside mentally and continue to listen exquisitely to the other person. If they are good insights, they will still be relevant later; and if not, they are better not shared prematurely (or at all!) Likewise, if they are as good as I think, I won't forget them - rather than worry about that, I should trust my memory: if I forget them, that's probably a sign that they weren't as brilliant as they seemed.

But the most interesting part of my discussion with Jan was her insight (which I am truly grateful that she shared!) that these are not so much flashes of brilliant thinking by the coach, as ideas co-created by the coachee and the coach, and the process they are working through together. Insofar as they are accurate and perceptive, it is because they are grounded in the coachee's analysis of his or her issues. It is the coachee who has done 90% of the thinking, and perhaps all the coach does is articulate back to the coachee a fresh perspective on that thinking. But as Jan pointed out, the credit belongs largely to the coachee - and making that explicit also helps avoid the concern about undermining agency.

And of course, that realisation means that I can take some of the credit for Jan's brilliant insight!

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Vulnerability and Control

I have long been a fan of the work of Peter Block, particularly his book Flawless Consulting (indeed I have blogged about it before, most recently here).  One of the points he makes is that most resistance to change, or to consultants' recommendations, spring from concerns about control and vulnerability.

I have often found that to be the case, and when I get an unexpected reaction from someone to a suggested action, I often find that considering issues of control and vulnerability is helpful to understand it.

This week, I have noticed these two issues cropping up in a number of other situations, and I am now wondering how universal they are, in relation to a range of difficulties we face. 

For example, in a recent episode of The Why Factor on the BBC World Service, they were discussing Self Harm. And guess what: vulnerability and control emerged as key issues. Vulnerability, perhaps predictably; but control? Yet what come through is that when a young person is cutting himself or herself, being in control of the pain, and then of the response to that pain (and indeed switching from enduring pain to looking after oneself) are a very important part of the satisfaction that some report from the process.

And then I reflected on something much closer to home: the degree of mental and emotional energy I have expended thanks to one of my clients deciding (contra all my other clients) that I fall under the IR35 regulations. I won't bore you with the details, but it is clearly a wrong decision, and one that is very much against my interests (and I think, finally, we are making progress towards a potential better decision). But the features of the process that caused me to expend so much energy were precisely those: I felt a decision was being taken that was both wrong and very damaging of my interests without my having any say in the matter: I was losing control. And the damage to my interests (if all my clients took the same approach, I would have to close my business...) made me feel very vulnerable.

So it has been an interesting week, and I will continue to consider other issues that I and others find difficult and explore the degree to which vulnerability and control are major factors.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Increasing the dose

I have blogged before about meditation, several times, in fact: the theory and my own developing practice. I have recently returned from my annual pilgrimage walking from Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame de Chartres (about which I have also blogged previously: here for example.)

It is a serious walk, as the miles recorded on my phone reveal, and gives plenty of time for both meditation and reflection.  And of course one of the things about a pilgrimage is what one brings home with one: the insights, the resolutions...

This year one of the resolutions that I made was to increase the dose, as it were, of my meditations.  My practice for the last few years (since September 2014, in fact) has been to set aside 14 minutes a day for this. And as I have recorded (here for example), I have found the practice very beneficial. So as of this Pentecost, I have increased the time allocated to 20 minutes a day.

That does not sound a big increase: a mere 5 minutes extra, but the impact so far has been significant. Somehow 20 minutes feels a much more expansive stretch of time than 15; on the one hand it is slightly harder to find 20 minutes of uninterrupted time during the day. But on the other hand, it is a much more valuable practice.  It is hard to explain why, but it feels qualitatively different.  

I will keep reflecting on this (see here for the difference between reflecting and meditating...) and report further thoughts in due course. But in the meantime, I will just reflect on my running shoes, which carry the legend ASICS - anima sana in corpore sano (a healthy soul in a healthy body) -and remind me why I both run and meditate on a regular basis.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Memento mori

I was shocked to learn, on Sunday, of the sudden death of Patrick Johnston, VC at Queens University, Belfast. I met Paddy for the first time last year, when I ran an event for him and his senior team. Since then, we have met a number of times, as we discussed and then planned a further significant piece of work, which was just due to start next week.

He struck me as a leader of vision and integrity, and his humanity was always very much in evidence, as was his courage. 

His sudden death has clearly impacted others, family, friends and colleagues, far more than me; yet I have been struck by how distressed I have been. I had come to regard him as a friend as well as a colleague, and feel that the friendship ended just as it was beginning.

I feel privileged to have known him, and will long remember him.

His death feels particularly poignant as he was only a couple of years older than I am, and like me had four children and a new grandchild.

I found the homily preached at his funeral Mass, by a priest who was a family friend, very moving.

May he rest in peace.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

An unexamined life...

According to Plato, Socrates said at his trial that the unexamined life was not worth living. Socrates' approach, Socratic questioning, helping people to discover or make explicit the understandings that they already know implicitly, is foundational to any coach.

Yesterday, I was talking with a coaching client about the practice of meditation, and the benefits thereof. 

And that made me reflect, subsequently, on my own experience.  Some time ago I posted some reflections about meditation, here. That was after making a public commitment to a regular practice, back in 2014, here. I am in no doubt that this practice has made a substantial and positive difference to my life, particularly in my capacity to deal with disruptive emotions and distractions.

But in this post I want to draw a distinction between meditation and reflection. The meditative practice is focused on the present moment, and the conscious direction of one's attention in the present moment (in my case, practicing a Christian form of meditation, that is on a passage of the Gospel which I am meditating on).

Whereas reflection is focused on the past, and to some extent on the future. On the past, to learn what I can from my experiences, and on the future, to consider how to apply that learning. 

So they are two distinct practices, meditation and refection, but they also support each other. The regular practice of meditation means that when I assign time to reflection, I use it for reflection and do not get distracted; and the practice of reflection is a way of collecting any insights gained from meditation (and indeed checking that I am still dedicating time to it). And I find it important to record the results of my reflections in writing, and to review them from time to time.

The only other thing I'd say on this is: don't overdo it. There is always the risk of becoming so self-absorbed and self-centred, that it is frankly irritating to others and comes across as narcissistic. But to over-react to that perceived risk, and refrain from any self-examination... well, what Socrates said!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

An uncomfortable simile

It was the final day of the Professors' Programme at Lancaster, last week. The day went well, and the comments as participants reflected on the whole programme were very interesting. As so often, a lot of the value came from the new connections established with colleagues around the university, and the learning generated by discussions amongst participants. But the other aspect that was particularly well received was the whole Thinking Environment approach, and in particular, the co-coaching that was a regular feature of the programme, built on the work of Nancy Kline.

One of the professors said that the co-coaching was very uncomfortable, but highly valuable. In fact, he said, it was like having an enema when you are constipated: not pleasant but extremely worthwhile. 

I wonder if I should use that in my marketing...

Friday, 12 May 2017

In which I need a fig leaf...

We got a letter this week from the procurement department of a University with whom I do some work, to say that ‘Our investigation has concluded that the revised IR35 legislation will apply to any future payments made to you. This means that the value of any invoices will be paid net of income tax and national insurance contributions but you should receive credit for this deduction as part of your annual self-assessment tax return.

A quick check reveals that I do not fall foul of the IR35 rules on any count: I could field a sub, my work is not under direct control, we are clear on the MOO front, and so on. My inside source at the University concerned tells me that Procurement are targeting all those suppliers whose business name matches the name of the individual. So because I trade as Andrew Scott (and for no other discernible reason) they issued this unilateral decision.

All of other Universities with which I work have accepted that my employment status is clearly independent of them.

Needless to say, we have got back to the university concerned, and I am sure we will resolve the matter sensibly and amicably. 

But I am wondering if I would have saved us a lot of hassle if I had named the business Fig Leaf Consulting Limited…

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Power of Listening

It happened again. The other day, towards the end of a coaching session, my coachee said: ‘Thanks, what a great idea!’  I had to say: ‘I think it was your idea, actually…’ as indeed it had been.

But it was an idea she had never had before, about a topic that she has been thinking about for some time.

It reminded me of a comment by Andrew Derrington some time ago, to the effect that he often found that he had great ideas either during or after our coaching sessions.

And it all hinges on the power of listening; of providing the space, time, attention and questions that help someone to take her thinking further than she had ever taken it before. 

Last week, I got a lot of academics to do this for each other as part of a time management workshop: to listen to each other thinking out loud about their time management issues and what they might do about them, without interrupting, for thirty minutes. As one reported: I thought I’d said all I had to say after five minutes; but then, being listened to for another twenty-five meant that I said more things - and some of them were valuable, new thoughts I had not had before.

As Nancy Kline would put it, all it takes is giving people time (and the right environment) to think.

So simple, so powerful… and so rare.

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.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

On The Receiving End...

I have blogged numerous times about Nancy Kline's approach to listening and the Thinking Environment, the various ways in which I have used it, and its consistent usefulness. But what I have not written about before is my experience of it on the receiving end. 

Ever since last April, when I attended Nancy's Thinking Partnership programme, I have had a regular Thinking Partnership session with one of the other practitioners who was on the programme, a wonderful coach, Claudia Danser

We typically speak on Skype (as she is in London and I am in Cumbria), and have learned a lot about the Thinking Partnership process and that medium as a result (for example, on Skype, don't look into the eyes of the person to whom you are listening; rather look at the video camera lens - that feels to the recipient more as though you are looking into his or her eyes, and it makes a difference!)

These conversations have always been valuable, both for the opportunity to continue to practice the skills in a safe environment with a skilled coach, and also for the actual content of the session. Normally, we both find that the first stage, the simple attentive listening, is sufficient to resolve whatever issues we bring to the session.

However, the reason that I am writing about it this time is that the issue we addressed in our most recent call needed more than that. I was experiencing an unusual, and unusually strong, sense of worry about a forthcoming piece of work, and wanted to understand why.

Claudia had to go all the way through the model, helping me to identify the assumptions I was making, decide which one was most limiting, and then construct an alternative positive assumption to try out. 

The result was excellent. Not only did I understand what was causing my unease (which was my declared goal) but also found that by the end of our conversation, I had replaced the sense of unease with a far greater sense of ease and confidence, as a result of replacing the limiting assumption with a more liberating - and truer - one.

Interestingly, that conversation was sound only: we couldn't get Skype to work (possibly because I was in a hotel room, connected via a poor hotel link). But it didn't seem to matter: the process worked, once more.

So yet again, I have experienced the power of Nancy's model; and this time as the recipient, rather than the coach. And once again, it has delivered exceptional results. I remain impressed.