Let me be my best me. Not your picture of me.

I was listening to a friend describe and experience with their coach the other day and as I listened it reminded me of one of my own from more than 20 years ago. It reminded me that we do still have a long way to go in terms of creating an environment where we are all truly free to explore and embrace our true selves at work. And, even in the face of presenting mentoring and coaching it can be more about the coach or the company than truly the transformation of the coached.

When I was first starting out in sales, I had just left nursing and little experience selling much outside of working as a waitress, when I was partnered with a Sales Manager acting as my coach and mentor in the business. He was nice enough, and had a lot of experience to share with me. His experience however was his, from his perspective and related to his reality, which as it turned out was significantly different to mine as a woman. In those early years (the 90’s) as a sales rep I was full or enthusiasm and ambition and even put in a application for my boss’s role while he still had it. My problem, I was told, was I was too assertive and too ambitious (for a woman) and that made them uncomfortable. This always made me question the very nature of my relationship with my Sales Manager. If we were to never be equals, would I always be the “lesser” the “child” or the “servant” in the relationship? The construct of this relationship was uneven in both position and perceived potential transformation power. You have to then surmise that if I was not to perceive myself as having enough power to transform, how was I going to stretch out beyond the horizon and transform not only myself, but the organisations that I worked for? I left that company shortly after this conversation, but this wouldn’t be the last time I would face a limiting mindset to femininity and organisational leadership. It frustrates me that even today in 2020 I am still having conversations with talented woman who are limited by expressed bias in workplaces.

If we are to challenge the constraints and power that asserts its hold over our current position then we need to observe and challenge the view we have of our perceived reality.

Anne Brockbank in her book “Facilitating reflective learning through Mentoring and coaching” has mapped this intersection of learning and reality and has it brilliantly summarized. It asserts that the learning outcome is likely to be influenced by the motivations of the person or company offering it.

Learning contexts like mentoring and coaching are social constructs and sometimes in engaging in them we have a tendency to create ourselves rather than discover our true selves. Unless, we, you, me, have a evolutionary mentor, someone who through pointing to the reflective process can offer us an alternative discourse we are most likely to remain constraint by the power of our existing reality.

A discourse is about what can be thought, and said, by whom, and by what authority. Discourses embody meaning and social relationships. They constitute both subjectivity and power in relationships. They are practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Such as terms like “attitude problem”, “On Message”, “Unionized” or “Eco- warrior” etc.

Reflective learning will drive both improvement and transformation through the shifting of the power horizon.

So when is it good to have a outside Coach or mentor?

When a mentor or coach couple ( you and them) are aware of the power in the relationship ( such as me and my manager) , and the political dimensions (they own relationships that can influence your progression), and walk in the relationship openly and knowingly both are likely to benefit from learning. Without recognizing this political dimension, both collude with power relations and limit the effectiveness of the coach/mentor relationship. The couple simply mirror what is implicit in the relationship.

Does your Coach or mentor drive positive emotion?

Positive emotion is critical to learning and political power in the relationship impacts on its effectiveness. If we assume that responses to learning are simplistic or uniform we miss the opportunity to maximize learning. In the book Freedom to learn (Roger, 1983) it is revealed that we are influenced by how we are nurtured from the day of our birth. All humans are reared under condition of worth. Our self concept is based on conforming behavior that is approved by significant others in our lives. This idea and its relevance to the person receiving coaching is subjective and requires that the coach know and understand their reality. Our self esteem, which stems from how we know ourselves, is directly linked to our authentic presence and so through its reciprocity enables further our self esteem. If you are not exploring your true self, your capacity to lead both self and others is limited and limiting.

Anne Brockbank reflects that in order to both learn, grow and transform 3 types of reflection are needed:

  • Instrumental: This is concerned with the achievement of goals or finding solutions
  • Consensual reflection: Questioning both the end as well as the means to the end.
  • Critical reflection: Challenging of assumptions and the prevailing discourse.

True transformation happens when your learning is evolutionary.

  • You question the tfgs (taken for granteds)
  • You analyse the power relations
  • You collaborate in your learning.

Transformation learning helps to expose unequal power previously hidden beyond the power horizon, it challenges what is deemed “natural”, and yet it accepts the reality of conflict through dialogue while appreciating the power of language and the prevailing discourse.

Learning needs to be in context with and connected to a recognition of the social, cultural and political contexts as part of empathy and unconditional positive regard.

If your coach or mentor didn’t leave their judgement at the door, it might be time to open it back up for them.

Get your Game on!

Back in November last year when Donald Trump was being impeached, I was on a learning journey bringing art and leadership together in both my writing and drawing. My drawings are intended as a way for me to listening to the narrative from both sides, and then to contemplate and present the subject in a different way. This metaphorical interpretation is meant to encourage a deeper exploration of what was really happening, and how it was possible that politics in America had inspired so many satirical night shows.

To be fair, comedians like Trevor Noah, Seth Myers, Samantha Bee, Saturday Night Live etc are extremely funny, and clearly very smart. They saw and said things that politicians and journalists either couldn’t or wouldn’t say. I found myself seeking out the source of their material more and more. The unbelievable obsession with celebrity in the US ( and globally) had given momentum to something that should never have been given the oxygen it needed to grow.

I got 13 drawings in, and inspiration dried up. The sheer severity of the calamity of what was unfolding in the US and the lack of leadership from the top sucked the creativity right out from under me. All I can do these days is sit and shake my head. What is even more terrifying is the permeation of this absurdity across so many levels and the realization that the enablers in congress had lost contact with their public purpose a long time ago. This global pandemic amplified this point and it seemed incredulous that it could be contemplated that the lives of the elderly and infirm are of less value than others. As if filling the hospitals with Covid-19 patients won’t impact on us catastrophically eventually when the nurses and doctors die unnecessarily.

 3-5 years from now the leadership books will be pumping out the “How to” “How not to” “Lessons learnt” etc. Academic scholars will dissect the trajectory of this pandemic and white papers will tell us how we “should have could have” done it. There is a simple reality though, very few people were really ready and as a global community, we hiccuped, coughed and then pretty much chucked.

 In among the worlds’ tremors and rigors are some truly inspiring people leaders, a number of them on our doorstep and showing us just how to roll in our egos, roll up our sleeves and start caring about us all.

There are many good ways for leaders to take charge in dire situations and bring the collective strength of a team into play. It’s likely, given that no one really has been left untouched by the lock-down, that things are not currently great for a lot of people or organisations. We could say with hindsight, there are probably choices made that if they had been different would have yielded a different outcome to our current position. However, we are where we are and the future lies ahead of us, not in our review mirror. These are 2 things I have learnt from the satires playing out on Youtube each night.

  1. You need to stop the blame game
  2. You need to be responsible for each person at your table

It’s time to reframe the blame: There is a fantastic book on leadership that I am currently reading “Leadership Team Coaching” by Peter Hawkins. In this book he refers to reframing the blame. A great example of this would be instead of saying “ you haven’t supplied any of the test kits” is to say, “ I need you to supply the test kits so that we can…” You reframe blame as a request and then you get confirmation that the request is heard and accepted. It takes the blame and shame out the game. Neither of these are important in leveraging your collective strength.

No matter who you are, choose to be responsible for each person at the table. For a team to leverage its full power, the individuals in the team need to each recognise that they need to leverage their strengths for the benefit of the team and not the individual. In being accountable to the results, there is no place for status or ego at the leadership table.

I am feeling optimistic about our future. New Zealand has some outstanding leadership and it makes me grateful and happy that I live in this corner of the world.

Game on world!