Shifting

As she steps from one space into another, I am struck by how beautiful she is.
For a moment, I feel my throat catch and my breath shorten.
She is stepping into her future self.
It’s an oft-used coaching exercise – we hang out with the old, move into the here-and-now, step into the future.
We move physically, as well as mentally, verbally, emotionally.
We take our time.
At the start, she is hesitant – looking to me to reassure – is this right? Permissible? Am I saying the right thing? Thinking the right thing? Good Coachee?
Others react differently. They jump in and complete the task. They are sure. Unthinking. Certain. They tell me decisively How The World Is… Oh. OK then.
She is much more tentative, more hesitant.
We all start from different places, I guess.
But now? She’s up and running.
She is almost talking to herself…
And she moves.
Determinedly. Quietly. Furiously.
It’s a hell of a thing to behold.
She’s not some 6ft supermodel. She’s not high flyer have-it-all go getter. She’s not special. She’s not beautiful. She’s not quite right yet.
(She defines herself as what she is not – and she is sure about what she isn’t.
Very sure. Defendedly, properly, rudely sure.
I’ve been abruptly put in my place a few times for my questions…)
Me? I’m less sure. I’m deeply curious about the story she has set for herself – the excellent, binding narrative. The “I am/ I’m Not” story. It’s been written over years.
Carefully constructed and edited…the one that has brought her here.
Half-formed. Half permitted. Half certain (but very certain of the half)
As I watch her resolve to shift (maybe dissolve?) something, I am moved beyond measure.
Eventually, after a long time of silence, of talking to herself and to the middle-distance, she looks at me.
A little shy, a little embarrassed, a little defensive, perhaps – I’ve seen her unguarded.
I don’t say anything….
Then I realise I’m grinning and I might need to explain myself….
And we begin a different conversation.

What’s Possible

What’s emerging as I continue to ask myself and understand for myself What Matters to me in the work I do (see here and here for more) and how I do it is the importance of possibility. I like having choice ( even if it is only the illusion of choice) and I like it when I can see, or magic up, or work to create choice with clients.

Where there are no options, the work feels deadened and empty, stifling and stagnant …. Where I or we can see different ways to do stuff, there is energy, liveliness, the possibility of newness or movement. It’s generative. Guess where I’d rather be?

Working this way requires more, personally, professionally – you have to be invested differently if you are going to create or commit to working with stuff that isn’t the “norm” – you have to recognise and tackle strong stories, well-established personal and organisational narratives, it doesn’t happen on the sidelines, you kind of have to get involved….and possibly that’s not for everyone. You run the risk of being annoying, or wrong, isolated or scapegoated… or knackered… so, you know.. there’s that…but what if you make a difference? Well.. there’s that too…

How it shows up in practice is through questions & hypothesis – Is that really how it is? Really? Really-really? According to who? What if we….? What would happen if…? What if we could…? And then through action – showing alternatives, doing things differently, taking up or creating space otherwise occupied by certainty and establishment, encouraging clients to see possibilities, challenging what presents itself…

So much of the change work – be it with coaching clients or in organisations and systems – is about really getting into the long-held narratives and what they do for folk….genuinely understanding how a position or a story has come into being and why it is so tightly held and so defended (because more often than not, the story is defended passionately: it IS this way. You CANNOT see this situation any other way. You DON’T understand. I AM ONLY permitted to do/say/be THIS way)….and of course, there is a possibility that that is true.. and there is a possibility that it’s just one interpretation and there are other worlds out there to explore….

And in all of this, the creating and realising of possibility, is the need for articulation and repetition. You have to clearly offer alternatives, to show the possibility in multiple formats and languages and they need to be worked through before they will take hold.. otherwise it’s just flaky dreamer stuff…. My working partner, Claire Marie Boggiano, holds firmly to the belief that you have to say or discuss or show a thing “seven to twenty one times” in an organisation before it becomes regarded as possible. Whilst we are not sure of the actual science behind this, we work on this basis and prepare ourselves for have the same conversations, or raise the possibility for alternative narratives time and time and time again until something opens up…

Perhaps this blog is mostly because I’m reading the Art of Possibility by Rosmund Stone Zander and Ben Zander Good summary here – it’s a beautiful read and is helping me see how I can contribute differently in my work…. So far, it’s the story of the Taiwanese Student that has most touched me.

At the beginning of a Semester, Ben Zander (world renown conductor with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestera) is working with the best-of-the-best-students in a special programme at a Conservatoire. He wants to get them to produce the best possible performance, to get them to commit heart and soul, beyond the technical requirements of the music, their instruments, their current state. He wants them to make mistakes – and in doing so, overcome and grow – he wants them to lose their fear of errors. He makes the decision to award every student an “A” at the beginning of the semester – he tells them: Every one of you will get an A in this class. Now I need you to go and write me a letter telling me, in detail, why you have earned this A… what you do , how you feel, who you are now as this A student. This is a letter from your future self to you now… what more does that person know? What are they doing or how are they being differently from you now?
How delicious….how compelling…. What a terrifyingly wonderful invitation.

The Tiwanese student is confused by this “getting an A” for seemingly nothing. He writes to Zander:
“In Taiwan I was Number 68 out of 70 students. I come to Boston and Mr Zander says I am an A. Very confusing. I walk about, three weeks, very confused. I am Number 68, but Mr Zander says I am an A Student….. I am Number 68, but Mr Zander says I am an A. One day I discover I am much happier A than Number 68. So I decide I am an A”

There is the possibility – a lifetime of an owned narrative of being number 68 good enough, turned into something else entirely by the possibility things might be better/ different for you than that and then the active choice to embrace the possibility…It’s a beautiful thing. It’s powerful as all hell.

No wonder this is part of my What Matters in my work.

image thanks to https://www.pexels.com/photo/abstract-art-blur-bokeh-285173/

What Matters – The Garden Centre Lesson


So after yesterday’s blog,  I start thinking about What Matters in my work. The things I value…The things that serve me well… I haven’t thought much about these in a while… I have an urge to properly pause for a bit and not do anything much other than stay with the question for a while – What Matters?

I give myself the gift of a few hours. I’m easing into the week from the Easter weekend and nothing is pressing too hard. There are other things I could be doing, of course, and I could allow myself to feel guilty for “wasting time” etc – but I’m over that stuff…. This is a lively, active pause, not a vegging-out, mindless one…. Good stuff will come from this…I’m encouraging myself to do as I said I was going to and stop for a while. No sudden moves. What Matters?

I sit on the floor of the office with a cup of tea in hand. The Dog is delighted I’m at her level and wags over to my side, dumping herself unceremoniously beside me….I cuddle her and stare at the spines of books, wondering which one sort of “speaks” to me – where to begin, where to begin? What follows is a period of picking books up, raffling through pages. Noticing what resonates. Noticing where I shudder…. I give myself freedom to just go with whatever. I notice myself fretting about what’s not on my shelves..is my library good enough?… I manage to laugh at myself a little…good enough for who? Who the hell is watching right now? I figure what is there got me this far & I haven’t read half of it cover to cover – there’s enough here, for today.

Through this process, I reach back to points in my learning and my development as a Practitioner where light dawned on previously dark spaces…. I find myself seeking to return to what I have been shown… Revisiting my training: how to reflect and put that reflection into new action. How to take a thing – a moment, a regular occurrence, a block, a belief, a question-  and look at it through different lenses and positions and therefore work with it differently. What Matters?

Turns out that experience matters – I don’t mean Years-Served-Endless-Hamster-Wheel-Clocking-up-Time experience, I mean the lived experience of being in the world. Of being a fully living, sensing, thinking, learning being operating in a fully living, sensing shifting world. It matters to me and for my work… my lived experience impacts me, influences me, changes me.

When I started an MSc in Org Change in 2012, I was horrified – and I mean properly Are. You. Kidding. WTF horrified – that it began with Philosophy. One of the first sessions was on Phenomenology (cue about 3 months of me having the muppets’ M-numm-M-nunnh song in my head, only with the lyrics as “phenonmenon doo-doo-do-doo-doooo” – very very bad – if you want a different experience from this explanation, view here)

Phenomenologists argue that there is no one hard and fast, objective reality, that there is simply experience, followed by the interpretation we put on that experience.  So when we were sent off to visit places near Ashridge and a bunch of us went to the same Garden Centre what we found was: We went to the same place but Oh MAN did we have different experiences. For some of us, it was all about the lovely flora & fauna – spring, colours, growth – for others, flowers signified hayfever. For others it was about security cameras, warning signs and signs saying: do this/ don’t do that – human rules on nature. For others it was about the quality of cake and coffee – the welcome and offering. The Garden Centre Lesson: Bottom line? We were physically in the same space but emotionally, mentally and experientially worlds apart.

When we got back together to talk about what we heard/saw/ noticed/ experience it was like we had been to different places. Who was right? What was important? Whose experience was more valid? Powerful stuff.

So experience matters – my experience is just a valid and useful as yours. What I see and experience counts. Even if it’s inconvenient to you.  (actually, as a Consultant…arguably especially if it’s inconvenient to you) If we want to understand the whole garden centre, we can’t just see the roses. If we want to understand the internal Culture, we can’t just data-gather from one source  – (ie Leadership, or Frontline, or Customers, or coachee etc) I mean we CAN… but if we do, we need to be clear on the limitations of that view/ experience.. and not arrange the whole world/ training budget around a single view… ( And yes, we need to layer context on to experience eventually, or no-one gets anywhere… there needs to be a value judgement in there someplace or we won’t make decisions.. but later.)

My training: Notice the phenomena. Drop the shoulds and oughts and coulds. Have the experience. Notice the data (all of it – what you think, feel, sense – bring your whole self in) Sense-make and hypothesize. Create meaning. Reflect on it (either in the moment or after the effect – or, if you are me, probably both)…Notice your bias, your Bubble & blindspots if you can…and from there, can I play with that meaning in order to move on?  Can I offer myself choices: go deeper into the issue, or widen it out or just shift it elsewhere… momentum, progress, perhaps? I’m seeking difference, insight, learning.

I go back because it’s a thing that has served me well – reflective practice – an iterative process that moves me from Here to There – wherever There might be. I know there are good models for reflective practice – interested in hearing from others what they use or value

For me? this is What Matters. Taking my experience seriously.  Taking others’ experience seriously. Data gathering from different sources. Discussion. Iteration. And time for reflection whilst cuddling the dog & perusing books that fire my synapses.

Touch

In the moment of the goodbye, she hugs me….not a quick, rapid, throw-arms-round-as-I-buzz-on-to-next-thing hug, but a deeply present, warm I-see-you-we-are-connected-see-you-again hug…heart to heart stuff…. I literally and metaphysically find myself moved. I sink in for a second – yielding and accepting the feel of that message in my body, ready to be received, ready to give back connection, affection, love….there is a brief pause, where we’re just kind of together, and then she disentangles herself and goes… for a moment I am discombobulated, filled with good chemicals …at peace.
Then I sort of exhale and go about my day – a little heightened.
A small moment, a shifting one… how utterly delicious.

Not everyone likes to be touched.
Physically, psychologically, emotionally, sometimes socially, the phenomena of someone reaching us, connecting with us is a profound one.
It’s risky.
It can be thrilling
It can terrify.
Given, got.
Offered, accepted.
Withheld, denied.
It can’t be one-sided.
It’s a relational thing.
This stuff’s loaded.
Touch can be kind, enlivening, empowering.
It can be cruel, belittling, damaging.
It can be intrusive, a violation.
It can be instructive, a revelation.
We have, often for good reason, different boundaries and barriers around connection.
This stuff leaves you vulnerable.
It could do you over.
It could move you into different places and spaces,
It is not to be underestimated.

I’m interested in touch – what am I in-touch with? Out of touch with? What am I connecting to? Disconnect from?
I ask the same of clients… it helps to know this stuff.. or at least get a sense of it…

I have a client who hates to be touched – hugging literally makes them shudder – we’ve talked about it, each fascinated by the other’s ease of preference – I’m physical, a hugger, an arm toucher – the opposite would leave me more disconnect – I don’t understand what that preference must be like.
They spend their life being hugged and touched by folk like me, and it leaves them cold, irritated… compounded by the fact that society seems to value touch and hugs…. their boundaries constantly crossed inadvertently…Why do I need to bloody touch folk? Why can’t you let me be?
These are fair questions.

When I go and see Mum, deeply bitten by dementia, it is, at times, touch that connects us back, words won’t work here…. hands held, eye contact…a hand on a cheek… these are the gestures that garner a response.

In a novel I read recently, Karen Joy Fowler writes: “They are called feelings for a reason. It’s because you feel. Them.” Things touch us, they move us – we feel. Our physical experience of being in the world, so often overlooked, is such a vital part of who we are and how we are with others…how in-touch are we with this?

I’ll make the argument for opening up, taking the risk, being bigger, connecting more, putting yourself out there, being in-touch with yourself and with others… and I am one of the first who longs to lock-down, protect myself, hide away, out-of-reach.
I struggle with big crowds. I get overwhelmed in the Social Media maelstrom at times….lots of people professing connection… sometimes, the warmth I see and experience through virtual, social spaces, truly touches me…sometimes it feels hollow, vacuous….a scant touch, brief and care-less.

Which is why, when someone hugs me with such open heartedness, such generosity and love I’m bowled over for a second…and then I hug back….
Oh yes… this is what it feels like to be connected…. Wow.

Falling Short….

He’s read another leadership article.. and he falls short.

This time it is about Creating Happiness in the team, last time there was an urge for compassion… or was it the importance of focus? I can’t recall… what I notice is that this reading and observing of things he Should Be Doing is…distracting and sometime debilitating for him.
The article is from a reputable source. It’s backed up with good evidence. It must be right. He falls short. Again. What else is out there?

I’m saying I used to have what I think are comparable feelings when I read lots of women’s magazines (I don’t read them any more)
– Pressure to look amazing (but in a particular frame of amazing).
– Assurances that being yourself is enough (if yourself is more like this incredibly high-achieving glossy person who appears to have it sorted).
– The mind-bending phenomena of both inventing and advising me how to solve an issue I didn’t know I had in one short feature….
Leaving me with mixed messages and a sense of my own massive shortcomings– Wanting to strive to be better, but woefully aware of the impossibility of a large part of the task….helpful-not-helpful stuff.

I’m not sure he’s that impressed with my women’s magazine analogy… but hey, I work with what I have, at times. The invitation to him is to look at what he is being sold here and what he is choosing to take in. What is that doing to him? What are the messages and the subtext to what he is taking on? How helpful is all of this? Why is it so derailing for him, when others might not take it on board so? Where is he in all of this?

It seems like a bit of a theme emerging at the moment with a couple of clients (and friends in informal conversations who have been promoted or moved jobs etc) about Who Am I As A Leader?
Generally, these are friends/ clients who soak themselves in Leadership Stuff…they’ve done courses, read HBR articles, sought out business books and worked hard to keep up that side of their development – but somehow this research is unsatisfying…. For me, it’s because the fundamental question of Who Am I doesn’t get answered… if anything it gets obscured.

The meaningful bit, the part where they get to express with comfort and maturity: THIS is who I am in all of this, as a Leader; THIS is how I can and will contribute, THIS is how I will behave, conduct myself & deliver; THIS is what I won’t do …. that’s the bit there seems to be little time for.

When we design Development interventions, are we really giving people time to hone and articulate their own message? We seem to spend A LOT of time telling people what a leader is or could be or should be…. But what does that mean for an individual? Who ARE they, really as a leader? As a person? What are they bringing? How do they see the world? What culture are they creating around them? And can they get OK with that?

It’s about action and reflection – in whichever order you prefer, but hopefully in never-ending lovely loops – and I can’t help thinking this is the key to much of the behavioural change, confidence and capability building we reach for in our talent programmes and development approaches…. For me, the reflective part – sit down (or wander about) express what happened and why and how and what you chose and what was around you and chew it over a bit and refine it – this is so much more relevant, potent and long-lasting (and less judgemental?) than seeking the answers from an article. He wants to Create Happiness? He can’t do that by reading about it. There has to be action and consideration….and places for that to happen.

So go create spaces virtually and face to face which invite and insist on folk showing up as themselves – where flaws and fears can be thought through, where strengths and successes can be too.
Don’t throw too much content or concept in your programme design – let people bring what they have… it’ll be rich enough.
Work with really good, sorted coaches or facilitators, ones who have done their own reflective work and understand their own stuff enough to be able to sit with others’ fears or brilliance… you’ll know who they are… they’ll be recommended to you by people other than themselves.

And for leaders? Maybe get them to detox from some of the messages that are around. Pick one TED talk a year & mull on that deeply… something like that… it might help them know they are not falling short.

——

About me:

I’m a Organisational Consultant, Coach, Facilitator, Speaker, Blogger & Dialogue Guide. Founder of #facilitationShindig Working with people & organisations to improve conversations, relationships & learning – Doing stuff with love.

Find me on Twitter @fuchsia_blue and @Shindiggery1

Why You Should Mentor

The word Mentor in magazine letters on a notice board

Today I’m running a Workshop on Mentoring Skills at the CIPD Regional Steps Ahead Summit in Manchester. With over 4,000 mentees already in the programme, 7 out of 10 young people find employment after engaging with Steps Ahead and the CIPD credit local mentors with this success.

It’s got me thinking about Mentoring again, and why it is one of the most important roles anyone can play, personally, professionally and socially. My first deep-dive into mentoring started in 2008, project managing the internal Mentoring scheme for the Scottish Government. When I first took over, it was a small and fairly exclusive affair, designed for the those who showed high potential to be introduced and mentored by Senior Leaders they might not otherwise get access to. It was an excellent scheme, with good training and careful matching… and it had the potential to be so much more…

By the time we handed the Mentoring Scheme over in 2012, we were working with over 400 matched pairs internally and had established other mentoring relationships across the Public Sector in Scotland. The scope of the Scheme had grown to enable specialist mentoring groups to access and use both the scheme and the training content, from LGBT groups to the General Legal Council.
We achieved this by talking to people and finding out what was needed. To encourage interest & also self-selection, I was running 1 hour briefing sessions, 4 times a day, one day a month. This meant potential Mentors and Mentees could hear what it was all about and meet other mentors and mentees, at a time that suited them, and decide for themselves if this was something useful.
Mentors were trained – full day covering skills, ethics, role of mentor and peer support networks
Mentees were trained – 3 hours on what to expect, what to bring, role of the mentee.
If I had my time again, I’d use video footage, podcasts and other things to get the message out, but it was 8 years ago and we are in a different time….

It was an astonishing thing to watch as it grew. The skill and the will of the Mentors, the questions and hunger of the mentees. The tricky issues they faced together, the championing of mentees, the respect for mentors… not all the relationships worked. We put guidance and clarity in for what happens if you are stuck, or it’s done… and sometimes the issues weren’t mentoring ones and these needed to be worked through by mentors and mentees

And as ever, when I became aware I was espousing the good stuff about mentoring, but wasn’t ACTUALLY doing it myself, I started looking at where I could Mentor.

Napier University runs a Mentoring programme for students from Non-traditional background who are about to Graduate. They researched the correlation between successful Graduate Employability and if, for instance, you are the first in your family to go to University, or in a minority group.

 I’m about to do the research a horrible disservice and I can’t find it on Google – so if anyone knows better, please comment below- but broadly the research said: Students from non-traditional backgrounds often see their degree as the goal and stumble slightly at the Employability stage – in other words, if you come from a family who have already done the degree thing, your parents, siblings etc are already pushing you think about the job-at-the-end.. whereas if you are the first ever to go to uni, that alone can be seen as the pinnacle for a while… add on to that if you are from a minority group, all the known barriers to entry and the current difficulties around social mobility in the UK… and these Graduates need a helping hand.

I had the privilege of working with two young women. Each for a year. Each with very different needs and backgrounds. My mentorship involved many coffees, working through application forms, challenging lots of “no. I can’t. that is too audacious” type thinking. I set up a mock panel interview. I help organise a visit to local businesses and got them talking to other Graduates. It was tough at times, figuring out what the right thing to do might be and not getting involved in some of the family dramas that played out in these young womens’ lives… I’m eternally thankful to Claire Bee at Napier University, who was boundlessly positive and supportive in times of doubt.

What I brought was experience, a different perspective, a belief in my mentees, the willingness to listen and offer thoughts and views…. I brought action-orientation, I pushed them to go explore.. Practical stuff like the interview was great… the fall-out learning from it was harder than expected for the mentee and there was a lot of work around confidence and determination….but that’s part of any journey.

What I learned was probably as much as I offered. Applying my coaching training… but also bringing myself in a different way. The actual difficulty of getting a job at the start was brought back home to me, and then add the barriers they faced and I have nothing nothing nothing but respect and awe for these young women. I learned what it’s like to be invested in someone’s future in a different way to friends or family. And how there is nothing quite like the moment your mentee texts you to say: I got it.

Think about what you have to offer someone – someone younger or older, someone in the same field as you or in a different situation… and if you can find a way to offer your time, your skills and your energy? Do it.

More information on the CIPD Steps Ahead programme here:

Just Do The Thing.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-10-16-33

I got tagged in Sam Roger’s tweet (see pic above) by Marco Faccini the other day and it made me grin – because sometimes, despite my oodly-moodly tendencies to reflect and pause, for me, change work really is all about doing The Thing. Taking action or avidly holding to inaction – working with and against grains. Doing what it takes to get things moving, shifting, starting, stopping… doing The Thing. Not thinking about it. Not going on stage and talking about it. Not finding a perfect definition of it. Doing it.

There is a beguiling sense for me about the undefined notion of The Thing – it could be Any Thing… or NoThing (though, this isn’t really a thing, for me – unless, after asking: Why are you doing this? The answer seems a bit lame or overly-blah….Then The Thing might be: stop and do NoThing ..but arguably that option usually still means Listen or ReGroup or SomeThing….ok. I’ll stop now )

My interpretation of The Thing in fuchsiablue work is that it is important to understand established territory .. and then find new ways to see it, or travel through it or live in it…for me, it’s about being in service to clients and folk around me where I can be… taking and encouraging steps toward something differently useful. It’s about rolling up my sleeves, asking puzzling questions and designing stuff that’s acceptable enough to keep people alongside you, but counter-cultural enough to evoke a frisson. It’s less about permission, more about possibility. It’s about kind impact – what’s working already?… do more of that Thing then…and more again…

I know others whose The Thing is way bigger than this – provocative, challenging, bold colourful- and I like to peek over those fences, sometimes perturbed, sometimes breathless at the audacity, sometimes scathing of the certainty and showmanship… and I’m frequently impressed by the impact they have…and I never really learn what happens beyond that impact….and I’m curious about how the Big Thing leads to action and application.

I know others whose The Thing is quieter, less bold, less provocative, thoughtful, differently beautiful, more contained, not showy or world-wide, but nevertheless potent. It is often here I see the work happening – the action, the gatherings, the challenge to the norms, the collective practice, the agreement and disagreements, the subversion and the revision…..

So I’m curious….what’s your Thing?

If you were to Just Do The Thing… what would yours be? Your contribution? Your action? Your most useful part in making things change?