Did the earth move?

As a Leadership Coach of a number of years, I may be about to say something that upsets my fellow coaches, or worse, loses me future business as a coach! But, I’ll risk it for the sake of sharing what I believe needs to be said.  As coaches (and probably as clients too) we shouldn’t expect too much from the ‘coaching session’ itself.

What do I mean by this?  Well, I know there are coaches (and I have had this feeling too at times), who worry that, if the ‘earth doesn’t move’ for their clients during the coaching session, they must being doing something wrong.  We dream of our clients having ‘eureka’ moments, where the lights go on, and the path to their future vision becomes clearly illuminated.  Not only is this an unrealistic expectation (at least on each and every coaching engagement), it also ignores the fact that people are very different in the way that they process information and how they deal with issues of change.  I speak from personal experience in this matter.

There have been times, when I have been receiving coaching, that I have worried about how I have been showing up in the session. Sometimes I have felt less than engaged, or sensed that I had made the session unnecessarily challenging for the ‘poor coach’. I know (with my coach’s hat on) that I needn’t have worried about that. Coaches, are, after all, professionally trained and skilled in both supporting and challenging their clients, as appropriate, however they show up.

What I do know, from personal experience, is that my ‘eureka’ moments have tended to happen far away from the coaching session, and at moments when I am least expecting it. You see, I like models and frameworks. I enjoy concepts, paradigms and theories. My preferred method of processing information Continue reading


When conflict works

It seems to me, from reflecting on the Olympics, that truly great performances benefit from having someone else to ‘bounce off’. On occasions this can be achieved by colleagues in the same team pushing each other to ever higher levels, as evidenced by the Jamaican sprinters, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. It may also be achieved by fierce but respectful rivalry, where the standards of excellence set by one player forces the other to have to raise their game to heights they would not otherwise have to. The phenomenal standards of performance displayed by the world’s top tennis players is evidence of this. It is debatable whether Nadal would ever have reached the level of peak performance he has, if he was not asked some extraordinary questions on the tennis court by Federer. Djokovic has since had to take his game to even greater heights to become World number one. Whether friendly or fierce rivalry, in elite sport, the tensions, pressures, and challenges set, help motivate participants to keep raising their game.

But it is not only sport that can benefit from rivalry, conflict and challenge. Used effectively, disagreements and tensions can be hugely important in driving up standards in all walks of life.

This is illustrated most powerfully in this short clip of Margaret Heffernan, describing the inspiring story of Alice Stewart, an epidemiologist who struggled against the medical establishment to prove that x-rays on pregnant mothers were responsible for childhood cancers. During a long, and often lonely battle, to prove her case, Alice relied heavily upon a colleague, who was quite the opposite from Alice in many ways. His job, as a statistician and as a friend, was simple. To try to prove Alice’s data and results wrong. His job was to create conflict around her theories. Subjecting her work to this level of challenge and scrutiny, provided Alice with greater confidence about the validity of her theory, and helped her to find the energy to persist against formidable opposition.

So, how willing are we in the business world to be so open to this level of ‘voluntary’ challenge and conflict? To what extent are we willing to invite disagreement in the interest of true collaboration?  Continue reading

Lessons from a journey through Wales

Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance you must keep moving                  ~ Albert Einstein

During the last week I went on a solo adventure. I cycled the entire length of the country. Now, before those of you living in places like Australia or the USA get really excited, I need to point out that the country I am talking about is Wales.  But hey, that’s an adventure for me. If you don’t know Wales, it is hilly. From top to bottom, all 250 miles or so of it, are either going up or going down, though I am certain there are many more ups than downs!

It was a superb trip, spread over four and a half days, in glorious sunshine, through some of the UK’s most beautiful countryside.  I had no big plan other than to enjoy the journey and prove to myself that I could rise to the challenge.  As I came toward the end of the road, I began to ask myself what, if anything, I had learned along the way. I cannot report any spiritual awakening, or major personal transformations, I’m afraid, but I thought I would  share with you a few of the musings of my journey.

1. Take Frequent Breaks.  There were many points where I was sure I could not go on.  I was exhausted. The hill was too steep. It was too hot.  No matter how spent I felt, I was amazed how even a 5 min break, with a bit of refreshment and a stretch, was enough to allow me to carry on. It worked, over and over again.  I do have a tendency to work on tasks until they’re completed, often ‘forgetting’ to take breaks. I know now how much more re-focused and re-energised you can be with frequent breaks.

2. Have small, regular goals.  The ‘Big Vision’ – the feeling of completing the journey – is great.  It sets the direction, it inspires you to take on the challenge in the first place, and it helps occasionally to play the picture over in your mind of what finishing will be like (especially when the going gets tough).  But, what got me through was having small targets – the next hill, what’s round the next corner, what’s the next village. This short-term chunking allowed me to focus only on the immediate stage, and not be overwhelmed by the scale of the entire challenge.

3. Rhythm is all important.  This lesson only really came to me later on the journey.  It’s difficult to explain how it happened, as it was something that ‘came to me’ without consciously seeking it. But, it was quite clear that the effort required was much easier once I hit upon a steady, relaxed rhythm.  Fighting against the rhythm is tiring and, on steep hills, I found I ground to a halt the more effort I put in. Relaxing and pumping out a slower, but even, tempo allowed me to go on much longer, and I even began to enjoy hills!

I also learned two other, more trivial, lessons. Continue reading