This has been on my mind for some time so I hope this short post will spark some conversation for you. My work revolves around the question of what really defines leadership. I didn’t enjoy my own early experiences of more traditional command and control style leaders. It made me want to rebel against the rules. I loved working with my first ‘listening style’ leader. When I found myself leading my own teams, I experimented with a more people-centric approach to leadership, many elements of which I had discovered in the then emerging coaching style. I built my company on sharing this approach with leaders at all levels in many different sizes of companies. I’ve come to call it conversational-style leadership. I love that one definition of ‘conversation’ is ‘to turn things around together’.
Recently I’ve come to realise that this ‘togetherness‘ is key. It’s a theme emphasised in the current pandemic where the phrase ‘we’re in this together’ is being used across the globe. Everyone plays their part. Each person has to take responsibility for their impact on others. How one person behaves (or doesn’t) affects what happens in another person.
Reflecting on some past coaching conversations, I realise how often a team member might raise with me something they are frustrated about in their leader. And how powerless they often feel to start a conversation with their leader about what they are experiencing. Two things which get in the way are:
- the underlying assumption and related fear that if you tell your leader how you are experiencing them, then you’ll be in trouble and your job might be at risk (this is rarely tested and is rarely the case when a fully honest relationship exists between you)
- the unspoken expectation that your leader is supposed to be some version of ‘perfect’ – and especially that they are supposed to come already equipped to fully understand, appreciate, and inspire you in your role.
Neither is true.
If you are not able to speak up with your leader and ask them to listen to you, then it will help if you upgrade your skills and confidence. Ask for a conversation with a coach to support you to get to the point where you can do so. In that conversation you’ll uncover your own underlying patterns and blockages. Once you find what’s really holding you back, then it will likely be playing out in other parts of your life too and not only in your work relationship. Finding your own voice will pay off hugely in many ways.
And when you look at or listen to your leader – are you relating to them as some form of idealised human because they have the job title, the authority and because you are giving them power over you? Or are you in turn listening for and seeing the human behind all that facade. Are you allowing your leader to be human too? Can you relate to your leader as another version of you? Can you let them be a real person? If you set aside all the presumed authority and risk of their job title, what conversation would you really have?
It’s assumed in all the leadership programs that it’s the leaders job to create the connection and conversation with everyone. I propose that if you are to turn things around together – whether what’s bothering or challenging you is a small daily frustration or a significant business challenge – then everyone needs to take responsibility for their own part in the conversation and step into it, whatever the imaginary risks. It might not – will not – feel comfortable, yet comfort never leads to growth and learning.
Yes leaders are human too. Powerful conversations happen when we join in conversation adult to adult and trust ourselves like grown ups are supposed to. I wrote recently to two leaders in conflict and found myself quite provocatively pointing out to them that ‘just because you have big job titles, doesn’t mean you are acting like grown-ups.’ It doesn’t follow automatically. If anything, the bigger the job title, the more it reveals all your human foibles, failings and vulnerability. When your team members see those things in you, and admit they are the same foibles, failings and vulnerability they can come to see in themselves, then you have a new starting point.
Leaders are human too. We’re all human. That comes with challenge, frustration, emotion, excitement, learning, growth and revelation upon revelation about what being human actually means. We’ve been hiding it a lot in business and behind job titles.
It’s time to come out. ! #Lead Boldly
I am so enjoying The 100 Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. It’s a well-researched and easy to read presentation of how living longer invites new questions about life and work. The traditional three-phase life (learn, work, retire) is being replaced with a multi-stage life which requires new perspectives on the choices we make and how we spend our time. There are some scary pieces in it – like whether there’s enough money to pay pensions as more people live into their nineties – and there’s lots of stimulating ideas for the opportunities and gifts longevity presents. Taking up second or even third careers for example. Returning to learning and developing new skills or finding the freedom to pursue new adventures well into the later stages of life. Of course, it requires us to be healthy and take good care of ourselves as well. I think everyone should read this book to jolt us out of the comfort of thinking life carries on as it always has done. There’s new questions and new conversations to be had. Do you realise, for example, that if you’re in your 30s at the moment, you have a 50% chance of reaching 100 years of age? I’m 62 and there’s a good possibility I can make it to my mid 90s – which means I could create another whole career ahead of me. A new chapter yet to begin.
SPARK A CONVERSATION: If you had a whole new career ahead of you (as you may well have) – how will you use it? What’s the life, work and contribution you dream of? What will make your extra years worthwhile? #DREAM BIG
Time has taken on a new meaning for me this past year. There I was, sailing along at the gentle pace my life and work have taken for the past few years, when suddenly I had to waken up to the news that I needed urgent surgery. I am writing more about this in my next book, so it’s not my intention to go into much detail with it here.
The message I do want to explore here is that life takes unexpected turns. It’s really made me think about what we control (or don’t have control over).
I’ve never been one for making lots of detailed plans. One of my favourite quotes is John O’Donohue’s poem FLUENT:
“I would love to live
like a river flows,
carried by the surprise
of its own unfolding.”
I met John once. It was in Ireland on a retreat and I was magnetised by his presence and his laughter. He was larger than life. He tells the story of the above poem with humour. The lines above came to him and he wrote them down, waiting for the rest of the poem to reveal itself. It never did. So he split the words he already had into four short lines and sent the poem out into the world complete as it was. The poem held the control. Not John. I love that he could let it go as it was.
I returned to this quote often as I navigated the journey of being diagnosed, coming to terms with, and undergoing surgery and the months-long recuperation I was to face. This is what being carried by the surprise of life’s own unfolding had brought me. John’s words brought me comfort. I had committed to living by those words. I could trust in what was unfolding.
SPARK A CONVERSATION: When has life taken you by surprise with an unexpected twist or turn? How did you respond to it? What did you learn about yourself? If you looked back one year, what insights do you have? #LIVE FULLY.
“Why,” asked one of my CEO clients, “do people always want to come and have conversations with me, after they’ve had some coaching time with you, Aileen?”
I smiled. It’s true. Coaching is about the one next step that moves someone to action. I’ve witnessed over the years, that moving to action does indeed often mean having a conversation with someone. A conversation to express an opinion or make a request. A conversation that my client had been avoiding. A conversation to get clarification or understanding that had been missing. A conversation to ask for what you need. A conversation to have something heard.
From my twenty plus years of such coaching, I have come to realise that coaching is really a return to the essential conversations that we need as human beings. Without conversation, little happens. Coaching turns up the volume on the conversation you first need to have with yourself. It gives voice to the unspoken thoughts, feelings, assumptions, worries, ideas and desires sitting inside you. And when those come more fully into your awareness and you hear them, coaching asks you questions so that you can choose how to respond to all those internal perspectives. You can decide which to discard and ignore, which to hear more fully, which ones to shift and change and which ones to pursue towards action.
And action often requires engagement with someone else. Your leader, a colleague, a team member, a friend or a partner. That’s why my CEO client often heard people knocking at his door, eager to engage him in conversation to make something happen. To make a request of him or share an idea that they wanted him to hear.
I’ve become fascinated by the power of conversation to inspire shifts in people. It’s why I’ve always referred to ‘coaching conversations’ rather than ‘coaching sessions’. One definition of the word ‘conversation’ is that it’s a place where we turn things around together. I’ve witnessed it time and again that one conversation between client and coach results in something turning around towards more purposeful understanding and action. It’s why I love what I do.
SPARK A CONVERSATION: What conversation is sitting inside you waiting to be heard? Who might you want to hear it? What might it lead to? #LEAD BOLDLY
Dogs have a special place in our hearts. They’re loyal, loving and – going against what I often teach – they don’t ask many questions. They follow their instincts and have their own way of letting you know what they need. And of course, they are the best listener you could ask for. Being listened to by your dog, lets you hear yourself more clearly as you express your thoughts aloud. If you listen very carefully, you can even sense what your dog thinks of what you say. Cody gave us a very clear message yesterday that he was ready to leave us. Two weeks ago, he was diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma, after enjoying a very healthy life. He almost made it to 11 which is a really good age for a boxer dog. Yesterday morning he signaled the end when he turned away from food. We knew this was it. As a voraciously food motivated dog, even the yummiest morsel held no interest. We cried all morning as we drove with him on his final journey to the vet’s office, where he was attended to with deep respect and graceful care. Our house feels empty today, although I can still feel his energy around us. In Cody’s honour I am approaching every conversation today quietly, with curiosity and deep appreciation. Life can change in a day. It’s a reminder of what it truly means to be grateful for the moment.
YOUR TURN: what or who might you be most grateful for today? Who might you thank or acknowledge? Where might you show some appreciation, or share some love? #LiveFully