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Sunday, 17 February 2013

Wise Women: Inter-Generational Action Learning



With age, comes experience and hopefully wisdom – some compensation at least for the loss of energy and creaking joints! But wisdom isn’t the preserve of the old, young people have insight and valid perspectives which can help us to see the world differently and learn new things. 

My interest in Action Learning as a tool for sharing experience, challenging one another and developing new skills extends beyond the use I make of it professionally into my personal life. The year is punctuated by delightful weekends away with friends (usually other women) where we will walk, eat and drink well and share issues and problems with one another. We use an open question Action Learning style to help one another find solutions and commit to action.

Last year I was setting off on one of these weekends after a Board Away Day at Sheffield Hallam University and told this year’s Student President Helen Francis what I was doing. I made it sound interesting enough to make her want to join me and we (perhaps not that seriously at first) agreed to think about how we could develop the idea as a learning opportunity that would bring older and younger women together.

When we met a few weeks later Helen and I talked about the issues we both face at critical change points in our lives. For her, and her newly graduated friends the excitement and challenge of setting out on a career, the difficulties and fears created by the current economic situation, the dilemmas about whether to travel, where to live? For me, and my friends and colleagues the change points are  about career choices – the last ‘big job’, the freedom to move home or travel because children are leaving home, the decision to switch to a portfolio career pre-retirement, the devastation or opportunity created by redundancy. 

We were excited by the prospect that Action Learning – a group of about 8 of us bringing our issues to share and challenging one another – could offer, so we agreed to try it, informally by meeting at on of our homes on a Friday evening with some edible treats and a few bottles of wine.

Our Associate at The Open Channel, Christina Heaton and our mutual friend and colleague Tricia Phillips were the three ‘old’ Wise Women. We are all trained in coaching and mentoring by Sheffield Hallam and work as coaches with individuals and teams. The ‘young’ Wise Women were Helena and Jenna, both full time NUS elected Officers and Jenna (2) and Catherine both Secondary Maths Teachers in their first jobs and Vida a Graduate Trainee with a large national hospitality firm.

Our session consisted of an introductory briefing for those who didn’t know anything about Action Learning, a demonstration and a ‘live’ session. The introductory briefing included the ‘check in’ which starts all our Action Learning sessions. Here people identify the issues that are on their mind at the moment, and identify one or two current of issues which they would like to put forward for discussion. An early clarification was ‘what are the boundaries?’ Groups should decide how ‘personal’ the agenda can be, but recognise that work and life or not always capable of clear separation.

Amongst the issues on our minds that evening were: Anxiety and excitement about standing as an election candidate in student elections; worries about money and whether to move back home; challenges with difficult colleagues; coaching problems where managers interfere; coping with illness in the family; nervousness about a first ‘big job’.

Christina and I offered to demonstrate how Action Learning might work. We took a coaching problem with which Christina needed help and she presented it to me for about ten minutes with the rest of the group as observers. I then offered her a set of open questions which had occurred to me and she chose the order in which to address them. This technique allowed us to identify what the primary focus of the problem was for her and how she might address it. We then invited observations from the rest of the group. The exercise took about 40 minutes in all.
For the live session, we asked for a volunteer to present their issues and tried to identify who was most in need of urgent support that evening. Through discussion it became apparent that Jenna(2) and Catherine had an issue in common and so we tried an unusual double presentation. Tricia would facilitate.  

Jenna presented first and we had planned for Catherine to present immediately after, but the issue was an emotional one, so it was important for Tricia to adjust the group plan accordingly. We therefore focused on Jenna first, offering open questions in response to her issue, and then allowing Catherine her turn in the same format. The challenge to the facilitator was to control the pace of the questioning and to be aware of the effect on each presenter.

In the feedback phase we could identify what each of the young women had learned through the questioning process and help them to decide what they might do going forward. The issues for them related to the balancing of work, home, money and friendship and for all of us in the group there were insights to be gained from what was shared. The session had a powerful impact on us all. We wanted to meet again soon, and we will. We recognised how much time people needed to explore their issues properly, so others who came with their own topics know that their turn will come next time. 

From the discussions Helen and I had initially and based on this first pilot session, we already feel there is potential in this model to offer this Action Learning opportunity more widely to young women and men who are graduating or in their early career stages. Please contact me if you would like to find out more, or to share your experiences.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Open Channel: Helping you to Be The Best You Can Be


I’m not a big Bill Gates fan particularly, so I didn’t make a point of watching the Richard Dimbleby Lecture he gave which was broadcast this week, but I happened to catch him talking about the charitable foundation he and his wife run. He used a phrase which has stayed with me – he talked about ‘being the best you can be’.

I wondered not just what he meant, but what the phrase meant to me, and how it differed from the phrase ‘doing your best’. This morning I had time to reflect a bit more on that, and want to share my thinking both in relation to work and wider life contexts.

‘Doing your best’ is about skill, knowledge, expertise. It is about using your talents to their full potential, working hard, not being sloppy, trying and being committed to doing a good job. What more can you do?

Well, ‘being the best you can be’ takes you a little bit further.It involves more than your skills, your knowledge, your talent, it demands your heart, your compassion, your love. 

How does this apply to leadership?

Great leadership isn’t  rational. There aren’t consistent rules that always apply. Sometimes you have to use your gut, your heart, your emotions to discern the best course of action, you can’t expect to work it out logically or do what you did last time.

Really good leaders never have to remind you that what you see is what you get, that they are transparent, open and honest. Good leaders know that sometimes sensitivity, humility, uncertainty and doubt are allowed. In fact, these often vital qualities let people know that you are fallible, that you’re sometimes as uncertain, scared and worried as they are.

Being the best that you can be can sometimes mean admitting to and revealing your weakness, it can mean letting go, handing over control, sharing your fears. Being human.

Kind or Clever - which is best?

My father was very ambitious for me, and encouraged cleverness, rewarding me if I did well. I believed that hard work and doing my best made me a good person, that I was contributing on the basis of my talents. But now I reflect on the balance of kindness and cleverness. If I had to be one or the other, I would choose to be kind. A clever person who is not kind does not contribute, whereas a kind person, clever or not, always does.

I have often had the job of telling people bad news about their future – something many of us are involved in these days, with many more feeling the devastating effects. I hope in these situations that I did my best to explain why things were changing, that I made it clear that the process was necessary for good reasons, that it was nobody’s fault.

I feel it is important to relay the facts, to tell it straight and make it clear what was happening, but equally, it is essential to try to see the change from the perspective of those affected, to understand their shock and fear, to recognise their loss of control. Being human doesn’t mean you have to avoid the bad news, that you have to hide, wrap it up or lie, but it does mean that you have to look people in the eye, you have to acknowledge their pain and you have to be kind.

How Can The Open Channel help?
At The Open Channel we try to be positive about change, helping people find the future they want and do more of what works for them. We also help leaders draw on their personal strengths to help people in their organisation move forward with a richer understanding of the need for change and with more confidence about the choices that lie within their reach.

If you think we can help you be the best you can be, find us at The Open Channel.