One of the most important points I emphasise in the organisational coaching I do is that, as individuals, we can make a choice between being the victim of change – or its victor.
When we are in that victim space, it feels very comfortable, because we can blame people for the change – “It’s not my fault!” In the victim space, people often feel sorry for us. They huddle around to try and support us, and we’re in a sort of cocoon-like stasis where we’re not moving forward. We’re hoping that someone will own up and call the change a mistake, apologise for the hurt and confusion it’s caused – and maybe scrap it.
If we move into the victor space, though, it’s much less cosy. It’s extremely daunting, because it’s outside our comfort zone. We’re more likely to come through the change in a positive way and make better decisions in that space – but part of that involves admitting that you can’t make the journey alone. So, instead of railing against the outside world, the victor’s language is rooted much more heavily in self-awareness and accepting the weight of responsibility: “What part must I play in this process? How must I work with the people around me? What must I do? What can I control to ensure it plays out successfully?”
In 2007, I lost my son Charlie to pneumococcal septicemia. He was 13 months old. There was no real lead up to his death – he had a cold, and the doctor told us to put him to bed with some Calpol. He left us in his sleep.
At the time, I was sales director of a large electronics company, with a roster of clients including major retailers such as Argos, Homebase and B&Q. I remember thinking I would never smile or laugh again, and feeling like my life was over. But then I considered my husband, and our other son Joshua, and thought that if I stayed in that place, their lives would be over, too. And that was when I made the decision to move from victim to victor.
That took some doing. It was like someone had told me I had to climb a mountain while wearing flip-flops instead of boots. And it didn’t unfold in a neat, linear, progressive fashion. When I went back to work, the company’s heart-led, compassionate leadership style, with colleagues checking in regularly, was at first a huge source of relief – but it did mean that I was being held in a sort of cocoon-like state.
When my boss rang me after three weeks to ask how I was, I burst into tears because I’d never known him to be empathetic – and I ended up being signed off. My psychologist asked me what sort of support I needed and I said, only half-jokingly, that I wanted to be admitted to hospital, because I just couldn’t function. But with my psychologist’s help, I began to think about the obstacles that were preventing me from moving forward, and what I could do to confront them. That meant leaning into my frustrations and grief, and doing uncomfortable things. I spoke to the pathologist who’d carried out Charlie’s post-mortem. I spoke to the police we’d contacted after Charlie died, who had thought they were being helpful at the time, but whose response hadn’t landed well with us at all. I looked at all the things that were hurting and irking me and thought about how I could clear them from my path.
Regrouping a team
On two further occasions, that path again proved not to be neat or linear.
When my daughter Ruby was born, my husband and I thought we’d come full-circle. But 11 days later, my mum – who was the CEO of our company – died in a car crash. My dad, who’d been driving, survived. The company asked me to be managing director – but I was back in that bad place. As before, I had a choice: I could stay at home and grieve. But I thought of all the people around me and realised that, as a team, persevering was something we could, and indeed should, do: what if an external leadership figure came in who didn’t share our compassionate, heart-led values?
Our team pulled together and we made a great restart – but in the economic crash of 2008, we lost 50% of our business, plus B&Q’s custom, and had to make 33% redundancies. Our core team, myself included, had many lengthy, fruitless meetings stewing over how unfair it was – surmising and assuming things and making up fanciful reasons in our heads for why this had happened to us. But eventually, we realised that we had to get out of our cocoon-like rut. We sought help from people we knew in other businesses, made great hires and built ourselves back to fighting strength. By the time I left in 2014 to become a coach, we had a turnover of £14 million.
If I hadn’t gone through all of those wrenching personal and organisational changes, I wouldn’t be the coach I am today.
A guiding star
On my journey towards becoming a coach, I was asked to present a keynote for a business event and thought it would be a great opportunity to provide attendees with something they could take away from the talk and apply to their own work. That’s when I created Charlie’s Star – a coaching model that sets out five, different personas involved in change, who we all embody or channel at key stages of the process: The Hirer, The Firer, The Admirer, The Inspirer – and last, but definitely not least, The Enquirer.
If we are to begin to mobilise ourselves out of a rut or cocoon, then The Enquirer is the persona we must embody most strongly. This is the part of ourselves that prizes curiosity over stasis, and sets about asking all the important and constructive questions that can help us chart a way forward and leave the confines of that deceptively comfortable cocoon.
With Charlie’s Star in mind, I see coaching as a valuable companion to change consultancy – focusing on the personal side of a workforce’s change journey while the consultant looks at the structural side. In particular, group coaching is a wonderful asset. For example – and I have seen this happen in practice – you may have a dozen members of a senior leadership team who perhaps haven’t quite understood how the rut that the organisation is trying to get out of came about in the first place. They may have lingering traces of bitterness, anger or frustration about the need for change to happen, and coaching can provide a sort of valve to help them work through those feelings in a positive, forward-looking way.
But above all, coaching nurtures perhaps the most important part of a change initiative: listening. If we listen, we are far more likely to understand the various issues at the heart of the process at a much deeper level, and navigate them effectively, because we are hearing each other out and working together. As Stephen Covey says: “Begin with the end in mind.” In other words: plot the goal. Even if some colleagues may not like the look of that goal, giving it a presence in the here and now will help to explain why it is necessary for the organisation’s survival. That will garner buy-in, foster listening and boost collaboration.