How life shapes us

How life shapes us

It’s funny how life often shows us exactly what we are all about through our interactions with other people, some people tell you straight what they see and others merely hold up mirrors that when you choose to look and take notice give you interesting reflections on you. In my work as a coach, I am often the person pointing out the obvious messages or my observations about people and some find that great and are really open to hearing the observations, other people just back off into their own shell again and sometimes I do both also. It’s a bit like the Chinese saying ‘ when the student is ready the teacher will come’, that doesn’t always equate to liking the the lesson in my opinion, but teachers cross our paths every day of the week.

A recent event with a friend made me think and realise at how much they were holding up a giant mirror for me, either to see in a good or bad lights how things change and how life events shape and affect us in a lot of ways.

If you don’t like to hear all the deep and meaningful stuff or philosophical interludes of my mind, I would advise you to tune out and come back another day when I pick something way lighter to write about.

About this time 2 years ago I was heading out to Cambodia on a trip, for a lot of reasons i should not have made this trip, yet thanks to to help of some key people I did end up going and it is only now that the benefits are coming together. So you know who you are, I thank you very much for every bit of help you were willing to give and I sure hope that in time I can repay all you put in, thank you all the same.

We were only a group of 14 people visiting some magnificent sites, learning about the work of what is now one of my favourite charities namely Friends International and equally spending time with like minded people in business and learning from Dave Lakhani and Chris Howard as well as everyone on this adventure.

One of the days Dave Lakhani was helping each of us to make our personal life story into persuasive story we could use in our respective businesses. So when it was my turn, I did as I was asked and gave my full life story through my eyes and words; now if you know me well enough you know I have packed in a lot of experiences ranging from good to bad to ugly in a relatively short space of time. He stopped me somewhere into the story and said this one wasn’t ready for editing. At the time I was stunned, I really believed I had dealt with most of the things I experienced and was quite taken aback by his reaction, which then triggered anger, doubts and a whole load of negative self-talk, etc. etc on my part.

I did have some conversations with Dave and other people on the trip about it and he felt there was an enormous sense of grief, loss and sadness about me,which confused me because the only real loss of life I had experienced was that of my grandparents and whilst I was very close to my grandmother I also felt that I was at peace with this aspect of my life. He also recommended a book called the ‘Grief recovery handbook’ by John James and Russell Friedman. When I was done being angry and sorry for myself, the book arrived and it was probably one of those eye openers when you read and finally feel totally understood or just about get to understand yourself.I did all of the exercises and went with the flow of the book. I did clear up some relationships that I didn’t think would ever change, but also it helped me see that we all attach feelings and emotions to events and experiences even if they are a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or how we interpret things and make them into insurmountable crazy issues, just so we can be noticed and feel the attention.

Coming back to recent events, it is ironic that recently I met a person who is extremely charming, funny, witty, etc and yet also carries a strange sense of loss and sadness around. By observing them, I realised how far I had come and that exactly this was probably me back then. So for that I thank the person greatly, because maybe I needed to notice.

To share some of the key things that I took away from the book. Some of our life experiences from relationship endings to business closures or job or country changes cause the same effect as losing a dear relative or friend, which means we also have same senses of loss and grief to work through. In most of our society though, grief, sadness, loss etc is not something the general public wants to deal with or is able to deal with and we all process it in our unique ways. Some of go quiet, others have to talk about it and the timeframe is completely irrelevant, it’s as if your body intuitively knows when you can handle the final grief, because in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, we also have this amazing coping mechanism kicking in. In a way it never ceases to amaze me how much our body can tell us what we can and can’t deal with at the time.

In terms of time frame it is not uncommon for major issues to come up, years later, purely because we probably cleared up other things or grew internally so we ended up ready to deal with them. I often have clients come back to significant events in business that affected them and at the time they may not have paid much attention, but when they are ready it pops back up.

Yesterday I had a meeting with a client and we were talking about the analogy of diamonds and coaching. She had been looking at alternative ways to explain that she was a life coach, she now is in the diamond business, which means she takes the rough stone and helps the person find the true gem, because there is one in each of us. That is exactly what my friend that triggered all of this looks like to me, and I guess that is what I looked or maybe still look like in the eyes of others on that trip to Cambodia. I love the analogy though, sometimes grief, loss, life, etc just get’s in the way of the true gem coming out and maybe it is because we are protecting it’s beauty or we are afraid it may shine too strongly or whatever else.

If you look at it from a distance and with time perspective, life is what shapes us to be the people we are and I truly believe there is a gem in each and everyone of us, some of us just like to cover it with more rough edges than others for our own reasons. I do hope you find the courage in you to dare and show the brilliant side and go out and find the gem inside and if the gem get’s muddied with events, just do what it takes to polish it off and keep shining brightly.

The inner critic: are you managing yours?

The inner critic: are you managing yours?

We all have an inner voice, an inner critic which regularly distributes self-talk that is extremely far removed from being helpful or constructive. In a way it is a trained voice, which can take the shape of a previous boss, family members or relationships past or present. Whether it is circumstances or society at large that have shaped the words and viciousness of this unlikely invisible character, I am not sure of, but it is a powerful source that can stop us in our tracks at any given time.

Even with my most successful clients I am often amazed how much they still listen to that inner voice which often so fundamentally knocks them off their chosen path or destination. As their coach I am in the privileged position to point out that the inner critic is not necessarily basing its opinions on facts, but rather on perceptions or feelings and most often doubts and fears.

When you are working in the positive field of business coaching and training, it is often assumed that we don’t have those demons anymore and I can safely say that no coach and trainer is immune from the inner critic, whether they admit to having one is probably a personal choice, but we all have one.

The inner critic is massively powerful, it can stops us from achieving great things or even stops us from going after what we truly want, based on some irrational perceptions or fears. When you are really truthful and honest with yourself, what has the inner critic stopped you from doing? Did you still go ahead and was it as bad as your inner critic had predicted?

The level of ease with which we recognise when the inner critic is talking and the tools we use to manage this resource is what sets us apart and equally determines our level of success in the chosen field and in life in general.

Personally I spend a lot of time working alone even though it is with people and at some level we look for feedback or confirmation of our abilities, expertise, likeability, etc and when we don’t receive external responses or non-favourable responses, it is then that the inner critic has a field day. On those days managing that voice is essential.

What I do to manage the inner critic is write in a journal, which is not for publication or reading by anyone not even the closest of friends or family. Equally I do my best to regularly read motivational books, articles and surround myself with positive and supportive friends. In addition to these techniques I sometimes use recorded NLP techniques and I also have my own coach, who has my best interest at heart.

With my clients I often ask them to get back to the facts about themselves, when the inner critic has been particularly harsh. I ask them to make an objective factual list of all their achievements, qualifications, awards and things they learned since they were born and getting this list started often feels odd to people, because we are so pre-programmed to see the shortcomings and do our best to not be boastful especially not about ourselves. Yet, if you think about it, you have achieved an awful lot since you were born even down to simple things such as learning to walk, read, write, etc, I challenge you to write out the list. Then when you feel down, look at the list and check whether the feelings you are having are inner critic talk or based on facts.

Have fun managing the inner critic and never forget that it is perfectly alright to be gentle on you!

Giving by nature

Giving by nature

Over the last few weeks a few people have been asking me why I am involved in Rotary and in the past I have had the same questions about the Cork Choral Festival and the Cork City Sports and any other organisation I have been part of. I find it a difficult question to answer and yet I know when I do become involved in something I have to give it everything I have got or it’s not worth being part of, so I guess the answer is deep-rooted somewhere in my value system.

I do believe I was born with the intent to make a difference on a large scale. Equally I was brought up to give back to society. I remember debates in school where most people came up with things that were important to them in the short term and me dreaming up concepts like world peace and large scale improvements that would affect communities. Even when I was a small child, I remember receiving comments on how I would come up with the strangest concepts towards the greater good of the community or whatever other cause took my interest at the time from suicide prevention to protecting the environment, etc. etc…

In my direct family my grand mother was a great campaigner in looking after people less fortunate, my dad was involved in a number of organisations for disabled and then sports events and really early on he got me little gigs as a volunteer to various sports events, which I always loved and enjoyed. So to be honest I personally believe that some of us are just giving creatures by nature, over time we learn to channel it into areas and things that are important to us.I have always been very aware that if all we do is focus on ourselves then we aren’t really living life for any purpose other than our own and whether it’s the dreamer or naieve person in me I believe we all have a higher purpose than that.

Personally I feel strongly that I was always destined to help others, how I could help keeps changing and evolving. Sometimes it is one at a time, sometimes more, but often I bring it back to the tale of the young person throwing starfish back into the ocean after they got stranded on the beach and someone commenting that he couldn’t save them all and he simply replied well it made a difference to that one. I would like to think that whatever I do will at least impact someone and ideally in the most positive way. If you think about it, even my business is focussed on helping others achieving more than they originally thought was possible.

A couple of themes do recur in the kind of causes I support these days, one is young people and the other is achievement whether this comes in terms of athletic or musical performance or simply learning new skills. I totally believe that if we give young people support and encouragement to achieve their best potential in whatever walk of life they choose, that we can make a big difference. That doesn’t mean this is not important for adults, considering it’s my core business to work with adults on achievement. I do find that young people may not necessarily receive the best options for a number of reasons often beyond their control, which can be family or geographical circumstances or disabilities etc, so creating more chances and teaching them that more is possible, I find worthy of giving my time and effort to often free of charge.

The best experiences I have had often involved doing things for other people without necessarily looking for the return favour, but just giving for the sake of making someone else’s life better even marginally so. I remember the day we helped build the school in Peru and then commited to keep helping the village with their building projects for a school, hospital and other sustainable local economy projects and all the men in the village insisting on coming to thank us one by one… that is something I will never forget.

The same when we take 24 students on our Rotary Youth Leadership Winners week to Belfast/Dublin and Strassbourg with the aim of making them understand the various complex political and cultural issues on the island of Ireland as well as the larger context of the European Union, we can see the students grow and create bonds for life as well as live an experience they won’t forget in a hurry and for some it shapes their study and career choices. The fun and feedback I receive in addition to all the time and sometimes not so nice bits of feedback in the preparation process are often forgotten at the end of a usually exhausting week purely because I get a kick out of seeing people move forward and grow.

The funny thing is though most people like the fun and glory moments, but will not stick around to see them because of all the work, often inter-personal challenges, political nightmares etc. I guess it is at this level that people question me, when I sometimes have my own downtime moment of ranting or venting about the latest mishap in whatever organisation. If I think about the original question, the real question is why do you stick around because I am pretty sure people do understand my previous point of the satisfaction of actually simply helping others grow in whatever shape or form and I could just as easily only do this for profit only.

Hmm… part of me is very duty driven and if I have given a commitment to someone or an organisation I find it hard to go back on a promise and let them down, so sometimes I stick around and see things through because I simply gave my word that I would do something. On occassion I also see it as an opportunity to grow myself and gain new skills, which is the case with my Rotary district role I guess even if I may not have taken it with this intent originally. When I was asked to step into a leadership role my first evaluation was very much around what is the core role and because it is all youth opportunities related that was an immediate fit. I may never have children but I am determined to make a difference to young people the world over, so that was about the only role that would really interest me. Then I looked at the person asking and whether I could trust them and get on with them and from what I knew that worked out fine.

Since then I gained a few things that I hadn’t really bargained for and that is diplomatic care, leadership decisions are not always popular and that sometimes you have to drive forward even if the team is kicking and screaming. The challenge has been to remain sane and calm at times and keep a bigger picture view as opposed to resorting to small time politics in large organisations.

So the challenge of making something work and to pull off a good event or a a minor stroke of lucky genius, is another factor. The hurdle jumping that happens often away from the public domain, which are the anecdotes of the future for example with the Cork City Sports a shotputter getting into my car for his journey to the next event, but with only an hour to go to his flight informing us his shotput was still at the track, which on the eve of the event finishing closes and yet thanks to some phoning around and a team pulling together having the guy boarded his flight with his shotput. Or for the Cork Choral Festival making a up a gift for the Lord Mayor whilst the choir is rehearsing for their performance and hence nobody looking badly and from the outside making it look as if it always was perfect. I get a kick out of these things too.

I hesitated when taking the district position with Rotary and nearly 9 months in I have to admit it has definitely not been easy and often I have questioned whether it is worthwhile to continue, but I have gained insight into myself that I didn’t believe I had in me and may actually consider other public facing leadership position with a little more ease and a lot less naive view of people in organisations especially highly traditional and hierarchical ones.

Big organisations often get criticised for being about photo opportunities and personal glory and I guess if you are highly critical and take away any background work it would even be easy to say that about me too. The only response I have to that is from card my granny sent me years and years ago when I first moved to Ireland ‘Sometimes you have to be wiser than the others and say nothing’. I know how much organisation and time it took to complete and get an event working and it always takes a lot of work behind the scenes. I do enjoy praise and thanks for a finished job, but that is usually not the driving force that got it started.

The people you meet and the friendships that are created out of being part of different networks are absolutely invaluable. I have some great friends around the world purely from giving back freely mainly of my time and skills. When times turned in business, some of the best friends stepped up out of organisations that I had given time and skills to, purely to stand by me or fight my corner because of the respect they had and some did just give me non-judgemental companionship without knowing that this was vital for me at the time.

To come back to the original question, I think at some level I am just a giving person by nature, over time I have narrowed down my causes and reasons for doing things and every year I do re-evaluate whether something is worth sticking with for the year to come. I am not sure whether everything I do is completely self-less nor does it need to be, I help people for my own living and I sometimes choose roles to grow and evolve my skills, but ultimately if it contains fun, young people, an element of adventure or challenge and achievement to some extent I will be interested.

This is a long and philosophical and even abit self-reflective answer to a simple question, but when it comes to values and beliefs I suppose there is no easy short answer. By all means share your own ideas as well as be respectful of mine and others.

The political games of business

The political games of business

Whether you are a solopreneur or a large corporation political games will appear no matter what you do, the mere fact of interacting with other people inside or outside of your organisation is the starting point of political seed capital. I naievely thought leaving the world of management consulting firms and hierarchical structures would free me from all things inner politics and whilst it is hard to have a political argument with the boss in the mirror, networking and belonging to professional associations showed me in more than one sense that I was wrong and that politics are just part of business.

In my ideal world business should be based on merit and transactions, business decisions and negotiations transparent for all parties to have an equal chance. I would also base my judgements on integrity and ensuring the greater good of everyone is looked after whether this is staff, suppliers or customers; so I guess idealistically a little on the ambitious side.

It is funny though that intelligent people with great track records often have to resort to intentionally or not taking other people down either with them or on their own rather than dealing with the issue or the person in front of them. I have always tried to be fair and objective in my management of people and sometimes this has come accross exactly like this and for others it was a personal conflict, so there is the challenge even with the best managerial intent we may have a mixed or distorted response. In times of change and in change management I always reinforce the importance of communication and then follow-up on promises.

When I look at some of the larger organisations where I deliver training and their inner political game playing, I often wonder whether all children should have been thaught military strategy games in school in order to survive in today’s corporate structures. I also wonder whether acting should maybe become mandatory so you can manage your way through to the corporate top by delivering oscar winning performances. Then again I also wonder whether lie detector tests should be part of team meetings some times. It is amazing how seriously inept management is often what remains whilst all the talented and great people leave in their droves.

I am bemused, amused and entertained by some of the things I see as an outsider when visiting companies, I am also one of the first to react and point it out when given a chance and when I was an employee I always challenged the status quo when I felt it was the right thing to do. I respect an honest manager that is willing to sit down and give me the hard message straight, but seriously doubted the wishy washy soldier which seems to prevail and hide behind non-communication and hierarchy.

Eric Berne in his book ‘The games people play’ described human interactions years ago and his transactional theory is still booming in most companies and organisations, I would even say that the recession has made the theory thrive in is application and widespread practice. Put a number of ambitious people in a room, set goals for them and then let them self-organise the achievement of those and without any effort you have a political game. The cause is not important it could be profit, service or just the greater good of mankind. The moment people collide the seeds and components are there to ignite a minor power struggle, a major work-to-rule scenario or even a flawless operation. In a funny way it’s why I love people watching and often find myself smiling when I listen to the stories of friends in corporations in a detached manner, when it involves me I am usually just as involved, frustrated and animated as the next person, but I guess I will tend to gather information, weigh up options, talk it through with a trusted few and then communicate or act as fair and objective as I can (and maybe that is just me daydreaming about my ideal response).

One thing I learned early on in my working life and that is that there are always 2 sides to every problem, so when you can find out the facts at least then you have an educated view, if empathy is necessary apply it, but only when your point stands up go fight your battles. In networking organisations which is what I frequent as a small business owner, I always found that there are people you can trust from the get-go and then there are also power hungry who apply crab mentality whenever they see fit, as in if someone is on the way up they do their utmost to pull them back down to group level, so nobody would stand out as better or worse than the next person.

In my business coaching, the most stressful situations for clients come from political games and I often work with executives in helping them realise the rules of the game, uncovering the patterns and obviously examining their responses to it all. When you are in the middle of a political minefield it is easy to doubt your own ability and decision making, which will in turn show your vulnerability and opens up a chance for others to attack the core of you. In my work with clients I work on the issue they are dealing with at the time to start of with, often putting them into different perspectives and once they have a handle on the immediate problem then we look at the core individual responses.

Some of the political games in business we instigate ourselves, I had one client who when he was bored just for the fun of it stirred up problems in other areas, when his management asked me to coach him, they also said he is the best in his area but if he could just leave the rest of the organisation in peace. So with him I addressed his boredom and guidelines as to when he could justify escalating or questioning other peers. Since we worked together his managers have come back and found peace and co-operation had returned in the office and everyone had become more productive including this manager. So some political games start with simple boredom.

In a project early last year I coached a number of middle managers reporting into what I would call a relatively dogmatic/dictatorial or old school senior manager. Each and everyone of the middle managers were intelligent, capable and seriously experienced in their respective jobs, yet the management style from the next level up had them distrust their own judgement, working late just to double check and make sure and also they felt isolated and unable to speak to each other, because each of them believed that they must have been the only weakling amongst the pack. I found that fascinating that dogmatic leadership had such a profound effect on what I found very intelligent and able people. Little by little they gained their power back thanks to my coaching and building up their confidence, when they did start talking and came together as a group they also managed to turn around the attitude of their senior manager which was an added bonus.

Always know who you are playing with when engaging in business politics and get to know what triggers you, how it shows up for you and whether the other side can actually harm you or not. When engaging in a fight at any level always look for one ally whether it is an internal or objectve party, politics is best done when you have someone that you can turn to for sanity. In politcal games there rarely are clear winners, so pick your battles wisely and note that some are just not worth fighting. If you give a sail wind, it will travel and gain momentum, take away the wind then the boat stop in it’s tracks and sometimes this is the only way around a political situation.

If you are the one engaging in political warfare and you need an ally in your corner, we are happy to do this for you confidentially of course. In the mean time have fun observing patterns, discovering the rules of the game and being selective about the battles you take on.