Ian Mitchell works with leaders who want to ‘up their game’ by transforming themselves and their capabilities. It’s a role he takes seriously – but he makes sure he’s keeps his own participation as light as possible. Liz Hall reports
Before we start the interview, executive coach, coach supervisor and director at Harthill Consulting, Ian Mitchell, asks why I thought interviewing him for the profile slot would be a “productive use of time”, given how many “impressive people” have been featured before.
“I thought, what the hell am I doing here?” he laughs.
I tell him how much I’d enjoyed both his lightness and profoundness when I’d met him before in the Harthill Consulting community. He doesn’t disappoint in this interview.
“It’s interesting what you say about lightness, that’s probably one of my core values,” he says. “If I think I’m taking myself too seriously with a client, I’ll put my red nose on.”
And out comes the nose.
Nose-wise, Mitchell took inspiration from Zen Buddhist and corporate coach Claire Genkai Breeze, who he’s been having coaching sessions with for some years, who was in turn inspired by the late Zen Buddhist roshi and founder of the Zen Peacemakers, Bernie Glassman. Whenever he felt he or who he was with was taking himself too seriously, Glassman would whip out the red nose he kept in his pocket and put it on.
Mitchell starts the interview by exploring the role of coaching, “I think our metaphor that we use to drive our understanding of what we do is very powerful. If I had a metaphor, I think it’s kind of a bit part extra in other people’s personal life movies. I remember talking about that a lot with Claire.
“I keep reminding myself that if you’re going to get two or three lines in this play, that’s a lot. I don’t think that’s necessarily how every coach sees it, but it’s how I see it.”
Mitchell says that if we have other metaphors such as ‘the helper’ or ‘the Expert’ (in terms of Action Logic – how people interpret their environment and react when their power or safety is challenged – Rooke & Torbert, 2005), they “create all these ‘shoulds’ ”.
“And once we line up all the shoulds, we just open the door to, as (executive coach and psychotherapist) Simon Cavicchia would say, our own sense of shame – ‘I can’t be all those shoulds so therefore I’m a failure.’… People come and they’ve missed one little bit of the image of what a good coach is and it kind of drives them into thinking everything is terrible.
“Clearly, it probably isn’t terrible. But they’ve got this metaphor in their head of the function a coach has which is driving their inner narrative and it’s creating shame. And it’s paradoxically at the same time also fuelling their ego. So it’s playing into the narcissism and shame at the same time.”
In terms of Action Logic, Mitchell profiles on Harthill’s Leadership Development Profile as an ‘Alchemist’. Less than 1% of leaders profiled by Harthill are in this category. Alchemists are known for their “extraordinary capacity to deal simultaneously with many situations at multiple levels….(and being able to) deal with immediate priorities yet never lose sight of long-term goals” (Rooke & Torbert, 2005).
But he, too, has been tripped up by the metaphors of the helper, or ‘Expert’, he says.
“In my first couple of years coaching, 12 years or so ago, I was coaching in the world that I’d come from and therefore I was tripped up by my own inner Expert quite a bit. And I do think that a lot of coaches, not necessarily new coaches, trip up on this way of making meaning out of what they’re doing.
“(Many coaches think) ‘If I’m an expert in nothing, at least I’m an expert in asking questions.’ So they really hang themselves up on ‘Was that a good question?’ The whole notion of powerful questions kind of plays into the ego, I think. That’s why I love the repetitive questioning thing because it kind of demonstrates that it hardly matters what the question is. If you ask something and you leave a bit of space, people will explore it in their own way.”
“When I started working with Clare two or three years ago, I wanted to look at disappearance. For me, there’s a lot about how do I do this job and have a dissolving ego at the same time? It’s probably age-related as well – I have to be prepared to completely disappear in the next 20 years. We never start early enough. But I find it liberating.”
So how is he doing with that, I ask.
“Let me just put this (red) nose on,” he chuckles, before continuing: “A lot better than I was. In many ways, this interview is a great example of ego dissolution whilst living in the ‘real world’. Of just letting something emerge. I suspect we’re always on the verge of colluding with somebody. Either with ourselves or our own image of what we look like, or with our client somewhere or with the person who is paying the bill, or what our supervisor said to us. So those are ‘real world’ things.
“By taking a conscious decision to just puncture our own balloons as much as possible, I can at least dance a bit around those. Not saying I always dance away from them, but certainly I’m better than I used to be.
“I became a Quaker about five years ago. I was looking for a community, and I hope I’m not doing the Quakers a disservice here, that didn’t insist on you believing anything but was happy to let me be. What’s really helped me with disappearance is that there have been times in the collective silence when I’ve thought, ‘Ooh, I’ve got something really clever I could say here’ and then ‘Well, just hold fire a minute and see’ and then someone else says something broadly the same only probably better. And I think, ‘There’s an object lesson in the discipline of holding back at this point because just because I’ve seen that something might be going to figure, it doesn’t mean I’m looking at it from the best angle’. And that’s a good practice for me.”
His love of making and listening to music has indirectly helped him in his disappearance, too, he says.
“At Christmas, we have the family band. There was a time when I was able to be the keyboard or guitarist, then I realised my daughter was better at me at guitar, and then she married a keyboard artist. So I picked up the mandolin. Then before I knew it, the five-year-old was better than me. Now I’m the harmonica player because they feel sorry for me.
“It’s all been an interesting experience in disappearing from a role in the family which was mirrored when the same daughter got Covid quite badly. She didn’t talk to us about it, only to her sister, a GP, until she was better. And that as a father was quite an interesting journey in disappearance because as a parent, I thought I’d be the first person to talk to, but I was probably the last person. I was curious about my own response to that. A mixture of nostalgia and welcoming.”
He says this learning around disappearance has flowed into his coaching work: “I’m way more silent than I ever was before.”
In his coaching practice, it’s all about emergence. “When people ask me what informs my practice, it’s kind of life. Doing what the moment seems to demand.
“And listening to my grandchildren, who are very wise. When one of my grandchildren was around six, he asked me, ‘Do you rule your emotions or do your emotions rule you?’ And I said, ‘Number one, you’re probably 50 years too young to be asking this question. And number two, what do you think?’ I thought, he’s got the notion of being had by stuff. All my grandchildren come out with these remarkable things; I think, wow!”
When I suggest there are many layers when it comes to being ‘had’, he agrees and says: “We can even be had by not being had. I reckon I inhabited every square corner of the Individualist Action Logic for probably 50 years. I was had by being unique and being different.
“OK, part of that was that I was working in the financial sector, ending up at Deloitte. It’s ridiculous when I think about it. They probably shouldn’t have let me through the door! Previous to that, I’d spent five years as a detached youth worker during the Troubles in Ireland so they paid me to hang around street corners. And that was really me!” he chuckles.
“And the conversation was, ‘Do you really want to go and kill those people? Wouldn’t you rather come and play table tennis?’ It’s not a conversation that’s going to get you too far but I was getting paid to do this.
“Then we had a child. So I hawked my leadership skills to the highest bidders.
“So I guess that Individualist thing for me was kind of precious – you’ve got my time but you haven’t got me – all that kind of crap which is patently not true so my whole Individualist thing may well have been an illusion.”
On Action Logics, he says: “I found (the) Action Logics (framework) intriguing in the sense that it’s given me a language to understand myself a bit and in working with my clients, a language that at times I find accessible and at times I find impenetrable. So that’s been a learning for me, and that’s OK.
“I think though, and I don’t want to do anyone a disservice, but I think there can be a temptation with Action Logic practitioners to look at them as some kind of natural law, as opposed to being just another construct that we’ve put together. And if you really strip it back, it’s how a group of people have made meaning out of the world. And that group of people has invented their own private language, our own scaffolding to explore our construct with. I find it fascinating that we’ve done that.
“But I think we’re learning as a group to bring the people to the construct as opposed to bringing the construct to the people. At Harthill we’re probably pioneering in that – as opposed to being totally fixated on stage and primary action logic, we’re looking a lot at the breadth. So if our primary way of interfacing with the world is that of Strategist, for example, it doesn’t mean we can’t observe the world from all these other ways – of course we can.
“(It’s about) how can I access the range that I have in an uplifting way, so I can be of service? As coaches, it’s perhaps easy to get too hung up on coaching people towards their development, what’s their next stage, and in the words of Simon Western, that doesn’t feel too emancipatory to me, I’ve grabbed the agenda, and I’m saying, ‘If you really got your shit in gear, you could become a Strategist, let’s work towards that’. And I’m not really sure that’s a helpful approach,” he chuckles.
He says he completes his Leadership Development Profile every two years, and the year it showed his primary action logic was as a Strategist, “I looked at my answers, and I thought, ‘this is really good, you’ve learnt the answers really well, but I’m not really seeing truth here’ in a couple of areas, particularly around power, because that’s always been something that I have had an interesting relationship with. I always see myself on the rebel side. But I saw I’d given a really perfect Strategist answer (to a question about feeling powerful), and I looked at that, and I thought again, is that really you?
“I almost had to grab that meaning making and bring it back at a less developed level that represents more what I’ve actually lived and experienced and am, and so this whole lived experience piece is really important to me. It’s part of my existentialist streak. (Existentialist) Jean-Paul Sartre said it best: ‘Existence precedes essence’, or as (US author) Parker Palmer puts it, ‘If you want to know what your values are, look at what you’re doing’.
“From an existentialist perspective, you have to live and harvest your experiences and learn. Not you must learn, my son, but just observe and see. That way we can be surprised by our own life.
He cites a line from a poem by Irish poet John O’Donohue: “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”
He reads a lot of poetry, including Mary Oliver’s – “I think poetry is where people are sharing lived experiences.” Meanwhile, practitioner texts he rates include Simon Western’s Coaching and Mentoring (2012), The Postconventional Personality (Pfaffenberger et al, 2011), Critical Moments (de Haan, 2019) and Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching (Howard, 2021).
Getting into coaching
After leaving Deloitte in 2010, Mitchell trained as a coach with Coach Institute Ireland, then as a supervisor with Barefoot. Until he did his masters at the University of Chester, UK (on coaching leaders for transformation and change), he says, “I don’t think I’d worked out my relationship with the academic side of coaching. I think I was a bit had by it, and after I did that, I got it out of my system.”
He launched into coaching in the financial sector because he was comfortable there, but it took a couple of years for “the penny to drop”: “I was coming as an Expert so I wasn’t really coaching. I was asking questions but they were probably a little bit loaded or slightly directive. You can put an upward inflection at the end of a sentence and assume that that is a question!
“And so I had to take myself out of that and go and work in the health sector where I know nothing, apart from my parents having worked in the NHS. That way, I couldn’t come from a position of being an Expert so somehow coaching had to be different to how it had been.
Around then I began to work with Siân, my business partner, who is probably the most important influence in my development. She invited me to work with her in the NHS, and from there has flowed seven years of challenging, laughter-filled, joyful and occasionally wine-influenced, work together that helps me keep everything real.”
He took a while to work through being an expert: “I went down the tried-and-tested direction of, well I’m going to be an Expert at asking questions, and it took me a while to work that through because I thought, this is an incisive question because people were answering it and thinking about it. Then I realised about the dynamics of the room where, try as I might, I can be sitting at a family dinner and ask a question, and someone will say, that’s a stupid question, but nobody will do that in coaching. So I had to sit back and re-evaluate.
“This was about six or seven years ago, when I had my epiphany about just being a walk-on bit part. Probably in five years, they’ll think, ‘Oh yeah, there was that aging bald guy I spent some time with, can’t remember his name!’ And that’s OK, I’d feel that was a success, if someone remembered me,” he chuckles again.
What led to his epiphany? “A dissatisfaction with what was happening. And mixing with some rather more interesting people like Clare Breeze and Simon Cavicchia.”
His heart attack also gave him time to think. “My GP daughter took a train down from Glasgow and she was texting the family all the way making funeral arrangements. It wasn’t that bad but it was being confronted with someone thinking it was. And then my dad sent me an email saying it was 50 years since he’d had a heart attack.
“Stuff happens in life that makes you ask these questions, And there’s a lovely Mary Oliver line, from her poem, When Death Comes, ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement’, and I thought wow, I’d like to live like that. So I think there was a conscious thought, I need to make more space for wonder, mystery and be less of a pragmatic person. So that’s what I’ve been working on for the last 10 years, but particularly the last five years.
“Is all this a consequence of being older? Is it easier to be developed when you don’t have pressing existential needs? It may well be, though perhaps not. I don’t think there has been enough work done to see how much more developed young people are or can be. I have a feeling that if we did a bit more work with millennials, we’d be surprised by how they interface with the world. We can learn a huge amount from these people.
“I decided I’d talk to my 11-year-old granddaughter about the three tenets of Zen Peacemaking, and she looks at me, and says, ‘That’s easier said than done.’ She paused, then said, ‘Actually when you think about, most things are easier said than done.’ Then there as a longer pause, and she said, ‘Except for the things that are easier done than said’. I thought, that is so profound!
“Everybody has got in them this wonderful thirst, knowledge, beauty and curiosity until adults kill that.”
And out comes the nose again: “I sensed I was pontificating a bit there, taking myself too seriously!
“A lot of coaching, and it’s so easy to sound critical and I’m not, we’re all helping people, but we can fall into the trap of being quite linear in our coaching approach, starting with contracting, now tell me your story, OK done that… I think the competencies that are espoused can sometimes play into that, the competency-based way of looking at the world is quite ‘Expert-Achiever’. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that – Achiever is the way the world was built. It’s really important that we honour what comes from earlier Action Logics but at the same time not be bound by that.
“I think that as coaches and supervisors, the more space we can give ourselves in our lives, the greater our ability to hold space for others. The Zoom world has cluttered our lives: so many meetings, there’s little space in that. We’ve traded rush-hour traffic for rush-hour lives. I used to find being stuck in traffic, good reflective time.
His measure of success is whether his client is “able to come at life from a more emancipatory position when it’s all over. Are they able to jump into the river, to go back to that analogy? Can they study the art of their own living and really learn from that, and develop that, and see which bits they want louder or turned down?”
Also in Quakerism is the concept of living ‘adventurously’, he says. “This kind of ties in with our Harthill thing about promoting enquiry-based experimentation, about having a go at stuff. Realising that a certain number of times out of ten, you’ll totally miss it and adopting a ‘so what’ attitude to that.
“We can step in the river again if we have to. And this whole metaphor of stepping into the river again – despite achieving a lifesaving medal as an 11-year-old, I’m not the world’s greatest swimmer and a lot of years have passed since I was 11! And so for me to step in the river, I’m conscious I don’t really have the skills to be a superstar in there. So if that’s a metaphor for living, it makes sense to me.”
References and further info
- J O’Donohue, ‘Fluent’ in Conamara Blues: A collection of poetry, Doubleday, 2000
- E de Haan, Critical Moments in Executive Coaching, Routledge, 2019
- A Howard, Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching: A psychology of being for a time of crisis, Routledge, 2021
- A H Pfaffenberger, P W Marko, and A Combs, The Postconventional Personality: Assessing, Researching, and Theorizing Higher Development, State University of New York Press, 2011
- D Rooke and W R Torbert, ‘Seven transformations of leadership’, in HBR, 2005 https://hbr.org/2005/04/seven-transformations-of-leadership
- S Western, Coaching and Mentoring: A critical text, SAGE, 2012