David Megginson, EMCC Ambassador, shares his experience of the 21st EMCC conference in Athens
21-23 November 2013, Athens
It was good to be at a conference at the beating heart of European civilisation, and close to the home of the protagonist of mentoring’s foundation story. The EMCC Greece team welcomed and guided us socially and also led some interesting sessions. We also had the glorious relics of Athenian architecture at the edge of our vision under golden floodlights or bathed in unseasonably warm sunshine.
What follows is my story of the route i took through the maze of opportunities on offer, and it culminates not with an encounter with the Minotaur, but instead with a session that earned a standing ovation from the entire audience.
A sequence of sessions
The opening plenary saw Richard Barrett building on his master class on Values driven evolutionary coaching. I had encountered Richard before and had read and enjoyed his first book, Liberating the corporate soul. He has deepened and elaborated his model over the intervening years, but his message remains consistently the same – that we are on a journey of psychological development that enables us to use an increasing range of levels of consciousness. He touched on a number of concepts that had salience for me. He talked about our three core deficiencies:
➢ I don’t have enough
➢ I’m not loved enough
➢ I’m not enough
He introduced the idea of cultural entropy, which can apply to countries or organisations. Bhutan was the country among the 26 that he has surveyed that has the lowest entropy (which of course is a good thing to have). I thought about the organisations I know with high cultural entropy and the futile, unproductive activity that happens within them. I noticed what seemed to be a difference between my perspective and Richard’s on development opportunities. Richard emphasised how positive (low entropy) cultures encouraged development. I saw a role for hostility to development as providing a proving ground, where we can test ourselves in unpropitious circumstances. It is hardly developmental to develop in a developmental culture – one could be seen as merely adhering to local norms. However, Richard did give figures which seemed to show that values-driven organisations were more successful and profitable than other organisations.
The first workshop session I attended was the exploration of Beyond goals by David Clutterbuck and I. This focus of our latest book seemed to receive a warm reception and generated some lively interaction.
After this, I attended the workshop of Alexandra Elefthiou and Marialexia Margariti on Whether coaching is the hammer that we use to address all nails. They asked whether coaching was always enough, or whether other help was needed, or indeed where coaching should not be part of the mix at all. There was a deep and thoughtful exploration of these boundary conditions, and I was confirmed in my view that a great deal of good can be done by being bold in what we take on, while being humble and prudent about not exceeding our relational, coachee-centred brief.
The plenary that started the second day was David Carter’s take on his Mentoring approach. It was challenging to extract lessons for me from his powerful story; however he induced me to think more deeply about business development than I have for a long time. If the most successful executive mentors and coaches are spending half their time on business development, what does this suggest for the rest of us, and what advice could we give to we give to inexperienced coaches and mentors on our courses? I’m also stimulated by hearing of others who have a very different model of a relationship from the one that I adopt. David Carter typically works for 40 months with his clients, taking a full day per month for mentoring. I wondered how I would avoid creating dependency if I adopted such a model. He also raised my curiosity about his model of calling upon a network of specialist trusted confidantes. He emphasised the importance of studying our clients’ world, and of encouraging them to be significant rather than successful.
The next parallel session I went to was Reinhard Stelter and Morten Bertelsen on Sustainable dialogues. Morten outlined his very thorough research methodology for exploring participants’ experiences of the process used in their coaching. Reinhard advocated empathic dialogue and what he called third generation coaching. The first generation is goals based; the second is solutions focused; and the third is wondering together, focusing on values, meaning and identity. Dialogue helps us to dissolve problems rather than merely solving them.
Tatiana Bachkirova’s session on Coaching the soul promised further exploration of soul and values – themes that emerged in my route through the programme. She seemed to be creating what for me was an over-sharp dichotomy between believers and non-believers around the question of soul, so I went to a different session, but not before I heard a delightful imagined dialogue between two in utero twins about whether there was any life after birth.
Paul Stokes and Stephanie Sturges presented a case study of their work in seeking to Create a coaching/mentoring culture in a UK city region. This Sheffield-based case demonstrated the benefits of inter-organisation coaching by trained internal coaches, which addresses what has become an issue of increasing concern for me around confidentiality in internal coaching.
Another Coaching culture case study was Vince Traynor’s account of his work with Surrey County Council in the UK. It was an example of an organisation where the leadership recognised that it had declined in performance, and that they needed to do something impactful to remedy the situation. The desired culture was specified through dialogue and an important distinction was made between a coached culture and a coaching culture. As a public body, Surrey County Council recognised the importance of engaging with elected members, and the Cabinet team were trained in coaching. Extensive post-programme, opinion based measures were taken to assess the impact – which seemed considerable. The primary purpose of the intervention at the start was ‘unfreezing’, and as it went on ‘performance improvement’ became more important. The involvement of the Chief Executive was seen as crucial in sustaining the initiative. Evidence of improved performance and innovation was presented.
Tim Bright made the case for Authentic leadership and authentic coaching. He made a distinction between the essentialist approaches (clear purpose, strong values, sense of ‘True North’, and often of explicit religious values), and the existentialist, socially constructed approaches (managing perceptions, ‘being yourself – more – with skill’). In the existential approach, leaders need to convey to others something of themselves as a person: these messages need to be true and consistent, including humanising weaknesses, so long as they support business priorities. The aim of the existentialist coach is to encourage reflection on values rather than to change them.
On the last day of the conference I was hoping to learn about micro-expressions of emotions, but the speaker was late in arriving and I micro-expressed my micro-exasperation by going to another session. This was Eleni Aroni’s workshop on Coaching and bodywork. This was a revelation and a delight. She demonstrated, and encouraged us to experience, addressing our boundaries, our grounding and our centring. The new connection for me was in using our reports from these experiences (e.g. clarity, focus, strength, control, comfort) as a diagnostic for what qualities may be useful to examine in addressing issues later in the coaching relationship. We explored flexible, rigid and collapsed boundaries and tried out the difference between reacting and responding (a breath apart). I came out of the session strengthened, lighter and filled with joy.
The last parallel session I went to was Louie Gardiner’s workshop on a systemic approach to Fitness for practice, context and the future. The complex, adaptive system perspective was demonstrated experientially, and we were, and we were challenged to find our own relevance in the powerful words and images we were given.
That session set me up for the closing plenary, which was given by Patsie Rodenburg on The fascinating stories that teach us. We heard stories from Euripides (The Bacchae) from Plato, from Shakespeare, and from her life as a voice coach with the famous and with the humble. She addressed the themes of balancing left and right brain, unconditional love, justice, witnessing vs. complicity. She told a remarkable story of learning about watching for readiness with a community theatre group in Soweto, South Africa; and another about working with murderers in a UK prison, where one of the inmates spoke the lines of Claudius, Hamlet’s step-father:
‘O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;’
She beautifully demonstrated three positions – mumbling; being a powerful presence; and being too loud, occupying too much of the available space.
Patsie heartened us by acknowledging the importance of our work – that in our world our clients had no safe space: we are mopping up fear. We reciprocated by giving her a standing ovation, perhaps the first in any EMCC conference we have held.
Themes in the conference for me were:
➢ Soul and how to talk about it (difficult)
➢ Values and how to live and work them (contentious)
➢ Boundaries and how to transcend them (political)
➢ Creating a coaching/mentoring culture (urgent).
Don’t be put off attending future conferences if these issues are not yours – there were thousands of routes through this rich and varied conference, and my guess is that even if you and I had been to all the same sessions, we would still take away very different experiences and learning.