Mentoring, Leadership & Time To Think

31 May

This is a bit of a longer blog, sorry. But in the past few months I have been very fortunate to benefit from a number of new learning experiences that have had a very big impact on my own thinking – they have all been incredibly enriching and empowering and are somewhat interlinked, which is why I want to write about them all in one blog. This is merely a taster and I really hope I am paying justice to the people I am referencing.

1) Mentoring sessions

When I became MD of the company I have worked for since 2007, my business partner agreed that it would be a good idea for me to get a mentor. Mainly to help me make the mental leap from being a manager to becoming a business partner and a leader (a what?! me?!), but also to help me figure out some of the really sexy day-to-day business stuff such as setting and measuring staff performance targets (which I must admit, I find really interesting…). As a company we had worked with a number of consultants in the past and when I started looking for a mentor, it was in fact one of those consultants who was the ideal fit to help me find my feet in my new position.

Since November last year, we have met about once every 4 weeks for 3 hours each and those sessions have proven incredibly productive, reassuring and energising. Most of the time we start with a current issue (either good or bad) and then we usually drift off a little and ‘accidentally’ discover a whole set of other issues that I sometimes wasn’t even aware of being there in the first place. Not just bad stuff, but things that occupy my mind. We then talk them through and usually find a solution or at least a way of finding a solution. In the beginning I came out of every session with a great sense of relief but also completely mind-boggled as I had no idea how he knew how to get those things out in the open. And then he recommended a book to me (Time to Think – see below) and it suddenly all made sense. He didn’t know – I presume – what was on my mind at the beginning of each session, and actually he didn’t say much at all. But what he did was listen and he literally gave me time to think.

A great exercise he did with me recently was write down my 18-month vision, what I want my life in August 2012 to look like with as much detail as possible – the job I want to have, the place I want to live in, people I want to have around me, ways I want to spend my spare or money and anything else that would matter to me. The idea being that you need to know what the goal is before you can start your plan of action. And the clearer your ‘vision’ the more likely you will be to know when you are on the wrong track or to know when you’ve achieved what you wanted. And of course it’s all about achieving your vision!

I spent ages in front of an empty word document, it took me a while to settle into the task but once I was free of doubts, cynicism, Facebook and Twitter, the words literally flowed onto the screen. It was such a liberating thing to do and by god, if only half of these things come to fruition I will be a very happy Fab. If nothing else, I finally signed up to an intensive weekend French course to get that part of my brain working again. Something I had wanted to do for ages, but only when I committed to it on paper did it become a real ‘To Do’ task. And the only person who would miss out by not doing it would be myself.

Having a good mentor really can be a very empowering experience. And even better, there is still some funding out there to pay towards associated costs. The fund we accessed is now closed, but if you live in North East England, check out NBSL. They still offer funding towards Leadership & Management Development.

2) Common Purpose

A few weeks into my mentoring journey, I also wanted to do a ‘proper course’ (an MBA or something) to learn more about this whole leadership thing. Mr Mentor then recommended a course called Common Purpose, that would ‘stretch my way of thinking’ and ‘place me right in the middle of enriching conversations’. I had never heard about it before, but according to the organisation’s website, Common Purpose runs leadership development courses ‘which give people the skills, connections and inspiration to become better leaders both at work and in society’. Slightly suspicious I signed up to it, got accepted and rather nervously I turned up to the first day in February, knowing it would be little, inexperienced Me and around 5o other people in suits and high-flying positions in the Private, Public and Third Sector. People who actually knew about Leadership. Or so I thought.

The course I signed up is structured in a modular format, to fit in with busy work schedules, and over 6 months I am completing 60 learning hours. I chose from over 50 events and in small groups we experience and explore real-life leadership challenges. In my 4 months, I’ve been to the City Council, a hospice, a prison, Sunderland FC, a shopping centre (to learn about homelessness) and I have been privileged to get insights into worlds that are very different from my own. I have been in discussions with solicitors, theatre managers, GPs and engineers around the same table.

And those men and women in suits have all turned into individual people who have shared the most extraordinary stories – of success and failure, misguided confidence and moments of stifling doubts. We are on a fascinating journey together and we are constantly learning from each other. As it turns out, leadership has nothing to do with age, job title or the size of the team you manage. Amongst many things, it’s about enabling and empowering others, developing trust and confidence and taking responsibility. And this can manifest itself in the most unlikely places.

3) ‘Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline

I was recommended this book (yes, by Mr Mentor) after my interest in leadership as well as my frustration with ‘intelligent people who simply can’t listen’ had grown to an equally high level.

It is a great book and I urge everybody who is interested in people and communication to read it – but I say it now, it does get a bit repetitive after a while…

This is not an Amazon-esque review but a summary of the key things I have taken from the book:

The book is about listening. In conversations with others, either individually or in group settings. And how we can empower people to think for themselves by being excellent listeners. Two key assumptions are that 1) our actions can only improve if we improve our thinking and 2) the brain that contains the problem usually contains the solution.

If somebody comes to you with a problem, the best way to help them improve their thinking and find their own solutions is by being a great listener and by creating what Nancy Kline calls a ‘Thinking Environment”. Some of the key components (there are 10 altogether ) are:

– Attention (listen with respect, interest and fascination)

– Incisive Questions (removing assumptions that limit ideas)

– Equality (giving equals turns in group settings)

– Feelings (allow sufficient emotional release to restore thinking)

And the most important one for me is:

– Never, ever interrupt. Always let people finish their sentences. The ‘awkward’ silences when somebody has finished talking are those moments when real thinking takes place and often where people find solutions to their own problems.

Some of this sounds (and is) incredibly common sensical. That’s the beauty of it. It’s not mad theory, but it relates to patterns of behaviour that are easy to grasp. And it applies to conversations with your boss, a colleague or your dad.

Since reading the book, I could not help but notice how often we stifle each other by interrupting thoughts, paraphrasing, finishing sentences and simply telling people what to do. And dear me, I am as guilty as the next person, but whenever I have tried to apply some of the rules above to a conversation, the difference has been amazing. I have had the most intense conversations where I hardly said a word but was given a big bear hug and a happy and satisfied “Thank You” at the end.

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