Ignite your fire

Oct 01, 2018
What could Hozier and executive coaching possibly have in common? More than you might think…


There’s a lot of talk about ‘employee empowerment’ in organisations these days. Broadly defined as “giving employees a certain degree of autonomy and responsibility for decision-making regarding their specific organisational tasks”, it often sounds more radical in theory than it transpires in practice. But according to Limeade, the employee engagement specialists, “empowered employees are loyal, committed and potentially more productive” and they “successfully manage or lead their own projects, work toward their goals and drive their own career”. The benefits, according to Limeade, are “endless”.

But how does this work in the real world, particularly if our people are used to working in a more traditionally institutionalised environment? And how can executive coaches help the required change come about? For us, it begins with Hozier. Yes, Hozier the singer. He of Take Me to Church fame and Ireland’s latest contribution to the world of exceptional singer-songwriter talent.

In mid-September of this year, Hozier released an astonishingly insightful collection of songs in his EP, Nina Cried Power. The title track should be mandatory listening for all executive coaches everywhere. Actually, the first sentence ought to be enough. “It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.” That’s how the man phrases his extraordinary contribution to the world of leadership development. We’re building an entire development programme for middle managers on the concept but to really get the idea, you must first understand some terms.

According to the Urban Dictionary, “being woke” is to “get a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth”. Those of us with a less hip turn of phrase might refer to it as the moment when the penny drops. Some executive coaches describe it as a client having an ‘aha’ moment and get somewhat excited if the moment happens in the coaching room during a live coaching session. Hozier is pretty dismissive of people simply “being woke”. It is, he sings, “the heat that drives the light... the fire it ignites” that makes a difference in the world. Or, as we put it, executive coaching isn’t about achieving ‘aha’ moments with clients; it’s about co-creating the impetus to inspire ‘aha’ lives.

Sometimes, however, facilitating an individual towards the road to empowerment involves helping that person deal with the fallout from the internal and external soundtrack that has disempowered her or him in the first place. We’re all victims of the inner critic and sometimes colleagues, bosses and clients can externalise and amplify its voice by how they interact with us. Criticism, blame and faint praise couched as ‘developmental feedback’ can, and will, intensify our sense of being disempowered. This creates an unhelpful cacophony of noise that drowns out the still, small, almost apologetic voice that wants to tell us that we’re okay; that we can do this; that we’re capable of rising to the challenges of being entrusted with a certain degree of autonomy and responsibility for decision-making regarding our specific organisational tasks, and capable of delivering an “endless” suite of benefits to our employer and our wider organisation.

And so, we need to become emancipated. This is where good executive coaching can provide organisations with quantifiable returns on investment in current and future leaders and their teams because, in simple terms, emancipated people respond eagerly and positively to organisational invitations to manage or lead their own projects, work toward their goals and drive their own career. Plus, those individuals frequently take most responsibility both for delivering on the bottom line while, perhaps paradoxically, ensuring that the organisation makes an increasing contribution to making the world a better place.

Our friend and colleague, Dr Simon Western, is perhaps the leading thinker in Ireland when it comes to executive coaching. In his view, “creating emancipation is the ideological position that… should become central to coaching. Focusing on improving performance is necessary in any organisation, yet it cannot be the only focus. Strategy and emergence are also important; companies now work towards corporate social responsibility and coaches can support and lead initiatives to challenge a status quo that has left the world in a precarious place”. Put another way, it’s not the waking – it’s the rising. It’s facilitating the emergence of ‘aha’ lives.

This creates a dilemma for a coaching sector that has made a big thing of those ‘aha’ moments. And why wouldn’t we? We coaches need personal validation as much as anyone else and, as we tend not to be hanging around our clients for the rest of their potentially ‘aha’ lives, sometimes the moment is the place where we can most easily satisfy that validation need. But, broadly speaking, we need to find a different measure.

So in our work with leaders, we’re majoring on the notion of ongoing peer accountability – albeit in bite-sized chunks. For instance, this week we worked with a group of leaders, all of whom worked at a level just under the C-suite. Over a two-day period, we asked them to dig deep into their levels of self-awareness; to understand the life events that have authored them; to explore the extent to which they are building hope, optimism and efficacy in themselves, their peer groups and their teams; to honestly acknowledge the armour they need to don simply to function effectively in a very stressful sector; and, perhaps more importantly, to acknowledge the armour their direct reports need to don simply to work with them – plus a whole other bunch of stuff that our word-count precludes us from going into. 

The participants have had loads of highly charged ‘aha’ moments, and that’s great for them. But we contracted with them to do two things around those moments – two things that will turn those moments into building blocks towards their living ‘aha’ lives. First, we asked them to re-focus their note-taking. The magnificent Parker J. Palmer once said: “at these (‘aha’) moments, we need to listen to what our lives are saying and take notes on it, lest we forget our own truth or deny that we ever heard it”. A stunning thought, isn’t it?

So we asked them to take less notes on what their ‘wise’ colleagues might contribute and focus more on the stuff that comes out of their own mouths – particularly when they share something that feels like a biggie to them. Take notes on their own truths, if you will, lest they deny.

Second, we asked them to – at very regular intervals, say every two hours – get together with a colleague on the programme and agree to hold each other accountable for the turning of these inner revelations into actions that will drive them and their part of the organisation forwards. They won’t do it in a soft and fluffy ‘huggy-moment’ sort of way, they’ll do it for real by putting a process around it and agreeing some milestones and voluntary KPIs.

Because, you see, it’s not the waking that matters – it’s the rising. Because this week, these leaders are signing up to live ‘aha’ lives.
Ian Mitchell and Sîan Lumsden are co-founders of Eighty20 Focus, a real-time executive coaching organisation.