On a bright sunny morning many years ago, a woman unexpectedly found herself sitting in a bustling cafe, a steaming coffee before her. As she reviewed her notes in preparation for her initial meeting with her new boss, she couldn't help but smile. Today was her first day in a new contract role she hadn't applied for and certainly never expected to get!
The woman was still recovering from having left what she imagined would be her dream job several months earlier. Her confidence and self-belief, neither of which she had in any great abundance, had been severely shaken. Although she was excited about this new and unexpected opportunity, her confidence was far from being restored.
Her mind drifted back to the unexpected call from a recruiter a few weeks earlier. After the usual preliminaries, the recruiter said, ' have you seen this Learning and Development Manager role advertised?'. The woman replied that she had but had not applied, as the job description stated that all applicants must have a degree. She didn't possess one, so completing an application, she told the recruiter, 'would have been a fruitless exercise.'
The recruiter surprisingly laughed, 'Oh, she said, you should never let that put you off. Most organisations focus on constructing a list of requirements and qualifications because they believe this will secure them the best candidates, and they forget to focus equally on the person. Seven times out of ten, this immediately excludes the individuals most able to deliver what the organisation genuinely needs. The first round of interviews happens, and they discover that none of the candidates meets their unwritten criteria. That's the point at which they reach out to someone like me to find the candidate they actually need. The perfect blend of good skills, practicality, curiosity, adaptability and people skills that's the type of individual organisations need. So, send me your CV pronto, laughed the recruiter. I think you might be just what this organisation is looking for.' The woman had never encountered a recruiter quite like this, and with nothing to lose, she emailed off her CV.
The woman, we'll call her Louise, took another sip of coffee, endeavoured to steady her nerves and thought about the day ahead. At this point, the voice of one of her mentors floated into her head. 'Remember, focus on what you do best, your strengths, and above all, be yourself and stay true to your values.' As Louise walked to her new office, she determined to do as her mentor had suggested.
The initial meeting with her new boss, the head of HR, went pretty well. Louise was keenly aware that this was only an eight month contract with an extensive wish list of goals to be completed. So during the meeting, Louise outlined what she viewed as the three priority goals, and fortunately, her boss agreed. However, Louise felt that her manager's implicit expectation was that she would complete them all, but she pushed this to the back of her mind.
Top of Louise's day one list was to obtain data and start building relationships, to understand people's actual experiences working in the organisation. To hear different perspectives and build a picture of day to day reality rather than the noble aspirations and perceptions of the senior management team.
Louise asked her manager for the latest learning and training needs analysis (L&TNA) in her quest for data. 'Oh', replied her manager, 'I have a copy of it somewhere, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet, and I'm not sure where I filed it. It would probably be quicker if you got a copy from Jonathan in IT. IT get in early, and he's usually one of the first, so he'll be in by the time we finish here.' Louise was curious as to why someone in IT would have this data but assumed it was because they had set up the survey. Louise then mentioned she'd need to arrange meetings with many people at different levels and within all the main functions across the business. Louise's manager had beaten her to it here. She'd arranged introductory sessions with all the directors and function heads across the organisation. All the details would be in Louise's calendar on her laptop, which she'd find in her desk drawer, 'they'll tell you everything you need to know', said her manager. Louise made a note to ensure she also got to speak to people who worked at other levels in these departments.
The meeting ended, and Louise headed straight for the IT department. Unlike the HR office, IT was buzzing with people and activity as Louise walked in. As she stood hesitating in the doorway, not wanting to interrupt any of the lively discussions underway, one of the people facing the door noticed her. He gestured to the man he'd been conversing with and said, 'we have a visitor.' The hum in the room died as the man turned to face Louise. 'Hello', said Louise, 'I'm Louise, sorry to disturb you, I'm looking for Jonathan.' 'Why do you want to see Jonathan' said the man, 'I wanted a copy of the L&TNA, and the Head of HR said he'd have one,' replied Louise. This guy wasn't exactly unfriendly, but he seemed wary.
After a long pause, the guy said, 'I'm Jonathan; come with me to my desk.' Louise dutifully followed Jonathan to his desk, where he pulled up a chair for her, and before either of them had sat down, he said, 'why do you want to the L&TNA?'. Louise explained that as part of her new role, she needed the data to understand where specific learning or training needs might lie, which had been met, any trends, recurring requests, and to highlight the priorities moving forward, etc. Jonathan looked at Louise intently and said, 'I've emailed the data to you; it'll be waiting when you get back to your desk'. On an impulse, Louise said, 'who designed the questionnaire and collated the data? That would be me', replied Jonathan. Before Louise could ask any of the numerous questions that had popped into her head, the desk phone rang. Jonathan apologised and picked up the phone. Louise got up, mouthed a thank you, and returned to her desk.
Back at her desk Louise checked her mail, and sure enough, there was the data she'd requested from Jonathan and a meeting invitation for later that afternoon. Why she asked herself, was IT taking responsibility for creating and undertaking an L&TNA? Her first day was becoming more curious by the moment, she thought.
The day sped by in a whirl of meetings with directors and department heads, punctuated with reviewing the data Jonathan had sent her. Louise was grateful to finally return to her desk and realise her only remaining meeting was with Jonathan. Jonathan's chat message popped up as Louise was about to check her inbox. 'Hi, I've updated our meeting to two hours as your calendar was clear. Bring all your stuff with you so you can leave after our meeting. I know you finish at 4pm, and if you return to the HR office, you'll get dragged into something else. The meeting/training rooms are on the lower ground floor. See you soon. Louise was surprised, to say the least, but had no time to ponder as she now had only fifteen minutes to pack up and get to the lower ground floor.
Louise arrived at the meeting room five minutes early and was surprised to find Jonathan already there. 'I'm sorry, am I late? I thought we weren't starting until 2pm?'. 'No, you're not late', replied Jonathan. 'I didn't want to get caught up in anything that would make me late'. Louise was intrigued; Jonathan seemed much more friendly than he had this morning. This is some first day, thought Louise. Little did she know that the surprises were about to keep on coming.
Louise sat down next to Jonathan, put her notebook and coloured pens on the table and opened her laptop, revealing the L&TNA. 'I've looked through the data and responses a couple of times. Before we dig into that, I'm curious why you created the L&TNA and what input you received from HR?' said Louise. Jonathan chuckled, 'I thought we needed the data, plus we'd never done one. I went to HR to discuss it, and they said it would be a good idea, but they didn't have time to help me. I researched and found examples of L&TNA's and went from there.' Slightly taken aback, Louise was about to pose another question. However, Jonathan got there first, 'Would you be my mentor?'. There was a moment of stunned silence before Louise replied, 'but you've only just met me, and I'm not an IT person. However, I could support you with regular coaching. Would that work for you?' Jonathan smiled, 'That sounds great; when can we start.' 'Now's as good a time as any', responded Louise. 'Let's spend the rest of this first hour on the L&TNA and the following hour on coaching.
Before they began their coaching session, Louise asked if Jonathan had ever had a coach; he replied that he had not. So Louise explained the coaching framework she used, reinforcing that everything they said in their sessions would remain confidential. In addition, that coaching was essentially a conversation with a purpose.
'So Jonathan, what do you want to work on?' asked Louise. In the hour that followed, Jonathan outlined some of his frustrations and his attempts to overcome them. They discussed each situation in turn, distilling them down. Jonathan then chose the areas he wanted to tackle first.
Presupposition of NLP
As Louise listened to Jonathan, she heard several reoccurring themes, attributes, and strengths, which she captured to explore later. Next, she asked Jonathan if he had experienced the same frustrations within the IT department. 'No, not at all', Jonathan replied, 'within IT, my ideas are listened to, everyone gets to share their thinking and no one talks over you. Most of my proposed solutions are trialled, reviewed, sometimes tweaked and incorporated into a new process or way of working.' Louise asked why Jonathan thought that was. Jonathan laughed and said, 'well, we all understand roughly what the other teams in the function are doing, how they work, and their current projects. Plus, I guess we all speak a similar language, IT!'
Louise asked Jonathan how he presented and communicated his ideas to the IT team and if these differed from the methods used in the wider business. It became apparent that inside IT, Jonathan expressed his thoughts using a mixture of written reports, often including diagrams, sent in advance of meetings. Discussing ideas face to face in team sessions, where feedback and differing opinions were welcomed. In addition, initial musing and draft solutions were emailed to specific colleagues who would offer different perspectives and insights. Outside of IT, Jonathan tended to present his ideas verbally, an approach he felt was the least comfortable. Louise asked Jonathan how he thought about running a series of experiments combining the different methods he used within IT with the broader organisation. Jonathan said he felt comfortable with this approach as it would provide data on how to tailor his for different individuals and audiences.
Louise shared the strengths and skills she had heard as Jonathan relayed the situations he found most frustrating and those when he felt he was at his best. Louise and Jonathan worked through each challenge he faced, developing strategies for each. The plan was then for him to test and evaluate whether these enabled him to get his views and solutions listened to in meetings. As the session drew to a close, Jonathan said something unexpected to Louise. 'I heard strengths and attributes as we mapped out the new approach methods I should try. You think like a process mapper.' 'I do?' replied Louise, unsure what a process mapper was. 'Yes', replied Jonathan, 'you do, and it's given me an idea. I'll need to run it past my manager first, though, and then I'll update you on my plan'. The following week Louise found herself working in collaboration with the IT team on a process mapping project for HR.
For Christmas, Louise, suspecting Jonathan was an introvert, bought him Quiet by Dr Susan Cain and a copy for herself so they could read and discuss it together.
Unexpectedly, Jonathan bought Louise a mini notebook and pens so she could mindmap on the train or whenever she was out and about.
Louise and Jonathan found ways to utilise their own and each other's skills and strengths to design solutions, complete projects and realise goals. And Louise realised that her confidence and self-belief were beginning to grow, just as Jonathan's were.
Louise still laughs at the remembrance of walking into a meeting room for one of their 'Quiet' catch-ups and Jonathan leaping from the chair and excitedly declaring, 'you're an ambivert.' And the laughter ensued as Louise said in a mock solemn voice, 'and you're an introvert; who'd have thought it.'
Louise watched with admiration as Jonathan's confidence and reputation in the business grew. He was invited to more meetings as leaders within the organisation began to recognise and respect his observations, opinions and the innovative solutions he conceived. Nearing the end of her contract, Louise was thrilled when Jonathan told her he had been promoted to a new role. Jonathan continued to increase his skills, hone his strengths, and enjoy even greater personal and organisational success. Not everything went to plan. There were setbacks and disappointments. However, Jonathan viewed these experiences as' valuable data' and would laugh when Louise called them 'learning opportunities.' Saying, 'we speak the same language; it's just a different dialect, informed by our different strengths.'
Little did Louise realise, as she left that first meeting with Jonathan, that it would be the start of a collaborative working and an ongoing coaching and often co-coaching relationship. In addition to a friendship that continues to this day.
If you hadn't realised already, I was the woman, Louise. As I look back now, knowing much more about strengths than I did then, the words of Dr Alex Linley ring even more clearly and profoundly in my ears.