When I was a City lawyer I frequently felt like a battery hen, laying my 7 “billable hours” each day. The pressures of a workplace that required relentless productivity took their toll and after 10 years I left to set up my own business, where I had the freedom to set the pace for myself and respond to my own rhythms.
Today is Imbolc, the ancient Celtic festival that marks the mid point between the winter solstice on 21 December (the shortest day) and the spring equinox in late March, the point in the year when the days become longer than the nights.
Also known as Candlemas in Christianity, Imbolc traditionally celebrates the beginning of the end of winter; snowdrops are appearing and the days are ever so slightly longer. It’s a subtle shift and one I can easily miss in my artificially lit, 24/7 London life, yet if I take the time to pause and mark it, I feel comforted by noticing the lengthening days. Like a deep sea diver ascending from the depths of the ocean, I can now see the surface of the water above me and the blue sky beyond. I haven’t reached the air yet but I’m travelling up towards the light.
Even though I am now answerable to no-one but myself, I still get caught up in the “busy” work culture of modern life – fearing that I won’t be able to relate to my clients who are still working under this pressure if I’m not experiencing it myself. Learning about these ancient festivals and how to pay attention to these transitions in the seasons has been a revelation for me and a powerful antidote to this unspoken expectation.
Imbolc is a time for spring cleaning, both literally and metaphorically. I invite you to pause, light a candle and take a few moments to reflect on the winter months, asking yourself:
what have I been hanging on to that I’m ready to clear out?
what new ideas have been forming over the winter months that I want to explore in the spring?
It was a hot August bank holiday Monday in London in 1996 and I was stuck in the office of my City law firm. The air conditioning was blasting out chilly air and the hermetically sealed windows cut me off from the blazing sunshine outside. I was sealed in.
Why wasn’t I outdoors enjoying the sunshine and revelling in a precious day off work? Instead I was staring at a file trying to make sense of it as the words swam before my eyes. There was nothing particularly difficult about the case; the problem was that I was finding it hard to function.
As the afternoon ticked by I felt progressively more miserable. Eventually I thought “Sod it!” threw down my file and headed out into the sunshine to cheer myself up. I headed towards at St Katherine’s Dock to soothe myself by wandering around the cobbled quayside listening to the flap of sails and cry of seagulls.
As I approached the marina a sculpture caught my eye – a girl swimming down towards a dolphin, which was floating up to meet her. There was a lightness between them that stopped me in my tracks. I was entranced by her feeling of freedom, ease and joy and it struck me with full force that it had been a long time since I’d felt any such joy.
In that moment I realised that something had to change. The next day I booked a holiday to Greece and resigned my job on my return. By Christmas I’d left my job and the legal profession and I spent January in Bali swimming with dolphins before setting up my new business as a coach and mediator. Since then I’ve travelled the world teaching mediation skills, established myself as an authority on women in leadership, qualified as a psychotherapist and dedicated spare time to being an environmental activist.
Looking back I can see that I’d been on my own version of The Heroine’s Journey, popularised by Maureen Murdock. Often, the journey will start at The Wasteland – a bleak time when life has lost its joy and colour, when activities that once had meaning and juice have become dry and pointless. For many years I’d felt alienated from my work as a litigation lawyer. It had long passed its sell by date for me yet I was hanging on to it for the security of a salary.
If we remain too long in the Wasteland without heeding the call for change then we are likely to go into the Descent, a phase when our mood deteriorates from merely being flat to one of despair. Depression is a key sign that we are sliding into the Descent.
This often comes when we are resisting change for fear of the unknown. The antidote is to heed the Call To Adventure. What new possibilities are opening up? What new vistas are there to be explored? I knew my next step was to become a mediator, but I couldn’t see how to make it work financially. I was waiting for someone to offer me a secure job and in the meantime clinging on to my salary.
Seeing the sculpture was my Call To Adventure, and this time I knew I had to act. I’d hit rock bottom and the only way was up – suddenly my next step was very clear and I had the energy to take decisive action.
Last week I was back at St Katherine’s dock, more than 20 years since that fateful day when I chose to take a leap of faith – I sat for a while by the sculpture, reconnecting with its impact on me all those years ago. Although the path hasn’t always been easy, I’ve never for one minute regretted that decision to answer the Call.
If you’re feeling in the Wasteland right now and looking for your next adventure, think about:
What have I outgrown that I’m clinging to for security?
What is catching my attention now?
When have I taken risks in the past that have paid off and what did I learn from them?
Late one Friday afternoon at the end of a busy week, just as I was thinking of wrapping up and pouring a glass of wine, the telephone rang. I was sorely tempted to ignore it, but some sixth sense kicked in and I decided to take just one last call.
‘Hello,’ I said, somewhat lacksadaisically. It was a warm day. That cold glass of Chablis and the garden beckoned.
‘Hello. This is the House of Commons.’
My first reaction was ‘Yeah, right,’ but thankfully I kept quiet till I’d found out more.
‘We’d like you to give evidence to parliament.’
‘OK . . . ’
‘On sexual harassment in the workplace.’
Ah, right. An area of speciality of mine. This was definitely bona fide.
‘The Women and Equalities Committee want to understand how mediation can help to reduce sexual harassment at work and you’ve been recommended to us as an experienced mediator who can advise them.
You’ll be questioned by a panel of MPs at the House of Commons and the hearing will be live streamed on the internet.’
Gulp. Parliamentary committees can be tough on their witnesses and with live broadcast on the internet, there’s no margin for error. This was going to be a whole new level of visibility.
Of course my answer was ‘Yes’. This was an opportunity to advance two causes I care deeply about: tackling sexual harassment of women and using mediation to resolve differences constructively. I felt both nervous and excited.
When coaching women leaders I encourage them to put themselves forward for high-profile opportunities and value what they have to say. This was an opportunity to take my own advice.
I knew I needed to prepare myself so that I’d make the most of this opportunity. I had 5-10 minutes to get my points across and have a shot at influencing government policy for decades to come. I was determined to do my best.
This is how I did it:
1. Get advice from an expert
I’m a seasoned presenter and panellist, comfortable with a live audience, but less experienced with cameras. I sought the advice of former BBC producer Esther Stanhope, The Impact Guru, who gave me excellent tips on what to wear and how to deliver my message so it would work on camera as well as in the room.
2. Prepare thoroughly – and know when to stop
I took time to think about my audience, (the committee of MPs who would be questioning me), their goals, what they knew about the topic and what I wanted them to DO as a result of my evidence. I read the previous evidence and researched current thinking. I then drew a line and decided I’d done enough, curbing the temptation to read every word on the topic and getting lost in the detail.
3. Prepare yourself as well as your content
Once I’d prepared my content I set it aside and prepared how I wanted to BE. I used one of my favourite techniques from my presentation skills coaching by picking the 3 qualities I most wanted to exude. I wanted to be calm, I wanted to be considered and I wanted to be compelling. So I silently repeated to myself “I am calm, considered and compelling” as I sat on the tube, as I walked from the tube to the House of Commons and as I sat waiting to speak.
4. Get there early and tune in to the atmosphere.
I turned up at the House of Commons and was whisked through security. The atmosphere of the building reminded me strongly of going to court in my lawyer days – the formality and the sense of entering into a different world with its own strange rules and procedures. I got there early enough to watch another panel of witnesses giving evidence before my session. Sitting in the room I had time to get a feel for the style of questioning, the personalities on the committee and the acoustics in the room. I sing in a choir and I know the value of rehearsing in the place where I will perform.
5. Expect to be nervous
Telling yourself “I shouldn’t be feeling nervous” is no help at all. Of course you should be nervous when doing something high stakes for the first time. Embrace the nerves and remind yourself how great you will feel afterwards when you have accomplished a successful result.
6. Focus on being helpful to others
When under pressure I can feel self conscious and my attention goes to what others think of me rather than the value of my message. The best antidote is to focus on the needs of my audience (the committee of MPs who have to decide on policy) and those that will be helped by it: women who have been harassed; men who want to understand the impact of their behaviour and employers who want a safe and fair workplace. Focusing on others takes the pressure off me and allows me to do my best.
Eventually my turn came, the Chair Maria Miller MP asked me a question, all eyes were upon me and I started to speak. I was pleased and relieved that I spoke fluently and was able to make my key points, weaving them into the questions that were posed.
I was delighted that I managed to emphasise the huge value of mediation in resolving and healing the harm caused by harassment at work. Often, harassment at work involves an imbalance of power. Mediation can be very effective at redressing this as it gives the less powerful an equal voice. However, a complainant needs to know that they have strong alternatives if dialogue is not successful. In practice this means organisations must be willing to investigate and challenge the behaviour of senior and powerful employees and hold them to account, regardless of how commercially valuable they are to the business. Moreover, mediation can change the behaviour of perpetrators. It gives them a chance to reflect on their behaviour in non-blaming environment.
Given the sensitive nature of these disputes, professional mediators who are specialists in this area and are external to the organisation should be used.
All too quickly the session was over and I made my way out into the sunshine of Parliament Square, feeling a mixture of relief and exhilaration that I had acquitted myself well. I was grateful for all the years’ experience I have in presenting and the powerful model of preparation I have developed.
It was time for another glass of wine.
If you’ve got a high-profile speaking event coming up you’d like help with, get in touch and let’s book a chat about how I can help you to shine.
TED talks have become the gold standard for public speaking – powerful, touching and authentic. You’ve probably got a favourite talk – Brene Brown on The Power of Vulnerability or maybe Simon Sinek’s Start With Your Why?
With TEDx events being run in every major city its now even easier to claim your 18 minutes of glory.
You may not aspire to giving a TEDx talk, but when you’re next presenting at work, how about bringing in some of that TED magic?
A powerful TED style presentation will include 2 key elements:
ENERGY (passion, enthusiasm) and AUTHORITY (gravitas, credibility).
The formula is:
ENERGY + AUTHORITY = ENGAGEMENT
Most of us can manage one or the other under pressure – the key to a successful talk is to combine both.
What happens when this formula goes wrong? Let me draw on an analogy from Winnie The Pooh.
If you have lots of energy but very little authority, then you’re in danger of coming across like Tigger – bouncing around with loads of enthusiasm, but not very reliable, focussed or adult. Great fun at a party but you’re unlikely to hire him as your adviser, trust him to lead a big team or invest in his business.
At the other extreme you might have lots of authority but low energy – think Owl. He makes seemingly wise pronouncements in a ponderous way, but when you listen to what he’s actually saying – it’s banal. A safe pair of hands but he isn’t going to inspire anyone.
Worse still is to have low energy and low authority – you’ve probably guessed this is Eeyore, the famous depressed donkey. Eeyore revels in his misfortunes: “2 weeks on Tuesday it’ll be 3 weeks since anyone came to see me” is one of his favourites. While there’s a certain humour in his “poor me” behaviour, he’s not going to set anyone alight with his message.
So, how do you avoid these traps?
Firstly, notice what you do under the pressure of giving a presentation. Do you get more excitable and Tigger-like or do you become ponderous and formal like Owl?
For Tiggers, a key tip is to slow down and allow pauses between your sentences. It’ll feel weird at first but trust me, what feels too slow is about right.
For Owls, practice talking about something you feel passionate about such as the best holiday you ever had and then practice your talk bringing the same level of energy to it. If it feels over the top you’re probably in the right zone.
We can’t all be Brene Brown but we have the chance to bring our own bit of magic to our presentations if we “act TED”.
If you want help with accessing your inner TED speaker get in touch and let’s have a chat about how I can help you.
Jane is a typical coaching client of mine – early 40s, middle management role and looking to progress to a senior role in the next couple of years. She has 3 kids and she’s the main family earner. Her team at work find her very supportive but her peers tell her she needs to push them more. She’s juggling alot of balls and at times it can feel overwhelming.
It feels good to help others, but at what point does helping become unhealthy?
In the 1960s, Californian psychotherapist Stephen Karpman came up with The Drama Triangle: Persecutor – Victim – Rescuer. It’s a handy model to explain dysfunctional patterns of behaviour in groups – whether families or teams at work.
Persecutors are easy to spot – they are the bullies. Likewise, a person who is playing the Victim role wallows in seeing themselves as powerless even though they have options to change their situation. Think Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh.
The Rescuer is harder to spot. These are the people who look helpful and supportive but may be stopping others from developing by doing things for them that they could – and should – be doing for themselves.
Is this you? If so, you could be heading for burnout.
Warning signs to watch out for are:
Do you feel uncomfortable making demands on your team and instead try to plug the gaps by working extra hard yourself?
Is your helping motivated more by your desire to be liked than by the need of the other person?
Do you secretly feel only you can do the job properly and left to their own devices others will make a mess of it?
Ways to change are:
Ask yourself “Can this person do this for themselves?” If yes, be willing to stretch them.
Notice how often you act from a sense of guilt and learn how to tolerate the feeling rather than acting on it.
If someone in your life is playing the Victim, encourage them to see how they have power in their situation, and to take action.
Paradoxically, when you drop being the Rescuer you’ll find you empower those around you and get far more done.
Drop me a line with your Rescuer confessions – I’d love to hear.
Professional women negotiate every day and when negotiating for others – whether clients or team members – research shows that women do just as well as men. But when it comes to negotiating for ourselves, it’s a different story.
A study by Carnegie Mellon University showed that 57% of men negotiated to improve the terms of their first job offer but only 7% of women did so.
There is a good reason for this.
According to Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, women who negotiate assertively on their own behalf are judged as being pushy, in a way that men are not. She calls this the “social cost” of negotiation. Women may fear being judged in this way and decide to gratefully accept what they are offered rather than trying to improve it.
This can lead to putting your head down, getting on with the job and hoping someone will notice and reward you by putting a tiara on your head – a phenomenon she calls “Tiara Syndrome”.
If this is you, here are some tips on how to get as good a deal for yourself as you do for others:
See yourself as your “client”: imagine you are representing someone else and give it the same priority as your other tasks – not bottom of your list.
Get support: find someone you trust and get them to be your negotiation buddy. Work out your strategy together and rehearse out loud asking for what you want. Get them to hold you accountable for speaking up for yourself.
Enlist your “virtual team”: when I have a challenging communication to make I call to mind my assertiveness role models (Emma Thompson, Michelle Obama or Judi Dench in James Bond) and imagine them joining me in the meeting. It makes a huge difference!
Give a reason for your point of view: people react better to requests when offered a principled reason e.g: “Salary surveys show people at my level of experience are earning £x” rather than baldly stating: “I want x”.
Show that you value the relationship: women are expected to care about relationships so explaining how your request will support a good working relationship makes a massive difference: “I want us to get off to a flying start when I join you and for both of us to feel good about the terms we’ve agreed”.
By making these changes you can get better results in your negotiations and still be popular with your colleagues.
Walking through the vast, opulent lobby of a global law firm in the City I was stopped in my tracks by a huge noticeboard entitled “Allen & Out”, encouraging staff to champion their LGBT colleagues. The firm were promoting LGBT awareness as part of a diversity and inclusion initiative. So what? You may ask. Why my amazement?
The last time I’d been to their offices back in the early 90s the reception was like a gentleman’s club, full of leather studded armchairs and copies of Hare & Hound and Country Life. At that time, the idea that a law firm would even acknowledge it had gay members of staff, let alone actively champion them, would have been astounding.
I remember a client complaining to me about an employee he wanted to sack: “She’s a bolshie dyke and I want her out”. I was shocked but didn’t know how to challenge his sexism and homophobia – such views were commonplace at the time.
Overt discrimination based on social class was rampant too. At interviews for trainee solicitor jobs in the mid 80s I was routinely asked: “and what does your father do?”
To my intense relief I had a “respectable” answer to this question – my father was an accountant. I’m uncomfortably aware my career could have been very different if he’d been a bus driver. Of course, no one asked about my mother’s occupation.
When it comes to equality and diversity we all know the situation isn’t a bed of roses: Weinstein, Trump, The President’s Club. And yet, LGBT people are no longer forced to hide who they are at work and no one gets asked about their father’s occupation.
I love writing and it gives me huge pleasure when one of my newsletter readers tells me “I don’t read many newsletters but I always read yours”. Sometimes they go on to say “You should write a book”.
At this point I freeze like a rabbit in the headlights and my internal critic says “You can’t do that!” So another year goes by and the book never gets started.
This year I’ve decided to tackle my fear head on by joining The Writer’s Studio, a group led by the amazing Kathy Gale, former Managing Director of The Women’s Press. As I sat in the group for the first time last Friday having my writing tactfully critiqued I went right back to my 10 year old self listening to Sister Mary Cyprian, the terrifying nun headmistress of my primary school, picking apart my grammar.
I will always remember my shock as I proudly presented my story to her and she responded by criticising it in front of the class, leading to my internal decision “I can’t write”.
Last Friday a big part of me wanted to run away from the group and wholeheartedly agree with Sister Mary Cyprian and my 10 year old self. Yet I know that if I stick with this work my writing has the chance to flourish.
What I am learning about facing my fears is:
We make decisions in childhood to keep us emotionally safe and these become “hard wired” into us. We need to periodically upgrade our “hardware” by uncovering and challenging those beliefs. This takes courage, patience and self-compassion.
When we are making changes, sometimes it feels worse before it feels better. This is not a sign to stop but to keep going.
Getting the skilled support of others to overcome our fears is vital. Just as it’s a bad idea to try to cut your own hair, calling on expert support can move you forward in leaps and bounds rather than trying to muddle through under your own steam.
When I’m coaching my clients on their personal impact and presence, it can feel scary for them to receive feedback about highly personal aspects of themselves such as their voice, body language and posture. Watching themselves back on video can be squirmy!
Yet when they are willing to take risks, be vulnerable and try out new methods, the results are transformational.
Leadership is as much about small, everyday acts of personal courage as it is about big, bold initiatives.
What are your secret fears and how are you overcoming them? I’d love to hear.
I remember when I was learning to be a mediator my mentor, Richard, gave me this advice:
“You need to be your own harshest critic and your own best friend”.
My immediate response to this was “I know how to be my own harshest critic!”
And at that point I realised I had no clue how to be my own best friend.
Now that I coach women leaders I see I was not alone in this. I work with women who appear confident and poised on the outside yet inside they are extremely hard on themselves.
Why does this matter? The fact is if all you hear is a constant stream of harsh criticism, then it is difficult to flourish and give of your best. Sadly, the consequence can be that you hesitate over opportunities rather than confidently stepping forward and you end up being passed over as a result.
Here are my tips for getting your inner critic under control:
Pay attention to your internal chatter. Do you have a voice in your head that says: “You were rubbish” or “You’ll never be good enough!” If so, learn how to identify that negative inner voice and hear what it is saying to you. This gives you a choice whether to believe it and let it run the show or to counteract it with a more positive and realistic voice. If someone else spoke to you like that would you let them get away with it?
Accept compliments from others: If someone pays you a genuine compliment – accept it! All too often I see women shrugging off a compliment, yet seizing on criticism and taking it to heart, whether it’s valid or not. A practice I’ve done for years is to keep a file of compliments people have given me. I’ll periodically read it and this gives me a lift and reminds me of all the great things about myself I have forgotten.
Give yourself compliments: Find ways to develop your “inner best friend” muscle. After a session with a client I’ll take a few minutes to write down both what I could have done better and what went well. The positives column is always longer than the ideas for improvement, yet it’s only by writing it down that I can see this. Take time to remind yourself of what you do well and might be taking for granted about yourself.
What tips do you have for developing your “inner best friend”? I’d love to hear them.
I’ll never forget my choir’s first flash mob. I was sitting in an Italian restaurant on Valentine’s Day, surrounded by romantic couples, with a friend I had tricked into thinking he was just coming out for dinner. Little did he know that the opening bars of Love Shack were my cue to stand up and belt out a medley of love songs to the unsuspecting diners.
His face was a picture as he went through a succession of emotions from total bewilderment, gradual dawning realisation and finally delight as he realised what was going on. For five minutes time stood still as we serenaded the diners and entertained them with our love songs. They were transfixed by our performance and we left the restaurant on a high, thrilled that for a brief moment we had created a connection.
Afterwards I realised how being part of the choir enables me to be braver and bolder than I ever am on my own. I would never normally dare to stand up and sing impromtu to a whole restaurant, and the exhilaration of overcoming my fears is huge.
Here are some of the things I’ve learnt:
Nearly everyone performs better in a choir than they do solo – having the security of other singers around you makes you more confident about singing boldly and helps you find your note. Find a good team to be part of and you’ll do far more than you could ever do on your own.
Performing a flash mob is a “random act of kindness”. The crowd are offered a gift of entertainment they were not expecting, and a chance to pause and share a moment of joy with others, before the performers melt back into the crowd, asking for nothing in return. In business and leadership if you are generous with your time, wisdom and knowledge, sharing it freely, it will come back to you in spades.
Being a choir member is a great opportunity to be a follower. If your day job involves being the leader and making stuff happen, the great thing about a choir is that you just have to turn up, learn the songs and be a good team player. It’s great to practice followership for a change and have the experience of being led.
If you’re looking for a life and leadership enhancing hobby – especially if you’re one of those people who think you can’t sing – then get yourself along to a choir.