You can’t always get what you want. Can you?

A few weeks ago, I was encouraging a client to get specific about what she wanted in her life – to define, really clearly, her vision and purpose.  Because if you’re not clear about what you’re aiming for – your destination, your dream, your desire – how do you choose what step to take next?  You need something against which to evaluate your options and choices, to review what you did and what happened, to keep you moving forward.

My client looked at me for a bit, and then said, “Can I ask you a question?” 

Always a moment for pause, that – you never know what’s coming.  “Of course,” I said. 

“Can I really have it?  My ideal life?  Is it actually possible?”

Big intake of breath.  Great question.  My turn to look at her for a bit, while I pondered not only what answer would be helpful for her but also to examine what I actually, really believe.

What do I believe? 

Life isn’t perfect.  You can’t always have it all, and you can’t always have exactly what you want – because you are not in total control.  You have relationships with people who influence and have a part to play in the choices you make.  You may have limited resources – money, time, skills – and you have existing demands – children, partners, parents, colleagues, the mortgage company – that you can’t just sweep aside or ignore.  You live and work in a community, a town or village, a country, with a government, part of an inter-continental economy, and a global climate.  Stuff happens all around you that you can’t control or influence, you can only respond. 

So you can’t necessarily have your ideal life, the perfect life. 

Can you have something which looks more like your ideal life than you have right now? 

Yes.  If you really want it, and are willing to put effort in, yes, you can.  You start by knowing what it is you want, then you work out what you need to do, or stop doing, in order to make it happen.


And actually, it is that simple.  I don’t mean it’s easy, but conceptually, it’s simple. 

How to get there may not be simple or easy.  And the route to getting our ideal life may be a lot of hard work.  Some of what we want depends on us being able to change ourselves and how we act and interact in the world.  To stop taking self-defeating actions, or those which drive others away.  To start being different – more tolerant, less anxious, more open to opportunities as they unfurl in front of us.  More ambitious.  More (or possibly less) considerate to those around us.  To take small steps, again and again and again, towards what we want, and who we want to be. Sometimes, you can get what you want. 

Fluff and nonsense

I’m trying to articulate more clearly why I do what I do.  I’m also trying to define the fundamental elements of my coaching work – what I do and why, how it feels to be coached by me, what underpins my work.  And who I am in all of this?  Who is the Kate that shows up to work with clients, and is it the same Kate as turns up in the pub to meet friends or goes to the supermarket?

 Why am I trying to do any of this?  When I trained as a coach, one of the fundamental requirements was to be able to articulate what my coaching was for (its purpose), my coaching process, and the outcomes my clients could expect.  Clarity about these building blocks is regarded as best practice for coaches. 

I struggled with it during training, and I still struggle with it now.  Why?

On the one hand, I have too much information.  I’m a magpie – I gather up nuggets of ideas and incorporate them into what I believe and how I work – and then I forget the detail and remember only the general concept.  I have so many formative influences, it’s hard to distil them down to the important bits.

On the other hand, what I struggle with most is the voice in my head saying that what I really think and feel and believe is fluffy, new-age nonsense.  That it might play well with someone attending a yoga retreat but not with the CEO of Big Business Inc who wants hard-edged, performance-focused coaching which impacts directly, and fast, on the bottom line.

Here is what I believe.  I believe my coaching impacts on the bottom line.  But not in quite the way that some people want.  I don’t focus on skills (giving better presentations, efficient time management, understanding finance).  I focus on who you are as a person, what your purpose is in life, and how you use your unique talents, experiences, strengths, beliefs and values to live that purpose in your daily life. 

Why does that matter?

I believe we are all connected.  Yes, on some mysterious energetic level, but also in the practical sense that what I do affects those around me.  And they affect those around them.  And so on, until everyone in the world is, in some tiny, indefinable way, affected by what I do or don’t do – the Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory.  The manager having a bad day at work snaps at an employee.  The employee goes home grumpy and shouts at the kids.  The kids go to school and misbehave in class.  The teacher feels out of control and rants in a staff meeting.  Everyone else in the meeting goes home disgruntled and takes it out on their families.  Who all go to work or school or the local shop and spread the misery.  And on it goes, infecting hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of people.

Imagine what it would be like if you met someone inexplicably cheerful, who did something to help you even though they didn’t know you, just because it was the right thing to do, and they felt good that day?  What would that spread into the world?

My work is about helping you to understand your impact, how to enhance it, play it more skilfully, and use it for maximum positive effect.  Because it affects thousands of lives.  Particularly the lives of your friends, family and colleagues. And, in the organisational context of my work, because the impact you have on your colleagues is the key to whether you are a successful leader.  A successful leader is someone other people want to follow.  Not have to follow, because you’re the boss.  Want to, because you’re committed to doing the right things for the right reasons, are purposeful, motivating, energising and engaging.  Oh, and fun to be around.

We know from research that engaged employees are more productive.  Research from Warwick University published recently suggests that happy people work harder.

So my work does affect the bottom line.  That’s at least partly why I hope it matters to CEOs and senior leaders and those who make the decisions about how to develop their people. 

Why it matters to me is because I believe it is morally right to free the human spirit at work, to enable people to be whole and happy and huge and powerful and purposeful. 

Knowing who you are, what’s important and why, and trying to be the best you can, matters.  Especially in organisations where, the more senior you are, the more people you touch with even the smallest action or casual word.  Where we really are all connected, where we depend on co-operating and pulling together, sharing a sense of purpose and direction.  And don’t mistake me here – I don’t mean these things in the “corporate vision and mission” kind of way.  I mean them in the sense of doing things that matter, contributing to the greater good, working together to do the right things not the easy things, and doing them in a way which is respectful of others, has integrity, shows care and compassion for self and others, and which makes the world a better place.  For all of us.


Why putting yourself first matters

I regularly find myself working with busy, stressed clients and who struggle to find optimal balance between the different elements of their life.  Regularly, I find myself reminding them that, if their battery is flat, they cannot power anyone else’s life.  They can’t provide the support their kids or their partner or their boss or their team need, if they have no resources available. 

I truly believe this.  But it is only in the last few weeks that I’ve realised what it really means, and just how important it is. 

Yes, I’ve been stressed before.  Tired, run-down.  Can’t wait for a holiday, then collapse with a bug for the whole of the first week.  But not since I’ve been running my own business. 

Until now. 

I’ve been very stressed recently, by something which is largely out of my control.  Much depends on the outcome.  It’s personal and emotionally tangled, and I’m reliant on other people, over whom I have little influence, for the final resolution. 

I knew that I had low energy, and was finding it hard to invest time and effort in winning new work.  As a result, my business has slowed considerably, and I’ve started to worry, seriously, about money for the first time ever.

But I didn’t realise just how bad it had got until I went for a two day “Deep Dive” with a coach/mentor in early August.  She specialises in working with people’s energy, and on honing their intuition so they can use it as reliably as, and hand-in-hand with, their intellect to run their lives and help others.  I knew I needed some help, and her offer came at just the right time. 

The Deep Dive happens at her house, where she and her husband welcome you to the beautiful Dorset countryside.  The sun shone.  We reflected on my childhood, and my parents – not the usual therapy territory of the bits that screwed me up, but the blessings and positive role modelling and talents they gave me, and how these countered some of my, er, less lovely attributes (stubborn? Me?).  We examined my emotional tangle, and what I needed to let go of.  We talked.  We drank wine.  We laughed.  We lay back in our chairs on the patio one evening and stared at the night sky, watching for shooting stars and being rewarded by the passing of the International Space Station. 

We worked on my purpose – in life, in work – and how to live it more fully.  We talked about what I am holding back, and why. 

And we talked about how to use my intuition, my felt sense, to make choices in life.

I realised I had got stuck in a left-brain cycle of trying to find rational, logical answers to everything, and had lost touch with the intuitive, emotional reasons why I do my work and how I make my best choices.  I had forgotten that you have to feel enthusiasm for something, not just be able to argue its merits intellectually.  That you have to have passion for what you do, or why will anyone else?  That you have to radiate joy in your work and your life, so that others are drawn to your warmth, not repelled by your rigid adherence to some kind of mental straitjacket that doesn’t energise you. 

When I came home, I was tired, but not beaten-carpet exhausted, like I was when I’d left.  The next day, I had more energy than I’ve had for months.  The day after that, I did two hours of gardening and many more hours of emailing contacts and devising new coaching programmes.  I also meditated, something which I’ve pledged to do every day from now on, and went for a walk (even though it was raining). 

I feel amazing.  Not on tip-top form yet, but a thousand miles from where I was.  And it shocks me.

I simply hadn’t realised just how bad things had got.  That is not how anyone is meant to feel.  That is not what life is for, and it’s not going to bring success and happiness.  It’s not going to make me useful to my clients or my friends or my family. 

You can’t drive anywhere without petrol in the tank.  You can’t make a mobile phone call without power in the battery.  You can’t comfort or console or advise others without love in your heart, and you don’t have love in your heart if you are exhausted.  You can’t believe in others if you don’t believe in yourself.

It is not being selfish.  It is an absolutely necessary condition to allow you to be what you want and need to be in the world.  Keep your battery charged and your tank full. 

Next time I find myself in that conversation with a client, I can speak from the heart about how utterly self-defeating it is to get into that depleted state, and how much it matters that you put yourself first.  Always.

(First published 10 June 2012)

What to do when the sun shines

Stop what you’re doing.  Step away from the desk.  Open the door.  Go outside.  Breathe.


So why aren’t you doing it?

OK, you might be waiting for a client meeting.  Or the dentist.  Or facilitating that all-day off-site meeting.

But assuming you’re sitting at your desk at home making your business run, with no particularly pressing deadlines, what’s stopping you?

It’s a recurring question for me.  Why aren’t I out there enjoying the sunshine, taking a walk, refreshing and revigorating myself, and making the most of the fact that I work for myself and sometimes I CAN DO WHAT I LIKE? 

Because you can get sucked into working every minute of the day when you work for yourself just as easily as when someone else is paying you a salary.  Sometimes more easily, since it’s your business and it won’t succeed without you.  And you care about it.  A lot.

But it won’t succeed with you, if you’re burnt out, or stressed, or stuck in a rut with your thinking. 

And surely part of the point of working for yourself is the upside of being able to take a couple of hours off in the middle of the afternoon, not least to compensate for slogging away on that client proposal in the middle of the night?

So give yourself a break.  You have the time, the autonomy, the freedom, to enjoy the world around you.   Appreciate it.  

(First published 31 July 2012)

Doing what you love despite the voice in your head

Sometimes, I doubt myself.  My confidence drains away and the fear gets a grip.  The downward spiral begins.

Recently, this doubt has been about my “portfolio career”. 

I like having a mix of things that I do to earn a living (or that keep me occupied – not all of them pay).  But sometimes, especially when work is a bit quiet, I find the voice in my head has re-categorised my portfolio as “a ragbag of stuff, none of which is substantial or sustainable”. 

At this point, I sink rather rapidly into the slough of despond and wonder why I ever embarked on this freelance thing.  At its worst, I get paralysed by the fear that I’m a failure, that I can’t make enough money, that I’m not any good at anything.  The panic gets a grip, and I stare at the computer screen unable even to open Facebook, never mind do any work.  As for remembering I’m a grown up... I imagine that my friends and professional colleagues are looking at me out of the corners of their eyes and thinking that I’m not a proper coach, not a proper facilitator, not a proper professional anything.

What is this about?

A coach I was working with recently at a workshop encouraged me to examine the metaphor of the ragbag.  Surely, she said, it contains fragments of often beautiful material, lovingly folded and stored away until its time has come, with memories in the patterns and textures.  And even the genuinely raggy bits – you kept them because you felt they had some purpose or usefulness in life. 

The dictionary offers up: A bag for storing rags.  A confused assortment.  A motley collection.  A smorgasbord.  A mixture, jumble, medley, mixed bag (informal), potpourri, miscellany, hotchpotch.  And: A scruffy or slovenly person.

At least I know I’m not that.  I manage to shower and get dressed every day, even if sometimes it’s lunchtime before I notice that I’ve been at the computer all morning and am still in my dressing gown. 

Back to the point. 

Is a ragbag really a suitable way to make a living?  If asked what I do, I usually say I’m an executive coach.  And then I have to explain what that is to at least 50% of my conversational partners.  I sometimes add that I do organisational consulting work, leadership development, team facilitation, and/or action learning, depending on the nature of the conversation and how interested the other person looks.  But I rarely say that I write, or meditate, or do stress management, or help new graduates on their career direction, or do recruitment assessments, or... any of the other various things that people have at one time or another paid me for. 

The question is not whether all this is a worthwhile and meaningful use of my time on this earth.  The point is that the voice in my head often, and I mean often, tells me that it’s not. 

I read a blog post yesterday by someonetalking about the art of weird enough, which suggests the best you can hope for is that a third of people love you, a third detest you, and a third are indifferent.  The third who love you will do so because of who you are, plain and simple, and the more authentic you are, the more of the right kind of people you will attract into your life. 

I’ve never been weird.  Not out in the world, anyway.  Perhaps what goes on in my head is weird, who knows?  I’ve spent too much of my life trying to fit in, trying to be what other people expect or desire (or rather, what I imagine they expect and desire – how often do we ever actually check that out?), being a chameleon so I blend in with the background and don’t draw attention to myself.  It was only in the run-up to turning 40 that I began the journey of shaking off the people-pleaser attitude and started getting in touch with what I actually care about, who I actually am, how I really feel about life’s experiences.  Hard work, painful, a slow process.  But full of joy, release, and a sense of settling into a skin that actually fits. 

So this ragbag of mine?  I don’t mind if you don’t like it.  I don’t mind if it’s not your way of running your life.  It’s working for me, I’m at ease with it, and if that makes me weird and you uncomfortable, then we need to hang out with other people. 

And the voice in my head?  That’s where meditation and friends and journalling come in.  I pay attention to it, and then I do my best to turn it down, to switch frequencies.  If I love what I do, the energy I give off will attract people.  If I am enthusiastic and articulate about what I do, some people will catch enough of the excitement to join in.  And people who experiment and take risks and enjoy life are more interesting to be around. 

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies, and I refuse to let mine win.  It is a choice, and I’m saying no to that thought-channel and re-tuning to one that is more positive and affirming.  Why not?  It’s all in my head, so I can do what I like, right?  Weird enough?

(First published 14 August 2012)


Going it alone

I had a “proper job” for 20 years.  By which I mean I was employed full time on a salary by an organisation.  During yet another organisational restructure and cost-saving programme, I decided it was time to leave.  Not just because I’d been through the cycle too many times and had lost faith in its ability to deliver long-term change, but because I felt that if I was going to make a career out of organisational development and change work, I needed to experience it in more than one organisation.  I was technically redundant as a result of the restructure, and although I could have taken another role, I decided this was my moment to leave.

The organisation offered me outplacement coaching as part of the redundancy package.  My Outplacement Coach asked me the “magic wand” question – if you could do anything at all, what would it be?  “Work for myself, running my own business.”  Obvious, easy answer.  “So what’s stopping you?” she asked.  After reeling off a long list of barriers, it gradually dawned on me that the only thing actually stopping me was my own attitude... Because of the scale of the restructure, many of my colleagues were also leaving the organisation, so my network was suddenly exploding out into other companies and sectors.  The Masters degree I was studying for had introduced me to new people and new contacts, and new thinking about organisations and work and what I was capable of.  Actually, the only thing stopping me was a lack of belief that I could actually do it.

So I did it.  Not recklessly or without careful planning, I hasten to add.  I drew up lists of everyone I knew, mapped them out on networking grids according to how well I knew them, how well connected they were, whether they were likely to help me or not, whether they might be able to put me in touch with other useful people.  I worked out (roughly) how long I could live on my redundancy money while I got myself established.  I met with an accountant to work out what structure would be most appropriate for my new business, and what I would need to do to establish it as a legal entity.  I worked with a new business advisor on producing a business plan, and also on the brand position I wanted for my company (more Mercedes than Ford Mondeo – no offence to Ford Mondeos) and how that would show up in practice in everything from how I dressed to meet clients to the quality of paper I printed my invoices on.

So there I was, with all my paperwork in order, going to meetings or coffee or lunch with every contact and connection I could find, including lots of people I’d never met before.  Or since, in some cases.

Ten years later, I still haven’t discovered any scientific formula for how to win work, or how to predict which connections will deliver and which won’t.  I go to meetings where I feel I’ve really clicked with the other person, we had a great conversation, there’s lots of potential.  And nothing happens.  And then there are meetings where you think it went ok, you didn’t make a total idiot of yourself, but there wasn’t really a spark.  And before you know it, they ring you with an offer.  You hear nothing from some people for months, or even years, and then there they are with a proposition.  Other people, who you nurture and see often and whose company you enjoy, never offer you any work at all.

Lessons learned?  Enjoy the conversations you have with people.  Learn something from everyone.  Invest in relationships - because you appreciate the relationships, not because you are hoping for payback.  Never turn down the opportunity to meet someone, however random it might feel.  Be clear about what you do and who you do it for - and also be prepared to think big when someone offers you something new.  

(First published 10 June 2012)