Women take strides through group coaching
Cori Maedel as printed in the Business in Vancouver newspaper, Nov 10, 2009
Even in these enlightened times, women are scarce in leadership positions in many companies. Those who’ve made it to the management level often feel isolated and struggle to develop their leadership style. Is it really necessary for a woman to work twice as hard to be considered half as good? Does she have to be the toughest person in the room or is she expected to play a more nurturing role? Should she be playing a role of any kind?
Almost seven years ago, I created a mentorship program primarily for women. I was working for an organization where I saw many women getting in the way of their own success. Their corporate environment didn’t always follow the rules that they knew, and they felt constrained by what they thought were the expectations of their peers. Some of these women seemed to be leaving their strengths and individuality at home when they came to the office.
About 20 women volunteered to be in the first mentorship program. I assigned them randomly to groups of five (plus myself), in the belief that six people around a table would lead to a good discussion without allowing anyone to hide. In the first session, I asked each group to set some ground rules for confidentiality and respectful communication.
After that, I asked what they hoped to get out of the program. I explained that each group would set its own agenda for the first six bi-weekly sessions. They would commit to attending that many sessions, with an option to book more if they felt the experience was valuable. Depending on what the group wanted to accomplish, I would bring out various exercises, readings and discussion topics.
My first realization was how each group had similar things that they wanted to work on. Communication skills, relationships with co-workers and, especially, building self-confidence were the areas of greatest interest. Over and over, I heard the comment, “Wow, I thought I was the only one.” The participants in the first sessions took away the powerful message that we are more similar than different and that others share our struggles.
Almost everyone chose to continue after the first six sessions, and, over time, trust, warmth and confidence developed. I immediately found that I was gaining as much insight and encouragement from the sessions as I was giving. The expression “fill up your cup” became part of the language of the program. Participants who felt drained of energy by other events of the day would describe having their reserves of hope and enthusiasm filled up by meeting with the group.
We became each other’s comforters, cheerleaders and coaches. When one member of the group expressed a desire to accomplish a goal, she knew that she would be held accountable by the rest of the group.
I made a promise to myself that I would personally follow every piece of advice that I gave to other participants, even when following that advice didn’t feel entirely comfortable. This strategy has pushed me to accomplish more in my business and personal life than I would have thought possible seven years ago.
Many women worry about being seen to lack knowledge or technical expertise. They assume that the more senior people in their organization must be more knowledgeable than themselves, despite the fact that most of us are specialists with in-depth knowledge of particular areas that few others could match.
One of the mentorship participants admitted that, in conversations with her boss, he used many acronyms that she didn’t understand. The mentorship group challenged her to put aside her fear of appearing ignorant and simply ask him what they meant. She did. His response was, “I don’t know what some of these things stand for either.”
Other women came in to improve an area of their work lives, but ended up with tools to strengthen their relationships with their families as well. Some of the success stories were dramatic, for example, bringing into focus the desire to change careers and finding the courage to take the first steps toward that vision. Others were small shifts, such as learning how to let minor annoyances go by without wasting energy on them.
Gradually, we began to recognize what a powerful force dialogue can be. It starts with a genuine interest and curiosity about others’ experiences and ideas. By making ourselves open to what others can teach us, we are taken in unexpected directions and given insights that someone has spent her lifetime learning.
Today, the mentorship program has gained a name, Kokoro(e), which means mind, body, spirit and knowledge. This personal performance coaching program is offered to corporate groups and to individuals. More information can be found at www.jouta.com.
As busy women, many of us don’t take much time to think about our personal goals and dreams. Through mentoring, we challenge each other to take them seriously and to put in the effort needed to move them forward. We have discovered that we all have something to teach and something to learn, and that we learn best from each other.