St. Paddy’s Day Lessons for Transformation Coaching

Today I’m thinking about systems entry. With warmth and welcome. I’m a transformation coach who works with organizations and teams who want something more for themselves. Each team is a system, in the sense that it’s a collection of interrelated parts sharing a common purpose. Systems entry refers to the way a coach approaches and forms a working relationship with coachees.

So this past Tuesday was St. Paddy’s day. And in Chicago that means something. A lot, in fact. As in, everyone nips down to the nearest Irish pub for lively music and Irish dancers, and then to the St. Paddy’s day parade down by the Chicago River, which has now been dyed green.

I found myself drawn, as if by leprechaun magic, to the nearest Irish pub to meet my friend Susie. I got there early and parked myself at the bar to wait. A red-headed guy nearby toasted me as I sat down, then generously sang, “Sweet Molly Malone.” Mercifully, Susie arrived five minutes later, and we settled in to enjoy.

But the guy at the bar felt left out, apparently. He sized up Susie (who happens to be a triathlete and beautiful), laid a beefy hand on her shoulder and boomed, “Hi, I’m Mike. Wanna get married?”

You can imagine the response.

Systems entry is like that. If you go too fast, the system won’t let you in. Or it bounces you out in short order. Efficiently and promptly, like Susie bounced poor Mike.

But if the coach approaches the system with warmth and welcome (and I would add kindness since that’s a core value of mine), the system is more likely to warm up to you. A “soft start up” in the words of John Gottman, author of the well-respected book, “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.”

Warmth and welcome served me well this past week. I delivered a four day transformation workshop for a team splitting into two teams and expanding their horizons. In the true spirit of St. Paddy’s day, the group and I got face-to-face with each other, like me and Susie, to reconnect and ground ourselves.

We began by designing the coaching alliance between me and them, and then we designed the team alliance as their working agreements with each other. I asked them questions like:

  • “What’s the culture or atmosphere you want in your team?
  • “How will you know you have that?“
  • “What will make your partnership flourish?“
  • “How do you want to be together around conflict or times you disagree?“
  • “And hey, two of your peers have now been promoted to be your new managers, so how do you want to be together around rank and privilege so it doesn’t turn into rank and revenge?”

These can be loaded questions, though important ones. Approaching them slowly, at the pace the system was ready for made all the difference. And the system gave me feedback when I went too fast or risked stepping over things that needed to not be stepped over.

For example, when I asked, “How does this group want to be together around conflict?” they quickly responded, “We never disagree. We always agree. We get along really well.”

My Harry Potter sneakoscope started spinning. I ignored my internal warning voice watching the clock, and instead, I invited them to unfold the statement “We never disagree.” (How is that humanly possible, I wondered).

And presto. The magic of systems coaching. They showed me something I never would have figured out without their help. It turns out that because this team is a crisis management team, the very nature of their work is that they don’t have the luxury to bicker. Instead, they regularly face situations where millions of users suddenly, for no apparent reason (gremlins?) cannot access business-critical financial systems. That means a core part of who they are in their working partnership is to collaborate quickly, efficiently and immediately, like a team of highly qualified surgeons performing emergency surgery on a critically injured Olympic athlete.

Pay dirt. Once we slowed down enough to articulate this aspect of their partnership, we were able to use that experience to articulate the essence and dreaming levels of this system. And to harvest from those a picture of the ideal culture they want in their team – which is to both honor and preserve the past history of high collaboration, as well as expand and grow their future possibilities.

I would have stomped right over that opportunity had I been clumsy like Mike in the bar with Susie – ”. . . Hi, I’m Mike. Ya wanna get married?”

Nobody likes the “Mikes” in life, and that includes the organizational systems we coaches work with. It’s natural and normal that the system started to bump me out when I showed signs of stepping over something that’s extremely important to them, which is their core identity as a highly collaborative SWAT team.

Sure, it’s occasionally embarrassing, both to me as a coach, and that dopey Mike on St. Paddy’s day, when we stumble, trying to build relationships without truly seeing the human beings right in front of us. Fortunately, both Susie and the team I coached last week both knew how to speak up for themselves about what’s important. And I knew how to get that heard.

The key difference between Mike and I was that I listened and he didn’t. My reward was getting enter into relationship with the system this week. Whereas poor Mike ended up nursing his drink at the end of the bar, sadly wondering why he was sitting alone. We’ve all been Mike in the past. And we’ve all been me, offering and receiving warmth and welcome.

To Mike. He may learn yet. Happy St. Paddy’s day.

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