What does it take to improve on something that has been dubbed ‘wonderful’, ‘great’ and amazing’? How can a consulting organisation, in service of its client, keep pushing the frontiers of performance and excellence to higher and higher levels when one cannot even imagine what ‘the better’ would look like? These are some of the questions that were running through my mind as I was on the train from Oxford to Brighton (UK) where my Future Considerations colleagues and I were to spend the next four days “sharpening our sword” for our work in 2013 with one of our key clients. I have borrowed the notion of ‘sharpening the sword’ from a number of mythologies where it means ‘readiness to serve with distinction’ or ‘inner ability to attend to something with excellence’ or what in ancient Greece would be termed Areté.
At the end of the four days process, the six of us that had gathered in Brighton together with our colleague who was participating from Brazil via skype felt that we struck had knew grounds in service of our client. On our final day, we were joined by a leader from our client system. We shared what had emerged from our retreat and she was of the view that we were onto something even more special than before. Of course, we now have to test our learning in the next eight months as we engage with the client.
In this article, I reflect on what I think enabled the seven of us to ‘sharpen the sword’ even further.
- Intent to create excellence: While we could not exactly state what needed improvement at the beginning of our work; we all shared the deep intention to do our work even better. We knew we could co-create a higher step in our performance. Lance Secretan, a celebrated guru on leadership, says mastery lies in undertaking whatever you do to the highest level you are capable by practising knowledge and wisdom. This is also known as kaizen. We believed that we had enough amongst ourselves to create new frontiers in our work.
- Respect for the Client: the seven of us and our organisation, Future Considerations, have genuine deep respect for our client and the work we do with them. One of my teachers in organisation development, Mee Yan Cheung-Judge, often says “Do not accept the work if you do not have enough respect for your client.” The respect Future Considerations has for this particular client does not just come from the pay cheque, important as this is, but more so from what the client brings to the world as we interact with them. Over the years, we have seen communities that collaborate with our client re-awaken their capacity to determine their own destiny.
- Respect for one another: as consultants, the seven of us clearly had undoubted respect for one another’s skills, experiences and capabilities. This enabled us to deeply listen to each other and create time and space in which everyone’s views mattered and were heard. As Nancy Kline would say, we created a ‘thinking environment’ in which the best of our minds were truly ignited.
- Space for ‘What else’: We reviewed and acknowledged what had worked well and what had not in previous programmes. We sought to identify the systemic forces that upheld both bad and good practice. When all this was done, I could see in the faces of each one of us that we were grappling with an additional question which eventually someone asked: “What else is possible?” Sometimes the question was followed by some silence. Then something else popped up. More often than not, the pop-up was a pearl of an idea. One among us remarked, “May be this is what Peter Senge means to be a learning organisation”.
- Modelling our Client’s learning: As we reviewed the leadership development programme for our client, we modelled and embodied the key elements and moments of the learning process. As we work with this particular client, we seek to help its emerging leaders grow their quality and depth attention. This is because we believe that the quality of leadership one provides is equivalent to the quality of attention to what is going within and outside oneself. To embody this reality, the seven of us began and ended each day with an attention practice and check-in and check-out. In addition, we gave each other assessments as candidly as we will be asking leaders from the client system to practice. We also practised how to introduce sessions as if we had the clients in the room.
- Commitment to a higher purpose: Although we did not name it, we were present and committed to something greater than ourselves – co-evolving work that could contribute to making the world a better place. As one of our colleagues reminisced, “This purpose was larger than any individual person, individual idea, individual need or practice. The purpose drove what actions we took, what process we chose. Our focus was on the centre nexus between us”.
- Managing our well-being: We stayed in an environment where each one of us could be in a posture comfortable enough for the work we were doing. We regularly took walks by the nearby community park or the sea-side. For short breaks, we walked across the road to a shop that specialised in organic foods and drinks.
- We had fun: We had a lot of fun. We laughed at ourselves. We laughed at the failing technology as our colleague in Brazil was persisting in being with us via skype. We had fun trying to find which room would permit us to work with less distraction from the road-works that started on the third day of our retreat.
Although Brighton was a lot of hard work given that we were, in four days, reviewing and seeking to improve a programme which runs over nine months; it was also a time of nourishment of my mind, heart and commitment. It was a moment of profound learning. I was energised and renewed. To some extent, I sharpened my sword – not for war – but for pushing the boundaries of excellence which will feed into some of my work this year.
Looking at your experience, what do you think explains moments when you have created a new vector in your performance?
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