The Case of the Unintentional Mentor

Serendipitous lightning strikes create opportunity for growth. In the forest, those lightning strikes invariably kill the tree they strike. These strikes often start fires that consume vegetation and sometimes animals. Sometimes the fires become a conflagration the consequences of which impact us humans. In every case, the fuel is consumed, the fires die, the rains come, and new life rises from the ashes.

When one is lucky enough to have this kind of lightning strike, the kind that creates something new, you are a fortunate person. One of mine occurred in the later part of 2014. This lightning strike would have a profound impact on my life. Here’s the story.

I’d been working for a client since Feb 2013. The client had decided it was time to implement a portfolio management tool. Actually a whole suite of management tools. By mid-2014, a consulting group was brought in to help. After a few months, a lot of training, configuring, etc., the lead on the effort realized something was wrong. Calls were made, contacts drawn upon, help to understand was sought, and ultimately a specialist was asked to come in and help the situation.

At the time I’d been slowly, purposefully, working my way into a role where I could influence more people across the technology and business landscape. I started with my director, when our VP implemented a portfolio management tool I became the expert. This made me unofficial leader in getting it adopted. I developed my own dashboard to manage my projects. During a tool adoption team review, the VP saw the management dashboards I created and put me in as PMO lead for his department. I began to lead the adoption team, wrote a user guide and became the point of contact. The VP designated me as his representative on the group providing guidance to all of the technology department. This was my opportunity to expand my influence to all of the project managers and other team members in every department. I advanced my VP’s organization in the adoption, rewrote the user guide and began promulgating it. It was during one of the PMO group meetings that Si Alhir  was introduced as the person who would be evaluating the consulting group’s and overall progress and overcome challenges and concerns. He briefly introduced himself then faded back to observe. During the meeting I spoke of the progress in getting the user guide completed and my efforts to gain adoption. He delicately sought me out, introduced himself and over the next few weeks invited by thoughts. After several of these interactions Si formally asked me if I’d be willing to be his “thinking partner.” This was my lightning strike. While I did not fully understand what that really meant, I agreed to contribute as a “thinking partner.”

After a few weeks, the CIO and a few VPs, with Si’s insight, determined to embark on a transformation journey. The initial core team of directors evaluated the current situation, created a plan, then advance, but were confronted with a multitude of challenges. During the several months this effort took, I became more and more integrated with the external coaches who were fueling the transformation in collaboration with the internal core team. Because of my expert knowledge of the tools, the portfolio of projects, the organization, and the people, I became an integral part of the daily activities and coaching activities. After continuing to confront the multitude of challenges, the decision was made to establish an internal coaching capability. I also became part of the new coaching group, which was launched with Si and the external coaches conducting an intensive coach boot-camp for three weeks. For me, this was the beginning of new life after the lightning strike.

I have been a student of “human nature” for decades. One of my mottos is, “If you take care of the people, the people will take care of the work.” I have specifically studied Crucial Conversations, Situational Leadership, and Four Disciplines of Execution. These had become my foundation. A couple of decades ago I codified six rules, “Gould’s Rules”, about which I am writing a self-improvement book. In addition, I write romance novels where I examine the interactions of the people in my stories. I have sought formal graduate education to better understand people and organization. I have read a great deal on the topic as well as taken a number of professional management and organization courses over the years. With all this education, experience and interest I lacked two things: a synthesis of my “knowledge and experience” and confidence in fusing that understanding to everyday practice. During the boot camp, Si and the other coaches presented us with numerous models of “human nature”: Conversational Intelligence, Tribal Leadership, Viral Change, SCARF, OODA, VUCA, conflict management, and several others. We held long discussions, participated in numerous practical experiences followed-up with self-examination exercises, read excerpts of behavioral models, coaching models and were thrust into coaching with the goal of becoming a coach or opting out of the journey.

My time at this client is coming to an end. I find myself reflecting, again, on the profound impact on my perspective and understanding this experience has created. I am deeply grateful to the client, internal coaches, and external coaches for the opportunity to share in this experience.

Here is a bit of what I have learned. I’m am still struggling to actuate some of these in my life.

  1. I have sufficient understanding, knowledge, and experience to claim a degree of awareness.
  2. I have sufficient understanding, knowledge, and experience to claim a degree of confidence.
  3. I have become grossly aware of how much I need to continue learning and experiencing.
  4. I know that generally people will do that which is easiest. In the past I’ve tried to find an easy path for people to do what they should. I’ve learned there are many times when hard should be the path so those worthy will tread well.
  5. I’ve learned even if the effort is not as successful as initially desired, never lower the bar.

I’ve learned a great deal more. Listen with your ears, listen with your brain, then listen with your heart. I found out that intent should be sought, not the tone, not the words, the intent — Si emphasizes the importance of “intent followed by action” and not merely action. I’ve learned that people feel threatened when there is a lack of trust in intent. I could keep going.

The many deep conversations, examinations, and analysis in which I’ve been a part of have taught me to be much more circumspect. And though I still need to think more and talk less, at least I’m much more aware of myself, and I continue to habitualize this discipline. Every person who experienced the boot camp and worked with the external coaches had the opportunity to engage in conversations and learning. What made the ending different for each is what we came with from the start.

My lightning strike was Si Alhir — and as much as I know he has impacted me, I’m hopeful that I’ve impacted him in a similar positive way! I’m grateful he saw more in me than I did, and I’m hopeful we’ll remain connected for life. My new life, with all its rain and nourishment started with the coaching boot-camp. Today I am a more mature forest.

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