Shenaz is an organisational psychologist, PCP therapist, executive coach, and Director and Co-Founder of the Learning Partnership based in Dublin. I met up with her at the recent International PCP Congress at the University of Hertfordshire.
Mary: Hi Shenaz, I enjoyed your presentation today!
Shenaz: Thank you, it was a great opportunity to share ideas. My current interest is ‘who impacts on what in organisational culture?’ I’m exploring the interaction of individual construct systems and the social system, and so I’m using the conference as an opportunity to step back and try to articulate.
M: The central idea that emerged for me from your presentation was what you described as a process of ‘sense-making’ through coaching conversations.
S: Yes, that’s my focus just now. Organisational strategies tend to move from overall objectives to the behaviours needed to implement key prioriities. I’m interested in inserting a process of sense-making between those two things, focusing on the need for shared understanding and respect for individuality and role. Without that, the individual person tends to get squeezed in the gap.
M: How important is PCP to your practice?
S: It’s has always been essential to me. Change is all about anticipation and so PCP is a great theory to work from with anticipation as its core postulate. The business environment is fast-moving and we need a fluency of anticipation and very agile construing. PCP offers a toolkit to understand a way through change and to hone skills. Theoretical aspects are valuable too – for example PCP definitions of transitional constructs such as anxiety, fear, guilt threat and hostility have been incredibly helpful. They are consoling to people in many ways.
M: I think I know what you mean. There is a normality to these things in our theory, the acceptance of all responses to change as intelligent and expected. That’s very different from locating problems within the individual.
S: Yes, and it’s helpful not just for leaders to make sense of their own reactions but to understand their employees, teams and colleagues. For me, constructive coaching conversations are the key to making sense of change. We can discover something about the person’s own unique personal culture which throws a new light on difficult aspects of ‘resistance to change’ and organisational life.
If there is a moment when I get frustrated with organisational life, it’s the expectation that people can change and must change to order. For me, the ability to change is a skill and it is hard to change one’s habits, behaviours, mindset, anticipations…especially if people feel hijacked!
I have worked with people who have quite literally sat in the same chair for many years and seen life from one perspective. We can all get stuck in what we call ‘behavioural lock-in’ – patterns that feel impossible to change because they have become who we are. Stuck-ness becomes particularly apparent in mergers, or during a change of leadership, where people are often thrown together and clashes arise between different ideas of ‘how things are done round here’. Unfortunately those times of new starts often coincide with a sharp focus on performance. So making sense of personal perspectives and beliefs within an organisational culture is key. I try to discover where people feel most validated and start working from there, opening up possibilities of a person-in-motion.
Starting with an exploration of how a person construes their reality, we can begin to move towards some hypothesising and testing, a little playful experimentation, and gradually begin to loosen up. ABC exercises are often very useful, add some self characterization, introduce the ‘community of selves’, some ‘dependencies’ narratives, and of course Kelly’s famous comment that we need not be victims, that we have choice in the Kellyan sense – all these aspects enable fruitful validating re-construing.
M: You spoke in your presentation about encouraging creativity – could you say a bit more about that?
I remember some years ago you talked to our group in Ireland about the rhythm of loosening and tightening as a kind of heartbeat. I think that same heartbeat is at the root of creativity. But the loosening stage is often difficult – ambiguity and complexity are hard to face. There is huge fear about letting go – organisational culture is often a culture of control and so delegation is often resisted. Coaching conversations can help by providing a place for loosening, for propositionality, for asking ‘what if’ and trying on ideas. Humour helps too, I am prepared to be irreverent and I am different enough to get away with it!
M: How would you describe that difference?
Well PCP is inquiry-based, it is about curiosity and the process of the personal journey in the big world, and not just about having the answers – all our anticipations are up for exploration. I think I developed that inquiring stance from my own cultural background and my childhood in a family that is half Irish and half Mauritian. As a very young child I would feel frustrated and amazed at the differences in the cultures I lived in – the Irish side full of warmth and freedom it seemed to me, and the Mauritian side much more structured – there was a freedom of sand and sea but always a sense of vigilance as a young girl growing up as ‘different’ in a quite restrictive culture. Although my parents did not care too much about what anybody thought and with that came a certain freedom of spirit.
As a child I would sit on the edge of my parents’ wide mixture of friends from all backgrounds, listening to them talk. As I grew up, I realised aspects of conversation that I hadn’t noticed at first – there were layers of what was said and unsaid, and I learned to pay attention to the hidden side, the fun, the tensions, the colour and vibrancy of different languages. I am tempted to say here, that the experience of emotion though felt the same!
When I came to Ireland to college in 1984, I felt an incredible sense of freedom – so much more was possible – the space and freedom to roam, the size of the city after living on a small island. PCP reflects that feeling of possibility and hope. PCP language was like finding a hidden dictionary where suddenly so much of my personal experience made sense. Similarly, working with organisations, you find that each one has its own secret culture and so a diagnostic in PCP terms is genuinely powerful.
For the last 8 years, I have been involved as a leadership coach and occupational psychologist in a series of leadership programs with Stanford University and Enterprise Ireland aimed at building the leadership capability and acumen of our Irish CEO’s and CFO’s, run in partnership with a US consultancy called CLG. As luck and hard work would have it, I have been part of the coaching team for many years, and two years ago, myself and two partners established The Learning Partnership, and we are now strategic partners to CLG in Ireland.
M: What do you find particular in coaching work with CEO’s?
S: In most organisations, the CEO has a powerful strategic role. For the most part they are strong characters who have proved themselves, but also there is often a curious and questioning mind, (and demanding one!), and of course a really huge weight of responsibility. I understand that well, and I am also very curious about their ambitions about shaping a meaningful culture within which people can feel appreciated. Most people will give you their discretionary effort in the right business environment, but that takes a certain kind of leadership. I am interested in them as individual people, their personalities, and how they work with the ‘other’, be it a direct report or one of their teams.
In terms of constructivist coaching, there is a personal foundation to the work and then there is a demand to understand the business. As an act of sociality I start with a focus on understanding the business opportunity and how the CEO sees their leadership challenges in that context. This may mean behavioural changes in their role, changes in the business processes, or a change at strategic level. Whatever the case, the CEO needs to first hold some clarity of direction or vision to get the business to another stage of sustainable growth and performance. The courage they need is to start with themselves, and this means owning their “shadow” and the impact of their leadership – there is much research indicating that the CEO casts a regnant shadow that has massive implications for the culture of the organisation.
I take the contracting process quite slowly, listening credulously to what the CEO sees is working well and what may need attention. Constructive coaching is about creating a space to be innovative yet practical. We have equal power and it’s a collaborative endeavour in shaping both.
For the CEO, accepting that shaping culture is strategic part of their role is often quite challenging, and knowing ‘how’ to change and enable change is even more so. Creating milestones and tracking change in terms of measurable outcomes is an entirely different art. Genuinely PCP provides so much support in this space – to me you can’t really help organisations to change without understanding how people change, and how they don’t!
M: So when did these interests begin?
S: After my psychology degree, by a series of fortunate events, I was attracted to my first job which promised to introduce the successful candidates to George Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology. So luckily for me, I bumped into PCP quite early through a wonderful person called George O’Connor, my boss. I then went on through PCP psychotherapy training.
Around 1998, when coaching exploded onto the scene in London I definitely found my niche – a place where the personal and professional combined. And you know it irritates me to hear people speaking of coaching as ‘therapy-lite’. They are completely misunderstanding the depth of what we are doing in coaching work, the significance of understanding corporate psychology and complexities, and the huge implications of leadership development of senior executives who have a cascading impact on everyone in the organisation.
I have also been lucky to have Sean Brophy as a mentor for many years. This work needs careful navigating – and my own internal compass needs peer supervision for sure! Coaching is always about both support and challenge, it is fast paced, and there are layers of complexity – as much as in any family dynamic – so having clear boundaries is critical. There is also the necessity in of understanding politics, and organizational dynamics.
M: And the future?
S: Over the years my question has changed from ‘how can PCP be useful to organisations?’ to ‘what would organisations do without PCP?’ My work is still developing. Generally my engagement with companies is over a year at least and this allows a deeper level of work. What I can say with certainty is that without this theory and psychology of personal change, my work in organisations would have been compromised – and certainly not as enjoyable. Again and again I look to my ‘professional diagnostic constructs’ – sociality above all, to step back and listen. Combined with a Masters in Occupational Psychology, the discipline of PCP gives me a unique perspective. From there, I can be confident that I am not ‘getting in my own way’.
Organisations are increasingly recognizing the power of people – that to create a sustainable enterprise, they must pay attention to their people, nurture and motivate. In the words of Professor Charles O’Reilly from Stanford University “your people are your competitive advantage – ignore them at your peril!” So I am seeing more change over time in organisations who take their people seriously and the tension between personal motivation and business productivity fascinates me – it’s a developing field, and it’s exciting!