Deborah and the Starlings – Chapter 7

The atmosphere in the room was different, Jack thought. On his first visit he had sensed skepticism and defensiveness. Bright smiles and happy greetings told him that The Starlings were seeing him in a very different light today. He glanced around the room. Deborah, Sergei, Margaret, Carlos, Harshad and Rosemary – the entire flock was present. He shook himself mentally. Deborah’s avian metaphor was stuck in his mind like a burr on his golden retriever’s tail.

“Jack,” Deborah began, “We met earlier this week and had some discussion about where we are at and what we would like to be different. We’re all keen to learn more about how you might help us.”

Jack nodded. “Thanks for that offer, but I’d rather start by hearing what everyone is experiencing in this current reality and what they would like to be different. Can we use the same ground rules as before? I will receive whatever you say with a learning mindset and without offering any response. I invite everyone else to do the same. Also, could I ask everyone to give just two sentences, one to describe your current experience, one to describe your aspiration for his team.”

Everyone nodded. They had experienced the power of this approach in their last meeting with Jack.

Rosemary spoke first. “I feel like we each lose 25 IQ points as soon as we come together. I’d like us to start bringing out the best in each other.”

Carlos spoke quietly but intensely. “I feel that we’ve got a first-string bench playing a third string game. I’d like to see us go all in as a team.”

Margaret nodded. “I sometimes don’t share ideas because I’m afraid that people won’t take them seriously. I’d like to feel freer to take chances in this team.

Harshad nodded. “I feel much the same way as Margaret.”

Sergei was red faced and rocking vigorously in his chair. “I’m frustrated. I ask people if they have better ideas and get silence. Then people complain that they aren’t being listened to. I’d like it if we would start sharing our real thoughts and ideas with each other in our meetings and not with third parties in the hallway afterwards!” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “Sorry, I guess that was more than two sentences.”

There was a long pause and then Deborah spoke. “I feel that we are wasting too much time and effort playing defence – with each other. I’d like to see us able to redirect that energy to doing greater things.”

“Jack,” Margaret said, “when we discussed this earlier this we we all agreed that it would be great to work with you – we were really impressed with the way you guided us through the Team Charter work. What I don’t understand is how you would help us.” Five other heads nodded in agreement.

Jack took a hearty swig of his caffè tostato scuro. “Let me share a visual aid with you.” He passed around copies. “I work from the assumption that if teams are able to have real dialogue with each other then they are well equipped to solve pretty much any other problem that they face, including how to make the changes that they want to see in the way that they work internally and externally.”

He shot a quick glance at Deborah. “What I would do is to help to equip you to become ‘giants of dialogue’.” “That would start with my teaching you about some helpful tools and techniques, then coaching you individually and as a team to increase your proficiency and confidence in their use. Finally, I will position you to be able to do this for yourselves on an ongoing basis without my support.”

Sergei looked pensive. “How long would this take?”

Jack shrugged. “How long does it take to learn to play piano? It depends on what you want to play, how well you want to play it and how much effort you are prepared to put into learning to do it.” He looked around the table. “I can introduce you to the foundational skills in a day or two. However, the skills are only a start. Authentic and effective dialogue is rooted in habits of being and relating. I can coach you in learning those habits, but it will be your choice, both individually and collectively, how you use them or if you use them at all.”

Harshad, looking intently at the diagram that Jack had provided, spoke up. “Jack, can you talk a little more about these three spokes in the wheel?”

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“Certainly. I refer to these as the three key characteristics of a team that can dialogue well. Put simply, Noticing and Naming refers to our ability to notice in real time what is going on in ourselves and in the group and to be able to describe what we are noticing in ways that enhance understanding. Learning Mindset refers to our own posture towards failure and learning. Connected Thinking refers to an approach that recognizes complexity and interdependence and is able to leverage those realities in a creative way.

Rosemary pursed her lips. “I assume that you are not doing this just out of the goodness of your heart. We don’t have a very big budget.”

Deborah spoke up quickly. “I’ve been able to secure the additional funding necessary to engage Jack for this work. Actually, my boss jumped at the chance.” She paused for a moment. “I’m asking this as a colleague and not as the leader. Are we interested in having Jack coach our team?”

Five heads nodded vigorously.