Coaching as Reform School?
Happy Mother’s Day – this piece entitled Reform School is sort of a mother’s day gift to me, not because I am the mother of the author but instead because as a leadership and executive coach, my primary role is to host the dreams and aspirations of those who trust me and invite me in. Lori Boozer did just that – she allowed me to participate and witness the birth of the newest and most awesome version of herself; not a new Lori but an ability to connect with a part of her that had been covered up for some time. Thank you, Ms. Boozer for letting me get in the arena with you…
I spent most of my life searching for ways to break the rules. I never stopped to ask whether my approach to rule-breaking was practical. Was I breaking the rules, or was I breaking people instead? I grew up in a family where directness was welcome, strength applauded, and learning the best way to advocate for oneself was essential. I quickly learned that the greater reward was advocating for the underdog, whether the underdog was me or someone else, a worthy cause in college or law school, or a workplace drama that seemed unjust. My younger self took pride in truth-telling without regard for how I affected others-forgetting that a person with feelings and emotions was attached to every issue at my job that I set out to attack. Was I attacking the problem or the person? According to my version of events, I was constantly attacking, confronting, or addressing the issue.
Lauded for my bravery and ability to solve problems creatively, I was unafraid to challenge the status quo even if reckless in my approach. But I was stuck professionally, running into a wall instead of climbing over it. If I was as talented as the world said I was, as I believed myself to be, why did every workspace feel so challenging? I was beloved by many, but I was still missing the mark, forgetting the importance of perspective, and giving others space to shine and glow, and most importantly, treating others with respect and carrying myself with humility.
The bible says pride comes before a fall. And then it happened-I fell, but I fell into the hands of a healer because someone cared enough about my professional development, my contributions to the organization, and my growth as a person-to send me to what I initially deemed Reform School. I was selected to work with an Executive Coach, the life-changing Michele Davenport, CEO of Mosaic Solutions. What could this woman do for me? Other people were the problem, or previous jobs the wrong fit. Yet, I secretly realized that everyone was me. It took me so long to feel comfortable or rather to convince myself that I was genuinely comfortable in my black skin at work. I moved from one extreme to the other, from feeling ostracized as a black woman and utterly powerless to being powerful and ostracizing others.
As an avid learner, I would like to say that I embraced the opportunity to have this one-on-one experience with Michele, but instead, I bristled and complained about reform school. The devil on one shoulder was indignant about anyone telling me to change. The angel on the other shoulder was pleading for me to be broken open.
I did a few little activities, and I got to talk a lot which is one of my favorite past times. It was cute until the truth smacked me, little stars floating around my head and all. I completed the self-rating process and felt I was pretty accurate in how others would rate me, but I was not ready for what came back. Staring at the results and re-reading them over and over, I was shocked and defensive. These people barely know me, I told myself. People who know me would disagree. So, I did what any self-righteous and proud person would do. I called those who knew me best, and I shared the results—the nerve of those closest to me to agree with the nonsense that I was reading. My sorority sisters, my biological sister, and my best friend all happy for this day of reckoning.
The worst of it was reading the anonymous written comments. I cried for several days, shocked at what I read. The comments were scarcely about my work product but about my interactions with others and how I made people feel. As I read each paragraph, I felt the same pain that I had caused my colleagues. How could I think of myself so high and make others feel so low? This question was my answer-through my insecurities built up over time; I used my boldness to build up my self-esteem by wounding others under the guise of truth-telling. And I was telling the truth, but my colleagues were only tolerating my hurtful and aggressive behavior.
It took at least two weeks to pick myself up from the floor. I had my come to Jesus' moment with Michele to discuss the results and I was not ready. I pushed back, deflected, defended, and blamed until Michele gave me a dose of my own tough medicine. And then I told the truth about myself to myself. I told my truth to Michele and anyone else who would give me an audience to repent. I called people up to the CEO to say tearfully and earnestly, "I am sorry," and to thank them for their belief in my contributions and the value of my work beyond the times when my boldness went a bridge too far. I apologized to family and friends who loved me through the fire.
Reflecting on my journey with Michele, none of my good intentions mattered if I was leaving carnage along the way. Tasks and work were not more important than people, and how I made people feel mattered. Michele gave me the space to understand that nothing about expanding how I move in the workplace and engage with others was not about reformation or becoming a different person. It was as Michelle Obama beautifully entitled her memoir, about “Becoming.” Michele Davenport heard me, saw me and knew me and there was something freeing for my soul in her acknowledgment of everything I spent screaming for the world around me to see in so many ways for so many reasons.
Looking ahead, I am not a different me, but I am a better me. I have a tool kit that keeps me in the middle – not afraid to be myself and not being myself at the expense of others. I value my colleagues and speak life into them daily, and I prioritize the well-being of my team, all while still being authentically me. I feel less pressure to control others and outcomes and more compassion for myself, understanding that what I learned with Michele is a daily practice of humility. All of this is a practice of fruitful choices, day by day.
I will leave the reader by sharing that my personal and professional life feels brand new! I graduated from my time with Michele with flying colors, a raise, and a promotion at the start of 2021, just after my coaching ended in early January. My relationships have shifted for the better, and new relationships have formed. I moved to a new apartment and built in more time to regularly give myself the creative space I need as an artist and writer outside of work to express myself. Colleagues, family, and friends can see the evolution. I see it, and I feel it. I am grateful to the head of Human Capital at my organization for believing in me and investing in my future. I am forever thankful to Michele Davenport, coach, healer, teacher, and friend, if not more. I was never in reform school, other than in my mind, believing that punishment by coaching was the system's way of trying to stop me from truth-telling. Instead, my coaching journey was a way to make my truth-telling more powerful, heard, and impactful, and considerate of others. There is no punishment in expanding as a person, only love, grace, and a prosperous future.
Thank You, MD!
Lori is currently the Director of Mobility Learning and Action Bets (LABs) the first national initiative for the New York City based Robin Hood Foundation. Mobility LABs is predicated on centering community voice in the process of identifying solutions that measurably and sustainably move families out of poverty. In her spare time Lori enjoys painting writing dancing and dreaming big!