Happy Mother’s Day to those of you who celebrate it. It’s an odd holiday; as I learned from Wikepedia this morning, the woman who campaigned for Mother’s Day to become a national holiday, Anna Jarvis, was later appalled at how commercial it became, and campaigned to have it de-recognized. Plus it’s complicated for other reasons; I have several good friends who recently lost their mothers (I feel you, and I am sorry), plus there are those who object to the implication that women with children are somehow more worthy than those without, plus there are those who point out the discrepancy in the amount of domestic labor done by women and argue that if you REALLY wanted to honor mothers, you would do more to change that imbalance every other day of the year and not just on the second Sunday in May.

So, what to say on Mother’s Day, and not just to mothers, but to leaders and coaches?
I was helped by this Tweet from @drthema: “Give thanks for those who nourished, nurtured and loved you whether they were your mothers or others who chose to show up for you.”

That really struck a chord. I have been reading a lot about mentorship and coaching lately—not just in the formal sense of someone who has been formally appointed as such, but in the sense of people who choose to take on the role of champion for someone. A champion chooses (in language we use all the time when talking about trust) to be benevolent. So here are some not entirely random thoughts about that.

I talk to a lot of people who don’t feel like they get much out of their relationship with their supervisor. I don’t infer that that’s because the supervisor is malicious, but because the supervisor is busy, thinks that no news is good news, doesn’t know that my client is craving feedback, doesn’t know what feedback to give, and/or doesn’t appreciate how much power they wield. I feel for these clients, but I also push back on them a little bit—usually in the form of issuing a mild challenge: now that you know what it’s like to not get what you need from someone, how are you going to turn around and be for someone else what you wish a champion would be for you?

A good guide for how to do that is in Dan Coyle’s book, The Culture Code. One of his examples is Roshi Givechi, a designer at IDEO (which is a design firm and a darling of books on organizational development and psychology) and informal mentor. (Can I also just say how annoying it is that she is pretty much the only woman mentioned in a book full of basketball coaches and Navy SEALS? Yawn… Plus, the description of her starts: “Givechi, a small woman in her forties, wears flowing skirts with large pockets.” Seriously? You think Dan would have written of one of his male examples that he wore pants with pockets?) Here is how the people she works with describe her:

“When you talk to Givechi’s colleagues, they point out a paradox: She is at once soft and hard, empathetic but also persistent. “There’s an underlying toughness to Roshi…She doesn’t present an agenda, but of course there is an agenda behind that, and it’s gentle guiding. And one of the biggest tools in her toolbox is time. She’ll spend so much time, being patient and continuing to have conversations and making sure the conversations are progressing in a good direction.”
“There’s always a moment with Roshi… There’s a spirit of provocation constantly at play, to nudge, to help us think beyond what’s immediately in front of us. And it usually starts with questioning the big obvious things. It’s never confrontational—she never says, ‘You’re doing the wrong thing.’ It’s organic, embedded in conversation.”
“Roshi has the ability to pause completely, to stop what must be going on in her head, to focus completely on the person and the question at hand, and to see where that question is leading. She isn’t trying to drag you somewhere, ever. She’s truly seeing you from your position, and that’s her power.”

There’s more. But I think you get the picture: this is a description of someone who puts aside their own interests in service of supporting someone else, and yet also gets a lot out of the interaction. I was listening to an episode of The Knowledge Project with Jim Collins, and Collins was talking about his mentor’s definition of a great relationship: that both people in the relationship think that they are getting more out of it than the other. I love that! It seems to me that these great relationships can be parental, personal or professional; I was just having this conversation with a colleague at the Center the other day, but it’s also true of my relationships with my close friends, and it’s the great thing about being a coach; I benefit enormously.

There are good articles on both finding a mentor (e.g. How to Build a Great Relationship with a Mentor) and being a mentor (e.g. 6 Things Every Mentor Should Do), but my concern is slightly different. I don’t think you need to have either a formal or a longstanding or a close relationship with someone to chose to show up for them, as the Tweet I started with puts it. I think it helps to have coaching training (and here I get to announce that registration for our 3-day Coaching Institute at Mercy by the Sea is open!), NOT because that I think everyone should be a coach, but because I believe everyone ought to have some practice in being in a conversation where you are just showing up for the other person.

The example of Roshi Givechi speaks to me for at least two reasons: first, she is what I aspire to be in my professional life, someone who shows up in a helping role, whether that relationship spans years or just the time it takes to respond to an email; second, the description of her reminds me very much of my own mother, who was both hard and soft, who was kind and selfless but had an underlying toughness, and who wanted for me what I wanted for myself, and that I be happy.

As always, please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge

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