Shona: My guest today is Jane Kirton, Leadership Coach and Organisational Development Consultant. You’ve worked as an independent coach facilitator and consultant since 2012 and during that time you’ve partnered with a wide variety of organisations in a range of sectors to help people get clarity of their aspirations for the future and what they can do to turn them into a reality. What they love about being coached by you is you encourage them to think hard about themselves and their aspirations whilst providing a deep sense of being heard and understood. You stimulate both insight and commitment to action. You spent 26 years at John Lewis Partnership. Whilst at John Lewis, you established an approach to people and change which reinforced the modernisation of the business. You then went on to set up and lead the Group Talent Function across both Waitrose and John Lewis focusing on talent development, diversity and succession planning in support of the company’s growth ambitions. You hold a Master of Science, occupational psychology and then social psychology degree from the University of Loughborough and additionally, you’re qualified and licensed in various psychometrics.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Jane: If we’re talking life achievements as opposed to professional achievements, I’d have to say its bringing my 19 year old daughter into the world.
Shona: Can you talk me through your own career path and how you got to where you are today?
Jane: My first job when I was 13 and I had a paper round and then I worked in the paper shop, then I worked in a supermarket and then I worked in Marks & Spencer’s. I worked in retail for years before I got to graduating from university and I’d done a degree in social psychology which I absolutely loved lots of my peers were going off and doing more studies in psychology. I just thought I hadn’t lived enough life to start getting into a specialism where I’d be advising other people on how to live their lives and so I thought I would go and get good training with a blue-chip organisation. Mark’s and Spencer’s wouldn’t have me. Phoned up the personnel manager, and ask for help and she said “well there’s this other good retailer you could look at, they have very good training, they’re called John Lewis Partnership and I’d never really heard of them, I grew up in Worcestershire, there were no John Lewis’s or Waitrose’s anywhere near and then when I did meet them, I was fascinated by the industrial democracy and the idealist in me knew it wasn’t a standard, capitalist model. Off I went thinking I would be there for a couple of years, get a good general management training, long story short I was there 26 years, I spent a period of time running bigger bits of shops. The thing that really got me out of bed in the morning was people, in particular, developing people. I loved it when someone who would be in my department or area of the shop, and you’d have the sense of their potential that they hadn’t realised, and you could help them unlock that so inevitable I moved into human resources, did my CIPD exams, worked as an operational HR manager around the stores. Then I had a couple of really great jobs in head office one of which was to be head of organisational development which was really all about change and change in a business that hasn’t changed for quite a long time, then the last job you referenced in the intro which was that I was head of talent in John Lewis and Waitrose which was all about thinking how to enable people to really develop broadly in a big organisation full of lots of opportunities. The group HR director in John Lewis started as an A Level trainer in John Lewis Bristol, so it’s how do you enable to that to happen?
Shona: Your own career path, you obviously loved what you did, but to reach where you got to and that privilege of being able to coach the board, that doesn’t happen through just luck, so you must have had your own drive and ambition from the starting point to where you end up.
Jane: My ambition, I thought that the pinnacle of what I was aiming for was to be the HR manager of John Lewis Sheffield. I never did that job, but I thought just doing that job in a good-sized store, that would tick all sorts of boxes for me. When I got beyond that, it was much less about “I want to get to a particular point” and much more about “someone’s just offered me a really interesting opportunity, I think I’d like to do that” and there was a turning point in my career because one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to face in my life was that my marriage broke down when our daughter was 3, and I all of a sudden went from being a slightly smug married at the time, where my husband was the stay at home dad, and all that stuff was taken care of and I was going to be the breadwinner and focus on my career, all of a sudden to both primary caregiver and breadwinner as well. That really made me rethink what was important to me and John Lewis were fantastic in that period, the flexibility shown to me, we were very early adopters of flexible working because we had a boss that was incredibly supportive but I realised, I watched people who got to a particular level in the organisation and I’d seen three people fulfil the role of HR director, all brilliant people, but they all worked 7 days a week and I just thought I wont be any different from that. Every time there’s a choice to be made, I bet I’d prioritise work and that’s not the kind of mum I want to be, so my ambitions did shift at that point.
Shona: That’s life I think isn’t it, the goals we start off with aren’t always what we end up with and that’s not through not reaching them, that’s through direct choice sometimes and that’s absolutely fine.
Would you consider yourself successful?
Jane: It depends on what you see as success, and it goes back to your earlier question about biggest achievement. So, have I been successful in everything I’ve set out to do? No. Have I had successes in life? Yes, absolutely.
Shona: It sounded like John Lewis was the right environment for you, did you have your own coaches and mentors that enabled you to succeed and were they people you found and sought out or people that came to you and provided to you?
Jane: I consider myself to be really lucky, when I first moved to head office around 1997/98, I had a direct boss and then I had a dotted line boss and the dotted line boss was the head of management and she was the most brilliant coach. I didn’t know it was coaching as coaching wasn’t really a thing at the time, but I knew later that it was coaching because I used to think about how I used to beg her to give me the answer and she’d tell me to not be intellectually lazy but to think it through for myself, but more politely than that. She really instilled the notion of coaching and giving people support and challenge to think for themselves. She remains somebody I pick up the phone to, she’s retired now but she remains someone I ask for advice from. It was a few years after that that I was offered some formal coaching and I’ve worked with several coaches over the years who have been supportive over my development.
Shona: What characteristics do you think made you good at your jobs at John Lewis and what do you think makes you excel as an executive coach?
Jane: I think fundamentally it’s around emotional intelligence and the ability and desire to build relationships with people. Right from when I did social psychology at university, I’ve always been curious about people. My dad was a physicist, brother’s a chemist, the things they’re interested in were different from the things I’m interested in but that leads me to want to understand people and to connect with them and I think that, more than anything else in my working life, has supported what I’ve wanted to do and what I’ve been able to do because f you’re really interested in people, and if you can connect with them and enable them to be heard, that’s quite rare in today’s world I think where we’re all rushing around at a million miles per hour.
Shona: Focusing on maybe whether there was any critical moments or crossroads that you had within your career path where there was a real decision that you needed to make whether you’d continue down one line or the other, does anything like that spring to mind?
Jane: We touched upon my thinking about not wanting to go the next level up in the organisation then I had to think “well, so am I going to be happy at this level”, I did several lateral moves at the level I was at, at the end of John Lewis. In one sense I could have stayed, assuming they’d have kept me, but when I was at those leadership events, I kept hearing a different version of the same message because when you get to the end of your working life and you look back, are you going to feel you’ve done everything you could and made the most of the potential that you have and I kept thinking “can I really get to the end of my working life and only have worked for one organisation as much as I love it?” and my curiosity about people and about groups of people, such as organisations, got the better of me so having that combination of curiosity and thinking that I don’t want to go more senior meant I needed to do something different so I looked at other organisations but I couldn’t find another organisation I really wanted to work for full time but I did curious about working with lots of different organisations and I was always curious about self-employment, I don’t know why, there’s no history of self-employment in my family, I’m quite independent and I wanted flexibility and that seemed like an obvious possibility so that’s when I went and got myself my master’s degree and qualified as a coach and really started to fill up my toolkit for independent life.
Shona: Has it been the right move for you?
Jane: I love it, I sat down with my boss a couple of years after I’d left and said how I didn’t realise how independently minded I was, and she fell off her chair laughing.
Shona: Focusing on when you were coaching others then, when others maybe have a crossroad or maybe they’ve had a knock back they have had to overcome, how do you coach somebody through or support them through that challenge?
Jane: I certainly have coached and continued to coach people through those situations and there’s a great book by Carole Pemberton on coaching resilience which I found really helpful in those situations, but I think it’s quite individual, different people need different things, but there is definitely something around helping people make sense of what’s happened to them and giving them the space and the reflective time to do that and helping people think about what support they might need to seek in order to get them through and get them to the next phase. If I think about a classic resilience testing situation which is if somebody loses their job, that can be a really big knock back and some people can find it really difficult to ask their network for help. It’s about getting people to refrain and reflect and doing it in a supportive, gently and challenging way so you move them forward.
Shona: Many of us don’t have a path that they’re destined to be on or they might be in a role where they’re not entirely happy and at that point it can be really difficult to understand what your own talents are and sometimes you think you haven’t got any skills; how do you get out of that pickle. I think that can happen no matter where you are on the career ladder if you’re not truly happy in the role you’re in. You touched there on reflection and lots of us don’t reflect naturally, if you’re with somebody who maybe is floundering where they should be within their career, how do you go about helping them with that situation?
Jane: That’s important for me because one of the really fundamental components of the way I think about coaching is that you want to leave the person more fully resourced at the end of their time with you than they were when they started so you’re not creating a dependency where they always need a coach, you’re making them feel more self sufficient and more resourced at the end of the process. You touched on it a bit, I would say people that I work with really struggle with talking about their strengths, so people would quickly tell you all of the things they could do better. If they really struggle, I might suggest that we get some 360 feedback, it is often getting people to reflect on the success they’ve had, the people they have affected for good and just rebuilding that sense of confidence and identity.
Shona: You’re very right, even the traditional performance review, appraisal type process, you think you’ll talk about what you’re good at but its “here’s all your weaknesses, here’s what we need to work on” where actually we’re all different people and if we all had the same rounded skills, then the world would be a boring place but focusing on what you’re strong and good at can be beneficial.
Jane: Of course, we need to be aware of our flaws as we all have them, and they can trip us up if we’re not aware of them, but it’s your strengths that will make you successful.
Shona: Your clients, as mentioned in the beginning, said that they enjoy working with you because you make them think hard about themselves and their aspirations how do you go about doing that, especially if someone hasn’t got a definitive aspiration?
Jane: They don’t have to have a definitive aspiration, but they need to figure out what’s important to them and I think one of the things I’ve learned to do is to bring clarity and to keep asking questions which is what coaching is all about, in the right way for the client and that’ll be different with different clients to help them get some insight and clarity into what’s important to them. If you ask a question and you’re not getting a response it might be that they don’t know the answer, but it might be that’s not important to them.
Shona: How do you enable clients to commit to their actions?
Jane: I’m a bit of a nag. When I was training to be a coach, one of the things I had to learn was not to be too tired of the outcome because it’s the client’s outcome not my outcome. I am very outcome focused, I do like a sense of progress in everything I do so that never really goes away. I will always say to somebody at the end of a conversation, “so what are you taking from that? Have you had any new insights or ideas? And what do you want to do with those insights?” and being respectful that they might say they need to think about it a bit longer and to talk again when we next meet but if someone writes something down and they say they’re going to go do something then I get a good feeling from that and I will reflect on it and ask them about it the next session.
Shona: Do you think that accountability helps?
Jane: Personally, yes but as I say, the client isn’t accountable to me, they’re accountable to themselves for their own development and progress so I have to get that balance right.
Shona: That can be important cant it, making a statement to yourself that you’re going to commit to something.
Jane: There’s research that shows if you say something out loud, within others, we are more likely to do it.
Shona: I’ve never had a coach like yourself officially, I’ve had some great mentors and certainly people that enabled me to get to where I am today but I have never been through an official coaching process and for many it may seem extravagant if you can’t afford it or just isn’t something that’s occurred to them but what tips might you have or suggestions for somebody who is maybe hearing this for the first time.
Jane: It’s a good question and there are all sorts of coaches out there and there are life coaches who might’ve had the exact same training as me so there are all sorts of different coaches and all sorts of different prices available and there are some who focus on people at early stages in their career. Coaching is available to everyone who wants it. I think you can have coaches in your lives who aren’t necessarily professional paid for coaches. I’ve got a couple of friends who I think provided me with coaching of a kind and continued to do so, it’s not professional or official coaching but they’ll ask me pointy questions so I guess what I’d say to people is if you can get professional coaching, if you can afford it then great, but if you can’t then who in your life do you reflect with, who asks you slightly uncomfortable questions, who do you have those trusting, reflecting relationships with? Most of us don’t have tons of those relationships but I think for all of us, one or two of those relationships are really important. People tell you when you’re being an idiot.
Shona: I think even a set of friends, you don’t just want people who say yes to you, and if you seek them out then them being a coach of a kind is healthy.
Jane: You touched on something that is important, which is what a professional coach can bring is detachment. Even when I did internal coaching within John Lewis, I was conscious that I could never forget he fact that the organisation had an agenda which as an external coach whilst the organisation is footing the bill and what we need to work on obviously needs to be in support of the organisation, needs is detachment and hopefully a lack of judgementalism which I think is the extra that you really get with a professional coach.
Shona: Is there any tips that an individual could have if they haven’t got a coach or they think they haven’t got that person in their skill set, is there things we can do ourselves to help us maybe see outside the bubble that we might be in?
Jane: I think that organisational life now is so active and so busy in most of the organisations I work with, having an hour to think or to read or to reflect is not very fashionable, I heard a lovely phrase the other day that “busyness is worn in this organisation like a badge of honour” and of course it is good to be active but I think building more reflective time is important. I think that’s one of the great benefits that coaching brings as it forces you to think.
Shona: How do you spot talent?
Jane: It’s such an instinctive thing, there’s been loads written about “what is talent”, I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘talent’ because to say someone is talented automatically assumes others are talentless but what I’m looking for is people’s curiosity about themselves, other people, the world which says to me “I’ve got more to learn”.
Shona: How would you go about motivating others? Like if someone is demotivated, what would you do to encourage them to be the best they can be?
Jane: As a coach, that’s a different answer to a manager or a parent, but as a coach one of the things you can really helpfully do as a coach is honestly and kindly reflect back to somebody what you’re experiencing. If someone is talking to you in a very flat voice and showing all the signs of demotivation, sometimes just noticing that and saying “Gosh, I notice you’re really different today, I notice your voice is flatter than usual and I’m noticing your body language and I’m noticing that’s making me slumped down, what’s going on?” The person then might just say they feel really demotivated, in which case you get under the skin of that and you go to another layer down then you might start to explore what in their life is making them feel motivated, what are they looking forward to and you start to uncover areas where there is motivation and you think how that can be built on.
Shona: I spoke to a gentleman recently who was talking about whether motivation really exists, you’re either in a mindset where you’re enjoying something, and you want to do it or you’re not, but motivation itself isn’t an action, isn’t an emotion, what is it. So, I guess it’s getting under the skin of actually why you’re feeling like that.
Jane: If I think about motivation, I remember studying motivation in my master’s and it’s a whole combination of things its, do you have clarity about what it is you want to do, do you have commitment, are you getting sufficient feedback about what you’re doing to make progress towards that. It’s a process I would say rather than a thing in itself.
Shona: If our listeners who are intrigued about the coaching and maybe seeking out a coach, how important is finding the right coach?
Jane: I think it’s really important, there is a debate in the coaching world about this, personally I think it’s important and I’m always keen that anybody I meet as a potential coach meets at least two possible coaches so if they haven’t met anyone else, I might often encourage them, might introduce them to somebody else in my network. The first reason for that is I think it is really important people come to coaching feeling this is their decision to do it, they’re in charge of it and their own development so actively choosing a coach to work with is a first step in that as opposed to something being offered to them. The way I always describe all these chemistry meetings when you meet someone on a no commitment space is about figuring out whether or whether we cannot do some productive work together and that depends on what the person feels they need from a coach, so I’ll be testing for people in the nicest possible way on what it is they want to achieve from their coaching so coaching is not a five side chat and support, it’s about movement, so what’s the person’s motivation. Is it because their boss has told them they need to be different or do I believe I need to be different? It’s establishing what the journey is. Then it’s about testing, what sort of coaching would help you make that, do you need a lot of challenge, do you need a lot of support or do you need both. Sometimes, what somebody might need is not coaching at all but some expert input or some training so really establishing what it is they need and then whether or not you feel a connection with that person and whether you feel you can trust one another, whether you feel you can be honest with one another and whether they’re comfortable with the confidentiality arrangements etc.
Shona: Do you think all managers should be coaches or leaders should be coaches?
Jane: I think having a coaching style that you can adopt then yes, I’m reminded of a great boss I once had because I have quite a democratic coaching management style that’s probably the one I lean on when I was managing teams, but as my then boss said to me, “Jane, just remember that when the fire alarms are going off, a coaching style of “do you want to go to this exit or this exit is probably not helpful”, so having a range of different styles helpful.
Shona: What does a normal day look like for you?
Jane: There is no normal day, I have a little shed in my garden, it’s now an office but it still looks like a shed so if I’m working from home then I will make myself a nice cup of tea or coffee and take myself down there to start work but more often I am on the train at different times into London to see clients.
Shona: Are there any mentors, but outside of the personal relationships, are there any particular books or gurus that have stood out for you?
Jane: So many, the book that came into mind when you asked me that is a book by Eric De Haan called ‘Relational Coaching’ and I can remember I was doing my masters and my coaching training, and there was an overlap and the masters was very intellectual and the coaching was very practical skills based, and the Eric De Haan book sat in the middle and it talks about how it’s the relationship between the coach and the person being coached that is the quality of the relationship that makes more difference than anything else and that really hit home with my own experience with coaching. It’s quite an academic book but it’s also practical.
Shona: Do you have any advice that you would give your younger self?
Jane: It’s interesting you say that because my daughter went to university in October and so my life has changed quite a bit in the last few months and I have been quite reflective about that and I think the advice I would give my younger self is to be a bit kinder to myself not to be so demanding of myself.
Shona: Do you have a favourite piece of technology or app?
Jane: I’m not a technology buff but I do love my iPhone, I can’t imagine life without it. My favourite app at the moment is probably MyFitnessPal because I have been focused since my daughter left for university on better health and fitness, but also one that’s offered by the NHS which is called Squeezy which is all about making you exercise your pelvic floor on a regular basis. All women should use it.
Shona: Where is your favourite place?
Jane: Camber sands is the place that comes to mind.