I have recently been nominated to join the board of the International Coach Federation’s Calgary chapter. I’m very grateful for the opportunity, and excited to get more deeply immersed in the coaching community in my home city. The role doesn’t officially kick in until January, but there is a significant project within the portfolio that is underway now and the current Director of that portfolio has asked me to join the team early so I can have a hand in defining future directions.
I found myself standing back somewhat, trying to let those who had started the project continue to have the majority of the input and make the decisions. Each time I was asked to jump in I would defer explicitly, saying that I didn’t want to take over before it was my time.
It brought to mind our time house sitting for friends a month ago. I love to cook, and there I was cooking in someone else’s kitchen. The fact that the owner of that house and kitchen wasn’t there in some ways made it easier but in others it was actually tougher.
It’s an apt metaphor for my experience with the board and I think we can use both situations to add some clarity about how we might create a good experience when we step into a work project that is the domain of someone else. Here’s three simple ideas for making sure that you’re invited back to cook again
- Get Familiar With The Environment Quickly
When we were heading to our friends house, I knew that it wouldn’t be like cooking at home. The first thing I did was to decide what was mandatory for me to have. This could be either tools or ingredients. I quickly focused in on tools for a couple of reasons. The first is that there are certain things that I don’t want to compromise on. In cooking that is my knives. The second is that before I left I could ask about things that may or may not be available and bring other things if needed. Ingredients aren’t such a big deal because we can always go get them or get creative with something else.
I think this was true in my board situation as well. Before I engaged with the team I had made some decisions about how I would show up. Because I was “the new guy” with little familiarity with the work I decided I needed to be a great listener, take a collaborative stance and let the team continue to do the good work they were doing. I also booked some time with the current Director to get the lay of the land. I was again less concerned about content, as I have good faith in my ability to absorb and understand new situations.
This idea about deciding the tools I would use was quite effective walking into my friend’s kitchen as she had left the country. In the board situation, the “owners of the kitchen” was still present and my self-selection of the tools I would use were not all in line with how they would like me to step in. So we need some additional ways of working when the “kitchen owners” are present.
- Confirming Permission And Deciding On Roles
I’ve cooked in my friend’s kitchen before, but previously it was when we were visiting with them. Sometimes I volunteered to do all the cooking for a meal, and other times DM and I would collaborate on our meal. There were two keys to insuring that our relationship was respected. The first was to ask permission to enter the kitchen. The second was to confirm roles. If I was to be a solo chef, all it took was for DM to say yes. If we were to cook together then there were a whole bunch more steps for us to engage in – what would we cook, who would do what tasks, etc. As long as we did that with respect and collaboration, everything would tend to work out fine.
In my board experience, I followed the first key – I confirmed that I was welcome to participate in the process, indeed I was invited to join the group. I may not have done such a great job on the second step to confirm roles. I presumed that I would take a passive role and let the existing team continue. I was cautious about stepping into a functioning group and disrupting dynamics. They had a different idea of my role, and if I had spent more time up front collaborating on defining roles we may have had a more effective start to the relationship.
- Balancing Relationships and Results
Once we have negotiated our roles we can start cooking! Cooking is a lot like most things we do in that there are so many ways to do any one thing. Imagine preparing carrots. Do you peel young carrots or leave the skins on? Do you slice them into rounds? Diagonals? Sticks? If I am responsible for preparing carrots, and if my cooking partner were to try to tell me how to prepare them it wouldn’t feel all that good. But if I were to forget that I had them on the stovetop and the pot was boiling dry, I would have no issue if my partner were to step in and take the pot off the stove before they burned.
There’s a balance between relationship aspects of work such as trust, support and encouragement and results. If results demand that one party steps in on another’s task, it is important that party also cares for the other’s feelings and communicates their intent or actions.
We haven’t got to this point in our board work yet, but it will be much the same. We’ve defined the roles and we are starting into the work. Now life will happen, and we will have to improvise as we go. It will be up to us as a team to recognize when our teammates need help, offer help respectfully or check-in quickly if we feel it necessary to step in without permission. This latter step is always the trickiest, as we may have differing perceptions of the urgency of the situation.