Tribute

It’s two months since my father passed away, and nearly a year to the day since he went into hospital for scheduled heart surgery. Sadly, although the operation itself appears to have been a success, the ordeal seemed to trigger a whole series of complications and underlying conditions: within 6 months he was admitted to a dementia ward, and by late last year, he was in a nursing home undergoing palliative care. Less than three months later, he passed away, the shadow of his former self.

I was able to spend several weeks back in the UK over Christmas and New Year, visiting him up to three times a day. Most of the time, he was living in his own little world, and I would simply sit with him and listen to some of his favourite music, mainly baroque and opera. But in his lucid moments there were flashbacks to the distant past, and some recollections of more recent memories. On one occasion, even though he had lost most of his capacity for speech, he did manage a sage piece of advice: “Don’t play with fire”.

More recently, I was in the UK again to scatter his ashes and help sort out his study and his workshop. Memories of impromptu DIY lessons came flooding back. There were also several quirks and surprises in his personal archive: photos of him at management conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, a scrapbook of his time in Germany in the late 1950s during National Service (including some chilling images of Belsen), and a spreadsheet showing his annual income and income tax right up to his retirement.

Although he was fortunate in being able to take early retirement in his late 50s, he spent the next 25 years volunteering, building a portfolio of interests and serving on multiple committees for the arts, small business, veteran affairs, U3A and other community projects. My mother likes to joke that he’d rather chair a committee than mow the lawn. He also continued to learn, and I found recent certificates of proficiency for speaking German, and for formatting Word documents (very handy for writing up agendas and minutes).

He was the product of a classic liberal education, not a polymath, but possessing a solid knowledge about lots of different things: the arts, politics, language and history as well as science and technology. All the things you need to solve The Times crossword.

There are probably three key things that my father taught me:

  • Think for yourself
  • Don’t follow the herd
  • And of course, being an engineer, don’t take something apart unless you know how to put it back together again.

The latter is particularly useful when working with clients on their business reviews!

Next week: Music Streaming Comes of Age

“I’m reframing, the situation….”

As a break from my consulting and business development work, I have been taking lessons on picture framing. My significant other is an artist, and she has commissioned me to mount and frame a number of her works for a forthcoming exhibition. Things got off to an interesting start, when I inadvertently framed the first print the “wrong” way round (see the image below). Because there wasn’t an obvious top or bottom, I didn’t realise that I hadn’t placed the image in the way she intended. But, luckily, this “error” created a fresh perspective, and I realised that I was simply doing what I do all with the time with my clients when I reframe the information, problems or situations they present.

"Eclipse" (© Margaret Manchee)

“Eclipse” (© Margaret Manchee)

Some recent examples of where I have helped my various clients to reframe a situation and make a breakthrough when they have become stuck or blocked in their own thinking include:

  • shifting from a “retail” sales model to a “wholesale” strategy that focuses on aggregators and distributors;
  • treating an employer as just one part of a mixed portfolio of clients, rather than thinking that the regular job was a barrier to acquiring more direct clients;
  • refining the sales process to avoid giving away too much proprietary information during the RFP process, but still demonstrating value by delivering the best solution in terms of quality and technical capabilities;
  • repositioning the business to leverage proprietary data and analytics to build long-term revenue streams via commercial relationships and partnerships, rather than competing for increasingly price-sensitive, commoditized and transactional work;
  • adopting a more client-centred approach when designing a new on-line product that hitherto had been viewed internally as simply a technology-driven service extension;
  • using a service-design model for developing and delivering a communication strategy that needs to engage multiple stakeholders who simply want to know “what’s in it for me?”

Another useful insight that my picture framing has given me is the use of complementary and contrasting mount boards and mouldings to emphasise certain colours, to bring out highlights, to add depth and perspective, or to the give the illusion of infinite space and/or possibilities. Again, all things which I bring to the discussions I have with my clients.

Next week: FinTech Melbourne’s latest pitch event

Surrealism, Manifestos and the Art of Juxtaposition

Like all good coaches and mentors, the best artists challenge our assumptions, reframe our perspective, and re-contextualise both the positive and negative, to provide a narrative structure with which to navigate the world around us. Likewise, they don’t tell us what to think, but leave us to interpret events for ourselves, having given us the benefit of an informed and critical vantage point.

Image: "Untitled" (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Image: “Untitled” (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Over the holidays, I went to a couple of unrelated but inter-connected exhibitions that both played with our traditional perception of reality while demonstrating the importance of context in providing meaning.

The Comfort of the (Un)Familiar?

First up was Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, at the NGV Australia. I’m a big fan of Surrealist art, having visited the landmark retrospective, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1978 (and I later made a very minor contribution to a documentary on Eileen Agar in 1989). What I particularly like about Surrealism is its use of the familiar to create alternative realities, which is both comforting and unsettling. Sadly, I know next to nothing about Australian Surrealism (and I imagine I am hardly alone, given it has only recently gained formal recognition and critical appreciation).

So I was pleasantly surprised to find early pieces by major artists such as Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, which to my mind were far more interesting than the works for which they are popularly known. When seen alongside contemporaneous exhibits by Max Dupain, Eric Thake and James Gleeson, it’s easy to see how Surrealism was a significant influence on Australian art from the 1930’s to 1950’s. And yet I don’t recall many references to the local Surrealist movement or a wide acknowledgment of its impact on 20th century Australian art. More’s the pity, when you can see how the threads of Surrealism continue to be woven into the work of contemporary artists like David Noonan, Julie Rrap, Anne Wallace and Pat Brasington.

The Long Shadow of 19th Century Gothic

Part of the problem might be the fact that later, more familiar works by Nolan, Tucker and Gleeson have become severed from the artists’ original (and modernist) Surrealist roots. Instead, as I see it, these artists (along with Boyd, Perceval, Olsen et al) have been re-cast as part of the continuing 19th century Australian Gothic sensibility (Goths being more tangible than Surrealists?). This prism prefers the literal over the metaphorical, “real” legends over allegories, and landscapes over mind scapes.

Even Inarticulate Art Speaks for Itself?

Another issue, from my perspective, is that contemporary Australian Surrealism continues to play with psychological and political issues, alongside themes of gender, sexuality and hierarchy – topics designed to make us feel uncomfortable. Whereas, in my view, too many contemporary artists are either obsessed with process over form/form over content (to the point that any potential meaning is lost); or conversely, output is everything (often reducing their work to mere illustration or decoration).

Not Made Here?

On a purely aesthetic level, and to be hyper-critical for one moment, I wonder if Australian Surrealism is overlooked because received art opinion considers it to be too derivative of its European counterpart – and therefore, it has fallen victim to cultural cringe. One possible example is Barry Humphries‘ sculpture “Siamese Shoes” (originally made in 1958, shown here in its 1968 remake). While Humphries, according to the exhibition notes, “is considered to be Australia’s first Dada artist” (only 40 years too late, some might say…), I don’t believe for a moment that he was trying merely to imitate Meret Oppenheim‘s almost identical and much earlier work, “Das Paar” (originally made in 1936, remade in 1956).  When viewed in the context of its companion pieces that also formed part of Humphries’ solo exhibitions and artistic happenings, and when one considers Australia’s cultural climate of the 1950’s, then it’s more likely that Humphries was appropriating Dadaism and Surrealism for his own purposes, specifically designed to stir up his local audience out of their suburban bourgeois complacency.

Re-directing Surrealism’s Legacy in Australia

What was especially telling about Lurid Beauty was the 15-20 minute conversation I had with one of the gallery volunteers. She was very keen to get my views on the work, and asked how I came to learn about this particular exhibition. I got the impression that attendance has not been as high as anticipated, perhaps due to a lack of publicity. Despite being on several mailing lists for Melbourne’s arts and cultural events, I had not received any promotional material about this exhibition. We also discussed whether Surrealism features in the high school art curriculum, and whether the exhibition needed to emphasise the contemporary works and themes (rather than taking a somewhat traditional or historical narrative, based on a selective bunch of male artists – the usual suspects).

Given the legacy of Surrealism on film, literature, advertising, music videos, fashion and design, I think more could have been done to make this exhibition appeal to a broader and younger audience. The works, for the most part, are vibrant (if at times challenging), and even the themes depicted in the older pieces still resonate today. (A concurrent exhibition of Les Mason‘s advertising, graphic and visual design work only emphasises the point about Surrealism’s continuing influence.)

Finally, one very welcome aspect of Lurid Beauty was the extensive collection of original publications from the NGV’s library: magazines, catalogues, journals, and of course, André Breton‘s “Surrealist Manifesto”.

In the Artists’ Own Words

Speaking of Manifesto, this is the title of Julian Rosefeldt‘s video exhibition next door at ACMI. I had the privilege of hearing the artist introduce one of the works at a special screening, in which he mentioned his fascination with art manifestos. In a rare example of an artist directly and explicitly acknowledging his sources and inspiration, Rosefeldt shared with the audience that he had even become somewhat obsessed with a particular feminist manifesto. Not only did this provide some fascinating insights on the artistic process, it demonstrated yet again that we are all products of what has gone before, and it reinforced the importance of understanding art in the context of the history, theory and criticism, when it comes to interpreting old and new art.

Using around 50 different manifestos (artistic, political, cultural, critical), Rosefeldt has created 13 short films, each representing a particular art movement. The selected texts have been juxtaposed as monologues for 13 different characters, who deliver their lines, seemingly out of context with the visual settings, but at the same time, totally integrated into coherent narrative forms.

The fact that Cate Blanchett is cast in all 13 lead roles has no doubt created additional interest among local audiences. But, not to take anything away from her performances, this should be irrelevant – the point is that Rosefeldt has taken something with very specific meaning from one context, combined it with a mix of related and unrelated elements, and created a whole set of new meanings. (If anything, seeing simultaneous versions of Blanchett performing multiple, disparate roles, screened side by side, only underlines the fact that actors are the great deceivers – which, if any, is the “real” Cate?)

The videos are looped and synchronised. At times, the monologues converge and overlap, creating three and four-part harmonies for spoken word. This further de-contextualises the source materials, while lending them further meaning, even if we can’t immediately fathom what that might be. (Personally, I think it could be a subliminal reference to the Tower of Babel, or simply a comment on the manifestos themselves – and by extension, the vacuous words of so many artists’ statements.)

Less Is More

Two other works in the exhibition, Stunned Man and The Soundmaker (both from The Trilogy of Failure), are more straightforward narratives, also featuring a single character cast in a familiar setting.

First, Stunned Man is a dual screen projection, comprising mirror images of the same apartment. Over time, elements appear to interchange between the two screens, in a process of forward/reverse destruction and re-construction. But there are enough visual clues to suggest that not all is as it seems, in this parallel universe.

Next, The Soundmaker deconstructs the work of the Foley artist, using a similar process of destruction and re-construction – but split across three screens and two scenes, the viewer could be left wondering whether the “real” action is actually the soundtrack for the Foley artist at work.

What all these works demonstrate is that sometimes less is more – a simple idea can still be executed with wit, sophistication and restraint, to lend it a level of complexity that does not over-burden the final result. It requires a deft touch. There is nothing obvious or ponderous in these films. Nothing about these highly staged videos has been left to chance – every detail has been meticulously thought through. They are perhaps all too rare examples of when formal planning, combined with creative process and technical production, can give us content that is fully formed, but still open to interpretation.

The Artistic License

In my professional work as a coach and mentor, I’m not in the habit of constructing manifestos (believe it or not, I don’t possess that level of didacticism…). But I try to challenge my clients’ assumptions, reframe their situations, and draw on analogous scenarios (not just from business, but from technology, culture, art, music, etc.) that can help re-contextualise their perspectives, especially when clients are stuck. I see a large part of my role as consultant to use the “artistic license” I have been given to investigate, interpret and identify solutions to client problems – which at times can even take the form of a type of alchemy. As one client I worked with recently commented, “the way you reframed the situation was like pure gold”.

Next week: Why The Service Sector Lacks Self-Awareness

Help! I need to get some perspective….

At a recent professional networking event, I found myself in conversation with a business owner and tech entrepreneur. As I was describing my work, he suddenly asked, “Do you mentor your clients, because my business partner and I could use some help?”

perspective-35266_640I was somewhat surprised by the question, because although I see my role primarily as a business consultant and coach, it hadn’t occurred to me that what I did included mentoring, even though it’s probably in the mix of services and support I offer. And from experience, working with business partners can sometimes be likened to relationship counselling….

To be clear, though, I see that there are distinct differences between consulting, coaching, mentoring and counselling – even though the boundaries may at times be blurred.*

The one thing I believe they have in common is that they each bring external perspective, especially when there may be a need for fresh thinking, such as a new take on current processes, or simply a circuit breaker when businesses get in a rut or hit a road block.

Here’s what I regard as the essential and unique qualities of each of these roles:

Consultant

At its simplest, consulting can be described as initiating the dialogue between an organization and itself. When it concerns a review of ongoing operations, or a strategic initiative, most organisations call in consultants because they want an outsider’s view – not because they don’t know what they are doing, or can’t think for themselves.

As external consultants, we have the privilege to be invited into a client’s organisation; and our obligation to the client is to tell them what we really think, not what we think they want to hear. Our purpose is to capture the relevant information and “play it back” to the client to make sure we have understood what we have heard, whilst adding our honest interpretation of the data, along with some informed recommendations for action (which, of course, the client is free to disregard).

Our key contribution is to highlight inconsistencies or ambiguity in the data, to ensure that the client has considered all possible options, and to point out relevant external factors that the client may not be aware of. Above all, as a consultant I try to bring insights as well as perspective – what one person I have worked with described as “pure gold”.

Coach

The most effective coaches are those who can help clients identify specific goals, the steps required to achieve them, and then support them through the process. While business coaches can work with groups or teams, they are more suited to one-on-one relationships, to ensure they are keeping the client accountable for their own progress.

Many business coaches see their primary role as helping the client develop a strategic plan, and then making sure they stick to it, sometimes by telling them what to do. Whereas executive coaches may hone in on a particular aspect of an individual’s performance, to sharpen their skills and to make them more effective in their role; or in the case of a career coach, help them achieve a career change.

In some cases, a coach is similar to an instructor, and aims to help the client improve a skill or competency in pursuit of better outcomes and results. As a coach, I know the best work I do is when I get feedback like, “You’ve helped us to do in three weeks what it would have taken us three months!”

Mentor

Mentoring is mainly about helping the client to become the person they aspire to be. More so than coaching, mentoring is most effective in a one-on-one relationship, and unlike coaching may not be linked to specific or time-based goals. A mentor may bring deep domain knowledge and experience, but doesn’t instruct the client or tell them what to do. Instead, a mentor may ask, “So, what are you going to do about it?” when the client raises an issue or a problem.

While a coach may focus on “doing”, a mentor may be seen as helping to develop certain behaviours or attitudes. Although the mentor is also there to provide some external perspective, in some ways their role is to hold up a mirror so that the client can reflect on what they (and others) can see.

In some situations, a mentor can provide a role model, so long as this is not about following someone we admire, and more about self leadership. More importantly, a mentor can act as an advocate, which is significant for entrepreneurs, business owners, CEO’s and senior executives, for whom it can be “lonely at the top”.

The best mentoring probably happens when the “process” is invisible – and the dialogue happens in the moment. I know from experience that my role as a mentor has had most impact when I hear my words or ideas being expressed by others – not as plagiarism, flattery, imitation or even sycophancy, but because the mentee has taken on board what I have said, and made it their own.

Counsellor

Counselling could be defined as the dialogue around change and transformation, although it is different to mentoring in that it can address cognitive perspectives, as well as behavioral issues.

We are familiar with the role of change managers, but without engaging the organisation on the need for change, their work can become process-driven (and a thankless task). It’s much better to foster an open dialogue about the broader context and opportunity for change, which can open up new possibilities for transformation. Ideally, this approach can take some of the fear out of the change program, as well as creating a sustainable change model.

I have known some managers to use counselling techniques to resolve operational issues within their teams, because it can be an effective way to get to the bottom of a problem without apportioning blame and without being judgemental.

Counselling can cross the line into “giving advice”, which is not always helpful if clients are not receptive, or if it means clients don’t learn to think or decide for themselves. I once trained and worked as a counsellor in helping people resolve personal, employment, financial and legal problems. The key requirements of the role were helping the client to see that there may be a number of different solutions (without telling them which one to choose), and to uncover the underlying issues (rather than dealing only with the presenting problem).

The best counselling provides clients with a sense of empowerment, backed by a clear understanding of their responsibilities, and an appreciation for the consequences of choosing one course of action over another.

Putting it all together

As mentioned earlier, despite their differences, the roles of consultant, coach, mentor and counsellor can overlap – and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as practitioners and their clients understand when and how the positions may alternate between one state and the next. Ultimately, it will depend on both the circumstances of the situation, and what is appropriate to the clients’ needs.

 

Note:

* There is a particular tendency to use the terms “coach” and “mentor” interchangeably, even though they are quite separate. For a good summary of the differences, see this recent article.