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To Group Process and the not-knowing

By Jenna Wee

2019 turned out to be a wonderful year for me. In addition to some big shifts and realisations, I returned to Play CoLab to experience another leadership programme (among other things, such as playing Operations Manager/Mentor/General Busy-Body & Streamliner of Things). I get asked quite a bit about what we do at Play, and while the website says “contemporary leadership”, I also sometimes answer with various musings like “we help people get over themselves,” “we help dig through surface-level stuff to the heart of what might be holding people/us back,” “we provide people/us the space and tools to discover AND be who they are as people, effectively exploring how we lead” and so on. Key to how we do this is delivered through what we refer to as Group Process, which Co-Facilitators Sandy Burgham & Jenny Devine discuss further in their writing here & here.

Now, having recently come out the other end of one of the contemporary leadership programmes, here is an attempt to articulate my personal experience of Play’s Group Process: 

  1. There’s beauty in not knowing what’s going to happen. We’re nine strangers in a room and at first, are told not to disclose our full names or any details around what we do for work. This isn’t about accolades of success or seniority – but we are all “leaders” in some respect, and this not-knowing of what’s happening next can be unsettling for us who are used to being in control. While this is my second Play programme and thus have a sense of what’s about to happen – the actual experience of it is far more hard-hitting than I remember the first time around. 
  2. Cutting the bullshit quick and unveiling masks early on bind us together in a collective mess. We open the envelopes containing our Leadership Circle Profiles – a 360 evaluation providing feedback from our bosses, boss’s bosses, peers, direct reports and clients. It’s clear I have been a massive people-pleaser who rates herself low on everything. I’m both a bit dumbfounded and comforted that I’m not alone in feeling a little off-kilter. Another of the cohort is crying. That’s two people in the first 24 hours and after doing some shadow-work (an excruciating, yet enlightening exercise), I make it three. 
  3. There’s power in having a network of people who will always show up, armed with compassion. A brilliant person creates the Whatsapp group chat. Messages begin flying around about what’s really going on for us. Everything from frustration to inspiration. Been in an office argument? Ding, new message. Just nailed a big speech? Ding, new message. Been crying all week? Ding, new message. Bear in mind that we just met, but are seemingly taking turns at losing the plot, asking for help and offering support. 
  4. The gift is in the giving (or serving). We explore making decisions as a group, getting off the fence, making a decision and practice articulating our reasoning – while being encouraged to serve the group and not just ourselves. For me, it’s a shift from having spent a decade in organisations where the primary agenda is not the people in the room but usually the bottom line, the client/customer, the “optics”… I’m not saying those things are bad, but this is a refreshing take. Now, things are feeling more meaningful, a bit less lonely, when we move forward together. In spite of our own confusion, conflict and/or pain, we are still moving together. It’s starting to become quite clear (the difference between managing and leading that is). 
  5. The group culture is confronting, refreshing and conducive to transformation. A group of fairly driven people get together where it’s ok to call each other on their shit, to push and ask confronting questions. Good luck NOT shifting in this environment! As we do our own mask & shadow work together, explore our belief systems and assumptions, listen to one another talk at length on what’s keeping us stuck – someone can say to me “there you go people-pleasing again” and it comes from a place of knowing that person on a deeper level. We can be ourselves. 
  6. Life that happens between sessions is important too. A fellow cohort in the group recommends a book to me, The Body is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self Love by Sonya Renee Taylor. I buy it and read it over the course of the programme. I pay it forward by recommending it to every girlfriend I come in contact with. It moves me so much, I end up doing a presentation about it during our last session together and there are more collective tears. I catch up with another member of the group and we talk about tattoos, moko kauae and a Māori workplace/worldview – all of which I am quite into. I used to be a person who struggled to answer the question “so, what are you really interested in?” – but there has been a shift. It feels like there’s flourishing going on. Life is more engaging. Delightful synchronicity delivers random interesting people to have more conversations with. 
  7. We’ve each gained a new circle of people that has me optimistic, engaged, creative. Nine of us now have access to each other’s networks… I despise the thought of ‘networking’ – a room full of predominantly white people dressed in navy suits and pencil skirts having awkward conversation over asparagus rolls comes to mind. i.e an environment where I feel out of place. But this, is not that. We cut through the bullshit fast so while we are less transaction-focussed and about what we can gain from one another – the option is certainly there, and offered unconditionally should we require anything. I can tap into this group for a creative project I have in the works, for future business ideas, and even for match-making if it comes to that (because, how else are you supposed to meet people in your 30s while avoiding Tinder!?) 
  8. The future of the group is up to us. The formal programme ends but the consensus is, it’s not really over! By the time this is published, our group would have returned from a weekend away on Great Barrier Island. A retreat with a group who, as of six months ago were complete strangers, but took time away from partners, children, work & commitments for a refreshing, fun break together. I’m also still in touch and catch up with my original group from the 2016 pilot programme and it has all happened – breakups, breakdowns, resignations, promotions, moving countries, moving houses, buying houses, new relationships, new jobs, new babies – all of it. It’s clear that the big changes begin to happen after the programme winds down. If you do this mahi with clear intention and consciousness, experiencing a shift is inevitable.

In a time where the world may seem pretty volatile, perhaps lonely or too “busy” (YUCK!) – when was the last time you made a bunch of new, diverse, fascinating friends? Gooey notions aside, I am thrilled my answer is “fairly recently” and I owe it to this work. I eagerly wait to see what happens next for this recent cohort, but again, the beauty is in the not knowing. 

If you’re in your late 20s/30s, keen to play and experience this for yourself, we’re beginning to curate The Contemporary Leader 2020 cohort now. For more info about the programme click here, and/or get in touch with me, Sandy or Jenny.  

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