In this TED-style talk at the AIIR Summit in NYC, AIIR senior executive coach Liz Keever shared how she injects artistic elements into her coaching engagements to foster creativity, imagination, beauty and emotional power, and how these elements can help leaders unlock their potential and achieve clarity and vision. Check out a video of her talk, or read the full transcript below.
Hello colleagues. I’m delighted to be here. I’m here to offer some thoughts to you about how we can incorporate artistic techniques in a coaching plan.
So let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. And we’re going to define what the heck is art. It is an often debated definition. Right?
This is Oxford’s dictionary. It says, “The expression or application of human creative skill or imagination… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty and emotional power.”
And I invite you to think about four key ideas from that definition as I go through this presentation.
One is creativity, the other is imagination, the third is beauty, and the fourth is emotional power. Because I think we are all lovers of leadership. And I think we would all agree that leadership does require creativity.
A leader must have an imagination. A leader must be a visionary. And when leadership is done well, it is beautiful. It is noble. And in order to lead others, we must inspire them. We must get away from the Excel spreadsheets. We must get away from all the tasks and all the little things that we have to get done and the numbers we have to meet.
We have to connect with their hearts and their minds to be successful leaders and to be successful coaches. So those four ideas, bear those in mind.
The beginning is the most important part of the work. This has been posted somewhere in my house for 40 years; refrigerator, desk, bulletin boards. It’s always been in my house.
The beginning is the time that we set our intention. The beginning is the time that we begin to lay out what am I here to do. We may have various different beginnings. We may begin the coaching engagement fresh. We may re-begin. We may have to press the restart button and refresh and reset our intention within a coaching engagement.
We also have the beginning of every single coaching conversation in which we set our intention for what that conversation will yield. It is at that time that I invite you to think about setting an intention that is, if you will, artistic. Because it is creative, imaginative, beautiful and has emotional power.
Now, all this creativity business takes some courage. Henri Matisse said that. And I know that as you are listening to me here, many of you may be thinking, “Oh, come on. This is a little woo-woo. Is it fit for somebody who is really in a high-powered executive job to do something artistic?” Yes. Yes. You will meet resistance. And you’re all coaches. You’re used to meeting resistance. Right? If it weren’t for resistance, what do you need coaches for? So, of course there will be resistance to utilizing any artistic technique within coaching. Of course, there will be.
And so, there’s science. And there will be more science to support the neuroscience that enables art to have a very viable place within the workplace, within the professional environment. But it does take courage. It takes courage to be an artist. It takes courage to be a leader who uses art within coaching, within leading, and it would take courage for a coach to utilize some artistic techniques.
Here’s two things we know for sure. Forget the science. We know this for sure. Emotions prompt action. Any television ad, any magazine ad. Marketers know that. When I was a presentation skills coach, we used to say that logic makes people think, and emotion makes people act. So we know this for sure. And art has emotional power.
The other thing we know for sure is that vision matters. Vision is real. Any athlete knows that. Any athlete you speak to; Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and the rest, know for sure that they visualize with great detail exactly what they will do to win. And science has proven that when we visualize with great detail, the same neuronal networks are activated as when we actually do it. So there is good science behind all this woo-woo stuff.
So I want to talk to you a little bit about the science, and I mean a little itty bitty bit; talk to you a lot about the art, and I want to talk to you about how I’ve incorporated and will continue to incorporate art into a coaching plan.
The science. There are two brain – there are more than two, but there are two primary brain networks, for the sake of this conversation. One is the Task Positive Network and the other is the Default Mode Network. TPN, DMN.
Now, by the way, all this got really rolling with me, the neuroscience, when I heard Dr. Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve talk at the conference last March. And he came up – by the way, remember he came on stage with Aretha Franklin’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T. playing for the stage. And he really inspired me. And he’s done some great work.
So the Task Positive Network, I think it’s safe to say that’s where many executives spend so much of their day. They are attending meetings. They’re answering emails. They are creating PowerPoint presentations. They are working through lists, checklists, getting stuff done. They are executing. They are not spending time in the Default Mode Network.
The Default Mode Network is really about introspection and contemplation. It’s about reflection, dreaming. I’m going to speculate here, but we might even say that the manager spends a lot of time in the Task Positive Network. They are administrating. It is the leader, the visionary, the person who sees the future who needs to spend time in that Default Mode network and access it.
So, here’s what Boyatzis — and there’s the paper. This is what his research has proven is that when the Task Positive Network is activated, turned on, the Default Mode Network is inactive. They cannot work simultaneously. We must shut down that focus on tasks in order to get into that introspective contemplative mode. We’re not problem solvers as coaches. We’re here to help people visualize their future and attain it. So, we want to be able to get people out of the Task Positive into that Default Mode Network. That’s one little bit of science. There’s an itty bit here.
And this is another paper by Richard Boyatzis and his colleagues regarding the positive emotional attractor and the negative emotional attractor. I’m going to gloss over this really quickly, which is all for the best, because I’m not a scientist. But science has proven, as I said earlier, that vision is real. Vision matters. There’s more research out there about weightlifters and weight training and how simply imagining — this is refreshing or a lot of people — simply imagining lifting weights at the gym can improve muscle mass. You probably still should go to the gym on occasion, but none the less.
So these two things have science behind them. And when you want to talk about this with your coaching clients, they may resist, and you may say, “There’s science here. This is real, getting into artistic mode.”
So let’s talk a little bit about the art. I’m going to introduce you to some tools, some artistic elements and how they could be brought into a coaching engagement. Here they are. Gratitude, values, dreams, role models, colors and music. All of these have the potential to invite creativity, imagination, beauty and emotional power.
So gratitude. I can begin a coaching conversation by asking, “What worked out well this week?” Not “What are you thankful for? What are you grateful for?” But “What worked out well?” And most important is why and what did that really bring up for you? Why did that make you feel the way you felt?
Another one is values. What are your guiding principles? My husband, when I went over this with him, he said, “But maybe you should call them the rules. What are the rules.” Because my husband, one of the reasons why I fell in love with that man is because he has three rules that he lives his life by, and he will tell you them very quickly, even repetitively.
But the key here, also, is why. Why is that so important to you? Why do you want that to be your legacy? Why will you fight for those? Why will you resign your job if those are violated?
Dreams. What work would you do for free? No pay. It’s so significant, so meaningful to me. I love it so much. What would it be?
And many executives, I know you will agree, are so separated from these things. They are so, so separated from their dreams, their aspirations. Ask them why. Ask them to see to within their mind’s eye. Ask them to describe it with such detail, just in the way Tiger Woods would imagine hitting that ball. With such detail.
Role models. Role models could be a person. A role model could be an animal. It could be even a building. But it can also be a plant.
Years ago, I had a coaching client named Jim. And I asked Jim about role modeling a symbol. Because he didn’t really have a person that he felt he wanted to use as a role model. So he said, “You know, right now, I feel like a Weeping Willow.” He said, “I’m delicate, I’m droopy, and I kind of blow in the wind.”
I said, okay. And so, what do you want to become. What is your role model tree? He said, “I want to be an oak. I want to be strong. I want to leave a legacy. I want to last for years. I want to be old.”
So role models enable our clients to dream, to visualize, to imagine.
Colors. What the heck! Why not? If you’re an executive, why can’t you paint your office? Why can’t you put a bunch of color on the wall? Why can’t you use more color in your staff meetings? Why can’t you send messages with color?
We all know colors evoke feelings. People will say, “Eh, I don’t know. I don’t like yellow.” And now we expect, it doesn’t have to be logical. You just don’t like it. It doesn’t have to be logical. It’s emotional. Color is emotional. And any marketer knows that colors send feelings to people. They have a feeling about green. They have a feeling about red. They have a feeling about orange, purple, blue. Use it. Use those colors to help people tap into the emotional power.
And music. From Eminem to Mozart, from Sade to the Shirelles, we all listen to music. Some more than others. But what I would invite you to do is ask your clients to do nothing but listen to that music. Don’t listen to it while you’re driving. Don’t listen to it while you’re working. Close your eyes, and just listen, and see what it inspires within you. See what you hear.
So those are some tools to use in creating a plan, an approach to coaching that is artful, beautiful, imaginative, creative and emotional.
So here we might use a vision board. You probably know what a vision board is. But come on, really? Use it with an executive? Yes! why not? I brought mine. This is my vision board. Artistry in business.
A vision board can be images, they can be familiar, unfamiliar, affirmations, quotations, symbols, anything that captures feeling – anything that gets someone out of text and into symbols, imagination. It’s feelings that what we put on a vision board. Those can then be transferred into text.
Here is a coaching plan from a current coaching client of mine. For quite some time, I have utilized PowerPoint’s organizational charts, SmartArt, in creating a coaching plan. They really seem to like it, because they can see in the CEO position, if you will, the can see their highest aspiration, their one big coaching goal.
And then we put on the big ideas, the big sort of strategic elements of that coaching plan. For this individual, as I said, who I’m currently coaching, his big aspiration is truly find his leadership voice. Who is he as a senior leader? The big plans, big ideas for him, are to express himself authentically in that senior role, to align with senior leadership and successfully lead remotely.
These colors mean something to him. I asked him to choose colors that resonate with him and mean something to him and then why – why choose purple? This is a gay executive. For him to find his authentic voice in a senior leadership role, to be out, if you will, and be comfortable with that is something that we are talking about quite a bit.
Under Actions and Behaviors, then he begins to put down exactly what he’s looking to do. So I want to just flush out actions and behaviors specifically regarding a daily and weekly plan. Here’s some ways to use some of the things I had talked about. And I didn’t talk about story, but I’ll explain about that.
Gratitude. Can put him into a different place. And gratitude can activate what Boyatzis calls that positive emotional attractor and shutdown that Task Positive Network.
Story. Can help us talk about our values, our feelings about our values or even role models. Of course, music can stir up emotional power and color has emotion to it as well.
So what we’ve done is we’ve taken that one big idea that he has to express himself authentically within a senior leadership role, to remain humble, genuine, authentic in leadership style and approach and to create a level of trust with a team to build comfortable and enjoyable working relationship.
So what he’s gonna do daily is what that says there is to listen to music not multitasking. To spend three minutes a day simply closing his eyes and listening and see what that stirs up and brings for him.
The other thing is to start and finish his day with gratitude out loud to other people. What worked well today? What makes him feel joyful and excited and generous and kind and loving?
And to put some color into his office.
Weekly meetings. He wants to put story onto the agenda to articulate the team’s values, their highest aspiration, what they stand for and a team symbol.
Any musician, any artist knows that this takes courage, but it takes discipline.
And the great choreographer Twyla Tharp said, “You don’t get in the mood to create. It is discipline to be artistic.”
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