Setting Sail


Ascent InstitutePhotographs by John McConnell

Last June, after a year’s successful treatment for breast cancer, I found myself at a crossroads. My daily planner was empty. My main client had dried up in the economic downturn, and I’d had to put off the others during my recovery. I was also having difficulty finishing a book I was writing. In short, my professional life was at a standstill. So I made some cold calls. I’d met John McConnell briefly a year or so earlier at a meeting for facilitators like me, people who coach and train others in communication skills at businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Forty-something, articulate and funny, he’d led the day’s agenda with style and grace. He also listened to each person as if he or she were the only soul in the room.

I found his card buried in a pile on my desk and made an appointment. When I showed up at his Bellevue office at the Ascent Institute—which specializes in executive coaching and leadership training—I didn’t really have a plan for our meeting, but thought John might be interested in weaving my talents into his offerings. Think again.

At that first encounter, we didn’t discuss business at all. Instead, he steered me toward larger concerns: “What is important to you now?” he asked, settling into his chair. “What is at stake if you continue as you were before? And,” he leaned slightly forward, “where do your actions not match your words and desires?” I’d gone to that meeting thinking I might return with a new client. By the end of the hour, I’d signed up for a six-month coaching gig—for me!

John also suggested that I take part in the Leadership Journey, a 10-day program he facilitates with his wife, Virginia Rhoads, an executive coach herself. The first three days were to be held aboard the wooden sailing vessel Adventuress, known for its educational programs on Puget Sound. I balked. For me, leadership training evoked the image of pale, scrubbed executives in pressed khakis and Izod shirts, struggling with an off-site ropes course. Why would I want to join a group of business executives when I already considered myself a leader? And, as a poet and self-employed businesswoman, I didn’t have a corporation to foot the bill. How could I justify such a huge investment of time and money—especially at such a difficult financial moment in my life? I soon found out.

Ascent InstituteAt Sea
It’s a September morning, the sun sparkling on Port Townsend Bay, and I am boarding the Adventuress in my home port. John and Virginia and six other participants have come by van from Seattle. One man makes a last-minute call on his iPhone before climbing on deck (no cell phones or internet for the next three days). Like any new group, we are quiet and awkward, unsure of why we’ve chosen to be trapped on a boat with strangers.

As we introduce ourselves in our first formal meeting, I quickly discover that the group—three Microsoft executives, a manager from Boeing, a systems design entrepreneur and a marketing director for an outdoor equipment company—are already leaders. They are successful in their fields, but looking for something bigger, more powerful, to carry them to the next chapter of their lives. Some have come, as I have, because of their coaching with John or Virginia. Others are in search of a new way to achieve life goals that up till now have eluded them. (They all agreed to be interviewed for this article, but their names have been changed.)

Sindhi, one of the Microsoft executives, says his main desire is to “play bigger” at work. He confesses that he is confident leading his team, but finds himself avoiding disagreements with peers and sometimes turns passive around his superiors. At the other end of the spectrum, Liesl, the Boeing executive, feels trapped by her high-powered position, reporting how it’s affecting her health and well-being. Yet something is holding her back from making a change.

How, one might ask, could a three-day sail on a wooden boat begin to answer such large questions? Start with some small ones: What feels urgent to me now? For what or for whom am I willing to change my plans?

We write ferociously, but are soon asked to put these thoughts into practice: As the wind picks up and Captain M.B. Armstrong calls out her orders, we leave our cabin to participate—as we will for three days—in running this boat. Along with the generous and friendly crew, we haul lines, unfurl huge canvas sails and coil halyards. “I like to think we at Microsoft have a pretty high-performing team,” Sindhi says after participating in an emergency drill with the crew. “But watching the crew … that was teamwork like I’ve never seen. We have a lot to learn to come up to that level.” We remember what Virginia told us earlier: “Ideally, our life’s purpose is reflected in our being.”

Adventuress anchors for the evening in a cove, and we prepare dinner, then clean up our supper dishes, thinking the day is over. But no. “The view’s great up here!” John hollers down from the crow’s nest. “Come up!” Equipped with climbing gear and a harness, each participant moves cautiously up the 110-foot main mast. The cancer treatment has left my limbs a bit rickety and sore, still unfamiliar to someone who considers herself sporty, but as the sun sets over the islands and an incoming tide, I decide to give it a try.

Halfway up, my feet are shaking and I avoid looking directly down. I begin to understand what John and Virginia are saying when they describe embodiment. Each step up the mast, I am more aware of my fears. I remember John saying, “Whatever we put our attention on gets bigger—both negative and positive.” As I notice my body’s reaction to the climb—at first, constriction and then a growing elation in the belly and the calves—I realize that I can actually decide what to do with these emotions. The specter of my cancer treatment is present in every step up, but by the time I make it to the top—Mount Rainier reflecting off the water like a giant scoop of ice cream, and my compatriots cheering on the deck below—I am overcome by a physical sensation of gratitude, expansion and power. “It’s a beautiful world,” I tell John. He snaps a photo and I head back down.

The Body as Compass
With 35 years of coaching, executive leadership training and outdoor education between them, John and Virginia share the belief that any change we enact in our lives is connected directly to our bodies, to actual physical memory. Virginia is a horsewoman, but she is also a runner and a ballroom dancer. John’s practices include mountain biking, rock climbing and photography. Their work is inspired by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, a psychologist who, as an athlete and martial artist, developed a body-oriented psychology called somatics. It’s based on the idea that body and mind are inextricably linked: To develop one, you must cultivate the other.

Ascent InstituteBeginning on the boat, then in subsequent months of private coaching, I “practiced” things as simple as walking toward a difficult meeting, physically waving away a situation that did not warrant participation and learning how to pay attention to my own breathing. I also learned that being conscious of such things affected how I was perceived by others. In both the Leadership Journey and in my individual coaching, I was invited to articulate a new story for my future, grounding it in a physical practice that would help me embrace an undivided life.

The January day our group gathered for a final wrap-up, we agreed the Leadership Journey had helped to connect us to something bigger than ourselves. We felt the ripples of our newfound skills moving out to our families, friends, our workplaces and communities. Liesl reported that she was taking a leave of absence from Boeing, renting out her house and heading to Central America to help a grassroots organization provide education for impoverished children. “I learned just how much you can gain from stopping,” she said. “Trying to be with yourself.”

Sindhi was promoted. He’s now the global lead for Microsoft Support. He told us he’d developed greater confidence and assertiveness: “I raised my capacity to inspire my team to a higher level of performance. The Leadership Journey expanded my sense of the possibilities for knowing that I can actually change the shape of who I am—from the inside first.”

As for me, the Journey—and my coaching with John—did not give me a template for landing new clients nor did it provide easy answers. It gave me much more: clarity of purpose. By learning to embody what I hold true, by understanding the importance of intention and cultivating my gifts, I have been able to embrace new financial and creative vistas. My facilitation work is stronger than ever and my writing life is flourishing.

When John and Virginia talk about their work, their eyes light up. When they describe “being the change we desire,” it’s not just words: It’s in their hands and their gestures. It’s in the way they welcome you into their space, how they listen with their eyes. And, like a seaworthy vessel, their influence is carried far beyond theory, buzzwords and biz-speak. They are what they teach, and I was lucky enough to have jumped aboard.

Christine Hemp is a writer, coach and communication consultant whose clients include Microsoft, Horizon Air, the London (England) Police Department and the U.S. Navy. Her poems and essays have been heard on NPR’s Morning Edition. She also teaches at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival.