Setting Sail

An executive coach discovers new purpose during an unorthodox leadership training program.
Christine Hemp |   March 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

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

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