Nick of Time
One morning in April, hours before dawn, I packed my bags, kissed my husband and kids goodbye, got on a plane, and flew to New York. When I landed, a car picked me up and took me an hour outside the city to a town holding tightly to its English roots. Once there, the driver pulled into a well-manicured complex with old, stone buildings, colorful gardens, wrought-iron street lamps, and cobblestone sidewalks. He left me at the front door of the main building, wished me luck, and drove away.
Within minutes I was seated in a very chilly room next to a woman from Russia, a man from Brazil, and a lady from Singapore. I picked up the name tag in front of my seat, draped it over my neck, picked up the pen with the Columbia University logo emblazoned on it, and started writing as the professor begin his lecture.
I was there, along with 32 other professionals from around the globe, to start the certification process in executive and leadership coaching. And I was committing to six days, ten hours per day, of intense training.
For those unfamiliar with executive coaching, it's hard to explain its benefits. It's like hearing about CrossFit and not understanding why throwing tractor tires in a dark alley would be at all beneficial, but those who do it can't gush enough about the value. Executive and leadership coaching is to ambitious professionals and leaders as traditional coaches are to athletes: they supply the guidance, training, and motivation to be better, do more, and go further.
Though there were lectures, readings, and discussions, the training for this program was primarily done through simulations. This meant that a pair of students would go into a private room, play both the client and the coach, be filmed during the session, and have that film played back to the class and faculty for critique. Later, as we progressed in our training, the simulations were run live, in front of an audience of students and faculty. Like spring training, we did these over and over and over throughout each day to perfect the technique.
I assumed I'd be a natural. After all, I was getting this certification in part because this is work I already do. I work with individuals, whether students or otherwise, on career enhancement and professional development, and I'm frequently hired by leadership teams on a contract basis for team building and strategic planning. This work has been a natural evolution of my career in higher education, and I wanted to legitimize the work with credentials. But I was unprepared for how much I had to learn during my week-long training.
The coaching method employed by Columbia follows a particular process, and trying to get that just right took hours and hours of trying, failing, and trying again. All in front of people watching. The first few days I was overwhelmed and convinced I had made a mistake. The process was easy enough to understand but incredibly difficult to carry out. By day four I was convinced that one week was not nearly enough to teach us what we needed to know.
Further, each coaching session during the simulations was only five minutes long. How could anyone help someone--especially an executive--in five minutes? A week to train us, and five minutes to help another person, just wasn't enough time.
A couple of years ago, when a friend asked me to officiate her wedding, I immediately added "get ordained" to an already long list of things I needed to do, including grocery shopping and an oil change. Though the wedding was months off, ordination was a ticking clock thundering in my ears.
One Sunday evening, while plotting out my week, I decided to tackle this task, moving it up to the top priority of the seven-day stretch.
I've long believed that if the Miss America Pageant substitutes the swimsuit competition with time management skills, I could make my state proud. My internal clock is so well calibrated that I can wake up at a specific time without an alarm. I have a gut instinct for how long tasks, errands, and getting to a lunch meeting across town will take. I'm always acutely aware of the time. A walking sundial.
So for the particular task of becoming ordained, my internal clock told me I needed to block out four hours of time. I'd need to read the modules, take notes, and complete the exam. I decided I'd dig into this one Tuesday afternoon--marking out my calendar, letting colleagues know I'd be gone, and telling Jim not to interrupt.
Tuesday came, and, right on cue, I left my office and headed home to the quiet solitude of my living room. I sat on the couch, opened my laptop, logged on to the website, and clicked to start the process.
The first question: What is your full name? I carefully typed in my full legal name, nervous I'd misspell it somehow. Then I hit submit.
CONGRATS! YOU'RE OFFICIALLY ORDAINED!
I blinked several times, confused. Certainly they meant I was officially allowed to start the process. Not that I had completed it, 3 hours, 59 minutes and 45 seconds early. I looked all over the screen for more help, more questions, modules to read, tests to take! But all I could find was a "checkout" button and a chance to upgrade my package to include a clergy parking pass.
I was just granted the ability to join people together for life in less time than it takes to make an Eggo? How was I given so much power in such a small amount of time? All good things take time. Right?
On the fifth day of the training at Columbia, I was paired with a man from Jamaica. While in the client seat, students are instructed to bring in a real, professional issue with which they are grappling. As the coach, I had five minutes to figure out what he was struggling with, his motivation for getting past the struggle, and then guide him into some solutions. Within the time allotted, I uncovered that he was struggling to get his business off the ground. As a self-proclaimed "big-picture" person, he was dreading all the detailed planning it takes to launch a new business. We talked through his procrastination, located the root cause of it, figured out his motivation to move past it, and set out a five-point plan of action that excited him so much he was lifting out of his chair as he talked.
In five minutes.
Later, I was the client to a brunette from Australia. The professional problem I was facing was not one I had talked about with anyone besides my husband, but I had been grappling with it for more than a year. Though we had an audience watching, faculty judging, and the camera rolling, I decided that was the time to talk about something that, though professional, felt deeply personal. By the time the professor yelled "Time!" I had gained a profound sense of clarity and was hugging her in an uncomfortably tight, and borderline inappropriate, embrace.
This isn't voodoo. It's just the power that comes from talking to a trained, objective person who can see the dimensions of your issue more quickly and clearly than you ever can.
After class each night, exhausted from the lectures, simulations, and discussions, we all headed to the bar to blow off steam. There, I came to know some of the most accomplished and interesting people I've ever met--business owners, lawyers, PhDs, engineers, psychoanalysts--who had traveled from far ends of the globe for this training. When the week was up, I burst into tears to leave such an amazing group of people. And we had met just six days earlier.
Though all the professors who taught us imparted invaluable knowledge and skills, there was one sentiment that really stood out to me: while explaining to us that our simulated coaching sessions would only be five minutes, the professor acknowledged that this seemed absurd. How could any transformation happen in five minutes? But, as he explained, we take up whatever time we are given. If we are given an hour, it takes an hour. If we are given five minutes, we take five minutes.
Profound thoughts, transformations, revelations, and relationships can happen within nano seconds. We just always assume something so profound must take a lifetime.
But, if we are given a lifetime to learn something, we'll take a lifetime. If we are given years to get to know our coworkers, we'll take that long. If we are told it takes a lifetime to transform your life, we'll use every minute of it trying.
But what if we are told we have precious little time to learn a valuable skill, form lasting friendships, and help transform someone's life?
We'll get it done in a New York minute.
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