Radical honesty: A Profile of Claire Genkai Breeze

Award-winning corporate coach and Zen Buddhist chaplain Claire Genkai Breeze wants to help leaders to challenge the status quo and lead a purposeful work life – from the inside out. She does this by living simply, out of the spotlight, she tells Liz Hall

Among ‘engines’ driving Claire Genkai Breeze, highly experienced corporate coach and coach supervisor, Zen Buddhist chaplain, and Coaching at Work award winner, are the practices of ‘nothing special’, ‘being nobody, going nowhere’ (teachings of Buddhist Ayya Khema) and “not believing my own press”. So she’s a hesitant ‘cover girl’.

At the same time, she’s all about being a “strong challenge to habitual thinking”, one of the central pillars of the work she does through Relume with leaders and coaches. She shines a welcome spotlight on what we might be doing differently as coaches and as a coaching community to respond more powerfully in these challenging times. She’s funny, eloquent and refreshing – indeed, delightfully challenging.

Yet, as she says, “There’s a certain paradox in what we’re doing here [carrying out an interview for this article], because ‘coach as celebrity’ for me is a slightly difficult issue.

“I’ve been on a conference platform and spoken about things we’re working on, things we see that cause pain either in the industry or in my own practice and afterwards I’ve been inundated by people who want to talk. A downside right now of being a Buddhist is that it comes automatically with a seal of approval.

“I’m trying to find a way to do the work where there’s less attention on me and what I say, and more attention on people finding their own path,” says Breeze.

Breeze co-founded Relume with Khurshed Dehnugara some 20 years ago, a working collaboration that she says “is still the cauldron of radical honesty, collaboration and innovation I wish everyone experienced at work”.

At the outset, they “had an absolute commitment to bring the discourse of strategy and psychological awareness firmly together. Because we were sitting round board tables and noticing that people’s inability to really collaborate wasn’t just about their misunderstanding of the strategy, it was because they didn’t understand their own unconscious motivations.

“Part of our job as coaches was to help people spot what was habitual and what the consequences were, nested against the business strategy and their cause, not just for the sake of it.”

Breeze and Dehnugara collaborated on an extensive research project into organisations that successfully disturb the status quo in their market, which resulted in their book The Challenger Spirit (LID Publishing, 2014).

The research identified six major mindsets associated with the way people were leading, namely: witnessing the establishment, hope and ambition, causing purposeful instability, being the face on the dartboard, challenger as learner and growing old disgracefully.

“Our Challenger work was borne out of the idea that you can be small, agile and under-resourced and actually really change the marketplace and take on some of the big boys. But you needed an exceptionally agile mind that was prepared to break with convention and you probably had to stand on your own, and be prepared to be the face on the dartboard if you were going to do that.”

In recent years they’ve been focusing on how to catalyse these mindsets: “We’ve seen with more granularity the ways that people think and feel about the workplace that seem to engender more breakthrough, and the ways that don’t.”

The pair will showcase their latest thinking in the follow-up book they’re working on, with the working title, 100 Challenger Mindsets.

In addition, they’re developing three intensive open programmes a year for people “who really want to challenge the status quo and lead a purposeful work life from the inside out”.

One obstacle she identifies to leaders challenging is that career progression is often conflated with leadership accountability. “An unintended consequences of that is we end up with people who are unable to authentically lead because they’re trapped by the progression of their career inside a well-structured organisation. The most effective leaders are those who can uncouple these two aspects and act freely and boldly. And as coaches, part of our job is to recognise that and try to get people to wake up to it without encouraging them to be irresponsible.”

The new programmes will build on Relume’s successful five-day Challenger Leader intensives, which were supported by pre-, mid-, and post- coaching, and saw “people coming with all sorts of experiences from all sorts of organisations, hungry for a way to go deeper simultaneously and experientially into the systemic challenges their organisations were facing, and themselves.

“It was fantastic work, super stimulating and I’m hoping we’ll get an opportunity to do more of that off the back of the new book,” says Breeze.

This time, the programmes will be open to coaches as well as leaders – “we need both otherwise one holds the other back.”

“I say to people, ‘you get the organisation you deserve’, and I expect we get the coaches we deserve to some degree too. [Coaches] need to be breaking ourselves open more so we can co-create more with our clients.

“I’m really interested in what a challenger coach is. I think the same applies to us [as it does to leaders]. What I want to know when I’m supervising people is have they put their faces on the dartboard yet? Are they confronting, challenging, speaking to the thing that no one wants to speak to, enough?”

In coaching supervision, she asks clients, “When the chips are down, who are you really working for?

“A surprising number say they fundamentally work for the individual. Now I don’t make that wrong – I think that’s very laudable. However, if we’re unconsciously erring on the side of the individual and not taking enough responsibility for the state of the companies we’re working in, I think paradoxically we might be propping up people and systems that should not necessarily be sustained.

“Coaching can be a radical practice of empowerment. At our best, as coaches, we’re a force for radical change and good. At our worst, we prop up complacent systems.

“As a community, we have to ask ourselves what we’re really about – what are we trying to cause beyond a professional identity for ourselves in order to be able to play? And I think we have to take into account not just the individual’s performance, but also the state of businesses,” she says.

Arguably, challenger coaching is more important now than ever:

“We’re in a bit of a crisis at the moment. For some time, the only strategies we’ve had in business have been the ones associated with growth.

“ You can’t solve problems using the same conventional mindset over and over, again and again. If resources are short, growth is tailing off and the challenges associated with growth are becoming more difficult, doing what you were doing before doesn’t work, so you need more diversity of thought, you need people to come at problems in a paradoxical way.

But it’s probably tougher nowadays too: “I think we’re living in cultures of extreme fear and anxiety and I think therefore the message becomes tougher to give to people even if it’s more necessary.”

Reformation?

Some exciting possible new directions for coaches and coaching arose from what Breeze dubbed the ‘Coaching Reformation Group’, which saw her meet with other coaches and coaching sponsors to explore how coaching might reinvent and update itself to better serve in these times.

“The basic premise was that if you had a car that was running for 30 years with the same motor, bodywork and emissions, you might want to buy a new car, and I don’t think the world is the same as it was 30 years ago. The way people are working is different but the coaching methodology and formats have not necessarily changed to meet that.

“[Meeting] gave us a glimpse that we might experiment more freely with formlessness over form, so examples of that, which I offer hesitantly, might be being more available to clients with shorter intervals or with more immediacy for certain sets of circumstances for certain periods of time.

“We have to work with people at the pace they’re working, not just use coaching as a reflective or planning practice. There’s nothing wrong with those, but if you’re meeting someone every four to six weeks, depending on what goes on in someone’s life and the nature of the contract, you could spend most of your time either talking about something that happened four to six weeks ago or about something that may happen, but not in the session.

“We were trying to bring the theatre of change closer to the action, so, for example in the case of someone you’re working with who gets under pressure and doesn’t perform as well or falters in their performance, there’s very little point in doing the coaching work when they’re not under that kind of pressure.

“You need different kinds of contracts for this kind of work, not just with the organisation but also with the client – they’re coming with a readymade view of what coaching is and you’re inviting them to think about a learning contract, not just a performance contract, which might have learning methodology in it that alters the pattern, rhythm and metre in order to achieve the result.

“So what a coach becomes, I think, starts to change, from a person who helps someone think and plan, to a person who gets in the boiling water with [the client] periodically in the moment and coaches them from inside the bubbling water and then comes out again.

“It’s a good aspiration, which in practice will always be challenging. That doesn’t mean we don’t try it – and we do!”

In practice, she’s noticing she might have shorter amounts of conversation with clients more frequently and at more unpredictable times. But she says, “I’m less concerned about time than about impact. We tend to base our contracts on some kind of time patterning, so you might even say to an organisation, this is the result you want for this client, you want to support it through this work, this is the cost and we’ll get on with it and do it any way we can.

“I can hear alarm bells ringing when people read this, ‘what about boundaries’, ‘what about ethics’ – and I get all that. That’s why you have to be properly trained. But we can’t continue to replicate what went on 30 years ago, assuming the world of work is the same as it was. It’s not; I was there.”

And we “need coaching supervisors to shift their views of what constitutes coaching so we’re not held back. Of course, it’s fraught with difficulty, but nothing ever changed by not butting up against those boundaries,” she says.

“[This approach] keeps us fresh, keeps it exciting and keeps us much nearer to the edge of not-knowing, which I think is where we need to be.”

There are clients who are up for experimentation: “Where we find people who believe in the work we’re doing, have trust in us or have a feeling of personal bandwidth to be able to choose how they intervene into problems and situations, we find full-scale experimentation still exists.”

We have to keep asking ourselves, ‘What if?’ ‘What if I responded like this?’ These are questions we should be asking ourselves as coaches a lot because the form can be a safety for all three parties, but can also can have a deadening impact on the work.”

She’s witnessed the nature of the conversations that clients bring shift from that of 25 years ago, becoming more sophisticated, more familiar with the coaching process and more psychologically educated.

“We’re being invited into a variety of different conversations and the boundary of where these touch each other is where we have to be very agile, very smart and very awake. It’s less linear.”

If the trend is for clients to be more sophisticated – the rise of the “expert client”, we need as coaches to ensure we become “a wide enough and deep enough container for the conversation”, doing work on ourselves – “putting ourselves through the wringer first”.

She often advises coaches and wannabe coaches to explore, “how can you make use of your own experience, what have you done yourself prior to or alongside the training, how have you deepened your self, how have you made use of your failures, your repeated patterns? In other words, go do your work. I say all this as if it’s a great polemic, but I’m faced with the same challenges on an ongoing basis. I’m actually only 22!” she cracks.

“I think [coaching is] a vocation, not a lifestyle choice, and if we treat it as such, we might be able to understand that doing ‘our work’ is part of the vocation.”

Breeze first ventured into coaching almost 30 years ago. “For me, one of the fascinating things about coaching was, and is, that it has brought a quality of conversation into the world of work that blends self awareness, a desire to perform, a desire to achieve and psychological mindedness. And those things, put together, will always have unexpected complexity.

“So it’s a constantly surprising business. You can say, ‘my clients these days bring these kinds of issues’, and ‘this is what’s going on in organisations’, but if you’re not surprised by what you’re hearing on a regular basis, you’ve sort of gone to sleep!”

She’s learnt lots from clients, including that “quality dialogue is life enhancing and confidence building”; “time and structure are not a substitute for impact”; “everything starts to shift if you give it good quality attention; “make use of all available help, but at the right time to maximise the impact”; “don’t believe your thinking, just believe that you are thinking it!”, and “you can be surprised to discover the aspect of the coaching that actually helps your clients rather than what YOU assumed it was.”

Love and compassion

Breeze recalls “being profoundly moved” by the phrase “your work is your love made visible”, from Gibran’s The Prophet (1923) which she read aged 16.

“I remember thinking, how can anyone work if that’s not true? That comes from a privileged statement about what work is, but work should be an expression of care if not love, of loving kindness if not love. And this is still with me.”

Another phrase she lives by is “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” (attributed to Philo of Alexandria). And she sees a need for compassion in coaching:

“The willingness to sit deeply in a conversation continuously over a period of time with another human being in order for them to be and to do better is an act of compassion. And it’s an intimate conversation, because effectively [someone] is saying, ‘come into my world, sit with me, work with me, I will throw open the doors of my mind and my motivations and the things I don’t do so well that I hide from other people in order that we together will create some change’. That needs a lot of compassion, and compassion to me is not a soft thing.”

Inspiration

At work, she’s stimulated by the Challenger Week intensives “to liberate leadership behaviours and actions”; “working with coaches in supervision and in ‘wild mind’ explorations about our vocation”, and inquiry into “what’s on the edge of coaching that may accelerate and deepen our practice today”. Also, by physicist Bohm’s work on dialogue “to increase awareness of complex problems in business”, opening up to “reflexive coaching in the moment: a movement away from the ‘reflection-planning’ paradigm of coaching”.

Other sources of stimulation at work include “group coaching to fix business and culture problems and become leaders in the process, working with complex, but talented people who others find difficult to collaborate with and watching them ease into team working, and corporate contemplation with CEOs.”

Writing that has inspired her work and that she returns to include:

Red Hawk’s (2009) Self Observation; R M Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1929); Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness(1998); Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart (2007); Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs (1997); John Heron’s Helping the Client (1990); Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation (1986); Anthony De Mello’s Awareness(1990); Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi (1961), and Bryce Taylor’s Learning for Tomorrow (2007).

Education experiences that have shaped her work and the way she thinks about coaching include a Master’s degree in change skills and strategies from Surrey university; a Being with Dying retreat at Upaya Zen monastery, New Mexico; studying life stage ceremony at the OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation; a retreat Bearing Witness to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland with Bernie Glassman and training as a coaching supervisor at Coaching Supervision Academy.

Mistakes she’s learnt from in coaching include: “Being too blunt [and] worrying about being too blunt!” Also, “being caught out by my own agenda/interpretations, drawing too much on my experience to make sense of what I am being told, [and] not drawing enough on my experience!”

Others include “not taking care of myself in the face of client demand and thinking I can delay self care till the busy period is over, and waking up one day and realising I had compassion fatigue.”

Sanity and simplicity

Practices that “keep me sane” include meditating; “not believing my own press”; spending time with her dog Archie(pictured); walking; spending time alone; “finding myself funny”; “seeing or reading or experiencing artistic expression”; getting enough sleep and “living simply”.

“I don’t have lots of material stuff – a conscious decision since training to be a Buddhist chaplain – but also because I like the sense of freedom that not having much gives me.”

She drives around in a 13-year-old car, and says, “I sometimes have clients turning up saying, ‘I’m standing outside a house but I don’t think it can be yours’, and I say, ‘why’s that?’ and they say, ‘it’s in a really awful area’ and I say, ‘just come round the side entrance, and by the way, I don’t own the whole house!

“There’s a reason why most spiritual traditions effectively eschew material complexity. It’s not about the abundance of it, it’s because its tendrils move in and out of your entire life. So we’ve always been of the mind to live lightly and simply, and it’s freed us of the unconscious jealousy of what most of our senior clients acquire, so we’re more likely to be able to speak up.”

Breeze recently experienced a health challenge, and is coming back into work “with a bit more reserve in energy” and more intrigued by “finding methods to help people develop truthfully their idiosyncratic ways of being resilient”.

“Your body doesn’t know what you earn [and] we mistake endurance for resilience at the peril of our performance and the sustainability of our organisations.”

On her own work/life balance, she says, “I’m not really interested in balance, I’m interested in causing shift. I’ve got a small amount of time to walk around. It’s not that I don’t want to do joyful things … but I want to be joyfully used up.”