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Meet Mike Walters, leadership coach He's a Flames fan living in Ontario.

Mike Walters smiles

We sat down with Mike Walters during a recent convention in Calgary. We asked him some questions and he told us a little bit about sports, coaching and the world-according-to-Mike.


You’ve been with us for a while now, how’s it going?

Yes, it’s been over a year now. It’s going fantastic! I love it.

What do you love, for example?

Well it’s like I’ve returned to things that matter to me. It’s not that I forgot them, but in my previous career as a senior executive I was getting further away from some of the things that really drive me.

What feels energizing now is meaningful connection and conversation with people who aspire to be more, to do more. They’re working on being more effective. They’re working on their relationships. They aspire to having more meaning and fulfillment. So for me, being around those people is really an honour and it’s very inspiring. To see people working so hard on these things that matter to them are many of the best parts of real life. In this busy world that we rarely allow ourselves enough opportunity for this kind of deep reflection and deep examination, so this work puts me up on the front line of that process with people who are interested and willing.

Aren’t some people more committed to change than others?

People come to this process with varying degrees of interest and openness. But even those who arrive reluctantly often get caught up in it and they can see how to get to the heart of things. I think what is really motivating about the people who have preconceived ideas about this process is when I can help them make the connection between emotions and business, emotions and effectiveness. These are light bulb moments. They’re ah-ha moments.

These moments occur sometimes when a question is asked, or when people get reflective about a concept that resonates and it kind of opens a door to the other concepts; it’s a bright light coming on.

Do people get homework?

Yes, absolutely. It’s one thing for people to understand the concepts. The light goes on. We’ve all attended great workshops or gone to great talks. There’s often a nugget that inspires. But changing behaviour is challenging. Changing behaviour is more than just getting a concept. Changing behaviour can be one of the hardest things in the world.

It’s more than getting a good idea. So the homework is practice. It’s an exploration. It’s trying new things and trying something different. But when something is different it goes against the grain of comfort and safety.

So, it takes practice. It takes support. Homework plays a key role because it’s concrete. And then the follow up coaching can become really rich.

It would be a lot easier to avoid the homework without follow up, and accountability. The homework is the hardest part.

What happens when folks don’t do their homework?

There are always great reasons not to do homework. Homework, like smart goals, has to be realistic. But the avoidance of homework is often as interesting and important to examine as the homework itself! [laughs] The participant is the one who has to do the heavy lifting. That is the reality. The coach can be a trainer or facilitator or an encourager. But we can’t do the work.
I do this work because I have a belief in every person; that they do have the power. And if they have enough resonance, we can build on that resonance and we can tilt the scales.

Mike Walters, leadership development consultant and coach

Photo by Ben Clarke

You’re involved with a ranch in Ontario?

Yes! Circle R Ranch! It’s an incredibly special place west of London. We use the power of the natural setting and animals to help people, and young people, learn about themselves and learn about getting along with others, face challenges, build resilience, gain independence, and to learn how to be part of a community. There’s lots of similarity really, to this work. Many people come to the ranch for lots of reasons. It’s inspiring. I love the outdoors. I love horses and animals. They have many qualities that we as humans aspire to!

What? Like what?

Trust, loyalty, respect. Many people have an affinity to the horses, dogs, rescue cats, goats, pigs, chickens and roosters, sheep, deer, coyotes, birds of all kinds, a bald eagle. This affinity provides an opportunity for growth. They learn to ride horses but they also develop a deeper knowing of horses and responsibilities that come with caring for them. It’s a great place for youth to be away from home, in the natural world, away from electronics, to be creative and develop independence. Just eating together and sleeping in tents is huge.

What is your favourite EI competency?

The one that stands out for me is empathy. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is so important. It’s fundamental to relationships at work and at home. If the world had more empathy, it would be an even better place. Life is hard sometimes. Empathy can go a long way in helping us face challenges together. A world with more empathy is a world with less loneliness.

A great image for me of empathy is a counsellor at camp noticing a young camper sitting alone on a log after dinner. The counsellor, instead of carrying on wherever they had intended to go, instead notices, and goes over to talk with that young person about how they’re feeling and discovers that they’re missing home or their family or their dog. And that counsellor can talk about all of that. And mostly listen. And they understand homesickness. It’s real. The best cure is not distraction. The best cure is being present with someone at that time. Empathy is noticing and acknowledging. It’s not “cheering up.”
What’s your biggest EI weakness?

Mine is probably impulse control. [Laughs] I’m a very passionate guy and I love spur of the moment things. Which is good in some ways and it’s sometimes presents a challenge. It has me making decisions very quickly. Sometimes I have to very consciously pause and “play the movie” right through to the end.

What kind of phone do you use?

iPhone. [laughs] I have no further comments. I like it.

I think there are wonderful and fascinating things that modern technology brings us. And it also can separate us from more real connections, deep connections with others. Like many things in life, there’s such a thing as too much!

I think technology is changing the way people learn, and the way young people grow up. The expectation now is for instantaneous response and instantaneous access.

Sitting with someone and looking them in the eye and listening to their voice is so powerful. So technology can sometimes get in the way.

Technology connects us, but for the same reason, it can inhibit personal growth and independence. Independence is important. You think back that it’s not all that long ago that smartphones came along. Video conferencing was a space age dream of the future. And I love technology and love learning new technology, but there’s always more than I can cope with. And my phone can take me away from things I love. How many tools do we need? [Laughs]

“Changing behaviour is hard work.”  Tweet This!

Did you see the Cavs win over the Warriors?

I did. But I’m really a hockey and football fan. Hockey, then football. I went to school in Denver so I’m an avid Broncos fan. And I’m from Calgary, so I’m an avid Stampeders fan.

Can you imagine cheering for someone other than the Flames?

Only if they’re out of the playoffs, and then it’s all about the underdog.

You love the underdog?

Yes, that’s the beauty of sport. The outcomes are uncertain. Sport is powerful. People have a common goal, and they come together to fulfill it. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. I’ve worked with teams all of my life. There is such power when we work as a team and connect as a team. So much of our work is about individual EI skills.

The support of a group is so powerful, especially when an individual is struggling or aspiring to do better, or allowing themselves to be vulnerable, there is nothing more powerful than that. Even the best athletes go out there and make mistakes and depend on their teammates to pick them up and tell them they did okay.

Even so-called individual sports are team sports. The family, the medical team, the fans, even their fellow competitors, all contribute to their performance. There is a kinship between athletes even when they are also competitors. Athletes are never alone in their endeavour. It’s hard to envision an athlete who is doing their sport all by themselves.

Like business?

Yeah, it isn’t pleasant when you go to work and stress and sweat and nobody has your back. But when everyone has your back, when you feel trusted and supported, it’s night and day. The analogy to sport is very close.

It’s the human condition. We all need connection. We seek connection. We flourish when we have it. We can be our best. We’re less afraid to try, to fail, to think differently. To be creative.

When we’re tired we get energy from someone else around us. When we’re stressed someone can give us strength. When we’re weak and we’re thinking “we can’t do this” someone puts their hand on our back and inspires us to see that “yes, we can.”

More often than not, the people we work with have that in some contexts of their lives. But they often don’t have it at work. Or they aspire to have more of it at work.

Culturally, it’s rare to find an entire workplace that has that feeling. There are so many pressures in business. It’s a competitive environment. There have been centuries of inertia about “what is productivity,” and much of it is unhelpful.

But engaging people and valuing people creates the conditions for things to fall in line. People need meaning and fulfillment. And when they have it, they are more productive. People need to be able to make mistakes.
I want to be a great coach. Coaching is an aspect of leadership.

It’s in my nature to have meaningful conversations with people. Deepening my coaching skills has helped me to see the best of coaching. I’ve been fortunate in my life to have tremendous mentors and tremendous teachers. I’ve seen the “NHL” of coaching during my training. It inspires me to up my game. I want to be the absolute best I can be.

If we’re serious about helping people to make changes, we have to be at our absolute best. I’ve had a long meaningful career, and there’s always more learning to do. There’s always growth. Emotional intelligence and coaching are such energizing and powerful practices. I feel lucky to be developing them.

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