Using an empty chair to turn negatives into positives

We’ve been working together for a couple of years, and along the way seen Beverley’s organisation grow from 30 or so people to 60. You wouldn’t expect it to have been plain sailing, and certainly a fair bit of the growth has been down to good luck – being in the right place at the right time. Her next challenge is to stabilize the business by building up a capital base, plans for which she developed with her accountant and revolved around the acquisition of a small High Street based office block. The plan was to operate her own business from the top floor, and to let the lower two floors for serviced offices. Sadly, the building had been ready to occupy for nearly three months, but she was having limited success marketing the offices. Most people seemed to be put off by the cost, even though it was competitively priced for the area. Together, we talked through some alternative scenarios. Beverley is very good at coming up with ‘yes, but’ answers to many things – it’s a cautious approach which we’ve explored before, and tracked down to the influence of her elderly grandfather when she was a child. A long-term goal of coaching is to help her put this into a more proportionate balance with an optimistic and less risk-averse approach to decision making.

We decided to try a very different creative thinking technique – we put an extra chair in the room! Whenever a ‘yes, but’ was mentioned, we thanked Grandfather for his input, and then turned it into a positive ‘indeed, and’… In the course of this session, several alternative ideas came up, not only designed to create income from the offices but also looking at ways of simply occupying them in the short term.

To cut the story short, Beverley invited a local Private School to use the ground floor space as a temporary exhibition area to display first their pupils’ art work, and then some engineering design work. They enjoyed the process, gained local High Street profile for a month, and attracted a fair number of people who wouldn’t have entered the building otherwise. During the second display, someone from the local Adult Education group asked if they could use the space for another art exhibition. Beverley decided to apply for planning permission to run a small cafe from the building. Today, 12 months on, it is a thriving arts-oriented exhibition space, with a permanent coffee shop (leased to a semi-retired couple) and tables for small drop-in business meetings. Within three months, someone using the space asked about renting the entire first floor for his company. Hey presto!

(Grandfather was promoted to Beverley’s imaginary board of Directors – more on that tool in another example.)

The abstract above illustrates typical situations that arise in the course of my work with leaders – it should go without saying that permission to quote has been given, names have been changed, and a few details tweaked to preserve confidentiality.

Best wishes

Psychodynamic confidant, working behind the scenes, helping those of power see organisations, situations, themselves, and other people differently

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