Amina Aitsi-Selmi FRSA reflects on her experience of starting and growing an RSA Fellow-led network.
Last month, I said goodbye to two things I really care about and had put a lot of effort into over the past two years. One of them was the RSA Fellow-led Coaching Network, which has grown to over 200 members since I founded it in 2016 and is currently run by a pro-active steering group of seven fantastic coaches. Cathy Presland and Stephen Burt FRSAs are the incoming leads.
The RSA means a great deal to me because it offered a landing pad when I flew out of the nest of my 13-year career in the UK National Health Service.
It felt good to join an organisation whose flagship programme was the Future of Work, not to mention its commitment to and track record in driving social progress forward in the UK. From transforming education and public services to sustainability and international development, thought leaders like Simon Sinek and ordinary folk who want to change the world have a platform and incubator in the RSA.
These were real-life lessons in leadership and grew my appreciation of the value of coaching even more. Having a friendly but honest sounding board in the steering group to decipher situations and distil the wisdom in them was vital to my leadership journey. Self-awareness, to me, is the core of 21st-century leadership in the complex, uncertain and fast-paced world we live in.
Process: ambitious simplicity
From running the first network event solo, to building a steering group of highly committed coaches as brilliant as they are diverse, this has been quite a journey, with humble beginnings. Tough decisions had to be made in the process, like asking those who weren’t actively engaging in the steering group to step back.
Following the first event, the steering group was formed through a self-selection process. We had a lively debate as to our mission and purpose, which became: “Supporting the RSA mission one coaching conversation at a time.”
We prioritised two goals: 1) delivering interactive events for social entrepreneurs at the RSA sharing powerful coaching tools focused on self-leadership and impact; and 2) offering pro bono coaching to Fellows who wanted to boost their leadership skills, refine their operational strategy and achieve their goals with often limited resources.
Working with a small group of committed people on the steering group created a lean process and decisions were made easily with very little face-to-face time. We’ve had only a handful of formal meetings, complimenting this with open communication through email, video call or when we met at Fellowship events. Different members of the group have taken the lead on various network activities, supported by RSA staff.
Creating collaboratively on purpose
I deliberately avoided having a set programme of events to leave room for creativity in the moment. This meant that we spent less time trying to agree on a programme through lengthy discussion and more time taking inspired, spontaneous action. We also made the most of the feedback and learning from each event before we planned the next.
Different members of the group took turns to pair up and lead on various network activities, supported by RSA staff. This meant that we got to know each other through working together in a creative process. The group’s forming, norming and self-discovery informed the content and process of the network events and vice versa.
It was risky and uncomfortable at times to have less structure and a less conventional approach but ultimately fulfilling to discover each other’s interests, quirks and talents within the context of a joint purpose and truly collaborative approach with the RSA Fellowship mission in mind.
Offerings and impact: growing roots to embed big ideas
Over the past 18 months, we’ve led several well-attended events for social entrepreneurs and other game changers, engaging over 100 people from the RSA Fellowship and beyond in coaching conversations: I'm so pleased that our network's impact rippled beyond the RSA itself and encouraged people to join the Fellowship.
We made the most of new technology through online events, inviting international coaches to present and engage with our network on the theme of “Creating the Impossible” . Supercoach Michael Neill and Rich Litvin both contributed their coaching magic.
We understood that Fellows value the space to have meaningful conversations with peers who can help them see things from a different perspective as well as add to their practical knowledge and skills in addressing challenges. Our successive events including the last one “Lightbulb Moments” have built this into both content and process.
We also developed our pro bono programme of one-to-one coaching 'Coach–Link', free of any commercial interests. It offers high quality coaching from established leadership, executive and personal coaches to any Fellow working on a project, initiative, charity or business aligned with the RSA's value of social progress.
The positive feedback from those who took part in the Coach-Link pilot moved everyone on the steering group enormously and the network plans to continue with the programme in the future.
I feel the network has embedded the idea of coaching as a supportive resource within the Fellowship and now we have an opportunity to grow its reach, home in on where the biggest contribution can be made and invite new collaborations.
Personal lessons; lead from the heart and take the head along
Of course, times of change like these can evoke mixed emotions. For me, there’s the anticipation of having more space and time and of welcoming something new. But there’s also the sadness of the goodbye and the uncertainty of “what next?”
One thing I noticed about saying goodbye to the leadership of the Coaching Network is that the process begins in the heart. There's a sense that it's time for change. A sense of loss followed by grieving comes and the necessary actions and communication can unfold naturally next. Being sensitive to these rhythms in life means we’re less likely to hang on for too long until we’re blindsided or, conversely, end something prematurely.
Of course, a side of us wants to hold on to the old and will be afraid of stepping into the great unknown. But it’s all part of the creative cycle. It’s time for the network to benefit from new creative ideas and energy. I leave with the knowledge that in the network’s life so far, we have achieved a lot, and that it is in very skilful hands.
I personally gained a broader insight from this episode: leadership (of self and other) begins in the heart then teams up with the mind - so it's important to pay attention to the whisperings in our hearts. They will guide us on our creative and leadership journeys.
I'd like to thank the RSA for enabling this work, through its generous resources and space for creative autonomy, and particularly Mark Hall who helped to launch the network and his successor, Charlotte Bayley, who helped us grow it. I'd also like to acknowledge the fantastic Steering Group - Bernadette Martinez Hernandez, Cathy Presland (incoming co-lead), Helene Seiler, Ingrid Cohen-Pope, Stephen Burt (incoming co-lead) and new member Julie Flower. We've been a team truly, and everything we've achieved is a product of each individual's own unique magic applied though a collaborative approach.