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Lead with empowerment: Antoinette Coetzee

Michael Hunter


Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.

I’m Michael Hunter, with Uncommon Teams.

Today, I’m talking with Antoinette Coetzee.

Antoinette is a professional coach who came to coaching and leadership development through the world of Agile coaching. Her pattern in life seems to be to learn something, master it, and then immediately want to share it with everyone. So, she considers herself to be both a compulsive teacher and a perpetual loudmouth. Personal development, new possibilities, a more supportive society, and three pugs is what gets her up in the morning.

Welcome, Antoinette!

Antoinette Coetzee 0:43

Thanks, Michael.

Michael 0:46

In your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish your goals, what has been your biggest struggle?

Antoinette 1:01

I grew up in the world of computer science.

That’s a very black-and-white world.

I don’t know when I realized, probably when I was still at school, when I realized that we have unique gifts and not everybody’s the same.

Probably because I didn’t feel the same as a whole bunch of people, and the same as the popular kids, in a lot of instances.

It was really hard, while being in the world of software development in the 80s, really hard to get that concept across to leaders, team leads, even, sometimes, my colleagues.

I felt a bit like a crier in the desert.

There was a lot of emphasis on what people produce and not a lot of emphasis about what gets them in a good state to be productive.

Never mind happy.

Happiness wasn’t really in the cards back then in most of the organizations and teams that I worked in.

I could see that when people were stimulated, and when they felt part of a group, and safe, that they were doing really good work.

But it was quite hard to get other people to notice that.

Especially as, mostly, the only female on all-male teams.

I was somehow seen as being emotional or the touchy-feely stuff or, “Come on, let’s just…”

We had to do a job.

Just get the work done.

So, it was sharing a slightly different way of looking at people and at what makes them do good work.

That was tough to get across in those days.

And also made me feel, a little bit, maybe I was just a female and maybe I was just being too emotional.

Michael 3:37

What has most helped you navigate that environment from then through now?

Antoinette 3:53

Finding Agile in the late 90s.

That very first line in the (Agile) Manifesto, or the very first value in the Manifesto, about individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

That was really; for the first time I felt, “It’s not only me, it’s not only me.”

I’ve noticed that men will, when they get unhappy, they will just up and go, they’ll just find another job.

Females will sometimes say something; sometimes, they’ll also just open and go.

This was validation to me that we are more than just the work that we do or the skills that we bring or whether we fit into a team or not naturally.

There was something about how people work together and that there is an ability for a leader to create an environment where it’s easier for people to lead, work together.

A turning point for me was around 2002, maybe later; 2002, 2003, around there.

I was working in a group that was a really bright group.

I felt like an impostor.

As a group, we were, as a team, we were working really well.

The project that we were on, the company got bought over, and there were quite a few consulting companies that were vying to get the project manager of this, we were doing really successful work, the project manager across, and he refused to go without his team.

This was like a bucket of cold water to realize, it’s not only that there are unique things that bring a group of people together, where they complement one another.

In order to become a real team, there is inherent value in having, there’s an entity there, almost, that is more than the sum of its parts.

It is because different people bring different things, bring different skills, bring different characteristics.

They were a bunch of really bright people.

They were a lot of introverts, but not everybody was an introvert.

Noticing the lightness that some people brought, the skepticism that some others brought, and how that came together in a group to make a really robust and what we would call today high-performance team.

It felt validating.

It was the beginning, for me, of truly thinking about who we put together.

There was a time when I call the plug-and-play team members, plug-and-play developers.

Somebody leaves; well, we just need somebody with the following cold, hard fact, attributes.

Then we’ll just plug them into the team.

And tomorrow, the team will just continue to produce the same as they did with the previous person.

Noticing that that doesn’t work.

It sometimes works.

But it certainly doesn’t always work.

And it always has an impact.

So really becoming aware of how people show up in systems.

In my later work, in my coaching studies, I chose systems coaching.

Noticing, specifically, relationship systems coaching.

Noticing that the same person placed into one system could look very different when placed into another system.

Really becoming aware of what is it in systems that makes it work better, or doesn’t make it work?

That’s the quest I’m on today still.

Looking at what is needed, given, at the same time, the individuality of a person that you’re bringing in and the culture or the feel or the spirit of the system that they are entering into.

How can we skillfully choose people for systems?

How can we skillfully allow the transformation that necessarily comes when somebody joins a system?

How can we skillfully navigate that as well?

Michael 9:35

If I’m a leader who has recognized that I don’t have so much skill at that, and I’d like to build that skill, how would you suggest I get started?

Antoinette 9:52

Great question.

It always starts with oneself.

No matter what comes after that, knowledge of the self and awareness of the self is always the starting point.

That enables you to contrast others with self.

It enables you to develop empathy for others.

The wisdom that you get from examining the self is always useful.

Beyond that, there are obviously models and evaluations and skills and competencies that can be built up.

It is useful to know what a good team looks like.

What are the characteristics of the team, or the system, the division, that you are wanting to create?

I know organizations who hire based on values.

So if, for instance, the value is—I’m just thinking about one that I worked with earlier in the week—if the value is one of tenacity, when I interview, how do I choose people who are tenacious? What are the kinds of questions that I need to ask?

So, certainly, bringing in values and being aware, as much as one can, of what is it that I’m trying to create?

What is it?

What’s the ingredients of what I’m trying to create?

Because obviously, that’s not the same, based on the situation.

That’s not the same always.

There are things like communicative competencies.

When I choose people, or when I look at the group that I’m leading, what’s missing?

If I look through the lens of communication, if I look at what I create as a leader, unless I create a great environment for people, they can have everything that I’m looking for, but they’re not gonna bring it out.

So, what can I do in order to make sure that I (that hackneyed word) that I create psychological safety?

How do I make sure that every voice is heard?

What do I need to learn about how people are under stress?

What do I need to learn about neurodiversity?

What do I need to learn about how to integrate people?

How do I bring somebody in there?

What do I know about how groups develop?

Because a group that’s just forming, versus a group that’s been together for quite a while, there are different things that one needs to do to keep a group engaged as they go through their lifetime.

It’s understanding how systems work.

Definitely some systems thinking.

Complex adaptive systems, especially, because that’s what we look at when we are with human beings.

From a personal point of view, there needs to be the willingness to make mistakes.

The willingness to learn.

I see a lot of young leaders, when it’s their first leadership position, assuming that they need to know what is the best for the team, that they need to have all the answers, that they need to be the protector, almost to a kind of parent-child point of view.

There’s an inner wisdom, inner maturity, that needs to grow to understand, what are the situations that I’m going to be encountering, and what do I want to do with that?

What does my own leadership look like?

What kind of leader do I want to be?

Thinking about developing one’s model for leadership, in terms of, what are the kinds of leaders that I admire?

Why do I admire them?

What do I think leadership is?

How does it look?

How, if I have to bring about change, through growth in people, how do I go about doing that?

What does growth look like in people?

What does growth look like not only from a horizontal point of view—skills, competencies, but also from a vertical point of view?

How do I develop people so that they show up and have inner growth? In a way that would benefit not only them, but also the entire system?

It’s a very big subject.

If I Google books on leadership, how many millions of books will I get?

There’s so many different approaches into leadership and how to develop one’s leadership.

But it always starts with an understanding of the human being, and who we are and the infinite variety that we are as humans.

The infinite experiences that we bring that shape us.

How people react.

What’s good for one person is not good for the next person.

So, what is universal, and what’s individual?

It’s a really interesting space, because there’s just so much, I don’t think I’ll ever know enough about it.

I know that that’s not a direct answer.

It’s hard to give a direct answer in a field that is so, so vast.

It starts with self.

That’s the only departure point that is clear to me.

Michael 17:08

If we were to summarize everything you said into one single next step, it might be, learn one new thing about yourself, and one new thing about each person on your team. Do that each week. That will get you everywhere you need to go.

Antoinette 17:34

In addition to that, I would also say, that learning doesn’t have to come from you.

That learning can come from asking.

That’s also the antidote, to me, about a lot of angst and over-functioning in a leader.

I think I’m older than you, I grew up in a time where certainly we were still looking at hero leaders.

So, like I said earlier, believing that the leader will know the answer, the leader will know which way to go for us.

It just doesn’t work like that anymore.

The world has become so complex that no single human being can know anymore, even if you’ve got a crystal ball.

So, really making people part of that discovery journey, making people part of that future, making people part of not only problem solving, but also problem finding,

We are trained to, and this is specifically a part of our development, we pride ourselves on being able to look at a situation, form an idea of what’s going on, and come up with a solution in our reactive.

That’s fine and well.

But in Africa, we say, if you want to go fast, go by yourself; if you want to go far, go with others.

So, how do I go from my own upbringing and maybe my own experience of leadership to involve all the brains and the hearts and the hands of those that I lead and not overly rely on my own?

At the same time as being clear; I always think about rights and responsibilities.

It’s a leader’s responsibility to provide vision and direction.

They’ve got a vantage point that those that they lead do not often have.

So, without abdicating responsibility for the things that leaders should be doing, how do I lead in a way that provides the opportunity for people to bring their best and their particular skills and their particular point of view and their particular level of development to what’s in front of us to forge a way forward?

Michael 20:24

That’s important, what you just said. Every person has a right to have input into the decision, and only the assigned decision maker has the right to make the decision.

Antoinette 20:41

I would say it depends.

Michael 20:45

They may decide to delegate or extend that right to other people.

But, ultimately, just because everyone on the team has a right to input on it, that doesn’t automatically mean they have a right to make the decision. That always starts and ends with whoever the assigned decision maker is. And then they can choose to assign or extend that out to other people as well.

Antoinette 21:13


What’s really important, though, is that that needs to be made clear.

I’ve seen, through the revolution that we’ve had in work in terms of having a single decision maker, command-and-control kind of factory model, through to more participative leadership and decision making, I’ve seen people go too far to the other side, where everything is a democratic decision.

Not only does that take forever, but it also leaves people feeling rather rudderless.

It needs to be quite clear about which decisions, or if I use structural dynamics speak, which decisions are closed and taken by those in power, and the execution is left to those that are not in power.

Which decisions are, everybody can decide for themselves, it’s an individual preference; and which decisions are decided by democracy or some kind of consensus.

It creates movement forward, if we know that.

It creates clarity.

I don’t think that there’s anything ever that is as hard as thinking you’ve got the decision, thinking that the decision is yours and working really hard to come up with the biggest and best decision, only to find out that it’s not yours, and that you’re only supposed to be providing input to the decision.

I did quite a bit of work, quite a bit of research, on what agile strategy looks like. Not strategy for Agile, but modernizing strategy to have more agility into it.

They did a study where, it was somewhere in Europe; the details escape me but I can look it up. Somewhere in Europe, a university did a study at an organization.

They asked middle managers a question where they had a specific problem where either they could make a million euros or lose a million euros.

Every single one of the middle managers decided that it would be a bad decision to go for it. The risk is too high.

When they asked the CEO, the CEO said, “Lose a million euros? That’s nothing. Because if I look at the potential of this, we could not only make a million euros, we could, over the next three years, we could make eight million euros.”

What they were trying to see was, is it true that all decisions nowadays in participative leadership should be taken by the people who do the work?

The answer is, “No.”

The concerns of those that do the work versus the concerns of how a CEO looks at his organization is very different.

Certainly, there are decisions that belong closer to those that are actually executing on the work or doing the work.

And then there are those that need to stay with people that have a different outlook, different concerns. Look at things in maybe a longer-term fashion, how are we going to make this work?

That’s really important, that not every decision, like you said earlier, not every decision is democratic.

But being clear about which ones are and which ones aren’t is really, really important and stops a lot of churn from happening in organizations.

Michael 25:43

Very clearly defining our scope of freedom for each person at each level may be the most important piece to making a company work well.

Antoinette 25:59

We have a heritage, though, of not taking complete advantage of the autonomy that we have.

I’m not sure whether it’s an overhang of 150 years of command-and-control, but in my experience, a lot of people do not take full advantage of the autonomy that they have.

In coaching, it’s one of the questions that I love to ask.

We seem to be thinking our sphere of control is really tiny.

When actually, our sphere of control generally is a lot bigger than what we think.

Outside of our sphere of control, are still our sphere of influence.

So, even if you can’t change it yourself, can you spend your energy on speaking to somebody who can change it?

There is also something, I’ve always thought that this move to more autonomy and more self-organization, self-management, is a bit of an egg dance. Leader says, “It’s up to you.”

Okay. Follower says, “I don’t know quite how to do it. If I take this decision myself, then the responsibility, if it fails, also comes to me.”

The minute that decision doesn’t get made, the leader takes the decision back.

So there’s also a process of moving from, there’s a growth and education process of moving from more centralized control to decentralized control.

It’s not an on-off switch.

It’s, there’s these steps there and there is handholding.

It needs to be safe to fail.

Michael 28:18

Not only safe to fail; also expected to fail.

Especially the bigger the shifts in those responsibilities, where we are drastically changing the way things are done here.

We expect everyone to take some time to adjust to this.

That means it may be working a lot less efficiently, probably, for a period of time.

And that that’s okay.

It’s not only okay, it’s what we expect.

Antoinette 28:57

Yeah. Yeah.

As you say that, it makes me think of, that we have a misconception that if something needs to get done, there is one way of doing it.

There might be one way of doing it currently, for the current leader.

When we shift, it’s actually a process of learning for both the leader and the people who are taking it over about what it will look like in the future.

It’s not, in a lot of cases, “I know how to do it, and it’s something that you’re going to learn how to do. Then, once you’ve mastered how to do it, then you can take it forward.”

It might be like that with things that are pure skill.

But it’s not like that with most of the things that we have to make decisions on and execute on in day-to-day work.

It’s a learning process for both leader and follower about what this will look like going forward.

If the sole decision and execution power does not sit with the leader anymore, that changes the dynamic for me.

It really speaks into your safe to fail and will fail.

We are experimenting with this.

It’s a new way of doing “X,” and who knows whether how we think that new way will work is actually how it’s going to be working.

Michael 30:54

That’s one reason I love framing shifts and changes in terms of experiments.

Because experiments don’t succeed or fail.

They only give us information.

That information may be different results and outcomes than we expected.

It’s still just information.

If everything is an experiment, then that safety to fail and expectation of failure is kind of built-in.

Because it’s not really failure anymore.

It’s just, “We’re gonna do the thing and see what happens, and then we’ll adjust how we do the next thing.”

Antoinette 31:32

Interestingly enough, that mindset, we only develop in later stages of adult learning.

It’s kind of a postmodernist mindset.

In our modernist mindset, which is what rules are our expert, in our achiever, it’s either science or skills or a competency that will say, “This is right and this is wrong, and therefore, no experiments required. This is how it works.”

Which, in the achiever, it starts changing in the achiever mindset,.

In the achiever, it becomes, “Well, I know how things work, I’ve been around long enough to know how things work.” That makes it hard for the achiever as well to think about everything, which like you say, everything is an experiment.

When we work with people, there are no guaranteed outcomes.

And that’s what we do as leaders.

So it’s only in later stages of development, that it becomes clear. “Everything is an experiment. I thought I knew. When I did this before, this worked. But it’s an experiment.”

Michael 33:02

This has been a great conversation today, Antoinette. What else should I ask you?

Antoinette 33:20

You can ask me about the impact that all of this growth, what’s the impact that people can expect if they really engage with this?

Michael 33:38

When impact should people expect if they really engage in all of this?

Antoinette 33:45

I’m gonna sound like some Eastern mystic.

Leadership development is personal development.

If we truly engage with this work, what tends to stay behind is more and more of the ego.

We’ve spoken about experimentation.

Experimentation says, “I don’t know what the outcome is. I don’t know what the answer is. I also don’t know what the outcome is of this action.”

That brings with it a humility that’s hard.

If we think about how we grow, generally, that means the stage that we’ve been working on since we’re about six years old, we start working on our expert, developing expertise, knowledge, competency in knowing, whatever that knowing for us is. Whether it’s a craft or life or…

We have to give it up.

If we take pride in our knowing, in our mastery, it is very, very hard to give it up.

That’s what happens when we move from expert to achiever.

When we move from achiever to the next stage, individualist, we have to give up that we know how things work, that we know what the best way is, because in our individualist, we discover there are so many ways and there are so many lenses to look at the world. There are so many different approaches. So many definitions of what good looks like. All of that.

So probably the hardest thing is, that if we want to move forward, we need to give up that which we value most.

Michael 35:54

Very profound and exciting all at the same time.

This is a perfect lead-in to the gift you have for our audience, because that will help them stay sane while they are feeling scared, profound and excited on this journey. Tell us about that, please.

Antoinette 36:24

I was asked during the pandemic, we spoke so much in the pandemic about how to keep going, how to, as coaches, how to work with people, to help them to keep going.

It was such a hard time.

It really forced me to go back to basics.

Some people started baking sourdough breads and picked up knitting, and then there were some of us who worked harder than we had ever worked before.

In the work that coaches and leaders do, there was a real danger that we would stop looking after ourselves.

So, it was, for me, very much back to basics.

What can I do?

What can I do to remind myself of what will replenish me when you can’t go away, you are stuck at home, you can’t see anybody except through Zoom, which you hated after a while.

It really is an attempt just to bring together a combination of a couple of things, a couple of tools and techniques that I have in my own toolbox, that is really useful to provide space in our heads to deal with whatever’s happening around us.

It’s a combination of somatics, little bit of mindfulness.

Very simple, very easy.

Don’t need any equipment.

Don’t need a change of clothes.

Michael 38:21

Lovely. Thank you.

What’s the best way for our audience to connect with you, if they’d like to learn more about those practices and everything else we’ve talked about today?

Antoinette 38:35

It’s easy to find me on LinkedIn.

My surname is a bit of a mission: Antoinette is a proper “Antoinette” like the silly French queen, but my surname, when you are living outside of South Africa, where it’s a reasonably common surname, it’s in the US and in the UK. It’s just co-et-zee.

So it’s easy to find me on LinkedIn, or you can also go to my website, which is agile coaching dot global. You can reach me there.

Michael 39:19

I’ll have those links in the show notes.

What would you like to leave our audience with today?

Antoinette 39:38

If you can look at the place that you are, and relish in the place that you are, no matter where it is, that is the best place to start growing from.

So, really inhabit wherever you are right now, because that will give you the energy, the clarity, the direction that you need to move in.

Michael 40:25

Lovely again.

Thank you for being with us today.

Antoinette 40:33

My pleasure.

Michael 40:34

And thank you, audience for joining us as well.

Please let Antoinette and I know, what do you resonate with, from what we talked about today? What doesn’t make sense or maybe does not resonate with you? We’d love to hear from you.


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