“They are able to see political-economical complexity, and, the pain that an individual is in because someone in their family has just died.” - Laura Beckingham
Bare feet, ancestral trauma, and tea by the river; enabling leaders to slow down, step back and see more.
Laura Beckingham |
Founder, Space With-In
Laura, Leadership coach, Guide and Founder of unconventional coaching business, Space With-in, has always been deeply people driven. After building the first stages of her people & leadership development career in one of the UK’s biggest food retailers, she shares what happened when she went on to work in an industry that seemed to forget who and why they were serving, and the impact that this had on her.
She talks of what felt like an ‘internal explosion’ of realisation, which then led her to start her own business enabling leaders to live and lead in more spacious ways, and supporting everyone to be more human at work.
We talk about the unconventional experiences she creates for business leaders and teams, being out in nature, tea on park benches, ancestral trauma, and doing ‘the work’, all in service of enabling those in business to slow down, step back and see more. Oh, and if you smell a whiff of Palo Santo drifting down your office hallway, that may be Laura too.
Laura, tell us about what you do and what you're ambitious about?
Oh, gosh. [chuckles] I should've guessed that question was coming. I can answer the first one easily. I run a coaching business called Space With-In. We work with leaders, predominately leaders in big businesses across the globe, to connect them more with who they are and how that shows up in not just their work but in the rest of their lives too. I use the label ‘coach’ for my profession although I'm getting increasingly uncomfortable with using that because I don't really know what it means. I use the label coaching organisation because again that's what people in big business seem to understand, although the work is so much more than traditional ‘coaching’ It gets us in to do the work that we really need to do with them.
Tell us more about ‘the work’, the work that we really need to do, and what you are ambitious about as it relates to that?
One of the ways I describe the work that we do is bringing the experience of being human back into the world of work.
What I see, or what I know because I worked in big corporates myself for about 12 years, is that in many big businesses, people have kind of lost their connection to who they are outside of that context.
Being more human sounds quite simple on many levels but a big part of what I do is reminding people of who they are, reconnecting them with everything that they are, not just the bits that they like, and enabling them, supporting them to find ways to bring more of that out. Particularly in the world of work, particularly with people that are leading others or have roles in communities or can influence stuff outside of the direct sphere of influence of their business.
Because I believe if you can feel more human and more in yourself then you are going to do better business and that's good for everybody.
This concept of being more human and connecting more with the human parts of ourselves in business, where did this first come from for you? What did you see was happening in business, what did you experience?
That's a great question. I don't know when it arrived actually, in that I wasn't aware of it at the time, but when I look back now I feel like it was always there.
I started my career in a big retailer here in the UK, a very human business. It was a food retail business. One of the things that we used to talk about was that everybody buys bread and milk. It doesn't matter what part of life you come from, assuming you've got the money to do that of course, but everybody needs to eat, everybody buys food.
It was a business that really at its heart understood that this was about people. In that business, people were very - it's trite – but, people oriented. It was the way we talked about our customers and the way that we were relating to each of our other stakeholders and each other.
When it really hit me was when I then went to work for another organisation which was an entirely different industry. The energy industry, a much less tangible commodity, even though people all need to cook food and light their homes.
There it started to really strike me that in business it was very easy to lose sight of the people that you were serving. I've always been very passionate about customer experience and that when people are paying money to buy what you do, then what they get has got to be good. I started to realise that in that business, that wasn't always front of mind when it came to making decisions and that had a wider societal impact. It was a time when things like fuel poverty were really hitting the press, particularly here in the UK and that bothered me.
“It started to really strike me that in business it was very easy to lose sight of the people that you were serving.”
I personally was in a senior job, earning a very good salary with a good package and all the trappings that come with that, and actually feeling increasingly uncomfortable about that in the context of the fact that there were millions of people living in fuel poverty and I couldn't reconcile those two things. It wasn't that the people in that business didn't want to do good business or any of that. But just somehow we'd lost our way and I was like, "What the fuck is this?" This can't be right."
That really struck me at the time, and felt a bit like an explosion inside me. Like, "This is not okay." It's not okay to do business in this way and it's not okay to have completely forgotten about the fact that there are people and we're not even talking about that anymore. I'm losing my breath as I talk about it because I'm sort of remembering the energy of it.
Wow, yes, I remember the time, in the UK, probably the early 00’s, when it started to become quite apparent that energy companies had shifted to a very profit driven business and customers were suffering. It’s interesting to hear what you were feeling around that from the inside…
Looking back, I was 30 when I went there and I was ready to do something different and new and the sense of the broader context in that organisation, in particular, was really interesting to me. I went for the right reasons but I guess I was probably quite sheltered in that I'd come from a business that really cared about people and really understood people, really valued dialogue and authenticity. It had its quirks but it had a good heart. Then I went to this business and it was like, "Oh shit, how did I not see this? How have I found myself here?" but I'm really grateful to it because it was such an extreme, I experienced something almost like an autoimmune response. It was like a tissue rejection of being there because it was just so extreme to me, but it really helped me find my place actually, in my work and in the world.
I feel that, the impact that that experience had on you and your future. When you say you had an almost ‘autoimmune and tissue response’, can you tell us more about what that felt like? What happened?
I think it's useful to say at this stage that I was leading a team of about 100 people, so a reasonably sized team and I was training once a month to do my professional coach training qualification (which I smile at now because that felt important at the time and now I realise that was just a piece of paper that gave me the confidence to do my work). Part of what happened in the tissue response I think was the juxtaposition of my day to day, and what was happening and what I could see in the environment there, through that lens.
I was going to this training experience where I was learning to coach and have really great quality conversations and talking about purpose and meaning and values, and I was like, whoa, hang on a minute. [chuckles], how come even though this is my job in the business because I had a leadership, learning and development, very people-oriented role, how is that I'm learning to do this here, but not feeling like I can actually have the permission or allow myself to do that in the business. That was part of it.
I was also just exhausted. I was living in London, where I still live, which I love, but traveling around the UK predominantly to places that I never particularly thought I'd ever want to go to, to these environments where the people were wonderful, and many of the operational environments are full of life, but I was just tired and eating crap. I felt heavy inside myself. Energetically lethargic, thick, dense energy.
I just really wasn't vibrant and I really felt it in my body. I've never been a massive drinker or a massive partier, but I was probably drinking more than is normal for me or healthy for me for example, just not really nourishing myself, not putting good stuff in and therefore not allowing good stuff to come out either.
Did that lead to making a change for you?
Yes, it did. It's really important for me to say I worked with some brilliant people. I don't believe anybody goes into business to not do good stuff. Maybe there are a handful of people, but I ultimately believe that everybody's doing what they feel is best. I don't think anyone comes to work to do a bad job. I basically left the business. I had a conversation with my boss who was the HR director. She said to me one day, "How are you enjoying your job?" I said, "I'm not." I've always been that person where I have to speak it openly. Normally I would as soon as I can because I must, I can't not tell the truth.
“I don't believe anybody goes into business to not do good stuff.”
That started the process of me leaving that business because I think it was kind of mutual - there was a sense of what I wanted to bring that they weren’t ready for actually. Not to say that I was doing anything more advanced than anybody else, but it just wasn't a good fit at that time. When I was in my late 20s first in leadership development and coaching people, I always thought one day I'd love to run my own business. I always thought that would be when I was 50. I was 33, and like, "Oh, shit. This is my window of opportunity."
So it's not something I planned, it's come sooner than I thought it would, but I thought this is amazing, I guess it was a punctuation mark in my life that allowed me to say, "Why would I not give it a go?" The thought of going back and working internally in an organisation was so suffocating to me. I think part of my DNA is that I don’t want to be contained, even in very, very huge businesses, the business I worked for had over 50,000 people in it. But I still felt as if there’s not enough dimension, enough different contexts, and I can feel very easily stifled and then I don't bring the best of what I can be.
I suddenly realised that there’s this whole world of opportunity, and I know that freaks a lot of people out when they think about going freelance or doing their own thing but to me, it's my lifeblood, it's so exciting. Because I don't know what it can be, I don't know where it's going to go and I love that. I took a few weeks to just sit in the garden and chill and walk on the river and come back to my own body really and then set up a business. That was the next chapter, I suppose.
So fast forward 6 years…you and I have many conversations about conventional/unconventional and post-conventional work or thinking. What is it about your work that you might label as unconventional?
Probably quite a lot. Although wrapped in a way that makes it seem conventional enough to get permission to do it. I guess by nature, I'm quite rebellious in the sense of, in my character, if I think we shouldn't do that, then I'm going to do it just to see what the reaction is. I like to create stimulus, but in this work, it's a bit more sophisticated than that because the environments that I'm working in, much like you, are in many ways are conventional, or have parts that are very conventional to them.
I work in two different ways. One is with teams (or groups) and the other is one-to-one.
Something that people may think is unconventional, although, to me, it's one of the most natural things, is working outside, in nature. I work with clients a lot on the telephone, because they’re based all over the world, but if I work with them face-to-face, we almost always do that outside.
I talk about getting people out of their ‘beige’ boxes. We sit on park benches, on the grass with the trees, where there's water, walking on the river, in botanical gardens, that kind of thing. To me, it’s the most natural thing in the world. What I realise is for most people who are working in these environments, that it’s quite radical and very unconventional. Because of that, it enables them to just feel alive before you even start the work.
When I work with teams, I always mandate that we have to be in really simple environments and they need to have access to nature. I don't wear ‘business’ dress ever. I invite clients to do the same. It’s nice to come dressed as yourself. It may seem very surface level, but actually it's an invitation to be the real you.
In terms of in the work, I hold a lens on the trauma that people might be carrying. So, not just coaching around what's happening in the future, we do a lot of looking back and a lot of looking at the old stuff that's keeping you stuck.
“I don't wear ‘business’ dress ever. I invite clients to do the same. It’s nice to come dressed as yourself.”
I talk to people about things like family and ancestral trauma and whose stuff is this really that you're carrying? Is it yours or does it go before you. Talking to people in banks and environments like that and they're like, "What? Oh gosh, yes. This is the same story my dad used to tell me when I was young. I remember him telling me that his father told him" It's opening up the field of vision by looking back at what’s gone before..
Then I guess the other thing that might be considered as unconventional is really inviting people to get out of their heads. We have bodies and they aren't just there to carry our heads to meetings, but the body is a rich source of intelligence, intuition, feeling of aches and pains, which are all information, and we spend way too much time in our heads, ignoring this information. I label these things clearly upfront when you're working with me. “I'm going to invite you to connect with stuff that you're going to think is weird. If you’re not used to it, can you be curious enough to give it a try, and if it's a massive no, then I'm not the coach for you.”
“I label clearly upfront when you're working with me. “I'm going to invite you to connect with stuff that you're going to think is weird. If you’re not used to it, can you be curious enough to give it a try, and if it's a massive no, then I'm not the coach for you.”
Oh and we take our shoes off as well and we walk barefoot a lot. [chuckles] I burn Palo Santo in office buildings and things like that, which again sounds a bit trite, but symbolically they're just ways to help people connect with themselves beyond the everyday.
I got sent a picture a while back from a team I work with, from their governance meeting with an essential oil aroma diffuser in the meeting room. Having a really dry governance conversation but with their aroma diffuser alongside! Little things like this just helps them feel more alive and when they feel like that then they can tell each other the truth, and that’s when the magic happens.
Yes exactly. Breaking the truth spell. What do you see some leaders doing that is making a difference in this space – i.e. bringing more humanity to their teams and their businesses?
Really great question. Feeling into some of the people I work with, the leaders who really get it can hold complexity at all ends of the spectrum and they can see the micro and the macro. They are able to see political-economical complexity, and, the pain that an individual is in because someone in their family has just died. They can see all of that and it's neither one in spite of the other, it’s both, and.
“They are able to see political-economical complexity, and the pain that an individual on their team is in because someone in their family has just died.”
They are equally comfortable, and I say "comfortable" because there's a lot of discomfort in this, but they are equally okay with having one big macro public conversation and then having the behind-closed-doors, quiet moment with somebody.
Some of these people are very "senior" in these organisations and industries and yet, they are able to touch individuals from the place of deep humanity and they can do that because they are doing their own personal work.
I can say that because I'm working with them, but they're sorting out their own shit, and clearing space inside themselves to not just deal with their own inner swirl but to be alongside other people in their swirl. Therefore they can deal with that in the rest of life as well.
I feel so grateful that many of these people, and there are increasing numbers of them, not enough still, but that increasing numbers of these people exist and that they're bold enough to stay in the environment that I wasn't able to stay in. That's not where I'm useful, I'm most useful outside, but some of them are in these environments and they're holding all the tensions that that brings but it's because that's where they're most useful. They’re brave and I think these people are pioneers in many ways because they are really going against the grain, because they're in conventional environments doing the unconventional stuff.
And how do you take care of yourself in order for you to be able to do this depth of work with others?
By doing my own work, and I know that you do it deeply as well, I'm definitely a believer that you can't take someone where you haven't been yourself. What I mean by that is working with my own coaches, therapists, paying people to do the stuff that I expect people to pay me to do. Sorting out my own shit and making space inside myself in that way, which is ongoing and then other practices that bring me back to me, empty me out because there's a lot of stuff in there and there's a lot of energy that we take in. A lot of things pass through people like us in the course of any given day.
I practice yoga. If I had my way I would be at the studio every day. Realistically I'm there maybe three or four times a week. It's white space, that’s what I call it - quiet time. I'm very creative so I get easily stimulated. I have to put myself in these white rooms metaphorically and literally, to allow my nervous system to just come back to itself.
“I have to put myself in these white rooms metaphorically and literally, to allow my nervous system to just come back to itself. “
I write, mainly under a pen-name ‘Musings of the Bluebird’. Mostly poetry, or poetic prose, short stories – about life and emotion and trauma and dreams and all sorts of weird and deep stuff! It’s channelled writing, which for me means it comes up through my body spontaneously, like it just needs to be birthed and I’m simply a vessel for it. None of it comes through my head. I don’t really know what any of it means, but it feels good and useful and touches me and others so I’m happy it’s part of my practice.
I love sleep, I think it's highly underrated as a healing therapy. And I find water very useful to me, it calms me down, soothes me so that could be things like salt baths or it could be walks to the river.
“I love sleep, I think it's highly underrated as a healing therapy.”
I have to really try to manage the tension between wanting to be out there in the world doing the work and knowing that in order to do that well, and properly and right, I need to sometimes not be out there doing the work. Because everything can feel quite big and enormous and exciting and complex. I have to just come back to me often to be able to deal with that.
And lots of tea. Just like you, lots of tea.
Meditation also. Yin yoga and meditation are probably the two practices that I would be very happy to say have changed my life because in many ways are the antithesis of who I am, fast and busy and focused on many things at once. They bring me back to a single point of focus and they keep my energy moving and flowing but gently. I practice Vedic meditation, a mantra-based meditation which really enables me to not be in my head. It sort of drops me down into that intelligence of the rest of my system.
I think there's this myth about balance being a destination. When in reality, certainly for me, it’s an ongoing practice of balancing the ongoing pendulum of who we are and what we do, right?
Yes, it’s a lovely metaphor. It's constant calibration and I can feel that inside my body as you're saying it, it's like, "Yes, okay.” And one for another day, but in trauma work, that's part of the movement towards wellness that has to happen. That left-right, left-right, left-right pendulation enables us to integrate and be in our middle. So, it's definitely an ongoing process for certain, but I'm really learning to stick with stuff rather than just have to add new stuff in as well. Because there's a real beauty for me in the depth of practice more than just the variety of practice.
Again, that's the balance part.