This coaching life

This week we are going to Shirley Williams’ memorial service in Westminster. Shirley was my first boss and the best communicator I ever met. I now work as an executive coach; I have a psychodynamic background and a particular interest in communications. Through the decades since I worked for Shirley, I have waded through a weight of management theory about leadership communication, presence and charisma; much of it twaddle. Shirl – the Pearl – was the Real Deal. So what made her such a brilliant communicator?

Self confidence, for starters. The daughter of Vera Brittain and George Catlin, she began life being adored. In her own words: “My father gave me the single greatest gift with which a child can be endowed: self-confidence.” Through whatever alchemy, that gift translated into one of the Holy Grails of leadership communication today: authenticity. (30, 614 Amazon book titles include the word.) Although a politician to her core, Shirley seemed unlike other politicians – exactly the same in private as in public.

Crucially, the thing that made her an outstanding communicator was being an outstanding listener. Listening is Chapter 1 of Comms 101. But what was interesting about Shirley is that she listened because she actually wanted to know what you think. Her body language was frequently chin down, suggesting – not entirely accurately – humility. Pushing the chin down rounds the throat and helps the voice to stay deep. It also signalled – accurately – that she was interested in your question, and she frequently reflected the question back, acknowledging and validating you as a listener. 

All of this adds up to the kind of empathy that leaders today would give their right arm for. Simon Baron Cohen’s sixty-item Empathy Quotient (EQ) questionnaire is the gold standard diagnostic for empathy. It’s well worth a look. Yet, while some aspects of empathy are inherent, some of the behaviours that contribute to Shirley’s famed empathy – acknowledging the question, complimenting the questioner, making eye contact – are eminently coachable. 

That distinctive voice, however, is harder to emulate. Shirley started political campaigning when she was in her teens, and she never had any voice coaching. When she was young she wanted to be an opera singer. Joining the Colchester Messiah Choir later in life, she was told she was a tenor and hence not eligible to join. In fact, she had a warm contralto, almost masculine, voice, similar to Kathleen Ferrier’s. The voice was naturally low and she used her body in a way that allowed the sound to resonate. The sonority of Shirley’s voice gave her authority, whilst still remaining credibly female – unlike Margaret Thatcher who sometimes forced her voice so far down that she could sound like Danny la Rue.

And Shirley made complicated stuff make sense – another Gold Standard for communicators. Schlepping round the country on the SDP Battle Bus, I lost count of the number of people we met in cold church halls and drafty libraries who told me: “I heard Shirley Williams talking about this new party, the SDP, that they’re setting up. I’ve never been involved in politics but I said to my husband: write down that telephone number, we’re going to join.”

Shirley’s body language tended – at odds with daffy, always late, poorly coiffed, image – to be very still, very focused. She clarified understanding by nodding her head. Her eyebrows almost asked questions as she went along. Although she tended to speak in long sentences, she also breathed well enough to allow the words to carry, without appearing to take a breath. As a result, there were few distractions from the content of what she was saying.

These are style points. Yet it’s also hugely important to remember the content. Shirley was a brilliant communicator partly because she had a brain the size of a planet, the stamina of a cart horse (the morning after she lost Crosby, we got up at 6.00 am and climbed Helvellyn) and the work ethic of the ancients. During the time I worked with her, Shirley wrote her second book, A Job to Live. I still have some of the research papers. The titles alone: The Small Business Share of Job Creation; Lessons Learned from the Use of a Longitudinal File make me want to have a bit of a lie down. But Shirley routinely worked through piles of highly academic treatises in writing her own books, papers and articles. (Jenny Murray’s interview with Shirley and Mary Warnock at the South Bank reveals that shared Somerville style where you can see two people vibrating at a slightly higher intellectual frequency than the rest of us). Shirley assumed a high level of intelligence in her audience, but she drew on her academic work, distilled its essence, and used very simple, classless, language to paint a picture that brought the audience along with her. 

Yet maybe the key thing is that Shirley saw life as an adventure.  Working for Shirley was my second job. My first was as Headmistress of the Moravian Mission School in Leh, Ladakh on the Tibetan border. I am sure that it was this that persuaded Shirley to take me on. A sense of adventure was central to her personal narrative about her life. Writing in her autobiography about how she narrowly escaped being raped in the ship, the Serpa Pinto, that brought her back from the States in 1943, she says she felt the need prove herself by doing whatever frightened her, and that drive remained throughout her life. One of my favourite Shirley stories is of missing the tour bus that was carrying Henry Kissinger and other luminaries from the Corcovado back to a Johnsons Wax conference in Rio in 1984. Night was falling. Shirley was equipped with details about homicide rate by handguns for the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro (doubled from 20.5 per 100,000 in 1982, to 41.3/100,000 in 1983). But no cash, folding or otherwise. A search of our handbags yielded a pad of Basildon Bond, three biros and half a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer. No taxis anyway. We walked the three miles through dimly lit favelas back to our swanky hotel singing “I’ll sing you one oh, green grow the rushes oh” and talking about the veritable Who’s Who of Heartbreak of Shirley’s romantic life (Roger Bannister, Peter Parker, Bernard Williams, Anthony King and others). And we laughed a lot.

And here’s perhaps the most important lesson. The very thing that made Shirley so engaging, the view that There’s More to Life than Politics, was probably the very thing that stopped her from getting to the very top job in politics. But that determination not to die an un-lived life; to squeeze life until the pips squeak; to have stories to tell – that’s what made Shirley Williams such a great communicator. The world is massively poorer for her dying. But it was hugely better, more vibrant, more colourful, more fun, for her living. May she rest in peace, and rise in glory. 

Jane Maitland is an executive coach, writer and facilitator. She is currently completing Politics; a Love Story, a not too serious account of working with Shirley Williams.