Workplace coaching from “What Not to Wear”

Tom Fox, in the Washington Post’s Federal Coach column, provides some advice for managers in the federal government who oversee younger workers.  Fox holds that “the best leaders recognize that potential talent is nurtured by developing expertise, executive skills and solid judgment, along with providing constant feedback and opportunities for personal growth.”

The advice may be obvious, but it’s also pertinent:

  • Connect the dots between now and the future.
    • Or, help the less-experienced worker see how current responsibilities fit into a larger picture that makes sense for that worker.
  • Encourage an apprenticeship mindset.
    • A real leader will know that the root of “apprentice” means “to learn,” not “to do all the scutwork.”
  • Reinforce lessons learned through constant feedback.
    • It’s true that learning can happen anytime.  You can increase the likelihood of its happening by helping your staff to reflect, reprocess, question, and re-express what they’ve been doing and the results that have followed.

All of which reminded me of the skillful approach to coaching that’s wrapped in the sometimes flashy, sometimes sly trappings of What Not to Wear.

If you haven’t seen this TLC program: in each episode, fashion consultants Stacy London and Clinton Kelly critique the clothing choices of someone whose family or friends nominated them for this, um, performance review.

As with many “reality” shows, WNTW has a certain OMG appeal.  Worldly folks like you and me would never dress as poorly or as blindly as the folks on the program, right?

I’ve watched many episodes (sometimes as an antidote after watching an especially grim movie).  Beneath the apparently lightweight notion of focusing so intensely on fashion, Stacy and Clinton pay a lot of attention to helping the individual focus productively on goals.

Stacy: We don’t want you to label yourself just as a mom.

Lori: But my daughter is my priority.

* * *

Lori: If you’re trying to change my distorted version of what I look like with form-fitted clothes, you’re not helping with these styles. Period.

Clinton:  You do not have a crazy distorted body, a weird body shape. You have your own body shape.

WNTW follows a set pattern.  I was thinking about this pattern as a model for helping inexperienced people start figuring out an area of complexity.  Sort of a well-dressed version of complex learning.

You can think of the nominated-by-friends aspect as just part of the randomness of the workplace.  We don’t always get to choose our learning opportunities.  Sometimes they show up dressed as crummy assignments, annoying coworkers, or the departure of a favorite boss.

Some of the standard elements in a What Not to Wear episode:

  • A 360 review, WNTW style.The individual models 3 of her own outfits and explains why she likes them–while surrounded by mirrors.

  • Clinton and Stacy create 3 new outfits that demonstrate fashion  rules suited to the individual.
  • The hosts ritually toss out most (or all) of the person’s old wardrobe.
  • The person goes shopping solo, armed with the new rules (and a $5,000 credit card from the program).
  • Invariably, Clinton and Stacy intervene to deal with poor choices from Day 1’s shopping, and to help with Day 2’s.
  • A hair stylist and makeup consultant try”reframing in their areas of expertise.
  • The individual returns home for a reveal with family and friends.

Whatever you think of fashion, you have to admire the way the gurus guide the individual into the (typically strange) word of style with mindfulness.

They’ll make outrageous comments about the old wardrobe, but they’re also respectful of the individual, her life, and her career.  I’ve seen them dealing with a professional witch (from Salem, Massachusetts, no less), an Episcopal priest, a dreadlocked “alternative model,” and a cancer survivor who’d had a double mastectomy.

Looking past the show’s structure, you find:

  • Rules of thumb (with the why).
    • If you’re small-statured, coats and blazers that fall just above the hip are an ideal length; otherwise, you run the risk of a longer coat length distorting your proportions.
  • New approaches gives as experience shared.
    • Don’t despair if the first four or five pairs of pants you try on don’t fit the way you want them to – sometimes you have to kiss a lot of jeans frogs before you find your denim prince.
  • Simplified cognitive maps (the mannequin outfits and the rules they exemplify).
  • Opportunity to apply basic rules
  • Feedback on that application in a collaborative setting

From time to time, WNTW does a “where are they now?” show, reconnecting with people who’ve been on the show.  I suspect these are less interesting to the show’s audience (or there’d be more 6-months-later episode).

I’m sure it’s tough for the individuals to maintain or even heighten their new style awareness when in their old settings.  The answer, though, isn’t requiring Stacy and Clinton Refresher Training.  Instead of a single answer, I’d say there are many possible ways for the person to adapt to real life, continue strengthening newfound skills, and to avoid falling back into stretchy sweats and rock-concert T shirts.

In terms of your professional development, is that your standard outfit?  I don’t mean on your body, necessarily.  How are you dressing your mindset?

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