Executive Coach

On marking time and having the courage to change course

Last night I was fortunate to go to see Ruthie Henshall, Queen of musical theatre in the West End and on Broadway.   You may well have seen her performing in Miss Saigon, Cats, Les Miserables, Crazy for You, Chicago or any one of the hundreds of West End productions she has been involved with over the past 25 years.

Before me was a woman I have seen in many guises appearing in an ‘Intimate Evening’ at The Stables in Woburn Sands (and if you have never been to this fantastic musical venue put it on your bucket list of things to do).

The leading lady of musical theatre

The leading lady of musical theatre

Ruthie has an amazing voice, a huge range and she can certainly give it some welly! And yet here she was in a cosy 400 seat intimate venue, almost physically able to touch her audience.

It got me thinking. As a mentor I often see people who are at that point in their career when the moment has come to change direction either because their dreams change or the context changes and they don’t like where they are any longer.

Ruthie is in a heartless profession. She has had fantastic roles that have stretched her and challenged her to develop her talents to their fullest potential but the parts must be running out. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for a mature woman to sing and dance in front of an audience, perhaps, to coin a theatrical phrase, ‘stepping out’ from the framework of the show is the only way to go.

It can’t be an easy decision though: up until now you have been given the parts to play, given the material; you have a director, a choreographer, costumes, wigs, an ensemble on stage and an entourage behind the scenes. And every night you give it your all to 1000+ people who adore you.

Then something happens – a contract comes to an end and there is nothing on the horizon; a performance suddenly lacks that je ne sais quoi; maybe you dry on stage or perhaps there are creative differences; ultimately you realise things are changing around you, all is not as it was, but have you got what it takes to change too?  I don’t know whether Ruthie has taken on this tour as a route into a new phase of her career.  If she has, I take my hat off to her for having a go – she has the courage to try something out.

Maggie Smith as Desdemona in 1965

Maggie Smith as Desdemona in 1965

I know what this is like and perhaps you do too. One minute I was a bright young thing making fast progress, learning everything, doing everything….like Maggie Smith’s wide-eyed Desdemona spirited and idealistic, then suddenly I was a wise old owl, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham,  the go-to person for no-nonsense advice, the person who would know how to handle an awkward or tough situation. Goodness knows how and when the transition happens but it does. And so the hair starts to grey and the figure is not quite as sylph-like as it used to be…..

When people ask me how and when they should change tack, I always counsel taking control of the tiller – do it in your own time and on your own terms, steer your own course. In my capacity as a critical friend I would say – make sure you still have options open. Test the water and find something that will excite the ‘mature’ you as much as your original career used to thrill the teenager in you.

But it’s hard.  Changing course is hard – not only do you need to work out where you want to go but also, how you are going to get there. Hopefully your nearest and dearest will support you and navigate for you, but don’t count on it.  If they lack the imagination to get behind you, you will need to find someone to observe your progress and encourage you in your pursuit of a new direction.

Being a Critical Friend gives me enormous satisfaction  – I can observe and encourage and remain totally objective. My job is to listen, to unravel the thinking from the emotions; to help identify options based on experience and passion; to help deliver a new sense of direction; and then to accompany my clients as they execute their new plan. It means they are never alone; never floundering and never frightened because there is always someone there to share their experience.

Maggie Smith as Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey

Maggie Smith as Lady Crawley in Downton Abbey

I don’t actually know whether the 46 year old Ruthie Henshall is going through anything like this or whether Maggie Smith has found her way as a ‘mature’ woman, but having spent my whole life watching and analysing, I would like to be so bold as to make one observation.  Last night Ruthie Henshall tried something new in a different performance space with an educated audience – I wonder how it felt? If Ruthie were to answer “great” I would question that answer.  What I saw was a wonderful woman who was performing beautifully but who seemed uncomfortable. I suspect that this change of direction might not be quite right.  I would urge Ruthie to think through what feels good and hone it until she is absolutely sure it is the right way to go.

If you are reading this blog post and suspect the moment has come for you to re-invent yourself – here is my advice – find a mentor; find a guide who can help you explore the wider world and seek out the exciting next stage, find a critical friend, or perhaps, if I may make a suggestion, find me.  Grey and unsylph-like I may have become, but I do know exactly where I am going and I can show you the way too.

Elizabeth Toogood - Your Critical Friend


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On people watching, authors, clients and tapestry

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

We all know the feeling – back-from-holiday blues; I am no better at re-entry than anyone else and find it particularly difficult when the return is from a literary festival like Cheltenham where there are no responsibilities, no chores and I give myself permission to rise above everyday life and just enjoy! I love the intellectual buzz; people discussing and arguing with strangers; everyone talking and sharing a snapshot of their lives and interests; some celebrity spotting – a people watcher’s paradise!

Spending an hour hearing about a speaker’s latest enthusiasm is like being with an over-excited child; everything celebrates the individual’s most recent enterprise. This is great, and as we are conscious of the layers we don’t feel exploited; we know the rules of the game.  Literary agents want exposure for the product and a boost to sales, authors want respite from the loneliness of their creative process by meeting their audience and, on the whole, they relish the attention and love to be reminded they have adoring fans.

As a Critical Friend, my day job is about the validation of someone’s thinking through talking, exploration and questioning.  It is about focus and engagement through understanding a project and, through affirmation, comes the confidence to consider the next stage. There are many similarities with Cheltenham but in my work I see the world not through authors’ eyes but through my clients’; I see the glories which they sometimes miss; and I see the risks over which they often stumble. Together we reach a balanced view of the future and piece together the panels of the rich tapestry of life with new determination and enthusiasm.

At the festival – authors, however uncertain, were reassured, affirmed and publicly celebrated; how could they not feel a thrill when people were paying £20 a time for a copy of their masterpiece and queuing for a signature and a chance to say hello. In return, the likes of Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson, Edward Stourton, Alan Johnson and John Bishop inspired us – for me personally, they did that thing my clients do – they laid something new before me and opened a door I had not yet been through. I love that.

More unexpectedly, but just as importantly, metaphorical doors were opened by the retired teacher I met who loves science, the delightful couple who shared the story of their extraordinary charitable work, the enthusiastic waiter who talked about the fun he had in his fourteen hour shift – an eclectic, dare I say ‘random’ bunch of people, who drifted fascinatingly in and out of my revitalising short break in Cheltenham Spa.

And the pièce de résistance if you like – the unexpected bonus curve ball – the non sequitur that took me quite by surprise – was seeing The Great Tapestry of Scotland. I had read about this fantastic community project but had not given it much thought. As I arrived in Cheltenham, ‘The Cultural Centre of the Cotswolds’, I was greeted by a selection of panels lining the Town Hall corridor for all to see – breathtaking! And then I met a stitcher……but that’s another blog post.

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