Ruth Ann Harnisch on the Value of Coaching
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Ruth Ann Harnisch is an activist, a philanthropist and a movie producer and has recently been described as the “punk rock fairy godmother of feminism.” An IAC Master Certified professional coach, she currently splits her time between her pro bono practice and her work with the Harnisch Foundation.
Listen to this interview, where we dive into:
- The financial complication of the coaching-client relationship.
- The importance of listening and being fully present.
- Why you need to believe people from the very beginning.
- Ruth Ann’s favourite coaching question.
Connect with Ruth Ann Harnisch on Twitter:
These people and programs are also mentioned in the podcast:
- Renee Freedman
- The TED Fellows Program
- The Harnisch Foundation
- The Harnisch Funny Girls
- Barbara Mark
Michael: I’m Michael Bungay Stanier. You’re listening to The Coaching Habit podcast where I get to talk to writers, thinkers, movers, shakers, sometimes even coaches to just talk about coaching is, how coaching has influenced and affected people’s lives, how they show up to be more coach-like with the people with whom they work.
And today I get to talk with actually one of my role models, a mentor and a long-term friend of mine in the coaching world Ruth Ann Harnisch. And when I do these interviews I ask people to send me their bio, and Ruth Ann sent me hers and I’m like, “Holy cow. I could spend the whole interview just talking about Ruth Ann’s bio.”
As she says at the start she is a multi-hyphener. So, she is an activist, a philanthropist, an author, a journalist. She is a coach as well. She is a founder of various institutions. She’s an executive producer of movies. She really has a great deal of influence. And I know her as one of the great champions for coaching.
She comes to coaching in part as a philanthropist and has been a great supporter and founder of things like The TED Fellows Coaching Program, which is known and supported … Which I was lucky enough to be a part of for a while. She funds a coaching program with the Sundance Institute of Women at the Sundance Fellows Initiative. And she is a founding father of the Institute of Coaching at the Harvard Medical School McLean Hospital.
She is an active coach herself. She runs a pro bono coaching practice and has served on the board of the ICF, the International Coaching Federation, and the IAC as well. She also plays her role, as an active philanthropist as part of the Harnisch Foundation, and was in fact, named one of Inside Philanthropy’s 50 Most Powerful Women in the US, as well as being a contributing author to 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women.
There is actually more, but I am going to call it at that because I want to actually talk to Ruth Ann, not just talk about Ruth Ann. So Ruth Ann, welcome. It’s so nice to have you here.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Such a delight to be with you. And I want to thank you for all the years that you gave of your time and your talent and expertise to those amazing – talk about multi-hyphenates – known as the TED Fellows. It’s different coaching people of extraordinary ability isn’t it?
Michael: And it was so interesting because these are people recognized as TED Fellows, so recognized as having potential to really change the world. And Ruth Ann and Renee Freedman as the founders of this, would create a weekend where these people would show up and these TED Fellows would be both brilliant and exhausted because they were overwhelmed by the enormity of their idea. Ruth Ann and Renee brought supporters and facilitators and subject matter experts in to give these fellows a boost to get them closer to having the impact in the world that they were seeking. They were wonderful events.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Those were life-changing events for so many people, coaches included because one of the things is we don’t talk about is that we as coaches are often transformed by the experience of working with extraordinary people.
Michael: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Honestly, I think the prevailing sentiment of these TED Fellow events was, “I have no idea why I am here, and I have no idea how I can help these young talented people.” But I think all the coaches grew and learned from that.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Well the program itself was such an important part of amplifying the Fellows experience. Renee Freedman volunteered to get a cadre. She had over a hundred people on her roster of professional coaches with a minimum of seven years experience coaching high quality people so that they were not working in simple problems, but major complex problems. And all these people selflessly volunteered. Every fellow had the opportunity to have a personal coach, and for at least their fellowship year. Then, for some years afterward because Renee was able to make these matches.
For anyone who is considering adding coaching to anything you are doing, if you’ve heard of the TED Conferences, you know they are a big deal thing. When the TED Fellows were asked, “What’s been most important to you to have the TED Fellowship?” The thing that they said most often was either being at the conference itself or being coached. And for many coaching was their number one benefit. So whatever it is, your business or organization or any group might be up to. Consider adding a coaching component to maximize the effectiveness of whatever it is you are doing.
Michael: I’m gonna ask you a little bit more about that. Because I’m curious. You’ve seen a lot of water under the bridge in the world of coaching. And I’m just curious as you think about the impact you see these coaches having, what lessons have you learned around deploying coaches, so that they can have the impact that they are hungry for? Because I’ve certainly seen attempting to deploy coaches and it’s a bit of an anti-climax. The TED Fellows thing obviously a big success. So, curious to know what you learned about what makes it work.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Well, Michael, so many coaches I have met are in the unfortunate position of needing to sell their services as much as they need to deliver them. And often times, the financial complication of the relationship, is what I see as the obstacle. One of the reason my coaching is so satisfying to me, and I think received so well by others is there’s no financial transaction involved because I’m blessed not to have to work for the money.
And the people who have been participating in the TED Fellows and the Sundance Fellows are people who are enough along in their life that this is their gift to the world. So, by removing the financial incentive, the how can I get more business out of this? By how can I make this my gift? I think that transforms the quality of the coaching relationship, and I do believe that research has shown that the quality of the coaching relationship is key to how the coaching is received and implemented.
Michael: That’s really interesting because the alternative argument where you could go, people only value what they pay for. So, I certainly understand what you are saying from the coaches side of view which is that need to go, “I’ve got to find the client because I need the money”, can complicate and diminish the relationship somewhat perhaps. But there’s also that piece on the other side, which is like, do people really appreciate this if they are getting something that’s being given away than having some of their skin in the game?
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Let me agree with you. There are different strokes for different folks. Some clients and this may be people who can pay anything and people who cannot afford to pay anything. Some clients only value things that have a dollar figure attached to them. That’s their value system. If it doesn’t have what we call money, which is a-
Michael: A whole other topic when this is over.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Let’s do that sometime. But the thing we call money is what they want. Not the thing we call value. They want the thing we call money. And so if anyone is giving them a service of any kind and not charging money, such a person will say, well, that can’t be worth anything. But there are others who are value-oriented. Not dollar or pound or shilling oriented who will look at the gift for what it is, and their gratitude will pour over the coach because they recognize. Or whoever is giving them or doing a service pro bono.
When I first came to know coaching, Michael, it was through an organization that dealt with the top five percent of wealth holders. When the idea of coaching was very, very new. Most people had not heard of it. Wealthy people are – I don’t want to paint them with a broad brush – but most of the wealthy people I have known are accustomed to being regarded as a wallet, as a source of money. They are not seen as themselves as humans as much they are seen as a net worth of giving me some.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: So, when we brought a coaching program to this non-profit, one of the key things that we had to watch for was coaches who were value oriented and not dollar oriented. Who understood that even though a financial transaction was happening that this was extremely weighted and emotional for a lot of people with money. It’s like you’re not really wanting to help me. You don’t really believe those things you’re saying because you are taking my money.
So, in that case, the value proposition, the pro bono coach for the wealthy person is perhaps more appreciated than the one who costs a reasonable fee.
Michael: So interesting. I mean, it’s just another conversation that could go on for hours around just how money complicates stuff.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: It does. If I could take one little moment for my public service announcement, if you are intrigued by the conversation, write your money story. Write your money autobiography. Who taught you about money? How did they use money? What did you see that didn’t match the words? What are several of the cross roads experiences in your life that had to do with money? Has money ever been traumatic? What does money mean to you? I could go on again, this could be another whole show. But telling yourself your true story about how you came to think about money, the way you think about money will be a revelation to you, I promise.
Michael: It is interesting. Yeah, that is great. That’s all a big take away already. So, thank you so much Ruth Ann. I want to kind of focus building on the TED Fellows piece, and knowing that they are doing great work in the world. Work that has meaning, work that has impact. And knowing that you’ve, from what little I know about you and your career from having had the pleasure of hanging out in some ways with you for 10 or 15 years. You’ve done a lot and had impacts in all sorts of different ways, but I am curious to know what you are up to these days.
When you think about this idea of great work, work with more impact, work with more meaning? What’s got your attention these days?
Ruth Ann Harnisch: You have asked me on the very day that we are launching more of our projects into the world. The Harnisch Foundation has created a curriculum for girls eight to 13 called Funny Girls. It teaches leadership skills through improv. We have five core leadership skills that we convey through trained professional teachers. Some of them are improv themselves, and some are youth workers who have picked up improv skills through our training. But kids get a chance to learn how to be fully themselves, coming to their full voice, learn to work well with others, learn to be in touch with their emotions and therefore in touch with the emotions of others.
So many different ways that we can teach our young girls not to lose sight of the leadership within. That they can become leaders of themselves first, and then help to lead others into the future. We’re very excited about it. And we’re all over the web right now. If you Google Harnisch H-A-R-N-I-S-C-H and Funny Girls, you’ll find a video, and maybe you’ll find some more news about what we are doing because we are releasing a little something every few days now.
Michael: I love that.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Another thing I’m up to is I’m producing movies. I have several movies in theaters right now and a couple out on iTunes. One I think would be really interesting for people who listen to your podcast is the documentary “Unrest”, U-N-R-E-S-T. It’s funny. I didn’t think about this when I started on this with you, but it was produced and directed and stars a TED Fellow.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Jennifer Brea was a Harvard PhD when one day, she could not sign her name on a check. And within a couple of days, she was almost paralyzed, could not move. Doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her, and wouldn’t believe her because sometimes she was fine to go in to the doctor’s office. She started videoing herself when she was at her worst. To prove to doctors, “Look, I can’t even move sometimes.” And it became what is five years later a theatrically released documentary called Unrest. And it turns out she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, which is commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, and dramatically misunderstood.
And she, via Skype, just as you and I are talking today interviewed others around the world who are having the same, “I’m in bed, and I can’t get up experiences”. And how governments in other places deal with this differently. In the US, so many people go undiagnosed because they’re not believable. And why aren’t they believable? They are female. Eighty-five percent of the people who get this are female.
Michael: Women, right.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Therefore, hard for a doctor to believe that it’s not just all in her head.
Michael: Right, right.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: And so, listening to people and hearing what they are saying and being with them fully present with them is a key to this film. That I think coaches and others can take away and for anyone contemplating marriage or a long term relationship. This is also the story of what happens if you are asked to live up to your promises? What if in sickness and in health means really, really bad sickness fast right after we’re married?
Michael: Yeah, powerful stuff. You know, Ruth Ann, both of these great projects you are talking about at the moment have a strong root in feminism in a way of supporting women’s work. I know that on the internet you are actually sometimes called the Punk Rock Fairy Godmother of Feminism, which is an awesome title. I’m wondering was there a kind of crossroads moment for you in the past where this commitment to feminism in its different forms really became a moment for you? You know like one of those moments where, “Do I go this way? Do I go that way?” And it kind of made the difference?
Ruth Ann Harnisch: I think almost any, I’m going to say American, but from what I’m seeing on the web with the #Metoo hashtags in the past few days I’m going to say this is generally a universal experience. Growing up female. You can’t…
Michael: You can’t. It’s a crossroads moment. Yeah. Right.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: From the first time they tell you you can’t because you’re a girl. And they tell you that all the time. They still tell you that. And if you look at for example, another project I’m involved in is reflective democracy. If you look at who gets elected to office, it’s predominantly white people. It’s predominantly male people, and this does not accurately reflect the population. It cannot possibly accurately represent that population in policy making. It’s just not possible. It’s just not possible.
I believe in the yes, you can have eight blue eyed blonde men and have a lot of diversity within that group. I believe that. But I really don’t believe you can represent people of color or female people or gender non-binary people in the same way you could if you actually included those people.
Michael: This is kind of related, but every time I walk onto an airplane and I walk through business class, and I’m like, there’s a lot of old white dudes here. It’s like there’s got to be something going on here where there’s such a over-representation of white men in position of power in politics and beyond.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: You know when I first met you Michael, I wondered what it was like for you not being exactly like everyone else, by that I mean, Canadian of course. No. But I also, the first time I met you in person, said, “Well, he’s also tall, handsome, smart and charming. So he probably doesn’t experience life the same way others might had they shared some of his circumstances.”
Michael: And not to say it. But straight and well-educated. So, I’ve got a bunch of things that absolutely put me in a position where like if I’m not succeeding in the system, what the hell’s going on here? Because I’ve had all the cards dealt to me quite frankly. So, yeah, it’s an interesting position where you reflect on the privilege that you have. And you go, “How do I manage my position of privilege to allow others to flourish?”
Ruth Ann Harnisch: And that’s where I am now because I started out poor, scrappy, and female and white and feeling terribly discriminated against because I was. But now that I’m old, and that I’m still white, still female-
Michael: Still scrappy.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: …Still scrappy, but I have to remember, I’m now in a hugely privileged position because I have had some of the advantages you’ve mentioned. I’m not a college graduate, but I am educated.
I have had the privilege of great teaching. I have financial resources that were unimaginable to me at an earlier time in my life. I was bankrupt once, so, I mean, having anything is pretty great. To have extra is remarkable. So, at this point, in my life, I’m trying to drop the mic and pass it to women of color, other people of color, non-binary people, and younger people.
Because I recognize how much privilege I have, and I might have said to you when you invited me kindly to be your guest, “Maybe there’s somebody else who doesn’t have quite as much privilege who needs this spot, but you know, I have faith that you’re going to get to that person too.” And I love you, so I wanted to talk to you.
Michael: Thank you. Thank you. And I’m quite conscious of wanting to create a podcast which, guest list which reflects the world, rather than reflects my many lovely white male friends. Who are all interesting, but they’re – to your point of view – they may, there’s diversity within that, but there’s not as much diversity as there is in the world.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: And we love the world. Some people want to reject what’s different, but I think the coaching profession and being in the habit – this is The Coaching Habit – being in the habit of having a coach-like attitude towards those you meet, which is “There is greatness in you. There is so much in you, you don’t even see in yourself that I am going to see in you and reflect back to you with positivity.” You know, that’s how I try to approach the world as many will tell you I fail constantly. But I don’t want to send away those people with whom I have differences. I want the greatness in all of us to make this inclusive, diverse world all that it can and should be for all of us.
Michael: Ruth Ann, one of the things that I know about great coaches is that they do their own work. They self-reflect. They have a degree of self-awareness, self-wisdom. This conversation around diversity is one reflection of that. But I’m curious for you, as you think back on the path you’ve walked, what’s a hard lesson that you’ve had to learn or maybe you have to keep … I mean, I don’t know about you, but I just keep learning the same damn lesson over and over and over again. I’m like, “Come on Michael, have you not figured this out yet?”
But I’m wondering is there a hard lesson that you’ve continued to have to learn?
Ruth Ann Harnisch: You know, I’ve never thought what could my book be, but that could be a whole book. Stuff I have to learn over and over and over and over. One that I learned that I don’t have to learn over and over is the way I grew up, the times in which I grew up favored the iconoclast that rugged individualist that she made it herself. The self-made man. The one great human theory. It’s my idea. I learned if your idea doesn’t have friends, it’s not a very good idea.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: And if you’re the only person who’s really caring about something or demanding to the spokesperson for it or to own it, what happens if you get hit by the proverbial bus? Your idea goes too. And so many of my coaching clients, have this same, “I’ve got to do this myself attitude, or “I dare not ask for help.”
Michael: Right, the Superman Syndrome.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Or if “I don’t do it myself, I’m a loser, or I’m weak. Or it’s not really my idea then.” Well, guess what? It’s not really your idea anyway. You got that idea from somewhere. But it didn’t come just from you. It’s a product of everything in your life that produced that idea. Your idea will not come to life alone either. It will be the product of all of its friends and all of the infrastructure and ecosystems that will exist to bring it into being.
Michael: I love that. You know, I think I say in the great work book, “If you’re doing great work by yourself, you’re probably not actually doing great work.” But I like how you said that better.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Here’s another one.
Michael: No go for it.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Here’s another one that I don’t have to learn over and over again. When people tell you who they are believe them. It’s the Maya Angelou. She says believe them the first time. And these are lessons, both of the ones that I just told you, are things I had to learn over and over and over until now I go, “Oh, you are telling me who you are. Right away you are telling me who you are. I need to believe you.”
Michael: And why is that? What is the benefit of believing somebody right away when they tell you who they are?
Ruth Ann Harnisch: Because we make people up in our heads. We invent them to suit the picture we have of them. I watch other people do this all the time. “Why he’s so good looking, what would make him rob a bank?”
Michael: Right. People have asked that question of me many times.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: But you get it. People have a projections of what you should be or could be or ought to be based on their perception of you. But sometimes, the sweetest person is telling you in subtle ways, “I’m only sweet because I want something from you. Watch me.” There are so many ways that people will tell you. So, it’s to your benefit to, at least it’s my opinion, it’s to your benefit to be living in the real world so that you do not lose money, emotion, time to people who are saying words, but telling you who they are in ever so many other ways.
Michael: That’s a key lesson for me. What you’re asking people to do is see who’s standing in front of you and listen with all of your senses as to who’s actually showing up because that’s probably the truth.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: So, another thing I’ve had to learn over and over and clearly haven’t learned very well is don’t interrupt. I’m not kidding. That’s hard for me. Because as a former television and radio host, it’s your job to keep it moving.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: And sometimes you have to interrupt the person to get to the commercial or because that has gone on too long. I’m afraid that that habit has carried through my lifetime. It is inappropriate and rude and I apologize.
Michael: Well, I didn’t feel interrupted if you’re apologizing to me. But allow me to move us on to the final question that I wanted to ask you in this interview, which is this, you know you’re vastly experienced coach. You’ve worked with all sorts of people. You have a great array of coaching tools and models and processes at your fingertips, but is there a favorite process or tool or model that you have one that you kind of come back to or you just lean in to it because it works so well so often? It has the impact you’re looking for? What’s a favorite coaching approach or tool for you?
Ruth Ann Harnisch: To ask at the beginning of the call, what is your hoped for outcome? So that I know right away what they are expecting to… And I may expand by saying, “What do you hope to say is true at the end of this conversation that is not true right now?”
Michael: I love that question.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: I got that from another coach. I got both of those from two other coaches, and I think I know who they are, but I hate to credit the wrong coaches. So, I will send you in the coaching notes later. And there is another, there’s a coaching question I love because you can always use it which is, “Why are you telling me this now?” And you emphasize a different word depending on the… Why are you telling me this now? Why are you telling me this now? Why are you telling me this now? Why are you telling me this now? Why are you telling me this now? Why are you telling me this now?
Every one of those is a different question.
Michael: I love that. That’s such a great insight. There’s two levels of learning. One is that particular question. But one is to hear that any question probably has five versions of that question within it depending on where you put the emphasis.
Ruth Ann Harnisch: I’m just going to put out there that Barbara Mark and Renee Freedman taught me those things. I hope it works.
Michael: We’ll give them the credit. And if you feel you should get the credit, call us at our toll free number 1-800-MICHAELCOACHES. And you can correct me around that. Ruth Ann, this has been a wonderful conversation. For people who want to find out more about the range and interesting cool projects you’re doing at the Harnisch Foundation and beyond. Where should they look?
Ruth Ann Harnisch: We are online at the HF for Harnisch Foundation, thehf.org. I on Twitter, Ruth Ann Harnisch. The Harnisch Foundation is there too. Instagram and Facebook. I’m everywhere. I’m everywhere. And I am so grateful for your service to coaching and your fine work with clients. I love your books. I buy them in mass quantities and I hand them out to people all the time.
Michael: Thank you Ruth Ann. This has been lovely. Thanks very much.