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Alpamayo Coaching on Tour: Catching up with Alex Davis about her journey into chemistry, engineering and materials.

The next stop on Alpamayo Coaching on Tour was with Alex Davis, meeting in person at University of Southampton Science Park in Chilworth.  This has been Alex’s professional home for more than 10 years now.  Throughout that time she has worked at Merck Group as a Research and Development Scientist in a number of different areas.  The Science Park is known territory for me too as I spent two and a half years leading a change programme in one of the NIHR centres hosted there.  In fact Alex and I had a couple of chats while we were both there.  The last of these was more than 5 years ago so there was much to talk about in terms of sharing recent experiences.  We also took a trip down memory lane too, back to 2005 when we first met in the School of Chemistry, a few miles down the road on the University’s Highfield campus.  We covered all sorts of ground in our brilliant conversation during which I experienced once again just how good a storyteller Alex is.  I am also noticing how much I am finding out about myself in my Alpamayo Coaching on Tour conversations.  I am finding myself in the presence of talented people who, whether they know it or not, are rather good coaches...


Having got ourselves some coffee to fuel our conversation we found a seat in Fusion, one of the cafes on the Science Park.  There was a fraction of a second when we both probably wondered where to start.  My opening gambit was ‘so which building are you based in now Alex?’  From that one question came an answer that wove together all parts of life, in just a matter of minutes.  Alex’s storytelling brought to mind the image of an old-fashioned weaving loom with the shuttle passing the weft through the warp to create a fabric, which in this case was the story unfolding as Alex talked.

She pointed out where she worked and how she had moved there when Merck had downsized from a much larger site slightly further up the road.  Their original building, now owned by the NHS, has an empty plot of land between it and the nursery located at the entrance of the Science Park.  Alex talked about the plans that the Science Park have to build on this site as part of its future growth plan.  At the same time she is foreseeing the disastrous consequences of the building works on parking at the nursery where she drops off her the younger of her two children every day.  With her typical good humour she says ‘it will make it even harder to park my little car among all the 4-wheel drives dropping off and picking up their children!’  For those not familiar with the area the science park is on the edge of Chilworth, one of the particularly wealthy areas around Southampton.

Right on cue Alex gets a call from the nursery to tell her that one of her children had taken a knock to his head.  No damage, yet they were duty bound to report.  Although this was all in a day’s parenting to Alex this was new territory for me, so she explained the level of reporting that is required of the nursery to the parent in the event of any impact to a child’s head.  Not only that, she talked about the paperwork that had to be completed if a child was injured outside of the nursery.  I mean, wow, great to know this vigilance is in place in relation to children but it did sound complicated.  Maybe you need a 4-wheel drive to carry a filing cabinet for all the paperwork?! 

The extraordinary story of her youngest boy’s accident involving a toothbrush was woven into the tale as an exemplar of an incident outside of nursery that required reporting to them, in triplicate.  This had been a horrible experience for Alex and her husband at the time, yet told with energy and that typical self-deprecating Alex humour, poking a bit of fun at herself being a trait that I remember well.

Speaking of remembering we both recalled some memories from the early years of Alex’s time at the University to Southampton.  She was an Oxbridge candidate and recalls not being at ease with being shown around various Colleges in Oxford, and being told where you could and could not go as a student.  (With typical self deprecating humour she is candid in remembering ‘dismally failing the interviews’ too.  I wonder if this was at least a bit of cause and effect in operation).  In contrast Alex has a vivid memory of the day she visited the Chemistry Department in Southampton, particularly being shown the coffee room.  There she saw academics and students together and felt at ease with what she called the ‘harmonious environment’.  It’s a characteristic she has sought, and seeks to create, in the professional relationships and environments she has encountered ever since. 

Here are Alex and I pulling a right pair of cheesy grins! Picture composition lacking quality too in cutting off some of the words that show our location to be the University of Southampton Science Park.

I remember Alex as being an observer.  When she was listening to you it was clear you were being listened to.  When she observed, you felt observed, meaning her’s was an intentional, active form of observation.  When invited she was an energetic, freestyle communicator.  I might be retrofitting this characteristic yet I do remember being on the end of her slightly arched eyebrow look which appeared to pose a question like ‘really?’ in relation to what had just been said.  It might just as much have been saying ‘no kidding!’ There was no sense of arrogance behind this look despite if giving the impression she her thinking was little ahead of yours. 

Despite being comfortable observing Alex was a great contributor in situations where she was required to communicate.  I remember her helping out with outreach activities for school children and with visit days for prospective students.  One time I asked Alex and Michael Booth, one of her contemporaries, to come with me and my wife to the University of Birmingham to talk to 1000s of prospective students coming to an open day attended by most universities offering chemistry in the UK.  We had ample opportunity to talk as we got stuck on the M40 or M42 for hours.  It was testament to our collective interpersonal skills what might have been rather a tedious experience turned out to be enjoyable, and memorable as a consequence.

Later on in her degree Alex was looking for a placement position in a chemical company and I encouraged her to think about going to the Netherlands.  To start with she was determined to stay in the UK but eventually decided to take up the challenge of a placement over the channel.  Looking back, I reckon it was something to do with her interest in darts, given that the Netherlands was already a hot bed of darting talent!  Alex was the second person to take a placement at this Dutch organisation and she remembers with a wry smile having to live up to the legacy of the first student place there, Alethea.   She noticed that while this was well meaning it did trigger her sense of being an imposter with the consequent impact on her confidence.  Alex talked about how at times, perhaps including this one, that her lack of confidence has been something that had the capacity to hold her back.  As time has passed the sense of this being a challenge has been balanced by an appreciation that it is based on a positive trait of being analytical and progressive in reflecting on ‘the quality of what I do’, a trait with considerable evidenced benefits at work and play.

I had forgotten that early on in her placement Alex had found herself in a distinctively disharmonious environment in the accommodation that had been arranged on her behalf.  She found herself in the midst of a drug den with a dodgy family, dogs intending to do harm, and an eventual police raid.  This latter precipitated the immediate need to move and she found herself invited to stay with the Head of HR for  the next several weeks of her placement.  She talked of the day that started with the police raid and ended with her moving to the Head of HR’s home, meeting the husband who politely enquired ‘who are you?’ on her arrival!  Looking back this story is one of many examples of Alex’s resilience in environments where she has started out as something of an outsider.  Her great skill in these situations is to find her own unique and authentic way of belonging.

Another such example of this unfolded at the outset and throughout her PhD studies.  Alex and many of her contemporaries found themselves victims of the banking crisis which eventually filtered through to Higher Education in the form of reduced funding for research.  Her first choice area of research was impacted in this way.  A colleague of mine encouraged Alex to think of doing an securely funded project at the interface between chemistry and electrical engineering.  She remembers resisting for a while before pragmatism and an interest in doing something different took hold.

She found herself as the only chemist in a male dominated environment whose ‘wet chemistry’ laboratory based practices left something to be desired.  Instead of throwing up her hands in horror Alex remembers finding a way to influence which included defining her own red lines, and not taking on battles that she did not need to win.  It was clear in her retelling of stories from the time of her PhD that she had learned a great deal from the leadership she experienced as well as how some die hard old school engineers plied their trade.

Alex also reaffirmed something else that was important to her during this time – ‘I need to be aware of the practical value of what I do’.  She talked about how she often found herself out and about on the National Grid applying her multidisciplinary knowledge in the presence of industrial colleagues who might well have thought of her as ‘the young academic upstart.  It was interesting that Alex never experienced a sense of discrimination because of being a woman, something that I has assumed out loud that she must have dealt with.  She did smile at the memory of the practicalities that occasionally came to light.  The query of where to change or where the toilets where was often met by a confused look, followed by the dawning realisation.   To me it was typical of Alex that she saw no malice in this, simply the consequence of her being at the vanguard of women in her chosen area of work.  Again her capacity to fit in, to belong on her terms, served her well on route to becoming Dr Holt (now Davis).

Our conversation was infused with the development of self-awareness that we have each experienced.  Alex talked about how managing a team of people had encouraged her to be more aware of how different people are and to treat this diversity as an asset.  She has known for a long time that her superpower is empathy, yet it took more time to appreciate that this can be a tripwire as well as an asset.  We talked about our different experiences of believing we were supporting people around us, only to realise that we were in actual fact rescuing them, and in doing so consigning them to the role of victim.

We talked about the importance of reframing in influencing people and how she had learned the importance of this from just one observation of the benefits it can realise.  Alex remembered an example from long ago, connected with routine screening tests for a project that has long since wrapped up.  These experiments were seen as a necessary evil by everyone and because of this responsibility was shared to distribute what was sensed as something of a burden.  Over time completion of this work on schedule became more and more of a challenge as people found ways to avoid ‘doing their bit’.  Alex remembers how a new team leader reframed thinking to focus on the impact of the data generated as a result of these routine procedures.  Hey Presto!  In a very short time people were pulling together to get the job done, simply because they focussed on the value of their small contribution, rather than the nature of the process.

As in so many conversations I have these days we talked about our relationship to the word activism.  My relationship to the word has certainly changed in that I do accept that I am an activist whose chosen way of influence is through empowerment of others.  Alex did not see herself as an activist based on her sense that activism is more about pro-activity rather than reactivity.  She did notice that in situations where her principles were called into question that this ‘would provoke a strong response’.

In fact, she remembered one such example from many years ago when she and I had a student and staff role respectively, on the Staff Student Liaison Committee.  Alex had been asked to raise an issue around fairness in assessment with the committee, representing her peers.  She remembers feeling that sense of unfairness herself.    In her representation she became passionate and felt emotional too.  Afterwards she recalls people coming up to her and asking of she was alright, commenting on how emotional she had been.  Alex recalls that I approached her experience in a different way, saying something like ‘I could see you felt strongly about that….’ before leaving her a silence she could choose to fill with her response.  Alex said she recognised that the open, non-judgemental observation gave her a chance to process her thoughts, and the silence a space within which she could respond.  She said her realisation connected with that interaction was ‘it’s easy to be nice, less so to be fair and act with integrity’.   Alex talked about how this, along with many other experiences, had formed her own approach of being compassionate, purpose driven, and ever thoughtful about ‘what’s next?’

In looking back on this brilliant conversation sharing our experiences of leadership and relationship building I realised that while I enjoyed contributing to Alex’s development as a chemist, I enjoyed her contribution to my development as a coach just as much.  I don’t think that I appreciated quite how much I can learn from the wisdom of Alex and all the others like her who I am meeting during Alpamayo Coaching on Tour.  Thanks for this gig Alex, and here is to the next one on the tour!

If you are interested in a coaching partnership that might explore threads like those described above please do get in touch with Jeremy. Alex would be a fab coach to work with too yet for the moment she is fully occupied by her research and leadership roles!


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