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Alpamayo Coaching on Tour: Catching up with Becky Proctor and talking about her journey from science to the sea, Part 1

Another day, another fabulous Alpamayo Coaching on Tour gig!  This time meeting up with Becky Proctor at Carnival House in Southampton, home to all of the water borne leisure companies that come under the Carnival brand. 

My storytelling about this stop on the tour is going to be in two parts. This first one is about Becky's journey before arriving at Carnival, including some reminiscing and reflection. The second will be about her work at Carnival and bring her story up to the present out for that!

I had never been to Carnival House before yet like all people in Southampton you cannot fail to be influenced by the cruise liner industry.  A statistic I heard many years ago is that more people step on and off cruise ships in Southampton each year than the number of people who call Southampton their full-time home.  Whether you are into cruising or not, the spectacular presence of these incredible boats on Southampton Water is a sight to remember, particularly if you are able to be on a smaller boat to view them as they set sail.

Given its long expertise in catering for the individual needs of thousands of tourists it is perhaps not a surprise that the first impression of Carnival House was one of feeling welcomed.  Despite being busy everyone was helpful in a proactive way.  The general vibe of the place was one that suggested that paying attention to the needs of others was in its DNA.

Becky found me while I was having a somewhat nostalgic moment looking at the scale models of the Cunard Liners, remembering the model building times of my much younger days!  It was great to see her again, around 5 years since we had last met, and around 15 years since she finished her Masters in Chemistry degree.

Perhaps nostalgia was a thread in the early part of our catch up too as Becky recalled our conversations during her second year as an undergraduate, when she was considering changing from the 3 year BSc programme to the 4 year MChem.  At the time she remembers being delighted with the exam results she got, causing her to think the longer, more in depth MChem was the way to go.  She remembers my response when she sought my advice.  In particular, that I laid out the alternatives and options to her without any apparent bias for one pathway over another.

Over the years I had similar conversations with many undergraduates, and I remember the effort I made not to show bias that, whether I liked it or not, will have existed.  I took this neutral stance seriously because I witnessed on many occasions undergraduate/ lecturer conversations in which the former was heavily directed by the latter.  Over time the actions arising from these conversations sometimes worked out well, sometimes not.  Listening to the importance of my approach to Becky I reflected on how my ability to maintain a supportive but neutral stance all those years ago underpinned some of my contemporary coaching skills, most particularly in three distinct areas: the ability challenge another person’s thinking without imposing my own thinking on them; the ability to share what I am thinking or feeling with a coachee with an open invitation for them to integrate or reject it when considering what is on their mind; to ensure that my coachee retains accountability for choices they make on the back of a coaching partnership with me.

Becky’s decision was to transfer to the MChem course.  Perhaps I can confess now that was where my bias lay.  Despite doing my best to ensure it was not an undue influence on others I know I am fascinated by chemistry, particular the form and function of molecules, and wanted my enthusiasm to be shared by others.

As part of the MChem degree there was the possibility of taking up a six month full time placement in a chemistry based organisation in the UK or beyond.  Becky wanted the challenge of doing a placement while not moving too far from Southampton where she had other commitments.  She won a placement at Merck, a global organisation who at the time had a large site on the University’s Science Park.  She spent six months there in the final year of her degree.

Not only was this a placement, it was a first taste of what full time employment in the scientific sector might be like.  Once she had graduated, she took up a full time position at Merck as a research scientist, a position she stayed in for more than 8 years, at which point a substantial downsizing of operations at Merck’s site on the Science Park led to redundancy for the majority of the staff.

Becky and I on 'the deck' of Carnival House looking out on some of the berths of the ocean going liners that are so much part of Southampton.

Sitting in the bright atrium of Carnival House and hearing Becky’s story of that time was fascinating.  She told it with honesty and courage and was interested in whether I had any experience of redundancy.  The answer to that was that I had worked in an organisation where regular reorganisations had always carried a threat of redundancy, yet for me that threat had never been realised.

Becky had no regrets in relation to her time at Merck but looked back realising that she had not been particularly happy there.  She made the point that she was not a ‘what if?’ sort of gal by sharing a conversation she heard in which Max Verstappen, the F1 race driver, responded to one of the thousands of ‘what if’ questions he must have to field after every race.  He was asked ‘what might have happened to your race if the safety car had not come out during the race?’  His reply was ‘if my Mum had balls, she would be my Dad!’ Becky is no more interested about taking a ‘what if?’ approach than Max V is!  Although the illustration is a colourful one, it does make the point of the futility of ‘what if?’ behaviours that many people get sucked into from time to time. 

One of the challenging parts of her experience at Merck were associated with the competitiveness between departments and individuals.  They sought to hide their discoveries from each other until they were protected by patents, at which point their inventorship status would be.  There must have been a sense of the unasked question ‘why did you stay there, if you were unhappy?’ in the space of our conversation, because Becky chose to provide her answer regardless.  For her there was a pragmatic need as she was the primary bread winner in a growing family, in a period in which her husband was completing his PhD.

In addition, there was the simple truth that she did not know any different.  Merck had been her first employer and her assumption was that the way they did things (the good and the less good) was what it was like in every workplace.  She had no point of comparison, at least not in the professional part of her life.  I was aware how easy it is to forget the existence of this challenge experienced by everyone in their early career phase and was prompted to reflect the importance of mentoring and coaching in helping people to identify reference points for comparison.

Becky had many such reference points to draw on outside of work.  She is a Mum of two, she is a published author, and a big contributor to her local church.  I knew nothing about these interests when Becky was an undergraduate.  Although there is no obligation for students and staff to share details from their outside-university-life I remember how I used to be concerned about how little staff, including me, sometimes knew about the motivations and interests of the students over which they often had considerable influence.  I remember when Becky told me about her being an author I was mightily impressed, perhaps because just like so many people I feel there is story I want to tell, or to put a different way ‘I reckon there is a book in me!’.  Yet I have done nothing to translate that belief into action!  Becky is one of a very small minority who has felt ‘she has book in her’, and then actually written it, AND then published it.  Check out her fantasy ‘Island Trinity’ series, I enjoyed reading them.

There is such a lot to think about prompted by Becky's story. I think the thing that is staying with me is the importance of points of reference in our decision making. When we don't have any how do we understand the directionality of our choices? I'll leave you to ponder that. Look out for more with Becky in Part II, to be shared shortly.


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