When I first met Max St John, I think he had recently taken over running social media agency Nixonmcinnes in Brighton. It’s hard to fathom exactly why, since crafting marketing strategies for global brands seems about as distant a calling from his current work as in conflict training, bladesmithing and Daoist arts as you could think of. It’s like finding out the Archbishop of Canterbury cut his professional teeth bitcoin mining (please tell me if he did).
After Nixonmcinnes ended, Max helped my growing team at Helpful as a facilitator, trainer and coach.
He hosted a challenging and worthwhile awayday for our director team, at a point where I was starting to realise I needed to let go of control of the business a bit and trust my colleagues more. We were given homework to read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which every leadership team should probably read and talk about together. I also remember a tough exercise on giving and receiving feedback where we walked along Brighton beach in pairs, using the techniques of non-violent communication to make requests of each other – deeper and more meaningfully than we might in the lighthearted professional chat of 1-to-1s or the anxious formality of an appraisal meeting.
At another point, we recognised that as a busy team we were sometimes responding collectively to awkward client requests with a certain amount of cynicism or eye-rolling. It’s the kind of conflict that all agencies have to manage, and generally the conclusion is that junior stuff should just learn to suck it up. We got Max to run some training sessions on feedback and navigating conflict to help us all recognise that frustrating client behaviour might well stem from their unmet needs: perhaps to be heard, to be involved in a creative process, or to feel safe that our work wouldn’t expose them in front of their boss. When you flip those snippy comments and demanding emails round to asking yourself about the needs behind them, new solutions emerge – and you feel a lot more in control of the situation.
So ‘we need to practise some Max here’ became a bit of a team catchphrase, often said with a half-smile – a shorthand for stepping back, taking a breath, considering the wider picture, recognising the awkwardness and potential conflict here.
Max was also the first 1-to-1 coach I had, I think, and where I started to understand the value of coaching. And as life emerged from lockdown a couple of years ago, he ran a small Zoom group I joined over a few weeks to help a bunch of us navigate the frustration and conflict in work and life by reflecting on needs and how to meet them.
Recently, I’ve seen he’s been writing about the Drama Triangle, another useful model, and is running some leadership training to explore it. He’s developed a six week self-paced course on conflict, How to Fight Well and there are some thought-provoking articles to accompany it too.
I’ve recently started a foundation course in coaching skills, and I keep Max in mind when I think about what sort of coach I’d like to try and be. Not just a ‘holding space’ kind of facilitator, all sharpies and forced fun exercises, or a pathway-to-results hustler. More, someone with a bit of life experience, honesty about our human vulnerability and ego, and a handful of gently challenging frameworks and exercises to get people to step out of the daily frenzy and connect to something deeper.
If you think you’d like to explore some of that, you should talk to Max.