A conversation with Michael Holton, PCC, ORSCC, B.Sc.
As an organizational coach, Michael Holton has a fascination with helping others to develop their potential. Over the course of his career, he has transitioned from creating accessible software and website experiences to supporting people in developing better relationships with each other.
In this interview, Michael muses on his journey from Lean Manufacturing to relationship systems coaching, finding clarity in complexity, his voracious reading habits, how ORSC Certification transformed his approach and why systemic trauma captivates him.
On his career to date
I love organizational complexity, and helping make organizations work. As a kid, I thought one of the coolest jobs anybody could ever have was being a camp counselor. For me, camp is a powerful place for people to learn and grow, a place where they teach leadership and personal interaction. It's interesting, because where I'm at now with my career is like what I desired when I was younger.
I have worked a lot of different jobs over my lifetime. I remember working in software development early on. This started with working in software usability, exploring our relationship with how we use and interact with software and the internet. Asking the simple question: How do we make this easier for people to use? It was fascinating, exploring our connection with technology. Then I moved into an organization and a role which had me work with people from around the world. I had to begin to ask myself new questions: How do you help a team from China interact with the team from the U.S, or a team from India interact with the team from the Netherlands? What are the cultural differences? Why do some people always say yes? Why is this person so blunt? How can these two different cultures interact and thrive together?
That’s what wakes me up in the morning. I don’t mind working 60 hours a week with organizations, or traveling all over the country and sometimes around the world to help people get better at being in relationship with each other. It’s a continual journey.
On when he’s most on purpose
My magic happens when I enroll people in making change. I'm really stepping into my passion, and it’s where I find my most grounded and level-headed clarity. It's powerful to be able to enroll people in that passion, so they want to be part of the story. The biggest superpower I have is to bring random and complex ideas or people together, and make sense of it so there's clarity.
On becoming a coach
When I went into organizational coaching and consulting, it was all about process. As I got further into it, I found that it was really about creating better relationships. If we can sort out the relationship, the process just naturally follows.
I come from Lean Manufacturing with a background in process improvement. As an Agile coach, I took a class called "Coaching Agile Teams" with the Agile Coaching Institute (ACI). Two amazing individuals, Lisa Atkins and Michael Spayd, were among those who started ACI. Marita and Faith were part of that that beginning, and so you’ll see touches from CRR Global’s core curriculum in there.
In that class, I saw my very first coaching demo. It was so powerful to see the way people transformed in those 10 to 15 minutes. Next, we were all armed with powerful questions and had a clunky coaching conversation with a partner. Even in that space of being terribly unskillful, it was life-changing. I wanted more.
When it came down to it, process improvement only got me so far. Beginning to understand how we work with people behaviorally was so powerful. From there, I signed up for Co-Active Coaching, which started my journey as a professional coach. I loved Co-Active Coaching - I could work with people on a one-to-one basis and it changed their lives - but it didn’t give me what I needed to work systemically.
On what piqued his interest in ORSC
One of my good friends, Philip Cave, had been through the whole series. He introduced me to ORSC. We were facilitating a lot of workshops together. As we worked together, he brought in ORSC tools and began to introduce me to the concept of systemic coaching. As an Agile coach I inherently worked with systems and coached across teams, portfolios, and organizational boundaries. I introduced ORSC into our office and enrolled 21 other colleagues to take the journey with me. Once a month for five months, we would be in class for three days. It was amazing. The work charged us. It gave us a model and a framework to coach the systems that we were serving. It was the first time we had language to actually work with our clients in a way that wasn't about just the process, but about the people.
Discovering ORSC began a long relationship with [CRR Global co-founders] Marita Fridjhon and Faith Fuller.
On his favorite RSI tools and principles
I really love Lands Work. There's something magical about the way the process works, whetherit's with a couple, teams, or in an organization. I've done it in all of those, and even by just exploring some stuff for myself. There's a power in visiting somebody else's land, in experiencing the land beyond the tourist sites. We get to visit somebody's land with someone who really lives there, to see it through a different lens.
We automatically bring our own land with us. There’s this moment of validation in working with that. For example - “I really love that that person is always on time. We're never on time in our land.” So I want to import that, right? It’s powerful to co-create together.
The tool is beautiful because it's simple. Sometimes it's very deep, and sometimes systems aren’t ready, so we keep it really light. Just acknowledging that we're not ready to come together and form a collaborative effort becomes powerful, because then we're not trying to shove people together to do something they're not ready to do. As a coach working with people, a lot of it is holding space and getting curious with them. People transform themselves to be seen in a way that's safe for them.
On his philosophy
I don’t hold anything to be true in the way most people might these days. I used to be in a space of - “Here's truth.” Right? “This is what's true, and you should subscribe to it because it's what's true and right.” I’ve let that go. Instead, it's a place of belief. I believe in humanity. My inspiration comes from renewing my faith in humanity. Interacting with people and seeing them be open and vulnerable inspires me deeply. Even at the worst of times, people can be amazing. They can give more than they think they can to help another person, even at great cost and expense to themselves.
It's interesting to see the diversity of truth. A lot of it is perspective. When I think about the evolution of belief systems, some of it is inherited. We believe because an expert tells us that that's what's true. Sometimes we realize that none of that's true, and rebel against it. Sometimes we find a higher purpose.
Nature and all its wonder is another place of inspiration. I am privileged to live in a wooded area where I can watch elk, deer and all sorts of animals interact. It's amazing to see the world move around them. They seem to find harmony in the way that they live their lives.
On those who inspire him
Hero isn’t a word that resonates with me. I might choose a different word. There are inspirational people who come into my life, who pull me.
Marita and Faith have been long-time mentors and friends, and a source of inspiration. Rev. Joseph Stabile is a United Methodist pastor in Dallas, and Suzanne Stabile is an author and lecturer known as the Enneagram Godmother. They've done a lot of work with Richard Rohr and supporting people in liminal spaces around transformation. They implement a lot of practical wisdom into their teachings, but what they really bring is the humanity of change.
Another person that comes to mind is a friend named Clive Prout who led my first professional coaching course. He helped me to see that nurturing is important. You can debate what masculine and feminine energies are, but for me, it was profound to see somebody that had done so much work on integrating himself. He felt balanced to me.
On a new skill
I have been developing myself to work with systemic trauma across organizations for the last few years. It's like if you buy a red car; then all you would be able to see are red cars! I kept running into systemic trauma and didn't know how to work with it. My heart yearned, “I’ve got to figure this out.”
It came from seeing trauma in big organizations - layoffs, furloughs, toxic leadership or toxic coworkers that nobody was willing to deal with. I would see ongoing trauma happening, and I didn't know how to work with it. I got really curious. I’d been taught from day one in my first professional coaching class to know my limits and refer people to therapy if necessary. What I realized after people went and worked with therapists is that it wasn't enough. I needed to figure out how to have coaching conversations that included trauma.
As ORSC coaches, how do we begin to work with trauma and systems in a way which allows healing to happen? How can we be in right relationship in the space of trauma? That's where I want to journey next: to begin to pioneer and explore how we begin to work with systemic trauma. Helping to heal systems in trauma, with a process that’s different from therapy.
On how ORSC Certification changed him
I have been to several coach training schools, and loved the time spent exploring different coaching models. Certification is about going deeper, beyond the training class, and how I integrate this into my own life.
The most powerful thing for me about Certification was the supervision and mentor coaching aspect - getting feedback around my cringy coaching moments. All coaches have them! I still get supervision and mentor coaching today because it’s so powerful. I began to see the biases that I have as a coach. One thing I realized about my coaching was that I was always positive, always the glass half-full guy. Anytime anybody brought up something uncomfortable, I would step over it. That was called out in one of the sessions - “You are always positive; you never go to the negative with these people.” When it got uncomfortable, I couldn’t hold that space. That reflection of me as a coach - I wouldn’t have seen that without mentor coaching.
I had a one-on-one supervision session that opened up this whole other world for me, about who I am as a person, and being able to do the hard stuff, the deeper work. Today that is reflected in the trauma and somatics work I do with clients. I look back at that supervision when he talked about my capacity to be a coach and where I was going. It really has come true! Some people wouldn't sign up to be a trauma coach, but I am in love with it. It is amazing to hold space for people to heal and to create from their trauma. In Certification, we went deeper with the tools. But much more important - I went deeper in myself in relation to the work of ORSC and organizational systems.
I now can be with people in a way that I just didn't have access to prior to Certification. If you want to integrate this learning into who you are as a person, sign up for Certification. Getting that feedback around being coached was profound. You learn so much about yourself by getting that feedback, and you can evolve yourself to serve your clients better.
On what’s lighting him up
I used to do fine art photography. I loved to capture the relationship between an individual and something else. What I'm really jazzed about now is what they call B roll in film - the moments between the actual talking pieces. It’s something about the relationship you're invoking with somebody when they get to see this five second clip - like a drone shot of a forest when the fog is just lifting, or the light coming in through the trees and highlighting the fog, or a baby dropping an ice cream cone and crying. There's a reaction to that, and it’s beautiful. It’s not a narrated script. It's raw imagery that takes us from one moment in the film to the next and carries us in a way that is so powerful. It's about capturing a relationship in film.
On what absorbing his attention
A weird habit I have is that I tend to read three books in a week or two. I often look for convergent patterns between all three books - what overlaps across multiple sources. I try to read if I am on a plane, working out, or I am able to find some downtime.
I have been reading a lot of work from Richard Strozzi-Heckler. I have been fortunate enough to spend time studying at his dojo over the last year. He has really helped me deeply connect to my own soma and body in a way that I didn’t think was accessible to myself.
Another collection of books that I really loved reading was "Faith After Doubt," "Journey Towards Wholeness," and "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life." I think each of these books spoke to me around the transition that I found myself in as well as what was coming up in the work I had with my clients. How do we step into a liminal space and create from there? How do we do this while looking at the bigger arc of our lives? Before that, I read some amazing books around racism - "White Fragility," "The Anti-Racism Business Book," and "My Grandmother's Hands." "The Body Keeps the Score" is an exploration around racism and trauma which helped to understand my own journey through healing in that space and to understand how I am systemically adding to racism. All these books fed into each other. I had heard of systemic racism before then, but when I read "White Fragility," it clicked for me. I was able to understand what white fragility is, what systemic racism is and how it relates to trauma.
Before that I was reading about couples and healthy sexuality - "Mating in Captivity," "Come As You Are," "She Comes First." It was powerful in figuring out the inquiry I have about what healthy male sexuality looks like. One thing I’m interested in is creating a developmental course exploring masculinity, which is evolving and is different from what it used to be.
I have endless book recommendations for people depending on what they are going through. I love exploring new ideas for myself and others.
On why systems coaching is important now
The biggest lever that we have in the world today is working with organizations and larger systems. If you can improve somebody's work life, they're going to go home and have a better home life, hopefully. But if you have a bad work life, it's probably going to reflect in your home system. The more we help grow and develop organizations across the world, the more of an impact this will have on people’s work life, their home life, their friends, and their family. It's just such a viral thing. Even if I'm only reaching 10 people in an organization, the impact can be almost infinite.
We can often be just terrible at relationship. Maybe that's why I'm so drawn to this work - because I want to get better at every relationship I am in, with myself and with others. When I see ego, violence, trauma, and anxiety, it always comes back to relationship. There's no class you take as you grow up where you talk about what right relationship is. What makes it even harder is that right relationship for one person might be different than right relationship for another. As much as people try to give a blueprint for what right relationship is, it is different for everyone.
I sometimes think that's why we get into conflict. We start saying - this is the only way to be in right relationship, and then lose our ability to explore someone else’s perspective. When I think about how to spend the rest of my life, it's exploring this concept of what right relationship is and how we get better at being in right relationship with others. It's worth having that conversation. Because if we don't, we're just going to continue to bruise each other.
Couples and Sexuality
Want to connect with Mike? Get in touch via his LinkedIn profile.
Want to learn more about ORSC?