Kerri Burchill – Leadership Development


Kerri Burchill

Kerri is one of the coaches who was motivated by something many would prefer to stay: being in comfort and having almost everything. Continue reading the interview we had with her to learn more about her life and her program. This exploration led Kerri to see many places that gave her the experience she needed to do the work she does today.

1. Tell us more in detail. How was that world of comfort in which you were, and how was that moment when you decided to take action?

I remember the day exactly. I was standing at this green-coloured island in our kitchen.  The light was streaming through the window above the sink. My partner and best decision of my life and I were talking about how comfortable our lives had become. We had both been fast-tracked.  As a chiropractor, he had two practices and hospital privileges – something that was unheard of then or now.  I was the second youngest assistant principal on the second largest board in Canada. I had recently won a prestigious teaching award.  We were both honoured with provincial medals for our volunteerism.

On top of that, we just finished renovating our home in Canada with our own sweat and tears (I thought our marriage was invincible until those renos started!). We had a healthy social life that included playing volleyball, baseball and hockey.

Yet somehow that comfort and success felt like an unwanted degree of stability. We knew we wanted to keep growing and felt like our fortune and success would soon make us hit a glass ceiling.

So that day in the kitchen, we decided to stir it up.  My partner applied for medical school and I applied for a teaching job in Belgium on the NATO base.

I did not get a teaching job.  He did get into medical school.

My partner’s acceptance into medical school (at age 39 no less!) threw us into ten years of significant change.  I had nine different jobs, lived in six different cities in three countries. I completed my coaching certification, a second master’s degree and a Ph.D.

I don’t want to romanticize it – that ten-year journey was hard.  Without question, those experiences made me a stronger, richer, and deeper person.  I stretched.  I learned.  I grew.  I failed.  Now, when I feel those familiar waves of overwhelm creep in, my Mom (in her infinite wisdom) asks, “What would you give up, Ker?”  None of it.

2. What experiences have shaped you as a coach and a professional?

Shortly after we decided to turn our lives inside out, I fell into a sea of anxiety, asking myself, “What am I going to do?” I am not a sit-on-the-beach kind of person!  The career path I teach is one of those few linear professional paths.  I hadn’t given much thought to what else I could be outside of teacher, principal, superintendent.

I decided to reach out to other people whose careers seemed interesting.  One colleague advised me to “kick signposts” and see if the work was something that lit my fire.  In doing so, I stumbled on coaching, which is a skill I practise every day now.

I also reflected on those signposts that didn’t light my fire.  I tried to assess what made those experiences challenging. I transitioned my thinking from “I don’t like this” to “how can I influence what is happening here?”  That second question drove much of my research in my Ph.D.

In short, from the discomfort of those not-so-great experiences, I learned that structures drive behaviours.  When we have successful outcomes and see wanted behaviours, if you look deeper, you’ll see that there are structures in place that help people succeed and behave in those ways.  The opposite also is true – a lack of structure creates chaos and makes it hard for leaders and teams to thrive.

For example, when I worked in New York City’s “persistently dangerous schools” (yes, they were called that!), I saw chaos.  Those middle school kids were not set up to thrive.  When I taught at Johns Hopkins University, I learned to check my bias about online learning and saw that online learning structures can help students succeed. There are other examples, but you get the point.

3. We have seen that the testimonials are delighted with your work. What do you recognize in you that has led you to meet their expectations?

I suppose the short answer is experience.  I would say that I have discovered more about my talents and skills by taking risks and exploring new opportunities (and kicking signposts) than I ever knew I had because I leaned into the opportunity.  In that exploration, I have discovered that I am very talented at helping people talk and listen to each other.

Genuinely talking and listening to each other is a vulnerable process.  It turns out that I translate people well and help them articulate what is between their words.  I’ve discovered this uncanny ability to help people feel safe in those conversations and to keep the conversation future-focused.  Prior to us leaning into these opportunities, these talents remained in my blind spots.

I suppose what has really helped my ability to read and connect with people is a product of those ten years of moving around so much.  We interacted with so many different cultures, people and personalities.  So many people trusted me with their thoughts and feelings about what was going on around us that I became very adept at anticipating structures that caused people to think and feel however they were thinking and feeling.

4. What does your program consist of?

My program consists of any strategy to help people pull out of the day-to-day spin, slow down, truly talk with each other and listen to each other’s thoughts.

Sometimes slowing people down to really talk and listen comes through:

  • Individual or group coaching
  • Training on specific skills (leadership development, coach training, facilitating hard conversations)
  • Identifying opportunities is captured through interviews with the team members
  • Facilitating tough conversations so that teams can pull out of a rut

5. Finally, is there anything that you’d like to leave us off with?

This may sound funny, but I want to leave you with my grandma’s boyfriend’s wisdom (they were so cute dating in their 90s!):  “If you are open to it, you will see it.”

I’m not sure I was open to change in the beginning, but I developed the grit that helped me be more open.  Over time, I saw opportunities and learned to embrace them, and I am better able to serve others as a result.

Special thanks to Kerri Burchill for being part of this excellent interview.

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