THE STILL LIFE WORKSHOP™ – A Creative Personal Development Process

Still Life of a Faculty Dean


Overview – The Still Life as a “Portrait of the Self”

The Still Life Workshop™ is a trademarked personal development process that we believe is an invaluable learning opportunity for anyone who is in a leadership (or a coaching) role who needs to understand themselves in relation to their work and their organisation.  The emphasis is on “Who I am…”, rather than the conventional psychometric emphasis on “How I Am…”.  This is a group-based learning experience that has multiple applications (team development, diversity & inclusion, career transitions and accelerating Talent development).

With the impact of Covid-19, we have redesigned the workshop as a Virtual live on-line group learning experience that takes place over 2 x 120 minute (4 hours of online engagement with 2 hours of self-directed learning with optional short term 1-on-1 coaching process to support the personal growth aspects of this unique learning experience).  The unprecedented impact of Covid-19 on our personal and professional lives means that we are all in transition right now: we are in that in-between space of a “before Covid-19 yesterday” and the “future to be reimagined”.  Transition can be understood as the psychological process of letting go of what was, accepting where we find ourselves and orientating & committing ourselves to an emerging future.   The Still Life Workshop™ offers you a profound opportunity to make sense of this ‘moment in time’.

The workshop can be delivered as a stand-alone learning event (half/full day) or integrated (as part of) with a leadership, team, coaching development process – you would need to set aside a minimum of 3 hours to include this exercise in an existing programme/course.

Pygmalion offers this as an Accreditation Process (to train and licence you to be able to include this in your own learning & development offering) and/or as a tailored Intervention to support your development programmes.

Announcement (March 2018):  Liz Handy passed away.  I would like to honour the role she played in reshaping how I think about ‘composition’ and ‘authenticity’ – her ‘eye for composition that captured who people are and how they expressed their identity’ was inspirational.   My thoughts are with Charles and her extended family.

Background – How this process was developed

This was initially developed in 2007, as part of a 4-day residential “emerging leaders” programme that would form part of a broader Global gathering known as The Tällberg Forum 2007 – Tallberg Leader Programme (Sweden).  Sean Germond collaborated with Charles Handy (a well-known author) and who was invited as one of the ‘elders’ or ‘mentors’ in the programme. We were discussing different approaches to helping the participants share their unique life story as a context for their particular areas of interest as young social entrepreneurs. We agreed that we did not want to make use of conventional psychometric instruments, as the setting and the programme design called for a more generative and creative approach.

As Charles had invited his wife for more than 50 years, (Liz) Elizabeth Handy (a professional photographer), to accompany him, we explored how we could use photography (self-portraits) as an approach – given that this was my interest as well.  The outcome was a collaboration where Sean developed a group process that built on the Charles & Liz Handy’s interest in the use of a ‘vanitas’ as a means to encourage self-reflection.  In the seventeenth century in Holland, it was the custom for successful people to commission what came to be called a vanitas (or “Still Life”). These paintings depicted a collection of objects symbolizing the individual’s life.

New leaders Programme – Talberg, Sweden

The Still Life Workshop™ was designed as a creative way to encourage the participants to develop and articulate a compelling narrative of “who I am, what is important to me, how this shapes my work”…

Since then, I have used the Still Life Workshop with a range of client organisations across a variety of applications, and have built up a file of over 450 Still Life compositions!   The patterns in the choices that people make when selecting their personal artefacts, and the themes that emerge from all the “micro-narratives” that these personal still life compositions generate, provide a compelling account of the relevance and value of this as a personal development process.

The emerging themes from these Still Life Narratives reflect a consistent emphasis on ‘how I have been shaped by the world, and actively shape my identity in relation to my world’, ‘how significant relationships are core to my existence and sustain me’, ‘ what gives me meaning and purpose’, and ‘how my objects reflect my work in the world;.

The value of this approach -The Still Life Workshop™ as an alternative to psychometric tools for personal development.

For too long, our traditional approach to profiling leaders has been based on the expert model: I test, I interpret, I give feedback.

Whilst the approach strives to be client-centred, at least during the feedback session itself, I believe it remains located in an ‘authoritarian’ model of the world that is deterministic despite its claim to honour the uniqueness of the individual. The leader is mapped against an a priori framework of not only ‘what makes an effective leaders’, but also the organisation’s own premise of ‘what it takes to succeed in this role or organisation. Factor in that much of our assessment processes involve self-report questionnaires that are normed on a section of the broader population, as well as one’s own assumptions (subjectivity) of what to pay attention to, and the process itself is inherently flawed from the outset.    

The limitation of our conventional approach as I see it, especially when used as part of a learning and development process, has been an over-reliance on psychometric instruments at the expense of the unique perspective and experience of the person.

An expert tool can be a great catalyst for this awareness but unfortunately tends to delineate the conversation in a way that can be too narrow to embrace the whole person.

We are, after all, more than the sum of our parts. My personality, my biography, my constructs, my capabilities, my knowledge, my abilities and my context need to always be understood from an integrative perspective 

Applications – How you can use the Still Life Workshop™

There is a range of applications where you can consider including the Still Life Process as part of your learning & development programmes.  From my own experience and application, these have included:

  • “Diversity & Inclusion” – to encourage workplace colleagues to develop a deeper insight into and understanding of each other’s life stories.  How, ‘it is only when I know your story that I really see who you are – and not the narrow stereotype that I have right now”.   We have found that the greatest challenge of Diversity is the greatest opportunity.  The Still Life Workshop helps people understand how different each other is whilst at the same time how much we have in common…
  • Developing Change Agents” – the original process was to assist social entrepreneurs/activists become more effective in their role as ‘change-makers’ or ‘pathfinders’ who were challenging the status quo (we called them ‘canaries in the coal mine’), and how to be more effective in effecting change (from the inside, or from with out).  Change agents are required to work with culture, and the Still Life Process attunes them to how artefacts are an expression of deep-seated beliefs and experiences.
  • Developing Coaching Skills” – to appreciate and understand one’s own identity, interests and motives as a coach, and being able to work with images/metaphors that your client brings to the coaching conversation in support of ICF’s competency #4 “Coaching Presence”.  The Still Life Process alerts you to the power of narrative in shaping identity, beliefs and expectations….
  • Developing Emerging Leaders” – to understand one’s own deep intent, personal identity and character, and how these inform and influence/shape one’s leadership practices
  • Team Interpersonal Relationships” – to fast track and develop a better understanding of each other (where I come from, what life experiences have shaped me, how this gives context to my unique style/approach and contribution).  We have seen how teams can benefit from a more personal and biographical approach to getting to know each other.  This can augment the conventional use of psychometric tools to fast track an understand and appreciation of each other’s contribution
  • Talent Development and Career Planning” – to help young graduates begin to explore the world of work and find ways of integrating what is important to them into their career choices and how best to unlock their potential
  • Leading Organisational Change” – to assist executive leadership teams to dialogue their vision and values (aspirational culture), what they would want to create in their organisation, and even what the identity of this organisation would need to be
  • Mergers and Acquisitions” – to assist two groups/teams coming together to engage in a conversation about ‘best of both worlds’… what is it that we bring (as individuals or as entities) in terms of our respective cultures that we need to honour and integrate

FOR MORE INFORMATION… please call Sean on +27 21 788 4909