Interviews with leaders and entrepreneurs who have made significant contributions to the alternative dispute resolution field

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

THE VIEW FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE: A strategic conversation with educator and entrepreneur Tammy Lenski

A strategic conversation with Dr. Tammy Lenski It is an honor and a pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Tammy Lenski, a highly regarded leader and educator in the dispute resolution field and the founder of Lenski Strategic, LLC, a New Hampshire-based company providing ADR services nationwide, with a special focus on the unique needs of women executives and entrepreneurs.

Tammy took some time to share with us her reflections on mediation education and training, the needs of women in the workplace, and new directions for the dispute resolution field.

Hi, Tammy, and welcome to Online Guide to Mediation. First of all, please introduce yourself to my readers—tell us what you do in the ADR field and how you got started.

Hi, Diane, and thanks for the opportunity to talk with you. I run my own company, Lenski Strategic LLC, based out of Dublin, New Hampshire, and working with clients nationwide. I’m in my 8th year of full-time private practice as a mediator, trainer and negotiation coach.

I got into this work when I was a college dean and found myself in a mediator-type position quite frequently, as well as a facilitator of college-wide strategy and planning meetings. I decided to get some formal mediation training and after taking a Basic Mediation class, realized this is what I wanted to be doing all the time. So, after some figurative nail-biting and much conversation with my husband Rod, I left my job, enrolled in Woodbury College's year-long, 500-hour mediation program, and then launched my practice. Most of my initial clients were colleges and universities and I branched from there through referrals; today, most of my private work focuses in the workplace and organizational arenas.

I also mediate for the New Hampshire Probate Court, where I handle cases involving wills, estates and trusts, as well as child and adult guardianship and termination of parental rights cases.

Your company, Lenski Strategic, LLC, offers “strategy and support for women executives and entrepreneurs”. Why this special focus on women in business? What challenges are unique to women in the business world, and what strategies can help women overcome those challenges? What about men? Are there any challenges specific to them?

One of my most treasured experiences as a college administrator and teacher was at a women’s college. It’s there that I felt like I professionally came into my own and where I began working with adult and traditional-aged college women as they found and developed their voices. In the past year or so I’ve found myself drawn back to those roots and decided to formally meld those roots with what I’m doing now by focusing my private practice on the needs of women in the workplace. I want to help women learn how to tap their strengths to negotiate better for themselves and navigate workplace conflict more effectively. I know from my background in women’s education that women of all ages benefit from the kind of support that formally acknowledges and builds on “women’s ways of knowing” (with a nod here to Mary Belenky and her colleagues for the seminal work on this topic that has now grown into a whole body of literature). And I’m hearing from women in leadership positions that the relational aspects of disputes are as relevant to them as resolving the content of the dispute. I know many men care about these things too, of course, but realize that my unique blend of experiences can best be tapped by focusing on women leaders and future leaders.

As a member of the faculty of Woodbury College in one of this country’s most highly respected master’s degree programs in mediation and dispute resolution, you have a unique opportunity to mould and influence individuals who hope to initiate or develop careers in the ADR field. What kinds of preparation or foundation do people need who wish to ensure a successful future in alternative dispute resolution? What advice might you offer someone who is interested in developing her capacity to assist others in resolving disputes?

While I call myself a trainer because that’s the jargon my corporate clients know, I consider myself an educator. And I do believe there’s a difference between education and training, one that the mediation profession is starting to discern and wrestle with. I’m pretty biased toward longer and more in-depth preparation for mediators. I look at myself—and most of my students—after even 100 hours of preparation and the vastness of what I didn’t yet know is stunning. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. And while every day is a day I continue to learn and grow, I believe that the base I got at the start created a foundation not just for professional success but also for serving clients with excellence.

Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now! What foundation do mediators need to be successful? I think would-be mediators need in-depth, sequential preparation in the “mechanics” of mediating, certainly, but also in reflective practice, in negotiation and conflict theory, and in understanding and working on their own conflict dynamics. By “sequential preparation” I mean that taking periodic trainings does not supplant the continuity and depth of a comprehensive curriculum.

As a leader and educator in the ADR field, and as someone who has been a part of shaping the field over the years, what trends, future directions, or new opportunities do you anticipate emerging for our profession?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, as I’m teaching a new course in “Trends and Issues” this fall. The credentialing and certification issues are going to gather steam, as will the accompanying questions those issues will raise about mediator preparation. I think Bernie Mayer, in his most recent work, has challenged us to understand that we have not yet framed this field in ways that the public finds highly compelling, and so I certainly hope we’ll continue to chew this one over.

I’m writing this a week after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and find myself wondering if there’s a new role emerging for folks with dispute resolution as well as crisis management skills to serve others. And as baby boomers move into retirement, I think there’s an opportunity for mediators with knowledge of geriatric issues to facilitate end-of-life conversations and planning with elders, families and care providers. I’ve been doing some of this through my probate work and see such a need developing.

Much has been written to provide practical advice or guidance for both students and practitioners of ADR. But there is comparatively little written specifically for educators and trainers—those of us who teach, coach, and prepare individuals for work in the alternative dispute resolution field. As the field considers credentialing and other efforts to professionalize the field, what is our responsibility as teachers to our students and to the field itself? At a minimum, what should training programs for mediators offer? And what can the field do to maintain public confidence in mediators and mediation training programs?

This is an important question and one that I can’t give its full due here. Let me just say that some of our responsibilities as teachers are to be honest with would-be mediators about the realities of building a healthy practice (better be a darn good mediator, have some capital and a business plan and at least as much interest in being an entrepreneur as a mediator). And we should consider how our trainings actually contribute to moving the field forward (and not just to our own bottom lines). As part of a field still struggling for public recognition and confidence, I think it’s critical that trainers and educators think hard about who we’re graduating and how well those graduates will contribute to building such confidence.

Tammy, all of us have dreams, both short-term and long-term, professional and personal. What are your long-term hopes and goals—for yourself as a professional and for the alternative dispute resolution field?

I better live ‘til I’m 100, Diane, because I have a lot of dreams still to pursue. I love the mix of college teaching and private business that I have now, and I love being part of a profession that’s still finding its way, with much opportunity for myriad voices to help shape it. So, I hope to stay on this path for as long as it excites me and keeps me jumping out of bed in the morning—which will be for a while yet, I imagine.

For the dispute resolution field, I hope we’ll spend less time on the “evaluative vs. facilitative vs. transformative vs. whatever” debate, since there’s probably room for a variety of approaches as long as they’re practiced with skill and knowledge. I hope we’ll take the energy from that kind of conversation and put it into thinking together how to prepare people well for this craft and build a profession that the public both wants to buy and has confidence in buying.

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