Here are four of Joanne’s engagements told in her own words.
1. Increasing Contribution and Recognition, While Leading a Better Life
When I began work with Sharon, she was the operational head of a 4,000-employee services company, and a member of the senior executive team. Everyone recognized her as an excellent leader. They saw her as intelligent, understanding, and as a person who knew how to get things done.
What was Sharon’s problem? She was working six-and-a-half days a week, had no social life, no family of her own, was out of shape, felt exhausted, and even mildly depressed. She felt overwhelmed and stuck in her position. She was frustrated by the number of times she was asked to create organizational change in situations where she didn’t have the authority. Privately, the President and COO acknowledged that she could make an even larger contribution to the organization, but cited Board constraints in getting her promoted.
In working with Sharon, I uncovered several factors that were throwing her off course. Among other things: Early in life, she had learned to shun the spotlight and function without much support. In other words, she had learned to be a super-coper. As an adult, then, she could get things done in any situation, but she did so at an enormous personal cost. She anesthetized herself with food and television, and was not only unhappy, but was not as effective as she could be at work.
I understood that, to move forward, Sharon would have to experience herself differently. We worked together to create those new experiences. Sometimes the focus involved “inner” work: thinking about things differently, using the power of the right brain to free herself from learning that no longer worked, changing her self-talk, etc. Other times, the focus of the new experiences were more external: learning new ways to manage conflict situations, experimenting with being different in meetings, exploring new activities outside of work.
Through these and other experiential changes, Sharon was better able to access and act upon what she already knew as an adult. Things that had previously seemed hard to do she now did with ease. Obstacles that seemed insurmountable were easily dealt with.
Sharon was given a new C-level title and now contributes exclusively at a strategic level. She’s making meaningful changes across the entire organization. She’s more confident, happier, and works fewer hours. She now has time to enjoy recreational and social activities, is physically healthier, and is developing strong personal relationships. Her professional and personal life synergistically enhance each other.
2. Rapid Problem-solving in a Difficult Situation
A senior executive at a government contracting firm — responsible for work with a very sensitive part of the Federal government — contacted me to help facilitate a change in his executive team.
Stan had a major problem on his hands. It’d been recently discovered that members of his executive team had been dealing with a convoluted government regulation in a way that put the organization at serious legal risk. The team meant no malintent; nonetheless, they had circumvented requirements, resulting in delays, poor execution, and ultimately threatening aspects of national security. Thousands of emails were sent, with cc lists in the high double-digits, as the team tried to correct the process and protect themselves from being held accountable. They experienced themselves as entangled in a situation from which there was no way out.
Privately, Stan told me he and the Board president had already “figured out the solution,” and wanted me to help gain the team’s acceptance. I asked him if he and the president would be open to an alternative solution if it was practical and economically feasible. He said they would.
I proposed a two-day team meeting. On the first day, I found a number of the executives had brought their lawyers for protection. After Stan’s intervention, and some negotiations, the lawyers agreed to leave, so that the team could work together openly.
Using the Action Learning process — which emphasizes curiosity, questions, and learning to experience the problem from multiple, sometime competing perspectives — the team was able to solve the immediate problems creatively, develop a plan for preventing further problems, and made a commitment to a process that would prevent something like this from occurring again. The solutions were not what Stan had initially envisioned, but he readily agreed that they were more robust. He could see that the team’s enthusiasm and commitment would ensure their effort during implementation.
Not only were the short- and long-term problems solved, but the executives had gone through a “team building” experience that increased dedication to the organization and to one another.
3. Separating the Possible from the Impossible
Marianne was Executive Director of a nonprofit, providing social services for a vulnerable population. She led a complex organization, with a board whose members were economically, educationally, and geographically diverse and whose employees were a mix of unionized and nonunionized.
Marianne contacted me with several problems. We decided to deal with the most severe one first.
One of her direct reports, a senior director, was putting the organization at risk, because she had a capricious management style that made her decisions questionable. For example, the director was extremely friendly with employees, and then she had to give these same employees performance reviews. Her evaluations did not reference specific behavior. Instead, they seemed based on her personal impressions. The result was accusations of bias, including racial bias. The director also tended to be impulsive and appeared casual when it came to mistakes — both her own mistakes and those of others.
I interviewed the director. She was uninterested in her behavior’s impact and was unwilling to see how others experienced her. She was certain her experience was the “correct one.” In addition, because of her personal relationship with several key board members, she felt her organizational position was secure.
I told Marianne that coaching the director would be of no value, but I could assist Marianne herself in developing ways of managing the situation. I showed Marianne that the director’s experience was very different from her own, and wasn’t likely to change. Marianne’s attempts to change her were not only ineffective, they were creating stress for them both. I suggested that if she couldn’t remove the director from the organization, Marianne needed to find a role for her that was more in keeping with her personality. To make this happen, Marianne would have to deal with her second problem.
Marianne’s second problem was her relationship with the board. When the board proposed things, such as cost-cutting measures in the face of what Marianne already saw as bare-bones services, she became trapped in a commitment-fueled experience of outrage. She would get locked in battles with board members who seemed to enjoy provoking a strong response from her. These power struggles had become so intense that her board supporters told her that her position at the organization was at risk.
I saw that Marianne needed to disengage from her immediate experience; doing so would allow her to remain committed to her values, and help her be at peace with the board’s decisions. As she describes it, I “talked her off the ledge” before she went into board meetings and taught her how to be internally playful in her reactions to what she had experienced as provocative behavior toward her. She could then remain calm and centered as she presented her recommendations and observe how her behavior was either effective or ineffective.
As a result, Marianne was better able to relax. She softened her stance and was able to tolerate more debate on how to best deliver services. Her relationship with the board improved dramatically. She saw a change in their attitude toward her and she no longer had tense exchanges with the members who had given her trouble. There was no doubt that her job as executive director was secure.
Most importantly, these changes were not merely external. They reflected a change in Marianne’s internal experience about how to be effective. She is much less stressed, worries less about others’ reactions, and is philosophical about what the organization can accomplish. Finally, Marianne moved the troublesome director to a role that was a better fit.
4. Changing What It Means to be a Leader
Mike had just transitioned from his role as Director of Finance to Vice President of a Fortune 500 consumer products and services company. He had excelled in his role in Finance — seen as highly intelligent, technically skilled, and a leader who cared for his people. His new role, however, would require more enterprise-wide leadership.
In his new role, Mike interacted with and responded to a much wider group of stakeholders. He had teams reporting to him from a variety of other disciplines, which he had previously approached solely from a finance perspective. His manager (a senior most executive) was very supportive and had expressed confidence in him, but had given him feedback that he needed to be more “personal.” Mike was puzzled by how to respond to such feedback and wanted help in changing his behavior to meet the new role demands while “not losing his personality.”
Mike and I explored his background and how it might have contributed to his leadership style. He came from a military family that values privacy and a nose-to-the-grindstone-with-no-complaints approach to work. Mike placed a high value on taking care of his people, which he’d defined as providing all the information required to do the best job, protecting them from any negative feedback, especially from higher-ups, and jumping in to rescue them in emergencies.
What Mike did not see at first was how these strengths could also limit him as a leader. Although his previous direct reports had appreciated his style, he couldn’t possibly provide that same support now that his span of control was wider. His strong analytic skills were sometimes experienced as intimidating and the breadth of knowledge sometimes inhibited others from participating in discussions. His willingness to rescue his team created a dependency on him and removed opportunities for them to develop.
Because Mike thought a good leader was someone who is strong, steady and substantial, it was difficult for him not to know everything about all his departments and have all the answers. I was able to show him how being transparent and using the power of questions would reassure his “troops” that he could be counted on and would engage them in creative problem solving. Finally, I showed him how he could translate the story he could see from the financial lens to those outside of finance and what he hoped to bring to his new role in a way that would inspire others.
Mike threw away the deck of slides he’d prepared for his presentation to a group of 1,000; ran his 100-person town halls more as discussion groups instead of dry reports, and resisted the urge to get down in the weeds when facing difficulties. He has earned the respect of his new set of stakeholders and has been able to execute a major organizational change, leading to greater efficiencies and cost savings while retaining the loyalty of his teams.