Overwhelmed and frightened - finding a way forward

The elevator doors whispered open, and I was greeted by my client’s executive assistant. She escorted me to Martha’s office. There, I found myself seated across the table from a personable young woman who greeted me with a warm smile.

A few days earlier, her CEO shared with me some insights into Martha’s career. In her twenty years with this national retailer, she worked diligently to progress through a series of increasingly senior management roles. Two weeks ago, Martha was promoted to a key role on the Executive Committee.

Once settled comfortably, with introductions out of the way, I asked Martha, “How can I best help you and what are the benefits you hope to realize from our coaching relationship?”

Her response was illuminating and would form the foundation of our process moving forward. She said, “While I am delighted to be a member of our Executive Team, I am feeling totally overwhelmed and frightened at the prospect of failure.”

I could see the tension in her face as she shifted uncomfortably in her chair. I asked her to share more and to be specific about why she felt this way.

“Roger, I have worked hard throughout my career. I started in an entry-level, customer-facing role, with no formal business education or training. While I am proud of my success, I now find myself questioning whether I can pull this off.”

She continued, “I find myself a member of a seasoned leadership team and worry that I may let everyone down. Most of the other members are older, have MBAs and spent much of their careers with tier-one organizations that are highly regarded for their training and development programs. My background does not include any of these experiences.

“Also, our CEO and leadership team just introduced a new corporate strategic plan and a new centralized organization structure, moving away from our historical, decentralized, regional structure. Many people are worried about this change and morale is low, particularly in the regions.”

Martha went on to explain, “Our CEO expects me quickly to develop:

  • a strategic plan for my function, consistent with the new corporate strategy;
  • a new centralized, functional organization structure, fully staffed within 3 to 4 months; and, 
  • to become a fully participating member of the leadership team within the same period.

Honestly, I just don’t know where to start.”

As her new coach, I now realized why she was feeling so stressed. Who wouldn’t be when faced with such challenges? But, I also knew that the CEO would not have promoted her if he didn’t believe that she had the skills, experiences and growth potential required for the role. I knew that the challenge would be to help Martha see herself, her strengths and capabilities in a far more positive, can-do light.

We agreed on what Martha wanted to accomplish during her coaching sessions:

  • increase her self-confidence
  • become an effective leader
  • integrate quickly into the executive team
  • gain approval for her functional strategic plan and organization structure/staffing plans.

At our next session, I had to get Martha focused on confirming her strengths and embracing her past key accomplishments. While it took two coaching sessions to achieve, I could see a positive shift occurring. She became more comfortable and relaxed. 

At our third session, I asked Martha why she thought the CEO had selected her. What does he see in you? I watched a curious expression come over her. I suggested that she start listing her rationale on the left side of the whiteboard. Thirty minutes later, she finished.

I then suggested that she list her key strengths on the right side of the whiteboard. Then she was asked to compare the lists to uncover any gaps. After a week of reflection, this exercise helped her to articulate her main coaching needs. They were:

  • How to develop a functional strategic plan. “I’ve never written one and am unaware of the key areas to address.”
  • How to become an effective leader, not a manager. “I need to better understand the difference between being a leader and a manager and how to establish key benchmarks to aim at with regard to my behavioural development.”
  • How to build and maintain healthy relationships. “I know that I have to start reaching out to build relationships with my peers, my staff and our CEO.”
  • How to build momentum and secure some early wins. “I know that I will be judged by the results. However, you have helped me understand why I should focus on hitting singles and doubles, to begin with, not home runs.”

After developing and implementing her Personal Leadership Development Plan addressing each of the issues, Martha went on to surprise herself and others on how quickly she stepped into her new role accepting each challenge and accountability while becoming an effective Executive Team member. I am extremely proud of Martha’s work and accomplishments.

This was one of my most enjoyable and successful coaching relationships. Martha’s commitment to learn, grow and focus on meeting her personal development objectives in a timely fashion were impressive and, as an added benefit, we enjoyed many laughs and good times during her coaching journey.

Does any of this story resonate with you? Would working with a coach help you step into a new role or situation faster and with greater confidence? If the answer is yes, then give me a call for a complimentary chat to discuss your needs in more detail

The battle that goes on within everyone

The old man was wizened and ropy. The boy by his side was willowy and supple. The contrast was powerful. All differences recognized and observed, they moved in harmony, climbing a steep, narrow path which ascended at a challenging pitch. On journey’s completion, they entered a grass-carpeted promontory overlooking a valley burning with the early evening colours of autumn.

A zephyr of warming breeze riffled the aspen leaves and created a calming background ambiance for what was the old man’s holy place. A place of solitude where he and the boy would retreat to commune with mother earth.

The valley was split by a narrow ribbon of silver. This small river was the source of nourishment for the creatures who shared the area, and as they observed, the old man alerted the boy to movement below.

“See the doe emerging from the birches with her fawn? Watch how she never lets her infant out of sight, keeps her always by her side and safe.”

Once on the riverbank, the fawn spread its spindly legs to dip its head to the water. The serene scene continued for minutes until something seemed to disturb the universe. It went unnaturally quiet - suddenly. Birdsong ceased then birds took flight.

There was a ripple in the grasses by the river’s edge. Both the old man and boy stood alert to the realization that a grey wolf had been for many minutes stalking the doe and her fawn. He continued to draw closer while the deer seemed blissfully ignorant of their peril.

All stood still. The wolf as silent as a burglar behind a curtain.

The doe quickly raised her head. Hooves pounded the turf. She was on to the threat, and the truth of danger flared in her head like a flame. Moving gracefully at speed, the deer melted back into the forest where they found sanctuary in a thicket of thorn-clad Honey Locust trees. A brief pursuit thus ending with the wolf left hungry and frustrated.

“Do you know the story of the two wolves that are always battling within each of us my son,” asked the elder?

“One is FEAR. He brings anxiety, concern, uncertainty, hesitancy, indecision, and inaction.

“The other is FAITH. He offers calmness, conviction, confidence, enthusiasm, decisiveness, excitement and action.”

The young lad pondered then asked, “Which wolf wins?”

The elder responded simply.

“The one you feed.”

— Native folktale, author unknown

I enjoy this story of the two wolves fighting in everyone’s mind.  We all experience intense personal battles between our positive and negative thoughts. This story contains a very simple yet powerful message for all of us:

The more we feed one voice at the expense of the other it forms a habit which starts to dominate our thinking and behaviour and how we experience life and the level of happiness we enjoy.

Are you aware of the two wolves continually battling each other for dominance in your mind? Are these battles seriously affecting your thoughts, behaviours and how you experience the world you inhabit? 

How are they affecting your career and your relationships? Could they be holding you back, from achieving your career aspirations and peace of mind?

If so, give me a call, and we can explore whether coaching would be right for you. 

Together, we can discover which wolf you may be feeding.

High noon and the power of your stories

I stood frozen, staring, waiting for the clock to toll high noon. The tension was as palpable as a toothache.

Facing me was a scruffy, skinny kid who wore a know-it-all look of disdain on his face, partially hiding the three-inch scar on his left cheek. He was a mean and unpredictable bully.

On both sides of the dusty street, stood the town folk, mostly older men who seemed not to breathe. The only sound was an odd cough from both sides of the road.

My heart pounded. Beads of sweat popped on my forehead like tiny, glistening prairie dogs. My gaze never strayed from my protagonist's watery green eyes - noticing the twitch that occurred every few seconds in his right eye. I didn’t trust this crazed stranger who had terrorized the town for weeks. He was simply a cold -blooded killer who thoroughly enjoyed taking the life of another man, just to prove how tough he was.

I stood my ground anxiously waiting for the old town clock to peel 12. But then I started to question myself, wondering if he would wait for the clock to strike, or try to draw his gun ahead of time.

Without further warning, the clock struck. He had his hand on his gun and was moving very fast when two loud shots rang out then the sound of a body hitting the ground like a bag of wet cement. Silence reigned. My gun still smoking, I closed the distance between me and the corpse.  I nudged him with the toe of my boot just to confirm what I already knew.  He was dead.

The townies came alive with cheering while I sauntered over to retrieve my saddle bags. I picked them up and threw them up on my horse. Slowly placing one foot in the stirrup, I pulled myself up. Reins in hand, I turned the horse around and started out of town. My work here was done!

Before I had progressed three strides, a cry rose above the crowd.

“Roger! Wait!” 

It was Becky, the prettiest girl in town, with whom I had become good friends since I had come to town. I pulled my horse to a stop while Becky reached up, grabbed my hand and pulled herself on behind me. We then quietly rode out of town to start a new life together.

Now, many of you may realize that this is a poor man’s version of the “show down” in the classic western movie HIGH NOON starring Gary Cooper. 

So you may ask, why are you sharing this story? This is a coaching website.

Here’s why: this was the type of story that fed my imagination and ambition when I was a boy growing up in Canada. Our heroes were the tall, resolute cowboys who always conquered evil. These were the folks that brought law & order to unruly towns and always claimed victory by bravely defeating the bad guys while winning the heart of the prettiest gal.

During my coaching certification course at the Hudson Institute in Santa Barbara, I shared this story with my classmates and staff. Upon finishing you could have heard a pin drop. Upon instant reflection, I realized that this story genuinely had a huge impact on my life growing up. I realized that I had always fantasized about “rescuing people” and playing the hero role.

I use this story as an example of the impact of personal stories on our lives, whether they be good or bad stories. You see, stories are just elaborate thoughts that keep revisiting us at various stages of our lives, under certain conditions. They can be major influencers in how we live and how much happiness we experience.

From early childhood, we hear stories from our parents and relatives.  These stories start to shape our values and personal philosophies as we grow. However, as we get older, we start creating our own stories and beliefs about ourselves and the world in which we live. These, in turn, impact the way we experience life. The stories that we keep re-telling ourselves become the foundation blocks for the roadmap we use in life.

Later that night I again reflected on my “High Noon” story and how I needed to change it, or forget it all together, if I was going to become an effective executive coach. 

Earlier that afternoon, we learned that an effective coach should never try “to rescue people”. Nor should a coach try to solve problems for clients or offer solutions. 

Our role as a coach is to understand a client’s current situation, help identify areas of desired change, identify possible barriers to change and then work to help the client create their own Personal Development Plan. The client will discover their own development solutions and plans, resulting in much higher levels of commitment to their personal development activities.

So the question for me was “Do I just change my High Noon story or totally walk away from it?” 

I had to realize that my answer to this question could affect my future beliefs and philosophies and how I would experience life in years to come. As our homework, we were asked to reflect on our stories and report back to the group the next morning on our decision and rationale.

When it came to my turn to speak, I quietly broke the news to everyone that I had quietly taken Gary Cooper out behind the barn and buried him forever. My message was simple as I realized that my “High Noon” story had to be dropped for me to stop thinking of myself “as a rescuer of others,” and to start thinking of myself as an effective executive coach.

It became very clear that the role of a coach is to develop a client’s resourcefulness by listening carefully, asking insightful questions, and challenging assumptions while continuing to offer support.

This is now my personal philosophy on how I work with my clients as an executive coach.

Here’s a question for you now: do you know what your real story is? Perhaps we could discover it together.