In our 40 years of operating, we have never been more aware of just how much today’s leaders must manage; the complexity of global markets, burnout and turnover rates that have skyrocketed since the advent of COVID-19, and shifting and often confusing priorities around inclusion and equity, the role of resilience and purpose at work, and the steady drumbeat of cost and profit pressures.
In an ideal world, business leaders would routinely jump headlong into running their businesses, making decisions at the speed of light, coaching and developing their people with nuance and wisdom, and crafting spot-on strategies out of whole cloth, elbowing competitors and pandemics out of the way with single-minded purpose and passion.
We don’t live in an ideal world, and none of us are meant to go it alone.
One of our key partnerships is with a global telecommunications provider. We have designed and facilitated several leadership development cohorts for this organization, helped them create an inclusive and global Sustainability Plan and approach, and coached leaders across the US and Europe.
One of our recent coaching engagements with this client highlighted how challenging the world of work has become.
The coachee was the head of the US Operations group; we will call him “Bob.” Bob had worked for the organization for over 15 years, steadily rising to more prominent roles with greater responsibility and increasing demands to cut costs. Recently, Bob had hit a ‘slump,’ a period of several months where he had missed some significant deadlines and had shared with his manager that he was feeling a ‘bit lost’ in his most recent role. Having partnered with Brimstone in the past on creating a strategy for the Operations group in Europe, Bob’s manager reached out to us, and Bob agreed to enter into a 6-month coaching relationship with one of our executive coaches.
At the first meeting with Bob, after establishing some initial rapport and detailing the guardrails of confidentiality and goal-setting for the work, Bob opened up and began to talk about what he had been struggling with in recent months.
In the wake of the George Floyd murder of May 2020, Bob had felt both a desire to learn more about inclusion and equity issues facing many of his employees and a concern about ‘saying or doing the wrong thing.’ Additionally, Bob had been working between 60 and 70 hours a week and felt that his workload was ‘getting away from him.’ Finally, he confided that he had recently become a single parent of two teenagers and was, frankly, exhausted.
In addition to asking him what would be most important for the two of them to focus on over the six months, one of the first things Bob’s coach did, was to suggest that they ‘chunk down’ Bob’s current situation. Let’s start with some basics. Are you getting enough sleep? Any exercise? Are you able to spend any time relaxing, or with family?
Most of us avoid asking questions like these for fear of appearing intrusive.
In executive coaching, as in therapy or traditional medicine, there is increasing relevance and a need to look at the whole person. Operating out of fear of being fired or on sheer adrenaline is unsustainable.
Running the marathon that is work and parenting depends on a stable foundation of resilience and health.
Over the ensuing months, Bob’s coach helped him to get curious about the drivers of his exhaustion.
Was he working efficiently or just working hard? Was he delegating the right work to people, and did members of his team need coaching, training, and/or encouragement to take on new or challenging tasks and projects?
The coach helped Bob to reframe his view of leadership from thinking he needed to ‘do it all himself’ to the view that his role was to encourage and inspire others to grow and take on more.
This became a virtuous cycle of the empowerment, efficiency, and pride that accompanies a shared workload and a superior outcome.
Alongside the process of unpacking workload and delegation, Bob and his coach spent time digging into what other mental models Bob might be unaware of, those assumptions or deeply held beliefs that can drive each of us to act without understanding the implications of those actions. For example, in discussing the workload issue, it became apparent to Bob that he had long held the unspoken belief that he was only a good person when he got an “A” on all projects, regardless of their overall importance to the firm.
This, in effect, meant there was no such thing as a priority because everything felt equally important and urgent. Hence, Bob’s drive to do it all and the impact of this belief on his team, his energy, and his family. Bob and the coach held multiple discussions about how one can remain true to a lifelong work ethic without sacrificing health and happiness; how to not kill the proverbial golden goose.
Finally, Bob’s coach had been chosen in part due to his past experience with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion ( DEI) programs and concepts. The coach started the discussions with Bob by first acknowledging his decision to make himself vulnerable and willing to learn about an often-uncomfortable set of topics. They had several discussions about intention vs. impact, mindfulness and the importance of getting curious about the bias we all carry in a myriad of forms, and about not letting the occasional discomfort of dealing with differences get in the way of learning or trusting people to shine at work. Bob attended internal DEI programs sponsored by his company and requested his HR support team to push them all hard throughout Talent Reviews and hiring practices. Bob learned to slow down and spend five minutes in advance of team meetings thinking through ways that he could ensure all voices and ideas were heard and valued. People noticed, thanked Bob privately, and began to speak up more evenly and energetically as the months passed.
It is tempting to suggest that these changes could not have happened without the skill of the coach.
Perhaps. Just as likely, however, is the set of attributes that Bob brought to the coaching engagement at a pivotal point in his career. He was open enough to acknowledge that his actions were no longer effective. Bob was humble and courageous enough to understand that he didn’t yet understand much in the world of DEI but that his formidable work ethic and personal leadership credo worked in favor of his growing and learning in this area, no matter how challenging. He fell in love with the concepts of mindfulness, simply slowing down to notice what might be happening in his team or even within his own body and mind, checking assumptions as he worked. The newfound focus on noticing allowed him to more thoughtfully and effectively plan, listen to, and engage his colleagues, his family, and his hopes for the future.
Together, Bob and his coach found new perspectives and a treasure trove of new possibilities.