September 2003

Volume IX  Number 3  

Coaching – Peeling the Onion


I recently started a new executive coaching assign- ment to work with a Vice President of an $11 B international food company. My new client travels sixty percent of his time throughout the world, so getting time together will be difficult, and may require more phone contact than face time.


When we first met last week, Bob was open about giving me his career history, as well as detailing where he thought that he had shown behaviors that others regarded as arrogant, not open to others’ ideas, and even hostile.  As I have not yet talked to his boss (who is based in the UK)  nor to  the Human Resources person in his home office who initiated contact with G&S, all I know is Bob’s retrospective understanding.  He commented that he wasn’t good at office politics, and wistfully said, “Maybe I should start a landscaping business.”


Yet, Bob agreed to think about five things that he would like to change in the months we’ll be working together, and how we would know if others recognized the changes — there must be solid business implications for coaching to be successful.


His comment about his distaste for “office politics” caused me to reflect.  In over twenty years of practice, I have yet to have a client say, “One of the things I like best about my skill set is how well I am at playing office politics.”  The technically-trained managers — and Bob has a degree in agricultural management — are most frequently the ones who “don’t get it” when they say, “It should be enough that I’m the best data-base miner (or risk manager, or quantitative analyst, or whatever technical-functional type in Schein’s Career Anchors’ terms), without recognizing that that may be exactly the problem.  Having depth of knowledge, they don’t want to explain or discuss. 


In Bob’s case, his new boss, freshly in her job from a world-class consulting firm, questioned the need for detailed planning.  Bob made faces and said nothing, while others at the meeting sensed she wanted the group to confirm their worth to the enterprise.  He felt she was manipulative, and that was devious.  Bob was pleased when she left after one year, although he admitted it was her choice, to start a family.  At no point did Bob recognize the disconnect between a person placed in charge of an $11B supply chain management, with a successful career consulting to major corporations, seriously questioning the need for planning.


This is the level of detail (actually, more is usually involved) in peeling the onion of perception within the workplace.  Coaching involves developing emotional intelligence, in Daniel Golman’s terms, and in using the new skills to apply greater leverage in interpersonal situations. 


I have written frequently about the frustrations of change.  Most of our clients can, with a few open-ended questions and some honest reflection, develop a target list of personal behaviors to understand and some new ways of responding to them.   


Recently, a G&S graduate asked me to see his college roommate, who was stymied in his role as a research analyst for a boutique advisory firm. Mike’s boss had taken him with him as his assistant, two years ago, leaving a larger shop. Although Mike had been working for George a total of six years, George had yet to allow him to be senior on any research, in spite of multiple promises to do so.  Mike saw no way out.


Our breakthrough came when I mentioned that Mike’s MBA school, the University of Chicago, had a reputation as a strong “quant” program.  He took umbrage, saying it was a strong “strategy and analysis” program.  This quickly led to a conversation about the likes and dislikes in his career.  In the two jobs Mike had had before returning for his MBA, he was two years with a regional consulting firm and then two years selling equipment leasing for a Fortune 50 firm.  Mike was a strategic marketing person trapped in a “quant” job.  The other myth that encircled Mike was that he was “stuck” working for George.


In comparatively short order, Mike was introduced to the research head at a major foreign bank, who gave him the chance to begin with four accounts on which he would be the primary analyst.  He’s been there for about six months and has just started a newly-minted MBA as his assistant.  Need it be added, she graduated from the University of Chicago?



Coaching, Therapy and Career Transitions: Similarities and Differences



I took a New England Institute course this summer on therapists becoming coaches, which forced me to look at the similarities and differences.  Therapists from Freud’s time to the present focus on changing feelings, with the assumption that change in behavior will occur.  Coaching focuses on specific behaviors that others in the work environment can experience as they are modifying. 


Yet the primary skill remains active listening, with a duel focus on thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes the listening includes hearing what is not said, as in Mike’s case. 


Finally, the difference between career transition counseling and executive coaching is also based on the need to understand the job situation.  In career transition counseling, we want to help the client to move on — for whatever reason, it’s too late to fix something.  Beyond understanding and developing a story for interviews, little time is spent on what is essentially the past. 


With executive coaching, the need for understanding both the dynamics of the executive’s workplace and the specific reactions to it are key to planning the process of change.




Books I’d Recommend


Longitudes and Attitudes: The World in the Age of Terrorism, by Thomas L. Friedman, Anchor Editions,  2003, $14.95.


Thomas Friedman is a Middle East reporter for The New York Times.  A regular contributor to the op-ed page, I first took note of him after 9/11.  He has published this collection of articles and some diary entries.  Friedman points out that the copy editor is the only person who sees his column before its publication.  Through the newspaper’s internet connection, 1.5 million people worldwide read his words, in addition to those of us who hold him up in hard copy. 


He writes: “The events of 9/11 were particularly compelling for me because they brought together my two strongest interests — globalization and the Middle East.   I want readers to have one of four reactions — any one will do:


  • 1)      I didn’t know that.
  • 2)      I never looked at it that way before.
  • 3)      You said exactly what I feel, but I didn’t quite know how to express it.
  • 4)      I hate you and everything you stand for.


Finally, Friedman sums up his view:  “While evil people hate us for who we are, many good people dislike us for what we do.  And if we want to win their respect, we need to be the best, most consistent and most principled global citizens we can be.”