What I Learned In Executive Coaching
Even if you’re wary of exposing weaknesses, a coach may be right for you
It didn’t start out as a relationship should. We didn’t choose one another, and I wasn’t really looking for help. But what seemed to be a threatening situation and a potentially painful experience that I had to go through to protect and keep my job, turned out to be one of the experiences I value most from my career.
Let me back up for a moment…
A number of years ago, my boss left our company and in came another. Everyone knows what that usually means: disruption, a re-org, more new people as the manager starts to bring in their own team. And that’s exactly what it meant for us. I work in technology, which means management is predominantly made of white men. At that time, at a company with 3,500 employees, I was the highest-ranking — and oldest — woman at the company. So when my new boss approached two of my female colleagues and me about starting to work with an executive coach — one that he’d used before and with whom he had an ongoing professional relationship — we were wary. He hadn’t offered this to any of the men.
He told us he was doing it to give us access to professional development, which he positioned as an opportunity. We didn’t see it that way, instead worrying that he had an ulterior motive. We speculated that while he was reorganizing and building his new team, he could terminate the men easily. But he wouldn’t have such an easy time firing women, especially with two over 40 who made less than the men, as that would’ve opened the company to a lawsuit. We figured this coaching was a way to make it seem he was committed to making us part of his new org. If it didn’t work out, he could find grounds to let us go because we had failed to adapt or fit into his new plan.
Cautious First Steps
With all this speculation, it was hard to go into the coaching relationship, which should be built on trust, and really let my guard down. So my first interaction with this coach was to ask her to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Now the wariness was mutual.
Then I met Roz. The first thing she did was address the elephant in the room and said quite frankly, “I have to tell you, you are the very first person that has ever asked me to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Tell me why.”
I laid it all on the table, and when I finished explaining what I believed the motivations were behind us coming together, I think we both understood we were starting at an unfortunate place. But we agreed to forge ahead.
The first session was going through 360 feedback gathered from roughly a dozen colleagues — some who were above and some below me on the org chart, my peers and my direct reports — and completely anonymous. Hearing people’s honest assessments of me wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m extremely self aware. I wasn’t surprised by the good (fair, empathetic, smart, genuine leader); the not so good (fast to take charge if things aren’t going well rather than to guide and coach through); or even the bad and the ugly (can be intimidating and a bit scary at times because of my quest for perfection — people were afraid of disappointing me — and the occasional flare up of my Italian temper).
I took the negatives to heart and knew I had two choices: commit to the coaching process and get something out of it, or just go through the motions with Roz to put on a good show for my new boss and keep on doing what I’d been doing. I decided, despite my trepidation, that I had a lot to gain here and would take my chances on what I stood to lose.
Doing the Work
It was a year-long journey. We started with defining what I wanted most from my professional relationships. For me, that came down to wanting everyone I worked with to trust me. For those above me on the org chart, that meant I wanted them to trust my ability to get my job done well. I wanted my peers to trust me as an equal team member, an expert in my area, a sounding board, a contributor, and even sometimes, a confidante. I wanted my direct reports to trust me enough that they were willing to raise their hands, take chances, make mistakes, and celebrate their successes.
We also worked on my “triggers,” those things that brought out the absolute worst in me. The list was long for this Type A, Italian, First Child in the throes of menopause. But Roz said one of the most profound things anyone has ever said to me: “Every time you let someone trigger you into bad behavior which prevents you from being your best self, you have now given them control over your personal brand.” Giving someone else control over me was not something that made me remotely happy. (Did I mention I may be a bit of a control freak?) But that made a whole lot of sense to me. Taking control of a situation without trusting others to figure it out or losing my temper would not garner the trust I wanted. It would also hurt my personal brand.
They say admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving that problem. This was true in my case — just being aware of these triggers allowed me to know what was happening and I could choose not to react. We also worked on strategies that allowed me to slow down so I could be mindful about how I responded, rather than having a gut reaction — or worse — not responding at all.
In the end, I knew I couldn’t be or pretend to be someone I’m not. When Roz suggested I say, “Oh, how interesting” when someone said something that triggered me to give myself a moment, I told her there was no way I could do that because anyone who knows me for five minutes would hear that from me as, “Oh, you’re a f*cking idiot…” So we had to work on those strategies until they were authentic to me and my personality. Turns out leaning back in my chair and concentrating on slowing down my speech still enabled me to say what I wanted, but it was received much better.
About nine months into the process, my new(ish) boss made a comment about how amazing “my transformation” had been, and he praised me “for working so hard.” But the truth was, there was no transformation, and I wasn’t doing mental workouts every day to become a better person. I was being me, but not reacting rashly to my triggers — and trust me, I was tested often. I had come to realize that although 80 percent of the time I was the version of myself I really liked and wanted people to see, the 20 percent of the time that the bad and the ugly me showed up — the one that made me wake up in the middle of the night and think about how I should’ve handled that differently — was preventing me from getting what I wanted. I wasn’t in control.
I’d love to tell you I’m amazing 100 percent of the time now, but let’s be real. Like everyone, I’m human and imperfect. I still react too quickly sometimes, and of course I still lose my temper. But my percentages have gotten better (maybe 90/10?) and I can live with that. That was another thing Roz and I worked on — the fact that I didn’t need to be or seem perfect all the time, as that was adding to my triggers and the “scary” perception. I want to be authentic so if the situation warrants it, I do let the bad and the ugly out sometimes, but on my terms.
When anyone asks me about working with an executive coach, I tell them it came down to three things:
- What would I get out of it? I knew I needed certain things to be happy and get what I wanted out of my career so I was intrigued to explore my personal attributes that I wanted to make stronger and leverage for my next professional step.
- Was I willing to commit to the process? I had to consider if I had the time, and if I was willing to really listen and take feedback, not just look for validation.
- Did I truly believe I had things to work on?
I ended up staying at that company for another few years, and I still look back on my year working with Roz with gratitude. Besides learning how to bring my best self to every situation, I learned that things happen for a reason and sometimes I can’t be in control (like when I get a new boss or am re-orged), but I can always control how I handle my response and how that, in turn, affects my personal brand. It was a journey worth taking.