Executive Development

At the beginning of May, I lined up a meeting with a man who would turn out to be what I'm considering my first 'official' executive interview in this series of 50. At the time, as excited as I was to meet him, I hadn't concocted this little plan on mine, and was simply attempting to fulfill my market research assignment through my online MIT course on Entrepreneurship. Now, however, I realize what an auspicious place he holds in the 'line-up' and am eager to share my experience with the first of many.

As I walked into the coffee shop and saw him sitting there in his suit and tie, I felt the familiar overwhelm of emotions and counterproductive thought: DamnHe's well-dressed. Clearly very busy. I need to buy this tea and sit my ass down so as to not waste his time. I was on time. I was dressed well. Yet, my concerns swarmed.

"So, what can I do for you?" he asked, putting down his phone and looking me in the eye. I tried really hard to listen to my prefrontal cortex as I attempted to formulate my desire to mitigate climate change and to coach executives as a way to have big impact. He listened, attentively, and after my awkward attempt to sound professional and put-together, he began to inquire. He wasn't clear on what my role would be, on what I would actually be doing with these executives, and how I would even begin to sell my idea to them.  I, too, was feeling around in the dark a bit, trying hard to express the difference between my role as coach and that of a consultant. I so yearned for it to be easier.

Ultimately, we found common ground, and I rejoiced inside that I'd finally been able to communicate my dream.  And it was at this point that things finally did get easier. Once I stopped acting from the belief that I needed to prove myself, subconsciously seeking his 'yay or nay',  I was able to let go of my fears and really listen. Once I pushed those fears aside, there was room for him to show up completely, without needing to fit into the box I'd created for him to give me the answers I secretly hoped to avoid.

While my focus with him wasn't what I expect it to be with my upcoming interviews (What's it like to be a conscious leader? What challenges confront you?), I did end up gleaning a great deal of insight from him and the story he shared. He spoke of his own development, referring to the many years when he had all sorts of expectations about life, work, and specifically, his employees. They should be happy, he shared with me of his perspective back then, simply because they have a job. He paid them well--why are they continually dissatisfied? He did all sorts of things to attempt to improve their happiness, despite his underlying belief that their feelings should be otherwise. He hired coaches, he paid consultants, he organized trainings. Yet nothing seemed to create the change he was seeking. He was at a loss. He, too, was unhappy, and knew something needed to change. 

What this executive shared with me, ultimately, was that it was through his own development that he, and his employees, finally experienced the happiness they were all seeking. And with that, came not only 'the bottom line', but a multitude of other benefits that rippled through his life. His tension lessened, he slept better, his marriage improved, his friendships deepened, and work became less of a pain in the ass. Suddenly, he was able to actually enjoy his time with people with whom he had very little in common, and to overcome internal barriers that previously stopped him. People noticed how much more engaged he was, how much more loyal and motivated he seemed on more of the tasks he took on.

Just the other day, I received another email from him, referring me to an article he'd just read in the New York Times entitled 'Why You Hate Work'. I was ecstatic. Here's this executive, thinking of me as he's reading this article, sending me his thoughts which perfectly align with my intention. "This coaching angle is useful," he shared with me. "If executives are being pulled, they have less chance to focus on leading to solutions addressing the climate. They need help."

Exactly. He nailed it.

And for this reason, I continue to forge into territory that, at times, feels so wild, scary and uncharted...

Failure in a Linear Society

The other day, my Branding and Marketing Mentor expressed concern about all the linear advice that I was getting regarding my business idea:

Can it work?
Should I do it?
Will it work?

Yes. No. 

As I type this post, I'm reminded of the feedback that I was given in my coaching program, specifically regarding my tendency to ask these types of questions of my clients. When I looked more closely, I found I wasn't just asking such questions of my clients, but of all sorts of people in my life on all sorts of topics:

Do you want juice?
Did you sleep well?
Did you have a good day?
Are you coming to bed soon?

In beginning language instruction, we have a very fancy name for these types of inquisitions: 'yes or no questions'. In German and Spanish, they are excellent questions for beginners to learn because they are so easy to form--simply reverse the subject and the verb that is offered in the statement, and raise your voice tone at the end (Hast du Hunger? = Have you hunger?). Information gathering questions, on the other hand, are much more complicated, in that you need to know which interrogative pronoun to use (who, what, where, why, etc.), as well as the order in which to arrange the words. There's also the much more complicated aspect of when to ask such questions, which drifts into the more nebulous region of cultural awareness. While not completely necessary to learn when acquiring a language, having such awareness can help us in a variety of ways (imagine asking your manager at work, for example, how his sex life is going with his wife--certainly wouldn't go over so well in most American circles...). 

And so I wonder: am I getting a bunch of yes/no feedback about my business idea because I'm asking yes/no questions? Or do we live in a yes/no society where it's simply too complicated or awkward or scary or uncomfortable to gather information from people? Or is that, too, a type of yes/no boxed-in type of question that I'm posing, once again?

I know, I know, there is plenty of information that we can gather from people that doesn't come anywhere close to scary nor uncomfortable. 'What time is it?' certainly won't leave most people feeling awkward (unless you ask your PMS-y wife while she's sharing about her rough day). But my point is this: it's certainly outside the box to come at life from the side, and to look at HOW we might do things as opposed to IF...at least when it comes to ideas that go against the grain, like mine.  As I'm learning, innovation springs from this lateral approach:

How might I find these executives I seek?
When would be a good time to interview them?
Who might have ideas for me to connect to them?
Where on the internet might I look to find ideas?

It certainly gets easier, this ability to explore sideways through the doubt and fear that failure looms when we don't follow the scripted route.

And with that ease and progress, I imagine, will come the paradigm shift that I know is necessary for this plan to work: Failure is my path to success. They taught us this early on in my Entrepreneurship 101 class at MIT. You've surely heard the saying about falling off the horse--but this graphic really sends it home. Failure really IS on my path to success. If I get 48 execs who think my idea sucks, and 2 of them who are willing to hire me, doors can open. In fact, doors can open with 50 no's. Or 100. 

For me, though, I suppose that I'm bit afraid that I won't have it in me to get back up after 48, especially if all of them come back to back, before the glorious 2. I think that's where community comes in, though. That's when we call our friend in India and she sends us this awesome image. That's when we go to a coaching presentation and find tools to create visions. That's when we call our climate-skeptic dad and seek his love, even if he doubts the essential foundation upon which our business is built (love you, Dad, even if I'm not following the path you had in mind for me!)

Thanks for being part of my journey here!  I'd love to hear from you, if you're willing go take the sideways route and add a comment...would be fun to hear where you are in yours.

From Wilderness Guide to Executive Coach: Can it be done?

For the past four years, I've been writing a blog about my bilingual journey with my daughter in my non-native language of German. As the years have passed, and our now five-year-old daughter has gotten older, I've noticed that I've blogged less and less. While it's partly because I have less time now, I simultaneously find that the stress that I experience now in that process--while still there at times--pales in comparison to the fear and overwhelm that I first felt when I started the journey. I needed community and support in those first years, and I needed a way to process the depth and challenge of the experience. 

While this next journey is very different, I'm noticing that there are quite a number of similarities as I sit here in the same skin, peering out through the same eyes, having fears and doubts with the same amygdala that dragged me around back then: Can I do this? Is it possible for a foreign language teacher and wilderness leader to don a business suit and coach executives?

Many say no. How can I possibly relate to, much less support and guide, an executive in corporate America when the majority of my time has been with youth in the classroom and the high desert of Idaho?

Others say yes. Whether they believe it or not, they want me to succeed. They, too, want what's best for us, for our future, for their children, for our children, and perhaps, like me, for all life on this beautiful blue orb.

For this reason, I write this blog, for I imagine that sharing in this manner can similarly serve to support me and others as it has in my journey with my now bilingual daughter. While I'm not aware of very many coaches who seek to support executives in their process of mitigating climate change, there may be others of you out there, or perhaps simply those of you who might share my curiosities regarding conscious leaders and the challenges they face. 

The other night, I heard this fantastic speaker by the name of Patti Dobrowolski. From her presentation, I was completely inspired, and connected to the passion of what I really want: to have big impact, to really make a difference towards curbing climate change. Big impact will take Big Bold Steps, as Patti posits. And the first one I wrote down is to share my idea with 50 top executives. Clearly, I wasn't thinking when I wrote that down, because were my amygdala to have a say, that goal wouldn't have come anywhere near the paper.

But I'm clear: if I'm to discover if executives are my mountain top, the place where I can have big impact, then I need to discover all sorts of details about the world 'at the top'. 

And thus, my exploration begins. At 1 am on a Friday night, I write my first blog entry and officially start on my journey through the exploration of conscious leaders and the challenges they face. Some of what I'm eager to explore is...

  1. What is not working for executives and change makers?
  2. What are their struggles and how can they be more effective - what can we learn from their struggles?
  3. What challenges are they having in feeling like they are making a difference?
  4. How do they deal with isolation?
  5. What are the emotional struggles/ interpersonal struggles that they have while balancing personal/professional life?
  6. What is the story of their struggle to make a difference and be successful?
  7. What is hard for them?
  8. How do they balance it all?
  9. What is their family like?
  10. What is their relationship with the rest of their organization/staff like?
  11. Have they given anything up to be where they are?

I'm excited. I feel well-supported, curious, and ready to dive in--not such a rare experience after blogging and listening to Nahko Bear, another newly found source of inspiration. Naturally, there's trepidation too--I just outed myself to who knows how many, and made an unofficial commitment to the world to interview 50 top executives.

Yikes. Here we go...