It’s a Kind of Magic: The Art and Science of Executive Coaching
My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I’m the director of two businesses. One is called the Intact Academy where I train coaches and consultants from absolute beginners to supervisor level. The other business is Team Agility where I help businesses innovate their business more quickly than their products.
I decided to go back to basics now after the summer and back to basics for me is really individual coaching and executive coaching. I coach a lot of leaders, usually men over forty, who are at a crossroads in their career and their life. Sometimes they’ve gone up the ladder and they’ve developed patterns of behaviour that have brought them to that point but now they want a break through. Or they want to go to a different level but they don’t know how to do it. The other reason that people come to Executive Coaching is personally, they’ve become successful in their career and then they realize that they don’t really have a personal life anymore because they’re always busy working. They want to get that balance back.
A lot of the coaching I do is through zoom, so I do distance coaching with executives all over the world. I might start as a mentor, become a coach and end up as a sparring partner.
Sometimes people think what I do is magic. I guess for me Executive Coaching is kind of magic. It’s an art. But it’s also a science.
Science or Art?
When you’re an executive coach it’s OK if you coach based on intuition. That’s the art part, the magic, but it’s really important that you use the science part, the discipline, too. The discipline part includes observing, interpreting, conceptualizing behaviour and then helping people to break out of patterns. What I teach my students in executive coaching and what I also explain to leaders who have to manage employees is the disciplined scientific part of coaching. You must build up a discipline of observation, interpretation, conceptualization and then intervention. And that sounds complicated but actually it’s not. It’s something that I practice all the time, every day.
So to figure out what to do in executive coaching I first observe. For observation we use transactional analysis, because transactional analysis like no other model has concepts to think about patterns. So I observe. I observe how people talk to their peers, talk to their employees, talk to their bosses. I watch their mannerisms.
I had a client just the other day who every time he talked about his boss started nervously twitching his pen and usually ticking very loudly on the desk. And I thought, that’s really weird, I’m going to see if this is a pattern or not. So I purposefully dropped in his boss now and then in our executive coaching, and every time he’d grab a pen and start ticking.
I wonder what’s going on there. The reason he came into coaching was that he felt as if he was not being completely himself in his leadership role. After a time I asked him if he realized that every time we talked about his boss he started ticking with his pen. He didn’t realize he was doing it. Sometimes people have mannerisms where the unconscious betrays itself.
I asked him to exaggerate what he was doing, and he started ticking much much louder with his pen. I said, What are you really doing?
He said very softly, I want to beat him up.
He told me about the experience he had the first week in the job, almost ten years earlier. As his boss introduced him to his new employees, his boss shared a confidential fact about his private life with all the staff. When he had discussed this with his boss he had never meant for it to be shared publicly. In his mind his boss publicly humiliated him. He felt a mixture of shame and rage.
This mixture of shame and rage came out every time he talked with his boss. This was something he had never spoken of, for the last ten years, which he still needed to repair in that relationship. This little kernel of rage and shame is why he started to hide himself, and not feel so free.
Once we’d observed this behaviour we talked about the interpretation.
He said, I still have this mixture of rage and shame, I felt humiliated. There’s still something there and it hinders me in my work. I feel like a very vulnerable balloon that’s about to burst every time my boss checks in.
In an earlier article we talked about the people regulate intimacy and proximity through the way they transact. Well this guy had decided to only talk from Adult and Critical Parent and create a dominant distant relationship with his employees. His employees saw him in his ivory tower, and felt they couldn’t really talk to him.
Then we talked about what he could do as an intervention. What he could do to change that.
He said, Well, what I really want to do with you is to practice other ways of being, other ways of communicating. I want to use other ego states more. I want to transact in a different way. I want to communicate in a more intimate way with my employees.
I asked him, You do realize the consequence of that is you’re going to have to let them get to know you? And he kind of blanched at that and got nervous, he said, I won’t be able to do that unless I resolve this with my boss first.
We did a lot of work on how he could give feedback to his boss about an incident that happened ten years ago that was still influencing his behaviour today. We worked on creating internal protection for him, because he’d never learned to do that for himself.
After about three months work he was ready to have this conversation with his boss. He learnt a bit more about how to transact from different ego states, to create more intimacy in his relationships and his employees were already reacting well and expressing their appreciation.
The big thing, of course, was this talk with his boss. We prepared it really well, we scripted it almost because he knew he was going to be really nervous when he came into that room with his boss. Fortunately, his boss had also been in coaching and had learned to reflect on his own behavior and accept responsibility. So when my client explained the issue, the boss did the right thing. He apologized profoundly for his behaviour, and asked what he could do to help and support my client. A beautiful reaction. My client was free. He’d been apologized to, he got the support of the boss that he needed, and he started to be a different boss at work.
In executive coaching we observe behaviour. We talk about interpretation – what does this mean? Then we use theory: how can we conceptualize and generalize this observation? Is this a pattern which is something that they use all the time or is it an incident? Is it a longer term pattern?
One of our jobs as executive coaches is to interrupt the patterns that are not empowering an. So what could help you break out of the pattern? I believe a lot in sharing and partnering with my client in this observation, interpretation, conceptualization, and that’s why teaching TA to your clients is really helpful.