My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m a specialist in business innovation. I fly around the world helping multinationals, family organizations and start-ups innovate their business more quickly than they innovate their products.
One of the things I do is coach leaders and leadership teams to help and support this process of business innovation. I’ve been doing that for 33 years and sometimes I ask myself what do I really do.
In the first part of this series of video trainings we talked about paying attention to silences but in this current training I’d like to talk about paying attention to stories.
Many of the leaders I’ve talked to have a lot of stories. They tell me about what happened, what they want, what they went through, war stories about their leadership usually with them in the role of the hero having conquered the world, and sometimes with them in the role of the victim having suffered.
Last week I had a leader who told me about his problem of speaking up at meetings and he said: “You know, I’m really good at my job but I don’t really dare to say what I think, especially when there are leaders higher placed or peers around, mostly males. I find it really hard to talk. And so the feedback I get is you’re great at your job, you’re a great manager technically. But we want you to become a leader and as a leader you have to speak up.”
He called me and I asked him, “What kind of story do you have around speaking up?”
He said: “Well, in my job I remember being an intern in this firm and the first time I had to give a presentation for the CEO I sat outside the room waiting for my turn. I was really nervous. They called me and I presented this project I’d been working on for months. I was really proud of it. After the first five sentences the CEO looked up from what he was writing and he said, ‘Sonny you’re really good but go do your homework.’ And he sent me out. And at that moment I decided I was very uncomfortable speaking up.”
I said: “That’s interesting. And really painful.”
He said: “Yeah, it was kind of painful.”
“What’s the other story before that one about speaking up?”
So he told me the many stories that validated his anxiety about speaking up. One of the stories that stands out was “Show and tell” time at the American school. Every week the kids would come in and have to say something about what happened to them during the week, or show something. My client said: “Every time I stood up, I told kids about biology and my nerdy fascination for facts and science. These kids probably got bored. They booed me and at that point I concluded speaking up is really not the thing for me.
I said: “Oh, do you have any memories before that?”
“Yeah, my mother is a university professor and my father’s a doctor and I used to speak up at home but it was never good enough. My mother always corrected me.”
I suggested he interview his mother to understand her idea of success.
He went back home and interviewed his mother: “Mom, what is your definition of success?” And she said, “Oh, son I went through so much in my life. I had to prove myself as a woman, as a professor at the University. And my only definition of success is be good at your job. Speak up and be good at your job.”
My client looked at her and he said: “Mom I really love you. But for me success is love – being loved and loving my family.”
When he came back and told me this story his whole face had changed.
In exploring his stories he realized that actually the roots of his not speaking up came from much deeper and earlier issues. He’d inherited in a way his mother’s ideas of success from his mother’s struggle to prove herself.
I pay attention to stories and I think you should too, because helping our clients create more empowering stories is what we do in coaching.