Finding Opportunity in Crisis

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2009

Much has been written about executive coaching as a method for helping executives perform at the top of their game or to get back on track if they have derailed. The latter has been until recently the primary reason coaches are retained. However, the little know secret is that for many of these executives, notably senior executives, meeting with a coach is sometimes the first opportunity that they have had where they feel comfortable discussing very personal and important issues regarding the meaning of their work, their lives and their futures. It is also often the first time that they have been confronted with looking at themselves, an endeavor that can be daunting, sometimes unsettling and, for some, exciting and even profound and life enhancing.

Take Jack, a serial entrepreneur and CEO; he had invested heavily in hi-tech stocks while leading and growing one startup after another. In lieu of a high salary, he took mostly stock options in his last venture backed startup; a very common scenario for startup executives. He, like other startup executives, was betting he might become the next IPO multimillionaire. However, during the current market collapse, not only did Jack’s startup burn out, leaving him without a job, his personal portfolio went from $5 Million down to $500K with a huge monthly mortgage and expenses that would leave him high and dry within a year; two at the most. Jack, although badly bruised by these losses, had no doubt that he would climb back up but now, however, he was beginning to ask himself some, “bigger questions.” He was saying, “I’ve never stopped to think about the nature of the business I was pursuing…its value to the community, for example. I just looked at its business viability. Now, for some inexplicable reason, I’m questioning my choices not for their viability but for how they fit into the bigger scheme of things.”

Or, consider Bob, the CEO and founder of a successful manufacturing company. Bob is considering the unsolicited offer to purchase his company from a large multi-national company. Bob built his company over a 20-year period into the premier manufacturer of a high-end line of commercial equipment, the Mercedes Benz equivalent in their product line. He realized that although he didn’t really want to sell the company (he loved what he was doing), it was in the best financial interest of his senior executives. They were less emotionally invested in the company and a reasonable offer would reward them for their hard work and commitment. Those executives did not have the emotional attachment to the company that Bob had. As he talked about the details of the offer, which would enable all the senior executives to retire comfortably, he said, “I should be happy about this, but I’m extremely ambivalent.” “I’m not ready to retire!”

Bob is faced with a conundrum, “Selling my successful business is the dream of most business people; it was my dream. It’s a sign of success. Yet if I sell it, I won’t be able to continue doing what brings me happiness.” While everyone else on Bob’s management team was celebrating their good fortune, he struggled with a personal crisis that struck at the core of how he defined himself and how he found meaning. He wondered what he could do about his predicament. Unknown to all the other executives on his team was that the future of the company hung on how Bob solved this personal conundrum, not by his analysis of the financial implications and rewards associated with the offer. In an interview shortly before his 85th birthday in 1960, the seminal and often controversial psychologist, C. G. Jung said, “All factors which are generally assumed to make for happiness can, under certain conditions, produce the contrary. No matter how ideal your situation may be, it does not necessarily guarantee happiness.” Jung’s observations are just as true today as they were in the 60’s.

Contrary to the current public perception that most executives are self-serving, egotistical and power and money hungry, my experience and that of many of my consulting psychologist colleagues who work with senior executives from small companies to Fortune 25 firms, is that most senior executives want to do right and are concerned with how they will be remembered. They want to run successful, honorable, well respected businesses. They want to be good corporate citizens and members of their communities. They often agonize over disciplining employees and do not find it easy to fire people. Furthermore, they know that they can’t burden their direct reports or their board with their worries or concerns about their company or, as Bob above experienced, their ambivalence about the future plans for their company. It truly is lonely at the top. Some, however, have discovered that if they work with an executive coach schooled in adult psychological development (healthy adult development) and who believes in the teleological nature of human development, that people naturally move toward self-realization and are not just reacting to early learning, the executive may have the opportunity to explore these concerns with someone who can provide an objective, supportive and more importantly, a guiding ear. The executive coach can help guide them through normal but unfamiliar developmental territory. However, if the coach is only interested in behavioral change related to bottom line performance, it’s unlikely the executive will sense an openness to discuss these more intra-personal issues. The executive will stay focused only on the “acceptable” discussion issues.
Granted, most executive coaching is rightfully performance based, however, at the CEO level, when they contract for your services not because of performance problems but because they want to work at the top of their game, it is extremely hard to avoid discussing more personal issues. In fact, I think it’s irresponsible for a coach to not ask the executive questions like: “How do you want to be remembered? Where do you want to be 5, 10, 15 years from now? Do you love what you are doing and if not, why not? How are your relationships in and outside of work fairing?” I have had executives look at me and say, “Thanks for asking, I wasn’t sure if I could talk about those concerns even though I wanted to.” They would not have brought the topic up themselves and are pleasantly relieved and often excited to find a receptive and sympathetic ear.

Bob and Jack have more in common than meets the eye. Both are individuals who, when faced with a major life changing/disrupting set of circumstances, began to question their relationship with work and life. Both used the executive coaching opportunity to explore these issues while simultaneously developing their leadership skills. They embarked on a parallel process of executive and personal development. Both are individuals who in mid-life have begun to look at the bigger picture for better or worse. C.G. Jung, the noted psychiatrist once said, “self-knowledge…no matter how unpopular self-knowledge may be,” is a necessary stage of adult development. Both improved their performance as executives while learning about themselves. Both used the executive coaching experience to grow professionally and personally. Both executives concluded their coaching experience pursuing their careers with a different orientation, a bit more complicated but certainly richer. They now factored into their career arch the question, “Will my choices help me fulfill my dreams and become a better person, a better spouse, father and citizen?’

Let’s be clear that we are not talking about psychotherapy. They were high functioning, successful individuals who were using executive coaching as a developmental tool. They wanted to improve professionally and, under the right conditions and given the opportunity, they were open to expand their awareness. In the literature of executive coaching the closest description of this type of coaching I could find is “Coaching for the Executive’s Agenda” by Randy White, Ph.D. and Robert Witherspoon, in a paper, “Four Essential Ways That Coaching Can Help Executives,” published by the Center for Creative Leadership. White and Witherspoon wrote, “often the executive’s felt (italics mine) need is for a confidant to offer insight, perspective, and constructive feedback on the executive’s ideas.”

Lisa, a CEO in her late 30s and founder of a successful high-tech company, grew her company rapidly. The company was approaching 60 employees and was on track to double in size within a year. She was also the unofficial ringleader of a consortium of similar businesses in non-competing territories around the country. This group met quarterly and there was momentum behind forming an official strategic alliance. She was everyone’s choice to head this alliance. She, on her own accord, was considering hiring a replacement to take her company “to the next level” and questioned her capacity to lead a “national” organization. As she considered her options a colleague suggested that she go through an assessment process to help her assess her capabilities and personality…was she cut out to be a leader of a bigger organization. After completing a sophisticated leadership personality survey, she discovered that her psychological profile was similar to other executives who successfully managed later stage companies. She wondered out loud, “Why am I in such a hurry to step aside?” As she explored that question with the consulting psychologist/executive coach, she recounted her family history of entrepreneurs and her relationship with her father. She talked about how he had always said that it was important to “give back to your community” and that success is not measured by dollars alone. As she and the receptive executive coach explored her concerns, she began to factor into her decision process not just the fact that she was capable of making the transition but that being a leader was an act of service. It was a way to help make her community a better place. She began to consider how she could shape the culture of her company to both perform well and to be a good corporate citizen. That’s a conversation that Andrew Fastow, the infamous CFO of Enron, probably never had.

So, what does it take to create an atmosphere that is conducive for helping executives look at the bigger picture? I suggest that there are eight necessary conditions for facilitating the bigger picture discussions. Some of these conditions are the responsibility of the coach, some the executive, and some the responsibility of both:

  • Necessity
  • Receptivity
  • Courage
  • Trust
  • Empathy
  • Experience
  • Well-rounded
  • Boundaries

Necessity (the executive): “No one develops his personality because somebody tells him that it would be useful or advisable to do so. Nature has never yet been taken in by well-meaning advice. The only thing that moves nature is causal necessity, and that goes for human nature too. Without necessity nothing budges, the human personality least of all. It is tremendously conservative, not to say torpid. Only acute necessity is able to rouse it. The developing personality obeys no caprice, no command, no insight, only brute necessity; it needs the motivating force of inner or outer fatalities.” (“The Development of Personality,” 1934, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung). Necessity, as in the example of the unexpected buyout offer Bob encountered or, crashing to the bottom like Jack did are experiences that knock a person on the head and force a confrontation with oneself. Without that knocking most people just keep chugging along the same old path without looking at the scenery or veering down the side road – “the road less traveled” - of personal development.

Receptivity (the executive): Receptivity is the willingness and capacity for self-reflection and to receive critical and sometimes dissonant feedback.

Courage (the executive and coach): Both individuals must be willing to take risk. The executive needs to venture boldly into un-chartered and usually unexplored personal territory; to look at him or herself honestly, and to consider ideas that may be unfamiliar and possibly emotionally evocative. The coach needs to be able to call it like they see it. To speak the truth, as he or she knows it in the presence of executives who are quite use to having people do as they say without any pushback.

Trust (the coach): The coach needs to create and foster an environment in which the executive can feel secure to explore and discuss personal and confidential material.

Empathy (the coach): The coach needs to be able to empathize with the executive. The executive needs to feel and believe that the coach understands and values who they are, how they became who they are, and who they want to become.

Experience (the coach): This is not a venue for the inexperienced young coach or psychologist, no matter how brilliant. The executive has to believe that the coach has earned his or her stripes by having a successful track record grounded in the world of business, whether as a business executive trained to be a coach or as a psychologist who has business experience. Executives can smell a non-business person a mile away. Experience helps in the empathy department.

Well-rounded (the coach): Being broadly educated (not necessarily through formal education) is a major plus and nothing for which to be ashamed as long as the coach doesn’t come across like an ivory tower scholar. I’ve found that executives really appreciate working with someone who is well versed in religion, philosophy, psychology, mythology, ethics and history; not just business, and who can draw from those traditions to provide a wide perspective on the executive’s situation. This helps them see themselves within a richer and broader historical and inter- and intra- personal context. One senior executive mentioned in passing during our initial meeting that I was the first person in ten years to ask him about the Balinese masks he had on his office wall. He said, with poignant disappointment, that in the ten years he has worked for the company, he has never met another executive who cared enough to ask why he had them on his wall.

Boundaries (the coach): The coach needs to draw a frame of time and conditions around the coaching. Consulting psychologists, for example, understand the boundaries between psychotherapy and coaching and help keep the boundaries strong through an overt discussion about them and by setting a time limit, for example, on the coaching engagement (not seemingly endless years found in some forms of psychotherapy). Counter-intuitively, executives are actually more willing to discuss broader personal issues if they know that coaching is not going to become an endless relationship. The limitations actually create a safe environment for the executive to explore personal issues because the executive controls the depth of the discussion, not the coach.

In summary, when you connect an executive who is motivated, receptive and courageous with an executive coach who engenders trust, is empathetic, experienced, well rounded, creates clear boundaries and expectations and is equally courageous, you have a powerful combination that can accelerate the development of the executive and (a fortunate side-benefit) the coach.