There is No Limit to What People Will Let You Do For Them

Giving hands

I am privileged to work with leaders throughout the world in a dozen different industries and professions.  A very common theme is that their workload and job demands are never-ending.

Indeed, they feel as if there are no limits to what others expect from them – or what others will let them do.

I met with a client a while ago, using a video call.  As I opened the link, I was surprised to see worry lines across the person’s face with sunken, almost hollow, eyes.  And there was a look of discouragement and a weight I had not noticed before.

In our first moments together, I concentrated on checking in with the client, learning the challenges they faced and the issues confronting them each day.  It was not surprising to hear that the client was working seven days a week – often 12 hours a day.  Everyone from the boss to peers and direct reports seemed to be sapping time and energy from my client.

My client is one of the most capable professionals I have known and is deeply appreciated by colleagues.  This had emerged from confidential interviews I had conducted as well as from a comprehensive Denison Leadership Development 360.  In the early days of our engagement, my client told me about a commitment of being there for family, friends, the company, and the community. Themes were beginning to emerge. Read More…

The Relationship Between Your “Center” and Your Confidence

Find your center

“Do you need to find your center to discover your confidence, or do you first find your confidence in order to be centered?”

I asked a client this question once during a session.

It first elicited a look of surprise, then a slight smile, followed by a long moment of reflection and silence.  I sat quietly attending to the client, providing time for that pause to allow self-reflection and a building of awareness.

The answer began to emerge in a series of statements interspersed with thoughtful looks from the client:

“Well, I guess I never thought about it…”

“I think I’m always confident, but then again your question makes me think that I am not sure what being centered means…”

“Maybe they are both so interrelated that I didn’t notice the distinction.”

The conversation continued:

“What does ‘being centered’ mean to you?” I asked.

“Well, it means I experience a feeling of firm ground, understanding the issues I am facing and the people with whom I interact,” the client answered.

“Tell me more” I said. Read More…

What’s the Formula for Success?

Formula for Success

In speaking with potential clients, I often get a question like the title of this blog. Questions abound, in fact, including: “Are there steps I should take to change?” or “What should I do to succeed as a leader?”

As a coach who deals with unique individuals (and, of course, we’re all unique), my responses are filled not with answers, but with curiosity and interest in the personal and professional journey of the other person.

There have been thousands of books written on leadership. Every succeeding year brings even more. While each has value and can offer perspective, books alone cannot provide the unique approach that a unique individual needs to support their life’s journey. This is where individual one-on-one coaching enters the picture. Though I have not authored a “how-to” book of leadership, I can provide tools and approaches that will help individuals become aware of their own areas that are well-developed, as well as those that are developing or less developed.

Here’s the thing. A coach can provide a “safe container” in a confidential setting, inviting a client to celebrate their skills and strengths. I help clients look at what they do well or what they do often to help them realize that the capabilities they use are a part of who they are and have, no doubt, helped them succeed. I also explore with a client the times they may have overused their strengths. This can be illuminating when they realize that there may indeed have been a cost to leaning on one or two attributes most of the time.

It is powerful when my clients devote time to appreciate how areas that are well-developed have supported them and when they recognize that the use of what we call “developing” attributes or capabilities are also a very real part of who they are.

Carl Rogers once wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” A curious paradox indeed. It begs exploration.

By knowing when well-developed areas are effective and when they aren’t helps build awareness in a client – and from there each individual can do something powerful: Make a choice and do something different – effectively to “expand their range” of possible approaches and actions.

Each client is different. Each client is unique. Each approach with them varies.

And yet each needs that safe place to talk and explore their personal and professional growth.

I have been a certified ICF executive coach for nearly ten years, after a three-decade career in corporate leadership positions. Working with high performers at all levels in management has shown me that everyone enters the world each day doing the best they can. Helping them build awareness about what they can add to those capabilities – to expand their own range– that is where the power in coaching lies.

What is the formula for success? Perhaps it’s about the tools of curiosity, listening, inquiry, and the power in pause that help each unique human discover where they are strong, where they want to grow, and then exploring how to do that.

It’s less about being formulaic and more about a roadmap, exploration, and what we find along the way.

Indeed, perhaps that is the formula for success.

Ways to “Find Your Voice”

Finding your voice

In my work with leaders, a very common theme is the desire to enhance communication. This feeling often emerges from their own awareness and desire to improve the ability to have meaningful conversations with others

In essence, it involves finding their voice.

Finding that voice is not as easy as just speaking up. Nor is it staying quiet, or deciding that a conversation can wait. And most certainly it is not the act of simply connecting the brain to the tongue and letting it go to work.

Speaking is, actually, the last thing you do in the steps to find your voice.

So how do we find those steps? In coaching, we use inquiry to help the client discover the actions that might work for them. It’s a process of awareness-building and is dependent upon each person’s experience, capabilities and perspective – effectively, the client’s “reality” in relationship to others. Read More…

How Do We Know What We Don’t Know?

What we don't know

Did you ever contemplate what you know?

How about what you don’t know?

What tools do you use to build awareness in order to decide between the two?

I worked with a client a few years ago. Words come to mind to describe him, including cheerful, bright, and caring. And there was one other: Certainty.

For he was almost inevitably certain about the things of which he spoke.

Over time my client came to realize that certainty was a well-developed attribute that had often served him quite well – and that he had become so accustomed to using it that it became a habit, often using it outside his own awareness. When he did so, it cost him in a number of ways. But by expanding his range to sometimes opt for uncertainty as a choice, he became a better leader.

We all have times when we assume we know something when we actually do not. It can be through certainty or perhaps overconfidence in our own knowledge or abilities. And sometimes it even stems from our own ignorance of actually not knowing or admitting what we don’t know (Dunning-Kruger comes to mind here, but that is something to discuss another day).

“I don’t know,” is a phrase that takes courage to say, and yet it is so very liberating. For it allows us to be open to other ideas, new perspectives, and a new way of seeing the world. And it allows for learning and growth and also models a behavior for those around us.

Adam Grant in his work “Think Again,” challenges us to “Rethink” and to be curious about what we don’t know, not relying on our previous knowledge or biases.  “Rethinking” is described in the book as “the process of doubting what you know, being curious about what you don’t know, and updating your thinking based on new evidence.”

The challenge for each of us in our personal and professional life is to first realize that we can’t know everything. Despite continuous web-searching and media bombardment, the enormity of the material in existence simply does not make it possible. And yet we often fall into the trap – especially as a leader in a work setting, when we feel compelled to nod knowingly or express an opinion that comes across as a “fact.”

It might be ego. It may be that we are arguing against someone and want to be “certain.”  And it may well be that we fear being unknowledgeable to the professionals around us.

Yet when admitting that we don’t know, we can actually appear to be something else – curious, inquisitive, always learning, and vulnerable in admitting that we don’t know it all.

We have the ability to know what we don’t know.  It’s just a matter of saying it to ourselves with the confidence that comes from courage and vulnerability.

What a great step for each of us!

The “How” of Working Together


As leaders, we can sometimes overly focus our days on what we and our teams should accomplish.  We create strategic plans and then we devise action steps that will allow us to accomplish them.  Myriad “tasks” emanate downward to our teams and the work gets assigned and executed at the individual level. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

And yet so often we hear from clients words like “But something is missing – my direct reports and colleagues just don’t seem to understand what we are trying to accomplish.”

I spoke to a client a few weeks ago who expressed frustration with the progress of his team.  “They know what to do, but I can’t figure out why they aren’t getting it done.”

We spent considerable time talking about the “what” he wanted his people to do.  He had repeatedly given detailed instructions to various team members, and yet the work, he felt, wasn’t fully embraced, understood, or ultimately accomplished.  I queried him about what each of those words meant to him and his team. Read More…

My Favorite Aunt

In the process of executive coaching, I often ask clients, “Who was your favorite aunt or uncle?”

I am always thrilled with the varying answers and attentively listen. I hear some very common themes, many of which parallel my own experiences with my Aunt Maggie.  She was actually my Great Aunt.  And that she was – just plain great.  So much made her one of the most memorable parts of my youth. So much so, that whenever I think about Aunt Maggie, I smile.

Maggie played the horses her whole life and went to the racetrack whenever she could get there. She taught me to handicap “the ponies” to assess their odds at winning, and I never ride a horse or even see one without thinking of Aunt Maggie’s ink-black eyes lighting up with a twinkle as she explained the magic of the four-legged objects of her affection.

But the love of horses she passed on to me isn’t the most important thing that I remember. Mostly I recall kindness and humor that was devoid of judgment.

And I remember this the most: Aunt Maggie was always curious about my personal journey and always supportive of how I traversed life’s joys and challenges. She would listen attentively to what I had to say, seldom offering advice, and merely continuing gentle inquiry, allowing me to talk things out and come to the conclusions that Maggie knew were there. And she would help me reflect on those conversations and invite me to appreciate just how important it was to cement those learnings into my life. Hers was an approach filled with grace and spiced with humor.

I have heard clients say, “My uncle was there for me when I needed him,” or “My aunt was the one who would withhold advice unless asked, from whom I felt no judgment – she was my confidante and my friend.” Of course, other relatives and adult friends come to mind for clients as they speak.

I ask clients what they learned from their favorite person. I use questions like, “What was it exactly that they did that made you feel the way you did about them?” and “What conversational tools did they use – how did they connect with you?”

From those questions emerge answers like: “She was curious and always wanted to know what I was doing,” or “He sometimes just sat and listened, watching my facial expressions, smiling from time to time.”  And almost universally: “They were always there for me.”

And then my last question: “And how do you try to model that behavior in your personal and professional life?”

That’s when the light bulb comes on for clients. A smile or knowing look is often followed quickly by either a confession or realization that they benefited from a behavior that they have not yet realized how they can “pay forward.” From there ensues many a powerful conversation as I hear the way of being they want to incorporate and the tools that will allow them to do it.

Not every one of us can be like our favorite aunt, uncle, or friend that had such an effect upon us. But by taking the time to recall how that person made us feel, how they attended to us and seemed to understand us, we can be more like them and make a difference for everyone whose lives we touch.

I can never be completely like Aunt Maggie, but her spirit lives inside of me, and each time I interact with another person – be it a client, friend, or young relative – I remember her face and I do my best to be as attentive and non-judgmental as her. And then I secretly smile and think about horses.

The Observer Effect and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

Observer Effect

My apologies to the physicists who might be reading this. I’m no expert on quantum mechanics. But I am a lifelong learner.

So when I saw an article recently on “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” I read further and learned about what is called the “Observer Effect,” which, in physics, is described as the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation. I was fascinated that by trying to observe and measure particles or waves we actually change them.

I sat with that knowledge for a while and realized that it has applicability to how each of us interacts with others, with our environment, and even with our technology.  We human beings are always part of a system or systems. And when we enter a system, we change it. Sometimes that is with real intent but so very often it just happens without us noticing it.

We can’t change the Observer Effect, but knowing about it can help us understand how our teams, as systems themselves, function – with or without us.

A client was speaking with me the other day about developing his subordinates and the Observer Effect came up. He acknowledged that it existed and realized that any time he entered the system he would be changing its dynamics. That knowledge helped him as he talked about how to approach a goal of eliciting more independence from his people. The first step was to invite them to host their own meetings.

My client discussed a number of approaches: 1) He could attend the meetings and teach the individuals how he wanted them to work together; 2) He could invite everyone and then just sit in the background and watch; and 3) Alternatively, he could ask everyone to be there and not attend, providing some outcomes in advance that he’d like to see.

As we talked about his approaches, I asked him what he had done so far with his ideas. I was curious about his intent.

He thought about it for a while, paused, and said, “My intent is not to be so involved in every level of information and the decisions surrounding them. I want to be liberated from being the person who always has to be “in the know.” Instead, I’d like people to come to me only when they can’t solve the handful of dilemmas that they haven’t been able to work out together.”

The client went on, “If I can harness that intent, then my team grows in their capabilities and I get to expand my range in the process.”

“So, which of your three approaches do you favor?”, I asked.

“Well, probably a combination of the three because I need to set the stage for my people, communicate my intentions to them, and then be ready to accept the outcomes they achieve.

Being in the room will affect the system, that I know, and then leaving them to work by themselves will let them achieve results without being observed.”

I paused for a moment and smiled, noting, “I think I’m hearing you say that you are seeking growth in those you work with so that you can become a better leader. You’re setting the stage within the system and then sitting back and letting it function on its own!”

It is instructive for each of us to know that there is such a thing as the “Observer Effect,” and it helps us realize that we have the opportunity as leaders to know and act upon it. We can’t be in the room – or “in the know”- all the time, and we can also set the stage at the same time without being there.

People are not exactly like waves or particles in quantum mechanics –we can adapt and change based on very real intentions – and yet knowing the Observer Effect helps us understand a bit more the wonderful complexity and diversity of this world – and ourselves.

Taking Command – Your Turn at the Helm

Every leader experiences that first adrenalin rush – tinged with a bit of uncertainty – when we first take command of a department, a company, or a military unit.

Part of the mixed emotions we experience can be linked to the very real feeling that we have finally achieved a career ambition – we are in command – or, as the Navy calls it, we have taken the helm.  And when we take the helm it is our job to make it our own, using our experience, knowledge, and leadership capabilities to the utmost for the benefit of our team members and our organization.

In speaking with clients new to leadership, they often open up about what they are experiencing, feeling constraints they might not have anticipated and freedom of choice that can sometimes be almost unnerving. Read More…

“Hold It Like a Feather”

One of my favorite coaching mentors often said “hold it like a feather,” as he held his hand out and demonstrated the lightness he was describing.

He was teaching us that our questions as coaches can often land in ways we might not have imagined.  And that our job is to assure the client that we are purposely not giving extra “mass” or “gravitas” to our thoughts or questions and giving permission to the client to let the idea just float off like a feather.

With care and intention, it is relatively easy to give that type of permission to others.

It can be equally useful and perhaps even more powerful, though, if we as individuals make a choice and give permission to ourselves to do much the same– to hold the thoughts, ideas and questions of others “like a feather.”  In effect, to choose to give less weight to what others say or do.  Especially when working with a boss. Read More…