Remembering How “Centered” Feels

As humans, we have a limited capacity for recollection, especially in being able to remember what our feelings were like at a specific time.  We often try to remember, and yet somehow such emotions are still like the wisps of a dream – as we reach for them, they seem to disappear.

I was speaking with a client the other day.  She related that she truly felt confident in that moment and was happy that she had managed to define and find her “center.”  That center, or what some call solid ground, was a recognition of her competence as a leader and a genuine feeling that she knew what she was doing, had a good handle on where she needed to learn and had achieved an equilibrium point in recognizing her well-developed skills and those that might be less developed.

She said, “I feel as if I’ve finally figured it out.” 

Then she paused and quietly asked, “But what if I lose my “center”?  How do I find my way back?”

We unpacked that idea together for several minutes – I interested in what she wanted – she curious about how to get there.  She shared times with me of when uncertainty and doubt had crept into her deepest thoughts and caused her to question her actions as a leader.  I listened attentively and asked her what that felt like and how it happened.  The responses were rich and, at times, deeply emotional, as she reflected on losing something that was so real and yet so fleeting.

Then I asked, “What would you write to yourself in a letter about how you feel today?”

Her eyes lit up, “I suppose I’d tell myself that “You got it!”

“What else?” I asked.

“Well, I’d write what those feelings of centeredness are – the facets of who I am as a leader that make me successful.”

“Tell me more!” I said with obvious enthusiasm.

“I’d tell myself of my knowledge, my competence, my interpersonal skills, and my very real ability to grow as a leader.”

“And I’d write how I felt in this moment.”

“I’d also say, “When negative emotions and thoughts come to mind, remind yourself that you know how to weather the storm – you indeed know how to lead.”

She went on, “And I think I’d read that letter aloud in moments of crisis and indecision,” she laughed.

I smiled and saw a confidence in that young leader that was equal to her centeredness.  She had devised a method to remind herself of her own skills and capabilities – and she was using those awesome abilities to talk to a future self to instill confidence.  I had no doubt that she would compose that letter in the coming days.

Coaches get to ask questions.  Clients come up with their own answers.  I was fortunate to experience a client who knew herself so well that she was able to hold both the confidence and centeredness of today and the uncertainty and doubt of a future day in one crystalizing moment that will serve her for years to come.

Living One Life – A Whole Life

“Gestalt” is described* as “a composition of elements that can only be appreciated as a whole rather than as a sum of its parts.”

As a Gestalt-trained coach, I am honored to work with clients to help them explore what “wholeness” means to them and how they can discover and then choose to use those parts of themselves that will effectively expand their range as human beings. 

Part of that work is to engage with people about how they perceive their lives and their priorities. Through inquiry, I help my clients discover the “whole” they might not be able to see.

If a client says, “My work life situation is pretty well set, but my home life is struggling,” I might ask:

“Where does work life end and home life begin?”

“Well, you know, when I turn off the Zoom call or drive into the garage after my commute.”

“I’m curious, how can you live two or more lives at the same time?”

“Well, of course, it’s just one life, but I try to keep them separate.  I work hard on work-life balance”

Sometimes I pause – for a long moment.  It can be uncomfortable for clients. But in that silence, some fascinating perspectives emerge.

What can come out for clients – and sometimes it blurts out in unexpected ways – is an awareness that the separation they have created by even using the words “Work-Life” balance is an attempt to deny the “wholeness” of their lives.  As a result, their life can seem fragmented or segmented in a way that does not support their wellbeing.

We only have one life – and the fullness of that life is both beautiful and daunting.  By separating it into parts, we might seek protection from facing its realities and its challenges – and its joys and sadness.  But by doing so, our perspective is skewed and our lives become compartmentalized.  We might think protection makes it all more manageable.  But that, in fact, can be limiting.

When we become aware of how we see our lives we can begin to make choices. For example, it can be about incorporating work into life and understanding its importance – and its cost.

We are complex creatures and that is such a beautiful – and challenging – part of our experience.  What my clients discover is the integration of their complex “parts” that add up to the one life that has meaning and balance for each of us.

Think about this: 

We can decide to play at work and – ask any golfer – we can choose to work at play. 

We can laugh over a memory of a loved one while still mourning and crying during a memorial service that is called a “celebration.”

We can choose to allow our thoughts and conversation to join with loved ones even in the midst of the busiest day at work. 

I invite you to make choices to allow your life to be the “whole” that is greater than the sum of its parts.

*Textbooks have been written on the subject of Gestalt and this definition cited from “Grammarist” is only meant to convey the sense of a complex and highly useful school of psychology. It is taught extensively at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC) in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Adjusting Your Course

“I’m making course adjustments,” a good friend and colleague told me the other day, smiling as he spoke. 

Fascinated, I listened as he went on to provide perspective on what “adjusting course” meant for him.  The genesis of the conversation had arisen from a chat we were having about strong convictions he once held which had been tested over time by his life experience.  “I’m not the same guy as I was then – I need to be open to seeing things from a different perspective,” he said, adding, “If I don’t do that, then I stop learning.”

As I am prone to do, I mulled his comments for a long time after we finished talking.  I thought about the many clients with whom I work who are constantly confronted with choices and decisions.  They adjust course in small ways every day, and then reflect on how those course adjustments work for them – and then they adjust again.  They cope with managing businesses and leading people – making nuanced and creative decisions along with critical financial judgments. 

The most successful leaders are those who recognize that their viewpoint is powerfully informed by their own experience and where they are in their personal and professional journey.  For instance, a new leader who is untried can make a decision early in a career that they might make differently later in life.  The key for that leader is to understand what they learned from the experience. Why did they make the decision in the first place and why was there a course correction later on?

A critical point is that we need to know how and why we are adjusting our course.  As complex as it might seem, adjusting a course when you’re piloting an airplane, for example, is easy to understand.  If you’re not going to arrive at the destination you planned, you can change speed and heading.  Adjusting course in life is infinitely more complex.  A leader’s decisions are not based on the same kind of data and understanding of navigational techniques used by aviators.  Instead, decisions are often informed by a variety of sepia-toned information analysis and intuition, which depends on both knowledge and experience.

But, as an aviator or a leader, course adjustments cannot be made in a vacuum.  And they need to be deeply understood.  Leaders can best serve themselves and their companies by asking personal questions:

  1. How has my perspective changed?
  2. Why am I feeling differently about my (or the organization’s) current course?
  3. Am I stuck in a way of thinking that no longer supports me the way it used to?
  4. What are my intentions?
  5. What do I want to change?
  6. What choices can I make?

Being curious about one’s own motivations and exploring the why, how, and what of our personal evolution can inform the adjustments we naturally make as part of growing.  Curiosity can also help us know where we can confront our own assumptions and realize that they may no longer serve us.  Andy Cohen explores challenging assumptions well in an article in Duke Corporate Education. 

Growing, learning, and expanding our range as human beings – and understanding how those concepts inform our own worldview and the course we set– are such fascinating parts of life’s journey.  Appreciating that adjustment to our course is such an important part of leadership – That is the joy and a challenge for each of us. 

My thanks to a dear friend who helped me with my own course adjustment!

Do You Hear What I Hear?

As a professional coach, I often use metaphors to help a client visualize or name what challenges or opportunities they face.

By way of explanation, consider this: When I attend a jazz session (my favorite American art form), I can sometimes find myself honing in on a particular musician, even before they take the musical lead. I might feel invited to listen to a bluesy tenor saxophone, or close my eyes and feel the beat of the drums. After the set, I might mention to others what I heard and how it struck me. I am often pleasantly surprised to learn that the individuals with whom I attended the session might have heard something dramatically different. One person might tell me that the bass player “slayed it,” while another might say that the entire “vibe” came together so well that it was hard to identify one musician’s work.

The same goes for our visual experience. Like with music, I can also recall standing in front of a piece of art, probably standing next to people I know well. As we collectively ponder the meaning of the art and what we “see,” it is remarkable just how many perspectives are experienced. I might note the vibrancy of the colors while one friend notices the use of shading and the other friend the tiny brush strokes that created a painting.   And in fact, others might not focus on the visual experience, but on the human energy which emerged for them!

Each individual has their own “reality” which involves all five senses and more. In music or art, an appreciation of multiple realities, like my thought about the saxophone player versus another person’s perception of the bass player, can enhance and enrich the tapestry of our own experience. Especially when we share those realities with others – and when we can then create, even for a moment, a “shared reality” with another individual it is such a magical part of the human experience.

Human teams and the leadership of those with whom we work are filled with an endless number of realities. Appreciating that they exist is key. For instance, if I look at a profit and loss statement for a business, I might well focus on the top-line revenues, while another person might move their eyes straight to the bottom line. One of us can see earnings, while another is concerned about cash flow. Neither is wrong.

What we need to appreciate fully is what the other person sees and understands to create a “shared” reality to benefit both of us – and the larger team. The “brush strokes” matter but so does the “shading” – even on a corporate financial statement. That’s the only way we can “see” the whole picture.

When it comes to interpersonal characteristics and skills, it becomes increasingly difficult. Human bias and perspective let us see only specific capabilities and effectively ignore others.

The same goes for how others see us. We can never know another person’s perceptions and feelings about us until we ask. If we are truly interested in their journey, they may well become interested in ours. And then the joining of two or more can come together to create a shared experience – and a shared journey – and the magic it contains.

Think about the questions “Do you hear what I hear?” and “Do you see what I see?” the next time you meet with your colleagues at the office (or you’re sitting next to a coach who loves jazz). I invite you to be open to learning and sharing – it will enrich the experience and you’ll be better for it!

Forgiveness: Forgiving the Bad Boss

In a recent blog, I related the story of discovery about what was causing a client to be “stuck” in his career.  It concerned an incident with a boss whose actions had severely impacted the client and his sense of value as a person and a professional.

A number of readers rightly responded that the client’s recognition was a critical first step – but only the beginning of that particular part of his personal journey.

By way of explanation, I had the opportunity recently to speak to another client about a similar situation which had occurred some years before. The client spoke about how recognizing the cause of the pain he had experienced with a boss had made him feel liberated.

I asked what “liberated” meant.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that that particular boss might well have made mistakes and might still be doing so. I almost feel sorry for him.”

 “What else?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve long since left the company, but my colleagues back there tell me he hasn’t changed. I’m not sure, but maybe it’s in his DNA.”

“And what has changed for you?”

“My perspective for one thing. I now know that you can’t change how people act, but you can indeed change how you respond and react to them. And you can look at them with a sense of gratitude for what you learned from them. I am not just more resilient after that experience with that particular guy – I am actually stronger as a person and wiser as a servant leader. I have a real awareness that all of my actions as a leader impact the people who work with me far more than I imagined. Being emotionally aware of the “wake” I make is one of the most important pieces of self-awareness for me. And knowing that I can make mistakes and must make amends – that serves me every day.” 

 Then his voice trailed off and became quieter…. “And there’s something else and it’s the most important thing…”

I leaned forward: “What else?”

Forgiveness. I am truly liberated when I can forgive someone else. It is an essential part of who I am and a fundamental part of my spiritual beliefs. I can have a spirit of forgiveness in prayer, in meditation, or in times of quiet reflection. Everyone deserves forgiveness, no matter what they have done. Even me.”

After our call, I sat in quiet reflection for longer than I usually do when I finish a session. I realized then that many of us spend considerable time and energy building awareness of what we have done, or what has happened to us. And that can help us stop the covering up of the pain and bad memories.

But the key for me is this: What we then choose to do with that knowledge is a critical part of the “meaning-making” we humans share on this incredible journey called life.

Forgiving others for perceived or actual bad behavior is a gift bigger than any of us realize. It is not part of our nature – it transcends our natural human reactions in a beautiful and poetic way. I saw that in my client. And I hope for each of us who at times has been a “less than good” or even a “bad” boss, that we can seek forgiveness in our own ways as well.

For me, that is the most liberating part of the story.

The Bad Bosses We Carry With Us

I was working with a client one day, appreciating the self-discovery that was taking place for him. He spoke about the ways he had been shaped professionally and how he had been able to function and succeed in the workplace.

The client was focusing on very real strengths and capabilities. A litany of successful teams and projects flowed from his mouth as his eyes lit up and he recalled advancing from a junior position in the company to a senior leadership role; a role he had assumed a number of years before.

Unfortunately, even with all of that, the client then related to me that he felt he had somehow hit a plateau and was stuck in a job and didn’t see a path to advancement.

“What do you think gets in your way?” I asked.

The client sat in silence for a long minute and I waited. He began to speak haltingly and then stopped speaking altogether. A frown came over his face. Then I noticed some emotions emerge. I sensed that it had been triggered by something deep inside of him and I paused for a while and then gently asked:

“Please tell me what you are experiencing right now.”

Some tears welled up in the client’s eyes and the answer came in a slower cadence: “I remember a time a few years ago…”

I waited.

“I had worked for months as a project lead. We had created a product that was leading edge for our industry and we were all so proud of what we had accomplished.”

 “Please tell me more,” I said.

“And then the week came when we were to present to the CEO. We were ready, and we were so excited. Our vice president asked us to give him a pre-brief the day before. He gave us an hour and we nailed the presentation.”

“What happened then?” I asked

“After we finished, the boss sat with a sour look on his face and then told everyone but me to leave the room. Then he started berating me – yelling at times. He told me that the project was a ‘disaster’ and that I should be ashamed of my work in leading it. He said he was going to cancel the project and tell the CEO we weren’t ready.”

I paused and then pressed further, “Something else must have happened. At least that’s what I am experiencing by your body language and your facial expressions.”

After a look away and another deep sigh: “Yeah,” he said ruefully. “He waited two months and then presented the project as his own. Shortly afterward, he got promoted. I’ve been bitter ever since and I swore back then that I’d never do anything more than what I was told.”

“That’s a lot to carry,” I said, then waited a long minute and asked: “Would it be okay if we pursue it a bit further?”

He nodded and continued to speak – slowly at first and then it came as a flood of words.

What emerged was a theme that I have heard from many clients during the ten years I have been coaching professionally. A boss – and I don’t use the word “leader” here intentionally – broke a bond of trust, was belittling or had made someone feel smaller or diminished as a person. My client, like so many others, had submerged that memory, yet carried it inside of him. When he spoke about that particular event (He told me I was the first person to hear the story in its entirety), it was incredibly powerful for him to juxtapose that past experience with his current (and very real) well-developed capabilities and desire to grow in the organization.

I often explain to clients that it helps to “Name It” so they can “Tame It.” For my client working through these memories and their attendant emotions was a breakthrough for him. Over the next several sessions I saw his confidence grow as he explored more choices with intention and enthusiasm. He did the hard work of realizing that one bad boss need not derail a successful trajectory. He learned he may carry that boss with him but that that boss no longer controls him. It turns out this was just the perspective he needed to get back on track to re-energize his own continued sense of success.

Do I Talk Too Much?

Talk too much

One day during a coaching session, an executive asked me, “How do I know if I’m talking too much?”

The question had emerged from the results of confidential interviews I had conducted at the executive’s request.  I had created a document which included de-identified “themes” which emerged during my interaction with his colleagues. One tiny piece of feedback included this thought: “I wish he could listen a bit more and talk a bit less.” The thought had struck a nerve with my client.

My response was a bit of a paradox: “Tell me more.”

Initially, he laughed, and then he took a deep breath and paused, followed by: “I know that I can talk a lot – it’s part of the job as the boss, I guess.”

“And how has talking helped serve you in your role as a leader?” I queried. Read More…

Take a Walk on the Beach

Ever do some deep and reflective thinking while you were walking or hiking?

It happened to me one day some years back when my best friend invited me to walk the beach near our home. It was a Sunday and I had just finished a few hours of catch-up on emails left over from a work week.  I felt relieved that I had at least 20 hours before going back to work in New York City, to which I commuted nearly two hours each way from Long Island.

My schedule was hectic, but I had convinced myself that it was manageable.  After all, I had invested nearly three years into a start-up and I was still relatively young. Investing 60-70 hours into a workweek seemed reasonable enough. And there was the sheer excitement of being with a new company, opening up new locations, and creating a new approach to customer service.

Everything seemed so manageable.

We headed to a beautiful beach near Northport, New York and stepped out onto the sand on a beautiful sunlit day. The temperature was just right, and walking together seemed nearly perfect. For a while, my friend walked with me silently, as we both noticed the shimmering water and gulls flying by the shore.

Then it came. My friend asked, “How do you think things are going?”

 I readily answered: “It’s going great – work is keeping me engaged and I think I’ve got just the right work-life balance.”

“And what does that mean to you?” came the reply.

 “Well,” I said, “I’m taking Sunday afternoons off and I try to be helpful when I’m home.  And I keep up with friendships as best I can.”

“And what about your personal relationships?”

My answer: “They’re working.”

Her response shook me: “It’s hard for me to say this to you.  Actually. I feel very sad saying it, but it’s not working for me.”

I looked at my wife, my best friend, and partner of more than 25 years. I didn’t answer for more than a minute. My reply was measured, and yet it still did not quite hit the mark: “What isn’t working?”

She looked into my eyes and said, “You’ve got everything under control at work, don’t you? She paused and motioned to each of us and then both of us together and slowly said with her eyes, her heart, and her hands, “This – this ‘us’ is not working – not in the way that you think it is.”

That conversation sits with me still and I am so thankful that the person closest to me had the courage to help me open my eyes. That walk was the catalyst for a change in my perspective and a dramatic shift in my behavior. It emerged from a courageous conversation – one that was perhaps the most timely and meaningful I have ever experienced.

Everyone deserves a walk on the beach.

While it isn’t always about a job change or a new career pathway, it is always about perspective and linking the heart with the mind. And it can be done by asking yourself questions or being fortunate enough—and open enough—to have someone ask a few questions of you.

To experience a courageous conversation. With a business colleague, a dear friend, or a partner in life.

It might just provide a shift in perspective that changes you.

Be Kind to Those You Meet on the Way Up

“Be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down,” is variously attributed to Jimmy Durante, Wilson Mizner, and even Walter Winchell.

Whoever said it had a perspective from which we all can learn. In my experience as a leader and as an executive coach, it is a topic that few people consider in the moment, yet it is a lens that is at once pragmatic and empathetic. It helps frame any person’s life journey and their career.

Most of us have experienced some type of promotion or an event that effectively moved us “higher” in a company or organization. One day we were at one level and the next we were someone’s boss or at a step that put us above our previous peers. It can be a bit unnerving sometimes, occasionally a rite of passage, and, sometimes – just sometimes – we can succumb to a feeling that we deserved the promotion while others did not.

In my experience, I think most of us experience all of these feelings. The key for each of us is to try to reconcile those thoughts into a realistic filter that provides a foundation from which to continue to learn and grow and remain effective members of a leadership team.

How do we approach those situations?

I always ask clients about how they feel about a promotion when it happens. It is often a fascinating series of questions and answers as we work together to help them build awareness about how to handle a new role.  My own approach might include these questions:

“Congratulations! What are you experiencing as you talk about the new job?”

“What has changed for you?”

“I’d be interested in any challenges you feel you face.”

“How is it going with the people who used to be your peers?”

“What intentions do you have and what choices do you feel you can make?”

The answers vary and inevitably lead to others. I often help clients explore the challenges of not wanting to let go of old responsibilities, while trying to also assume the new role (which I call the “Marley’s Ghost of Leadership.”) Attempting to hold onto an old job while attempting a new one can send a lot of signals to subordinates, including lack of trust and a breakdown in communication.

Also, a number of clients struggle with being promoted ahead of peers or those who might be more experienced in the organization. It is not uncommon for these clients to be labeled as “whiz kids” or “shiny pennies.”  They can contend with jealousy or judgment by others who might think they’re not worthy or capable of the new role. This can all add pressure and challenging expectations as they attempt to navigate the new role.

Other clients might try to disregard any messages from others and revert to just getting the job done and achieving more results in the new role. And while their achievements might continue, their relationships sometimes do not.

In any of these situations, as a coach I sometimes challenge people to help them gain perspective of the “promotion ladder”:

“So, you got promoted and you feel that people are labeling you or may even be jealous of you. What are the possibilities that you might once again be subordinate to them?”

 “I can’t imagine that.”

“Do me a favor and think about it.”

 “Well, it might be uncomfortable.”

“Why would it be uncomfortable?”

 “A lot of people think I left too big a wake as I completed projects and assignments – and that I don’t give enough credit to others.”

 “What might you do differently now that you thought about how others might see your performance and relationships?”

“Well, I guess it would be wise to connect with others and get to know them, work to give others credit – make it “we” instead of “I.”

“Effectively to be nice to others while you’re climbing the corporate ladder?”

“Yes, because you might meet them on your way back down!”

 A smile and then a look of recognition can often follow.

The harsh reality for each of us is that whether it’s a job change, a demotion, or a retirement, we all experience a trip “back down the ladder.”  If we’ve treated everyone with kindness, we can know that we have done our best to maintain and build relationships.

And after all, isn’t that what life is all about?

Organizational Prestidigitation

Sleight of Hand

The concept of prestidigitation is central to magic shows.  It can involve a sleight of hand or the ability to distract a person while they are looking at a trick, using misdirection.

Increasingly, the concept of prestidigitation is being employed by social engineers aimed at scamming others, most especially in cybersecurity attacks. Michael Solomon describes it well in an article about the subject.

In working with clients in dozens of companies, I’ve learned that the use of prestidigitation is not limited to magic shows or cybercrime. Leaders in organizations can use the concept, oftentimes without others even knowing how effectively it is being employed.

A client spoke to me a few weeks ago about a project that had taken on what appeared to be undue prominence within the organization. The individual who was promoting it had been highlighted as a “Shiny Penny,” and his work was seen as the cutting edge for the future. I asked my client what they were seeing and then transitioned to what they were not noticing.

“I think there is a larger game afoot,” my client perceptively commented. “And that is to drive the agenda for a fundamental shift in the business.”

My client had noticed something that was not readily apparent – they had seen and recognized the prestidigitation of an organization.

Sometimes it is relatively easy to see, but only if you can allow your focus and perceptions to change. Answering questions like “Why am I so concerned about this one thing?” Or, “Is there something I’m missing?” can shift the perspective and allow you to see something that has not been in your view previously.

I worked for a Fortune 50 company as a senior executive. I would spend weeks preparing to pitch my $3 Billion budget, trying to anticipate every nuance and question that would be asked. One of my counterparts, with a budget of almost equal size, would often ask me why I was working so hard. Then he would walk into the senior meeting and wait for the right moment and ask a seemingly innocent question like, “Why are all of the shipping costs in my budget when all of our departments ship items?  It doesn’t seem fair that I have to swallow the $75,000 in my annual budget.” He’d pause and look plaintively, knowing he’d thrown out some bait.

It didn’t take long to elicit a response. Senior executives who were used to knowing every answer would look at each other and immediately spring into discussion and problem-solving – they did not want to look unknowledgeable or stupid. My colleague would step back and watch the show, maintaining a neutral and understanding stance. Oftentimes 20-30 minutes of discussion would ensue and invariably there would be less time for questions about his $3B budget. Fewer barbs came his way and frequently his budget would survive intact. And the next year he would find a different tack to derive a similar outcome. It never ceased to amaze me.

He was an expert in organizational prestidigitation.

Some of us are so transparent that we do not have the ability to be like my former colleague.  But all of us have the ability to heed our own intuitions, like my client did, and step back, slow down, and assess if the organization has been overtaken by a sleight of hand.

The hand might be quicker than the eye for a magician, but that is not always true for perceptive leaders.