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…

A Leader Can Build a Real Team

A few weeks ago, I published a blog about “Finding My Solid Ground.”  The article struck a chord with my readers, many of whom followed up with questions and comments.

One person asked, “Do you have any ideas on how I, as a leader, can help establish solid ground for the members of my team?”  As I sat with the question, I replayed sessions with clients and conversations with colleagues where that very idea had been raised – indeed on how a leader can build a real team.

Contextually, of course, the most effective time and place to establish solid ground for your team is at the very beginning of your leadership journey with them.  “Well begun is half done,” is an aphorism to remember for any of us embarking on a new endeavor and most especially when we take on the mantle of leadership within an organization or business. Read More…

How Do I Become a Servant Leader?

I was fortunate to work on the senior team of an airline president who epitomized servant leadership.

If he was carrying a pen with the corporate logo on it and an employee complimented it, he gave it as a present. He would lend his car to those of us who commuted by subway when we needed to get around the New York City metro area. He was invariably the first in the office and usually the last to leave.

When we were at a company-sponsored event, he never ate until everyone had their food. And he absolutely never missed a company orientation for new hires. Perhaps the most telling thing about him was his lack of pretension in any situation. He helped to clean airplanes when we arrived at our destination, and I recall times when vans would pick us up and he would sit in the “way back” with the luggage because the vehicle was too full.

Most importantly, he was always “present” in the moment when he was talking with you. He wasn’t looking beyond you to see who might be walking by; he was engaged in you as a person and you never had any question that his focus and interest was on you. He modeled a behavior I always wanted to emulate and still do today.

Juxtapose that with another senior manager with whom I worked. While ostensibly a kind and decent man, his actions were virtually opposite that of the other leader I described. When you traveled with him on an airplane, you would sit down next to him and ask him about his family. He would quickly respond and briefly ask about yours.

Then he would open up the Wall Street Journal or New York Times and not speak with you for the duration of the flight. I did not feel he was fully “present,” and did not experience curiosity in him related to you as a person. When food was served at a meeting, he did not wait for the others in the room to eat first. And, in the midst of darkening economic storm clouds at the company, I can still distinctly remember him selecting a foreign luxury car as his company vehicle, as he disliked driving a domestic one.

Such actions can make or break a leader.

Can Executive Coaching change such behaviors? The answer is not easy, as so many of our actions are driven by our innate styles and beliefs. But it is likely that the second company manager never stopped to realize how others perceived him. He had such confidence in his own abilities that he may not have realized that the perceptions of others can damage a leader’s reputation.

Focused executive coaching can facilitate tools for awareness through 360 evaluations and confidential interviews with colleagues, thus educating clients about who how they are seen. The emperor was never told he had no clothes, and so it is with many executives, who rise to positions of prominence and, in their mind, well-deserved importance, without realizing that they need to stay grounded and never stop being servants to their people.

David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue and himself a servant leader, often said regarding pilots, support staff and other “behind the scenes” people at the company, “We serve them, so they can serve our customers.” Neeleman understood that the essence of “Servant Leadership” is about service to everyone in our companies, and most especially those who pay our salaries by purchasing our goods and services.
A fundamental part of coaching is a relationship of trust between the client and coach, where you can learn about yourself through a number of tools and then to explore them in a confidential setting. Awareness of who you are and an understanding of how you want to change is a first step, followed by action planning and execution related to your own behaviors and style.

We can better change when we become curious about how others see us and seek data and perceptions about our own developmental opportunities. That’s a critical part of the value of coaching.

This article originally appeared on

Five Ways to Find My “Solid Ground”

Mountains depicting solid ground

In the workplace and in life we sometimes enter a phase where we feel as if we are standing on uncertain ground. We become disoriented and struggle to find our balance in order to regain equilibrium.

Sometimes it can be a new job, or a promotion, or even a transfer. It can be a change in the team around us, or it can be the way others might view us, using a different lens for a new role we have taken on. Whatever the cause, each of us can experience it.

As a new vice president at a Fortune 50 company a number of years ago, I remember walking into each meeting with trepidation. I had been promoted ahead of a number of more senior people. As a result, at times I felt like an imposter, at other times as if I was being judged, and most often as if I was somehow out of my league. And each time an issue was raised I felt as if I had to have the answer and take ownership of anything my department touched.

Most importantly, I looked at the other vice presidents and more senior leaders with a mixture of amazement and, honestly, some disappointment, as I saw their efforts at navigating corporate mazes. Some would use “buzz” words which tended to set up smoke screens. Others would commit to an action and then change their story at the next meeting. The most adept open field runners would pivot (I even saw a few pirouettes!) in the middle of meetings as they saw which way the company “wind” was blowing. The drama and uncertainty I felt as I observed those things was palpable to me.

I was fortunate to work with a coach during my career who helped me learn more about myself and how to change how I approached such situations. I know that helps me serve my clients because each has experienced times when the “ground” under them seems to be uncertain.

Here are five perspectives to help you find solid ground again:

1. Perspective – As we get enmeshed in corporate life, we can sometimes begin to think that the company and its goals are the most important things in the world. They’re not. The actor Richard Burton once provided this perspective on his career, “Give it all you’ve got but never forget it’s just a bloody movie, that’s all it is. We’re not curing cancer.” Most of us from corporate life would do well to heed his words about our own endeavors.

2. Understanding – Look around the corporate boardroom table and don’t look at titles or the personas that might be displayed by the other leaders. Just look at them as fellow human travelers on a journey. They’re doing the best they can in the world and it doesn’t help to be overly impressed or at all judgmental about their behavior. Be curious about what they know and don’t worry about what they don’t. Be empathetic – you will learn from everyone that way.

3. Gratitude – “The struggle ends when gratitude begins,” is a quote by Louie Schwartzberg. Each day we have much to be thankful for. The job provides us monetary compensation and self-actualization. And yet there is so much more to appreciate in life. A wise person once said, “Remember these three priorities in life: First, take care of yourself so, second, you are able to take care of your family. And only then worry about your job.”

4. The Calm in the Center of the Storm – Find the calm in yourself and then pass it on to everyone! That doesn’t come from having all the answers – it has to do with being able to step out of the chaos and then attending to others, feeling comfortable with expressing your thoughts when necessary, listening a lot more than you talk, and continually exuding a calmness and kindness to others.

5. Prayer, Meditation, and Mindfulness – Every client with whom I work spends time in quiet reflection – some in prayer, others in meditation, and all in some sort of mindfulness exercise. Opening up to something outside of yourself is both humbling and energizing at the same time. We can never navigate this world alone.

Ship captains seldom get seasick. They aren’t special human beings. But they have a secret: They keep sight of the horizon, not the waves. That makes all the difference for them. The waves come and go, but the horizon – the long-term goals and who we are as people – that will always be there.

This article originally appeared on

Ten Steps to Improve the Signal to Noise Ratio in Your Life

signal to noise

Did you ever stop to recognize that we are all bombarded with “noise,” be it in the form of sound or motion or the endless pressure of the workplace, robbing us of the time we need to collect our thoughts, take a deep breath, and perhaps even have the chance to innovate?

Working with busy clients, I find the new normal to be one of near-constant interruption and a resultant inability to spend time in reflection – and real deep thinking.  One executive, who was trained as an electrical engineer, put it simply: “The signal to noise ratio is unacceptable in today’s workplace.”

Signal to noise is technically the ratio of the strength of any signal carrying information to that of the interference that is present while trying to discern that signal.  While it is generally expressed in decibels, it has come to be used in any number of fields, including WiFi networks.  There are a significant library of equations describing it.

What my client referred to, however, was the ratio of useful information – the actual “signal” – we receive vs. the overload of “noise” that is endlessly transmitted our way. We effectively lose the “signal” due to the noise.

Our workplace has been transfigured in a little over thirty years.  In the late 1980s, an “in” box and “out” box sat on each desk and letters and reports were drafted by hand or on typewriters.  Back then, a phone call could interrupt us, but it was not forced upon us, especially if there was a savvy secretary sitting in the outer office running interference.

Fast forward to today, as emails pile up on our computer screens, chat boxes populate on top of them, and our personal devices hum with personal and professional texts.  Often, we use streaming music to try to drown out the cacophony.  And even then the inevitable mandatory video conference invitations (ironic that they are called invitations, isn’t it?  Perhaps “mandates” would be more appropriate).  Some clients lament that of 40 hours at work (virtual or in the office), all of those hours is scheduled in video or in-person sessions.

What can we do as leaders to mitigate the “noise” in our lives or at least take some initial steps?  The first step, of course, is awareness that there is an issue.  By naming it, we can begin addressing it.  It might serve leaders to consider the following list or to develop their own.  Try a few of these ideas – they have worked for many of our clients and can effectively help you hear the “signal” better and indeed reduce the “noise.”

  1. Reduce Multi-Tasking – Concede that “effective” multi-tasking is a non-sequitur.  It is actually a sort of rapid serial processing that robs us of focus and creativity and can indeed make us less productive
  2. Turn off your Email – Turn off your email for 2-3 hours each day.  When you open it up again, the emails will still be there.  And do your best to teach your colleagues that “reply all” might be the most pernicious crime committed in the workplace.
  3. Silence Your Devices– Set the ring to “silent” on your personal device – and then put it into a drawer if you can.  It won’t be afraid of the dark, believe me.
  4. Change the View – Change your vantage point in the office or home.  Switch from one room to the other, depending on the sun or your mood.  And spend some time just looking out the window!
  5. Cut Down on News– Stop listening or watching the news as much as possible.  A quick reading of two or three news feeds will keep you informed about news events.  And it will do it without arousing your emotions.
  6. Shorten Your Meetings – Do something innovative like set up 12-minute meetings!  Yes, today’s e-calendars can accommodate that – we just seem to default to 30-minute increments.  There isn’t anything magical about 30 or 60-minute meetings, but we do often succumb to Parkinson’s Law.  A shorter meeting is crisper and so often more productive.
  7. Challenge Invitations – And don’t be afraid to challenge the meeting “invite” list.  So often people get called together as the “usual suspects,” out of habit.  Asking “I’d be glad to come, but what do you think I can add?” can be a good jolt to old habit patterns by leaders.
  8. Question Agendas – So too with the agenda.  If it becomes evident prior to or even at the start of the meeting that there are no expected deliverables or outcomes, it can save everyone’s time if someone points that out and courageously suggests a cancellation or delay until we all know the “why” of a meeting and the establishment of an outcome-based agenda..
  9. Take a Coffee Break – Have a cup of coffee or tea – and just take the time to visualize the next few hours, the next day, and beyond. If you need to go outside or find a quiet nook, it’s well worth the time it takes to walk there.
  10. Disconnect and Enjoy Time with Your Loved Ones– Take time with your family and friends whenever you can. Create “device-free” zones, especially at dinner time. Be especially mindful of the times where your mind gets pulled away from loved ones and back to the office. Pausing and enjoying friendly conversation without distraction – that indeed is a signal that can recharge your batteries.


Can I Overuse My Leadership “Strengths?”

In executive coaching, we spend considerable time helping clients build awareness about their range and capabilities as leaders.

A foundational element of that work is helping clients make meaning of their long-held understanding of the ideas around “Strengths” and “Weaknesses.”

The lens we use instead focuses on the idea of “well-developed,” and “less-developed” capabilities and attributes. A recent blog by my colleague Lisa McNeill so eloquently described those concepts.

Each of us has many well-developed sides. One example may be an ability by some leaders to speak and make their voices heard. For others, it may well seem to be almost the opposite, with attributes of listening and appreciative inquiry.

So, too, do each of us have less-developed sides that we can explore in coaching to help expand our range. The person who commonly uses the well-developed ability to speak can use choice, for instance, to include pausing and listening. The well-developed listener can expand their range to include expressing themselves more. It takes awareness and practice to expand their range as leaders. And it also takes an appreciation that they need not give up the “well-developed” attributes – just know when they are using – or overusing – them and choose to move towards their less-developed capabilities.

It is often a revelation for individuals to realize that the appreciation of where they are “well-developed” are attributes like muscles that serve them and that adding other muscles – the “less-developed” capabilities – expand their range.

Consider this: I once worked with a client who described himself as “stubborn.” He characterized it for me as a weakness. Through a series of questions, I asked if being stubborn had served him in any way. He admitted that he was not the type to give up on a project or in working to develop a subordinate.

“And how would you call that a weakness?” I asked.

“Well, I guess it isn’t always that way,” he said.

We explored more together and it emerged for the client that being stubborn had served him throughout his career. He was the person who saw things through to their completion. He had devoted countless hours towards the success of his company. His well-developed “stubbornness” was the grit and determination of a leader.

In our sessions, he realized, too, that at times his stubbornness had come at some personal expense.

“When did that happen?” I questioned.

“Well, sometimes I just don’t give up, even when I know the project is a dead end.”

“Anything else? I asked.

“Sometimes it is hard on my family as I work all night long to complete an assignment.”

Then he admitted: “And there are times I don’t accept an idea that differs from my own.”

Such moments can serve as breakthroughs for a client, as they realize that their well-developed sides serve them, but, if overused or if they become habitual, can stop serving them or even cost them.

As Gestalt coaches, we often use the concept of “polarities.” Using the example of the “stubborn” client, I invited him to think of a polarity related to that attribute. His answer: “flexibility,” along with “receptivity,” and “openness.” I asked him how he would “glide” between his stubborn side and his flexible one. Neither side was good or bad, strong or weak – they were both attributes that could assist him in his leadership style and personal interactions with those around him.

Throughout the next few sessions, the client spoke about how he wanted to “try” using both his well-developed and less-developed sides. His practice with a new capability grew through his own intentions and choices he would make working with others. He became skilled at reading a situation and knowing when to use his already-developed “stubborn” side, along with his developing “flexible” one. He became more adept the more he practiced and reflected on his success in our sessions together.

Working with clients as a coach teaches me more than I can relate, and it serves me in helping leaders throughout the world. Expanding our range is a worthy goal for all of us – and appreciating our own “well-developed” sides is such a great first step!

This article originally appeared on

That Didn’t Work Out the Way I Thought It Would… When outcomes don’t match our intentions

It has happened to all of us.

There are various scenarios, but it can go something like this: we get a call from a co-worker who expresses concern about something we might have said or done. We immediately begin explaining the facts about what we were trying to accomplish, carefully going into full detail for the benefit of the other person.

Then you hear, “Wow, you sure sound very defensive,” or “I feel as if you are overreacting.” From there, things can go from bad to worse.

You hang up and shake your head, saying to yourself, “I didn’t intend for that to happen, but the other person should have understood what I was trying to say.” That feeling grows even more over time and a relatively small issue becomes an interpersonal concern for you and the other individual. Over more time a deeper resistance can build between you.

A number of clients have had this happen. What they learn in our coaching sessions is that their intentions sometimes do not match the outcome, or, in other words: “That didn’t work out the way I thought it would!” Read More…