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.

How to “See” the Elusive Venn Diagram

Venn Diagram Graphic

A Venn Diagram is described by Will Kenton in Investopedia as “an illustration that uses circles to show the relationships among things or finite groups of things. Circles that overlap have a commonality while circles that do not overlap do not share those traits.”

It might seem odd to focus on the concept of Venn Diagrams in an article about coaching. But, believe it or not, it is a wonderful illustration for a foundational aspect of the coaching process. When we work with a client, we encourage their curiosity about what they are experiencing and work to “stay in the moment” to help them fully explore their situation, challenges, and opportunities while we also invite them to see the patterns they notice as they explore their thoughts and feelings.

These patterns vary. Some might be words that are often repeated. Or they can be a smile whenever they speak about a certain idea or person. They can also be when they discover that the varying viewpoints of others may actually have shared commonalities not previously considered. Being able to notice and appreciate patterns is foundational to learning and development.

In a recent session, a client was describing a major event occurring for their company. In some cases, the varying viewpoints on resolution of the issue were diametrically opposed to each other. A team that was previously cohesive and aligned was struggling to share perspectives without exploding into argument. My client was concerned, largely due to their high regard and respect for every member of their team.

I asked the client if they saw a pattern in what they were describing.

“What is it that each member of your team identifies as the issue?”

Every team member has a different perspective,” the client answered.  “One sees the issue as financial. Another thinks it’s related to human resources.  And yet another sees outside influences at play.”  

I paused and took another tack. I invited the client to close their eyes – to imagine each member of the team as a circle. Then I invited this perspective:

“Take a step back in your mind and envision where those circles overlap. Please tell me what you see.”

There was a long pause and I waited. Then the client opened their eyes and spoke:

“Well, the first overlap is this:  Every member of the team feels responsible for the success of the company. 

 “Anything else?” I asked.

 The second overlap is: “Each individual wants the current crisis to be addressed. 

 And Third:  Everyone is feeling stress.”

The client paused again and looked thoughtful. The concept of the overlaps – the “Venn Diagram” had registered. They went on:

“Yes, there are commonalities and if I step back I can see the overlap.  I just had to look at it a bit differently.”

From there the client was able to discover that the team had points in common and that their “system” had areas that were well developed. From there, the team could make choices to add range and to try different approaches based on the patterns they observed.

In Gestalt Coaching, we look for such patterns and invite the client or the system to see them. When they do, they can become curious about what the team can add to their capabilities and how each person, including the leader, can help them move towards it.

Shiny Pennies

shiny pennies

We’ve all experienced shiny pennies. As children, it seemed so magical to hold a newly-minted penny, as it sparkled in the light of day. When we held it next to another penny, we instantly drew a comparison and decided somehow that the old one could have never been as new or stand out so brilliantly.

Many clients speak of new additions to their team much like those shiny pennies. The eyes of CEOs light up as they describe the talents of a new leader who has just joined the company. One recently told me, “This new person is so smart they can see around corners!” Another noted, “This one is a home run – a lot more effective than anyone else on my team – there’s no comparison!

Those other leaders who have been with their companies for a longer period of time often see their senior executives become enamored to the perceived talents of a new team member and can struggle with what they feel are unfair comparisons. They can often feel some sense of envy that can evolve into resentment as the boss continues to praise the intelligence, capabilities and potential contributions of the newest person to join the team. Read More…

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 cli