What is this rhythm thing and what does it have to do with coaching? By Simon Darnton

In my first piece about rhythm being an untapped dimension in coaching and one that, for me, was born out of a domain full of speed and risk, it follows that what I do in coaching has to do with rhythm. I help my clients to find better rhythms, of course, but what about me? And:

Photo by David Henrichs on Unsplash

Photo by David Henrichs on Unsplash

  • What does this mean?
  • What is my relationship to these rhythms? And;
  • Where does the knowledge come from to make use of it in coaching?

I wanted to explore how rhythm as a fundamental quality of human nature emerges in the coaching context.

So it feels like I need to explore what rhythm is, starting from a place where I know it so well.

What is this rhythm thing?

Previously I described how I work with some clients who are entirely open to hurting themselves, sometimes quite seriously, in their professional pursuits (and personal ones too) - this includes motorcycle and mountain bike racing but also other high risk sports. For many of them, their profession is also their heart of desire; or as close to as you can probably get.

One of the first questions that seems to come to mind for those not familiar with this world is: “How can someone have a heartfelt desire to do something that might actually kill them if they make even the slightest mistake?”

I don't try to answer that one anymore as I have a blind spot; I can't enlighten you any more than they can as to why this is. That's because I've done these things too and although I've backed off a bit now (not entirely by choice but due to an illness with lasting effects), I still do some dangerous things from time to time, too.

I need to.

I must.

I simply have to.

Otherwise I just don't feel complete.

A recent experience where I crashed my mountain bike was a poignant focussing moment for writing this piece. While I was mid-descent, about to complete a jump with my bike, my rhythm said: “WRONG.” To cut a long story short, I wasn’t listening. It hurt. And even after 4 months now, I have trouble using one of my thumbs properly, and it still hurts every day (this is relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things, mind you).

So what would drive someone to, in the misconceived world of health psychology, do something that is so abnormal; to knowledgeably do something one could call self-harming? Are these people, me included, just a load of loons?

A drawing tide

Well, there is a quality of experience in all this that is, for want of a better word, spiritual. It whisks you away into another dimension. A paraplegic rider I worked with told me it's the only place in his world where his disability dissolves and he finds himself whole again.

In this experience, there is something like a kernel or core that centers you. It keeps you driven, gives you direction. But not in a blustering way. This is what I describe as ‘a central stability of sorts’.

But if only it was as simple as that.

There's a curious sense of direction and purpose, taking you with the tide. It's a tide that allows you to ride the rough, and to deal with the unexpected.

In this place, things come to you, that perhaps you never would have thought of, to do something, in response to something that presents itself and you're navigating a situation with waves of a knowledge you probably didn't know you had. It feels right and it leads you through the maze.

These things come to you even when it gets hairy, you slide the bike way too much, or come round a corner to find a bike lying there in your trajectory and the flags haven't come out yet. In motorcycle racing we'd call this a 'moment.'

And we'd laugh...you somehow made it through that one.

Rescued it.

No way would you do that if you'd thought about it.

When I work with world-class competitors and I talk of rhythm, they know immediately what I'm talking about. You can see it in their eyes, but more immediately in their bodies.

When these racers compete they say they find a good rhythm, yet they also know that this rhythm is not fixed. They can't afford to settle into it. For example, in motocross (MX) or downhill mountain biking (DH) the course can change minute by minute. In MX, parts of the track can be destroyed in the space of a lap under some conditions. In DH, the natural courses will be completely different on Sunday's final race run compared to the previous Thursday's track walk. This is not to mention the randomness of 30 other riders fighting for the same space in MX or more than 100 riders doing several runs of the course in DH! These racers know that the rhythm isn't like just riding the peak or sinking into the trough, but something that connects them to an ever changing environment.

Even on a tarmac race circuit it changes on a continuous basis as the race progresses. The racers feel and respond to this input.

You might assume that I'm only talking about something relevant to athletes, but I’m curious that I don’t find entrepreneurs all that different either. They have their ups and downs. It's brutal. It's painful and potentially damaging, at least emotionally and psychologically. Perhaps they're also loons?

Yet, in very much the same way, if they're asked why they do what they do, in spite of the pain and the turmoil, there's a something they just have to do, to follow. They're drawn by some kind of force within them.

As with the racers and athletes, they have a central stability of sorts that guides them. A tide or current draws them along, if you like.

And as Chris Robson says:

You have to keep experimenting because you haven’t found your natural rhythm yet.’ (Confessions of an Entrepreneur, p115)

So in my words, their companies need to hum in a way that provides direction and still be flexible, agile, and adaptable. They never know where the business is actually going to end up, regardless of plans or dreams. To succeed, their rhythm must somehow be in sync with the market.

All the entrepreneurs I’ve met (and worked with) have a certain vibe about them.

A rhythm just like any other rhythm then...


Context is king

The truth of the matter is that their contexts are completely different.

Lets face it, the entrepreneur faces less real risk. By that I mean they’re not going to hit a tree or tumble through the air at over 100mph after their bike spat them off. They’re not facing the same traumatic impact. The nature of the experience is less condensed. It burns less fiercely, shall we say, than a weekend culminating in a 45 minute race, or a 4.5 minute final run down the side of a mountain. But it still burns...incessantly. And I think those entrepreneurs who do burn out have lost their connection with natural cycles of ups and downs and they try to stoke the fire to burn constantly bright.

The risks born by the entrepreneur are, however, wider, more varied and diverse.  They play a bigger, more complex and ambiguous field. I’d venture to say the ego takes a more significant beating.

But unfortunately, in the contexts of coaching, psychology and business, it’s too easy to focus on the individual and their traits; they’re so much more than that which is so often overlooked.

Context changes the rhythm.

The rhythm I experienced racing a motorcycle is different to mountain biking, which is different to that of my Tai Chi practise and its meditations. It's also different to that of coaching.

My ability to find a good rhythm in those context varies too! When racing a motorcycle it was inconsistent. My ability to find rhythm within Tai Chi is almost consistent now (even if the rhythm changes every time I practise) but then I've been searching for rhythm there for nearly 15 years.

I can't explain why my rhythm is so different between contexts, and I wondered whether anyone else could.

There were a small number of top motorcycle racers that I found who said to me that you had to approach each race as something 'completely new,' 'different,' 'not the same.' You never knew what was going to unfold.

Each race circuit is a different context and each time you race the same circuit, the rhythm is also different.

One motorcycle racer I coached had a moment in our coaching when this made total sense for him. His realisation that racing is a world of unknown allowed him to start each race as a blank sheet, a new horizon. This was the catalyst he needed to achieve his first ever race win, followed by winning several championships.

Something clears the mind to invite the influence of context.

This opens the door to rhythm but there was more. More that wasn't normally connected to the rhythm.

Unlocking the secrets

In most extreme sports, the athletes spend a vast amount of time getting to know their environment. This is one of the strategies they use to mitigate risks. They know, of course, that getting to know the environment where they need to perform is going to help their performance.

One of the world's greatest motorcycle racers, Valentino Rossi, described track walks as a process of unlocking the secrets of the circuit.

Knowing the circuit helps to find rhythm.

Riders who are developing themselves to move up the ranks have often asked me why some racers do well at some circuits while they perform poorly at others. This is about how they relate to the circuit and whether they've managed to unlock the secrets they need to figure that circuit out. Sometimes they never do. Even the best in the world.

So rhythm does not sit somewhere inside the mind, it's also out there. In the world.

Now all the theories and conceptualisations I've come across that are of Western origin gloss over the context and miss the out-there-ness too.

Rhythm isn't just a line of numbers drawing out a graph, it's alive, it's kicking, it's full of life. It's stable, it has a significance about it that is at once substantial, even tangible. It is also fluid, infinitely malleable, adaptable according to context as well as our intentions. There's a resonance between internal and external, blending together to produce smooth, fluid, and beautiful action, thinking and feeling.

The whole person in relation to their environment.

Rhythm is ecological.

At once accepting, analytical and critical

It is not so surprising, perhaps, that the top players in their field are incredibly analytical - even while they're involved in their pursuit.

They're not just constantly solving problems because they have to, they’re more like searching for opportunities for action.

They're critical of what they're doing, how they did. A search for perfection never quite reached, nor will it ever be. It's a critique that helps them to achieve. To refine what they're doing and to improve. This is a constant and unobtrusive stream. It's part of the game. It's part of the draw. It's part of finding a good rhythm.

It's a form of pure, natural, unadulterated, active inquiry.

They're also completely accepting. Especially of where they're at and the situation. In dangerous circumstances that's all you can do. That's where you are, there's no changing that. But there is always a path, or multiple potential pathways and these need to be considered in some light. In the moment. Decisions made. Critical decisions.

Seeing things, and being in them, for what they are gives them a certain perspective. They see things differently, which sets them apart. They have the freedom to try things, to play; acting apart.

Rhythm is missing in the coaching research

Rhythm can be found everywhere. I’d even go as far as to suggest that rhythm imbues all parts of human function -individual and social alike. In ancient Chinese philosophy, for example, this is one of the central pillars of the cosmos: Yin/Yang, the waxing and waning of the moon.

In Chinese 5-phase Theory, rhythm is an explicit characteristic in how we bring ourselves to the world, how we achieve what we achieve. How we connect with others and our environment. It represents what is valuable to us and creates that stability of sorts - a tide that draws us along.

In this philosophy, our rhythm is a mutual exchange between us and our world, which is, in and of itself a rhythm. Breathing is the simplest example.

In other areas of psychology, particularly that researching extreme sports participation, the focus is largely on aspects like fear, motivation and other abstract phenomena of the experience, but rarely the nature of rhythm even if it is mentioned a lot by participants (except perhaps Brymer & Gray who refer to it as dancing with nature). Unfortunately the research often glosses over context. However, jumping off a cliff to do a BASE jump is different from navigating a path up a rock face to complete a challenging climb. There is rhythm to each, but it's different, as is the nature of the experience. Climbing a challenging cliff is a more complex activity than jumping off one, even if both require high levels of skill. The same criticism largely goes for the psychology of 'Flow' as conceptualised by Csikszentmihályi, colleagues and the positive psychology movement. I am not a proponent of the ‘Flow’ concept.

In neuroscience I find Co-ordination Dynamics to be a fascinating space for exploring rhythm. Recent advances in neuroscience resonate well with the experience of rhythm and how it enhances function. For example, in Dynamic Coordination in the Brain: From Neurons to Mind (2010):

'The universe is lawful but unpredictable. Regularities make life possible, but unpredictability requires it to be flexible, so, biological systems must combine reliability with flexibility. Neural activity must reliably convey sensory information, cognitive contents, and motor commands, but it must do so flexibly and creatively if it is to generate novel but useful percepts, thoughts, and actions in novel circumstances. Neural activity, however, is widely distributed, which suggests that activity is dynamically coordinated so as to produce coherent patterns of macroscopic activity that are adapted to the current context, without corrupting the information that is transmitted by the local signals.'

In the same book, Engel et al., go on to state:

'A key concept for understanding dynamic coordination in complex systems is self-organization. Self-organization refers to the spontaneous formation of patterns and pattern change in systems that are open to exchanges of information with the environment and whose elements adapt to the very patterns of behavior they create. Inevitably, when interacting elements form a coupled system with the environment, coordinated patterns of behavior arise.'

Lovely but still somewhat abstract…so I would like to get a bit more grounded with this.

In my next piece, I'm going to explore, through a single, focussed experience, how rhythm ties these things together:

  • the temporal: going beyond just being in the moment to creating a meaningful adhesion of past, present and future;
  • how the analytical plays beyond reason;
  • how it informs an emergent learning and grow, both in the present and through post experience reflection.

To connect with Simon Darnton

Brymer & Gray (2009) Dancing with nature: Rhythm and harmony in extreme sport participation. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 9(2). pp. 135-149.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Classics.
von der Malsburg C., Phillips W. A.,  Singer W. (2010) Dynamic Coordination in the Brain From Neurons to Mind. MIT Press.
Robson, C (2013) Confessions of an Entrepreneur: The Highs and Lows of Starting-Up. Pearson Business (Epub).

WHERE CORPORATE CULTURE LIVES The Competitive Advantage of Empathy by Dr. Lucille Maddalena


Every day corporate leaders announce plans that will revolutionize their organization, move them forward and provide the environment to successfully take on more challenging work.  The process can be likened to a business owner at the turn-of-the 20th century writing his hopes and dreams for the company on paper, placing the paper in a sealed tube, and dropping the tube down a pneumatic series of pipes to reach the first floor of the building. At its destination, the paper is removed from the tube by a clerk before being passed along to the general manager who opens the document and reads the wisdom of the leader.

The question is, how do we practically implement a wonderful new vision while continuing to produce and maintain an income flow?  To be more specific, what would a General Manager, as in our example, do to respond to the message?  Precisely what should be done, who should be engaged, and how do we know when we’ve achieved our goal?

The most elaborately developed plan, finely turned strategy, or clearly stated goal faces an immoveable force that will shred the patience of even the most experienced executive. Just what is this barrier to success?  It is the company’s own culture.

As a frustrated colleague of mine once shouted in the middle of a meeting:  CULTURE EATS STRATEGY FOR LUNCH.  For the simplest or most complex plan to become reality, the message must be communicated to and embraced by mid-level managers to become part of the company culture.

In my article Why Middle Managers Matter, I offer the reader examples of how firms such as AT&T implemented grand plans to reorganize and restructure during the latter part of the 1980’s. In many of the efforts implemented by US firms, leaders found they did not invest in seeking the input and support of middle managers. As a result, existing cultural habits caused a push back,  confusing and misdirecting well-planned initiatives.

This paper will examine how mid-level managers are at the foundation of a company’s culture, and why push back occurs. It is with this level of staff and those who share an equal responsibility for the welfare of the organization that maintain the culture.  Given the importance of culture to successful achieve our strategies, it is now is the time to understand the factors that make up the organization’s culture.

Relationships are the forum

As a graduate student in the Rutgers University Department of Labor Studies I was able to work with Union Leaders at union training centers, preparing union representations to assume leadership responsibilities.  The most difficult task of those assuming the role of union rep was how it affected their personal relationships with their peers.

Considering the often-conflicting roles of union reps it is easy to envision a situation where friendships, reporting responsibilities, and personal values are questioned.  Addressing these invisible barriers and bumps to open communication requires an open forum permitting trust and mutual respect. Our world today is much more populated than when our early 1900’s business owner sent his message down a pneumatic tube. The sheer immensity of population size becomes even more amazing when we recognize how many people in this busy, fast-paced world feel lonely.

We thrive in an environment that buoys us between loneliness and isolation to connections and relationships, freely falling and rising with our dreams and hopes, as our fears and stresses. Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy writes in Work And The Loneliness Epidemic:During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

In our private lives we recognize that it is the social contact, support networks and connections that enable us to work through a day of stress, pressure or worry.  Consider how difficult it is to cope with the many day-to-day demands without the assurance that someone ‘has our back’. 

Liz Ryan begins her article How Important Is Corporate Culture? It's Everything, by stating:

Fear and trust are the chemical currents that power every good or bad thing an organization does, but we seldom talk about them and it hurts us not to.

We pretend there are no currents. We focus on particles instead of waves. We are obsessed with numbers in cells on spreadsheets and with graphs and algorithms, while the real energy that powers your success (and without which you are going nowhere fast) has nothing to do with particles!

It is an energy wave. As leaders we need to turn our attention away from the particles that we love so much to measure, and focus on the waves instead.

Seeing the ‘waves’ requires a special lens, a view point not on the water, but on the horizon and the changing winds that fill our sails to guide our ship. An organization’s ability to be agile, to respond to internal as well as external pressures will inevitably dictate its success in our volatile business climate.

In their book The Agility Factor, the authors explain that agility “provides a way to perceive environmental threats and opportunities, test possible responses, and implement change quickly over long periods of time.”  Where does all of this information come from? It is in the minds and on the tongues of those in the field performing the tasks, on the phone interacting with clients, on the manufacturing floor responding to daily crises. To influence the company’s culture evolution, leaders must be able to encourage an environment that supports open communication up and down the chain-of-command.

Competitive Advantage of empathy

Relationships and good communication flow are just two elements of a strong organization culture. In his book Connection Culture, Michael Stallard poses that firms embracing an environment of shared identify, empathy and understanding at work realize a competitive advantage.

In a very real example a client recently expressed concern over how one of the top leaders was performing. The individual had risen to a prominent position and was known to provide answers to questions before they were expressed, shutting down the speaker and closing the door to discussion. As a result, staff from his key directors down the ladder to team members refrained from offering ideas or suggestions.  The executive became isolated and was now seen as a ‘firefighter’. 

Interviewing a cross-section of team members, I discovered that after repeatedly being told by the Exec that he knew best, they stopped informing him of any issues between staff and subcontractors or of minor production/distribution blocks.  His tardy awareness of situations too often occurred after small de-railers bloomed into full problems, demanding his full attention to put out the fire.

Repeated actions by the Exec to members of the team gains the Exec a reputation among the middle-managers whose actions and responses in turn contribute to the evolving culture of the organization. Taking the time to listen to a team member’s full story and allowing a team member to acknowledge the problem as well as present options to move forward builds a strong working relationship. Leaders who have the confidence to flip the pyramid, to employ a servant-leader approach, benefit from an environment of trust, rapport and respect with his/her team. Stallard describes the impact of showing empathy:

Mutual empathy is a powerful connection that is made possible by mirror neutrons in our brains.  Mirror neurons act like and emotional Wi-Fi system (Goleman 2006). When we feel the emotions of others, it makes them feel connected to us.

By role modeling and living these foundation elements, upper levels of management build a much stronger tie to middle-management., Stallard offers guidelines to build connections and avoid disconnections by focusing on how a firm can support all staff to develop their personal values, vision, and voice:

Vision, value, and voice are the core elements of a connection culture. The people who bring these elements to a culture and make it happen are the enablers of the connection culture model and are called committed members and servant leaders. Committed members are committed to task excellence, promoting the connection culture, and living out character strengths and virtues.  They may be senior managers, receptionists, salespeople, engineers, information technology experts, or customer service representatives. Servant leader are committed members who have the authority to coordinate task excellence, facilitate the connection culture, and model and mentor others in character strengths and virtues.

Committed Leaders

Viewing culture as ‘residing’ in the framework of middle-management presents corporate leaders with the opportunity to acknowledge the power of all staff to influence the success of the organization.  Engaging the body of the organization along with those at the top empowers members to share a vision, embrace the,  values and provide a voice in support of a connection culture. 

Committed leaders who understand they can set a course, inspire commitment and encourage contribution from all levels of the organization will share their vision, live true to their values and inspire others in the company to voice their goals. 

Change is felt as an emotional process containing both wins and losses.  By connecting with others to support their contribution we break down barriers and create an environment of caring while gaining the information to make better decisions and the agility to carry out our vision for the benefit of all. 

To connect with Lucille:

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development. 

Best known for her work supporting Senior Executives during career and business transitions, she guides the alignment of team goals with expectations by bridging interpersonal communication with practical business management. As a key part of global leadership initiatives, she has created coaching models for clients, functioning as Master Coach to identify and manage Leadership Coaches at regional sites. She has guided over 6,000 corporate executives at Fortune 100 firms to successfully advance in their careers during times of organization change.

Visit www.mtmcoach for free downloads of useful articles and publications.

She holds a Doctorate in Education with an interdisciplinary major in Human Communications and Labor Education. Working with Senior Leaders and their teams she is recognized for her commitment to build engagement and trust within all levels of the organization.

Maddalena, L. (2013) Why Middle Managers Matter
Murthy, V. (2017) Work and the Loneliness Epidemic, Harvard Business Review
Ryan, L. (2016) How Important is Corporate Culture, Forbes
Stallard, M. (2015) Connection Culture
Worley, G. (2014) The Agility Factor

My story of Coaching: Finding the way to myself by Maria Biquet (Guest)


When I was about 25 years old I started asking myself why I am What I am. I didn’t know what I was and even more I didn’t know who I was.

This still remains a big question for most people…

We almost never find exactly who we are unless we distance ourselves from society for very long and clear our minds from every belief, conviction, perception, opinion and even experience; and then we may find are true nature; but this is very a long discussion.

So at 25 I started to look for What I was. I went to seminars and workshops and self-development holiday retreats in the nature to find out what my personality and character were like and how others see me in the context. I found out a lot of interesting information about myself and humans in general and learnt a lot about how people think. And after I found the What I started asking myself Why I was What I was.

That was the most difficult and confusing.

Why did I become What I am and not something else?

Why am I This and not That? Why am I so shy and introverted and not dynamic and extroverted? What are the causes? Is it because of it my family and my difficult childhood? Maybe. Is it because of the character I was born with? Is it because of the country and the culture in which I was raised?

I spent years and years reading about all available methodologies and theories in Psychology; about trauma and personalities typology; Philosophy about Psyche in Aristotle and Plato; about typologies in Hippocrates theory of medicine; Homeopathy types related to bodily weaknesses and to different personality types and a lot of other approaches that would give me an answer. I even attended a course on Neuroscience with a Harvard Psychiatry Professor in Boston which gave me a more scientific and biological background but also revealed that DNA is a critical factor in human behavior.

With time it became clear to me that there is something inside us that we are born with, which makes us what we are and our environment just makes it blossom or makes it disappear. So our DNA and the appropriate environment can make us blossom; or else it will take a lot of work to become an acceptable version of ourselves and it will be really hard work to find inner balance.

All those years there has been a continuous struggle with myself to change. My nature was happy, dynamic and extraverted but the environment I grew up depressed me and suppressed in such a way that I had become the opposite. The only way to survive in that environment was to be silent and hidden! It took me a lot of time, effort and disappointments to find my way to myself.

But it was worth it! Now I am What I was born to be: a dynamic and self-confident person who knows how to help others either as a Consultant or as a Coach. Because I have been through Change I know what it feels like; I know how difficult it is. But I know how rewarding it is; no other achievement can give you this feeling of contentedness and harmony.

Now I know that Who we Want to Be is all about knowing our Strengths, understanding our Potential, making Decisions for ourselves and Act upon it with Responsibility. I was lucky because I am disciplined and open minded by nature so I could follow this through myself without external support.

I coach people to this process. In some cases my approach is a Consulting – Coaching process; some people know how to learn so I provide some knowledge to ease their process of learning and developing because they can immediately absorb and adapt it to their style and evolve quickly; in other cases people don’t know how to learn and need to discover themselves and evolve their abilities; in such cases I practice Coaching to support them through the Change of Learning. This is the most transformative experience in life if you incorporate it in your way of understanding the world.

Then you find inner peace and balance because you know. What else could be happiness?

If someone is considering change because he/she is not happy and doesn’t know how to start I would only tell them: Change is expanding your potential; embrace it!

To connect with Maria Biquet

Maria Biquet.jpg

Maria Biquet is an experienced multilingual Business Consultant and Executive Coach with vast experience from diverse business fields. Maria has long experience in Strategic Marketing and in establishing companies in new markets. For more than 15 years she has studied various methodologies for self development and change including Systemic approach, Appreciative Inquiry Approach, NLP and mindfulness techniques.

Member of HCA (Hellenic Coaching Association), EMCC (European Mentoring & Coaching Council). Currently is a Mentor at Orange Grove for startup companies and Cherie Blair Foundation.

Email: mariabiquet@gmail.com

Rediscovering authenticity with the help of role biography by Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich

“Was the person I never became still part of me?”

Fernanda Pacheco, INSEAD EMCCC alumni


I extensively used role biography as a self-coaching technique during a two-year Executive Master’s program in organizational psychology. I reflected on the roles I had assumed throughout my life in several case papers and as part of my thesis. An emerging concern was the role of authenticity – had I increasingly neglected the essence of myself to meet familial and / or societal expectations, both real and perceived ones? And was it time to shed those, to become more authentic? Fernanda Pacheco, an EMCCC alumn (that’s the master program I attended), asks “Was the person I never became still part of me”. I noted this and recently discovered it – there seems to be a message for me in it.

Making sense of roles

Role is defined as “the pattern of attitude, meaning, feeling, and behavior that characterizes an individual’s way of living and working within the various systems of activity, such as family, work organization, professional association, social clubs etc. through which a life is led” (Newton, 2013).

As a former member of a drama club (I performed as a teenager), I always enjoyed taking on roles. However, now, as an adult, I find it increasingly difficult to shed them. My biggest challenge is to identify less with a role of management consultant (and opt for what feels like a more authentic professional self). This particular identity had become overly fused with my identity – seemingly at the price of many other (professional) identities.

One of my first attempts to view the role of management consultant from a more distant perspective consisted in completing a written exercise in September 2016. It assessed whether and under which circumstances I still enjoyed being a consultant (the focus being the application of role biography (from age 20 to age 40). The exercise shed light on my question: why did and do I have difficulties shedding the role of management consultant? The objective was to let the answers and reflections emerge – to give them space to do so.

I first performed an inventory of various organizations I had served as a consultant from age 20 to 40. I then briefly identified the activities and circumstances related to the consulting role. I reflected on the project setting in a third step and then identified positive aspects of my role. Then, I set out to identify the negative aspects of it.

Freelance consulting for an international intergovernmental organization: Role as a strategic management consultant for a Palestinian trade organization.
Setting: Sandwich position having to negotiate different interests / stakeholders, lack of professionalism, geopolitical nature of project / conflict setting.
Positive: Role of temporary consultant, outsider position (not part of overall system); opportunity to abstain from office politics as much as possible, impression of serving a greater good.
Lack of professionalism, lack of donor coordination.

Best practice consulting at a global insights and technology company, London: Role as a strategic research consultant in a highly revenue-driven, competitive environment.
Setting: very professional, very international, very structured.
Positive: Role of expert, lots of customer contact, ambitious colleagues.
Negative: Having to comply with a corporate structure, and to fit in. Overly revenue-driven environment leading to short-term focus (in 50% of cases).

Public sector consulting for a global consulting organization in Germany: Role as senior consultant for an IT consulting firm.
Setting: professional, revenue-driven environment.
Positive: Friendly colleagues, non-dominant corporate structure.
Inefficient project, weekly travel, complex project setting and multiple project partners not delivering on time.

Internal consulting for an international bank in Germany: Role as senior consultant.
Setting: professional, lack of fair process.
Positive: Friendly and very intelligent, ambitious colleagues, no weekly travel.
Negative: Having to adapt to a very dominant corporate culture, strict divisional culture (“focus on your improvement areas, not on what you already know how to do well”), project engagements in PMO (project management office), lack of fair process and lack of professional growth.

Conclusion of the role analysis exercise: Preference for expert and freelance roles. Note that this conclusion resembled an intermediate finding. Half a year later, my unhappiness with my role as management consultant became apparent in a biographical note (April (2017): “Increasingly, especially in the last job, I felt like I wasn't in tune with myself anymore. It's funny, a couple weeks back, I started writing the intro to the thesis, and it was a short intro about, imagine you're a disillusioned corporate consultant and each day, you go into the office and you perfect the art of creating beautiful PowerPoint slides [you navigate corporate politics, you appease stakeholders. The money is really good and you look at all of your friends and you wonder whether you should just settle down, find a guy, get married, have a kid, and buy an apartment]. None of it really appealed to me any longer”.

This very powerfully illustrates that professional and personal change always go hand in hand – the role of management consultant was in my perception tied to being a “compliant” member of society (get married, have kids).

Connecting the clues: the usefulness of role biography

Role biography as a coaching technique is so appealing because it explores “a biography of the person-in-role as described through various (work) roles that they have taken up throughout their lives” (Long, 2013). Coachees experience an A-HA moment when they realize they are more than the sum of the (professional) roles they assume. Getting to this stage might resemble detective work: coach and coachee together distill patterns, similarities between roles. Role biography probes about distinct roles and positive as well as negative states which impacted coachees. Reflecting on childhood roles and experiences is a useful component of the analysis.

Playing detective

As stated above: Actively reflecting and narrating one’s role at various stages of one’s life kicks off a cognitive process that can be likened to detective work. It encourages self-narration, an exercise that most coachees have not or rarely engaged in before. It allowed me personally to notice more strongly  that some of my behaviors may have been informed by others’ expectations, not by my own choices.

Applying the role biography technique helped me differentiate between “learned” roles and more “authentic” roles / selves. After all, the dynamics of a role including hidden expectations of the social context become apparent in role biography coaching (Newton, 2013, p. 206). Note that the coachee’s willingness to engage in role biography research can serve as a platform for a change process, both private and professional.

Increasing authenticity in my (future) roles – what I have learned so far

 “Most of us are too concerned with what others think of us. As such, we may disguise or manipulate features of our personality to better assure that others aren’t judgmental or adversely reactive to us” (Mel Schwartz). This already hints at the dynamics inherent to roles and to which extent authenticity is possible within this framework – roles may detract from authenticity. Applying role biography may help an individual becomes truer to himself or herself. For me, authenticity was and continues to be connected to creativity – my quest to rejuvenate my little c (everyday) creativity and ultimately, obtaining a professional role which would allow me to work more creatively.

As such, I applied role biography in my quest for more authenticity (and creativity), zooming in on at what stages of my life I had been creative or identified as a creative person. I assessed this with respect to ages 6, 16, 26, 36 and now (40). It revealed, and reminded me that I had pursued creative endeavors in my early 20ies (when I lived and studied in Berlin, London, Tokyo -> cities with strong creative industries). My role back then was that of a student.

I realized that the pressure to comply seemed self-made in my case: my idealization of and wish to join the consulting profession first surfaced during an internship with an international intergovernmental organization at age 23. I grew increasingly frustrated with the organization and associated a future professional self as a consultant with an all transforming experience: “Ultimately, maybe I wanted to make myself more efficient by attaching so much value to that particular image of a profession [the consulting profession] and maybe I thought that professional success will help me to be a more lovable person or something”.

Role biography can be used to address different quests – this article focusses on a coachee’s wish for an increased level of authenticity (while going through the process of shedding an old, deeply ingrained professional role). The technique could be deployed to achieve higher levels of awareness for example pertaining to different assessment, such as one’s leadership style, or on a more personal level, patterns in romantic relationships.

While I have not completed my quest for authenticity and creativity in my future professional self, and have not found a matching role, I am confident that continuously applying role biography coaching will help me achieving this. Alas, it is crucial to accept a certain degree of uncertainty that accompanies this quest. The above provided a snapshot of how the technique can be leveraged in a coaching and self-coaching context.

To connect with Caroline-Lucie Ulbrich


“Caro, you are so cosmopolitan” – this is what I often get to hear. German-French by birth, I have spent many years working as a management consultant and am slowly transitioning into more creative industries. Reflecting on transitions, career changes and the underleveraged roles of creativity and playfulness are part of this. I have a passion for maneki nekos (“lucky cats”), sustainable fashion and Vinyasa yoga. Slowly but surely, Asia has become my second home turf.

Long, S. (2013). Socioanalytic methods: Discovering the hidden in organisations and social systems. London: Karnac Books.
Schmidt, M. (2005). Individuation: Finding oneself in analysis – taking risks and making sacrifices. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 50(5), 595-616.
Schwartz, Mel: Seeking authenticity. And the path to true happiness. Retrieved on 11/06/2017. URL: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shift-mind/201208/seeking-authenticity
Tønnesvang, J., Sommer, U., Hammink, J., & Sonne, M. (2010). Gestalt therapy and cognitive therapy—Contrasts or complementarities? Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(4), 586-602.

Dispatch from the [Internal Coaching] Front by Ian Flanders

Do internal coaches face specific ethical dilemmas or does being internal coaches make some dilemmas appear ethical?


I recently took part in a group supervision meeting with a number of my fellow internal coaches. For the coaches it is an opportunity, once a quarter to come together and discuss our practices. My sense is that for all of us it is an opportunity to get help and support, learn from others’ experiences, and take strength from the community. During this meeting two of the group shared quite different dilemmas that were troubling them, and sought the views of the group. The discussions that followed considered both issues as ‘ethical dilemmas’, but the outcome of the discussions surprised everyone present.

That coaches can be faced with ethical dilemmas appears to be widely acknowledged. This could be considered a truism of any role that works with people perhaps. Within coaching however it can appear that internal coaches are particularly singled out as facing ethical dilemmas specific to them. In perhaps the first paper on the emergence of internal coaches (in 2001) Michael Frisch raised concerns about trust and confidentiality, and in her Masters thesis (of 2009) and subsequent publications Katherine St John Brooks highlighted the top-10 ethical dilemmas faced by internal coaches, which could be clustered into maintenance of confidentiality, conflict between coaching role and responsibility to the organisation, and, client boundary management. Both sources have been cited regularly since initial publication.

When it came to his turn to check-in with the supervision group Gary shared with the group that he was concerned about a member of his team. He felt that this person would benefit from having a coach because they lacked self-awareness of their behaviours, and as a result they were having a disruptive effect on the team. Gary’s dilemma was that this person had made it clear that they did not wish to have a coach, that they “didn’t get it”. Gary shared that he had been acting as line-manager-as-coach, trying to coach by stealth, to try to get his subordinate to be more aware of their behaviour. Gary felt caught between his two roles of line manager and coach; he was reluctant to have a conversation with this person that might “crush them”.

In the supervision conversation that followed Gary was helped to understand that as a consequence of his reluctance to act he was holding the issue, the inappropriate behaviour of one of his team, rather than the team member. Gary realised that in reality a line manager conversation was what was required: Coaching might then support the aftermath. The action taken from the meeting was that Gary would have an “honest conversation” with this team member.

Julie shared with the supervision group that she was coaching an individual who now wished to use their sessions to decide whether to stay of leave the organisation. The employee had returned to work part-time following a period of absence but had now decided they wished to return to their original full-time role. However their line manager had said that this was not possible, and as a result they were considering leaving. Julie’s dilemma was whether she should support her coachee in making this decision.

During the discussion that followed it became clear that Julie’s real dilemma was not whether or not to help the coachee, she wanted to help, but whether to do so would break her process as a coach. For Julie the coaching process involved an initial 3-way conversation between coach, coachee and line manager during which the coaching contract and objectives would be set. The three parties would then come together to review progress and ultimately close the coaching work. For Julie, a significant change in the objectives of the coaching would trigger a re-contracting of the coaching work. Julie wanted to support her coachee, but did not want to break her process as a coach.

Having seemed to go round in a circle for some time one of Julie’s fellow coaches asked “What would you do if you weren’t an internal coach and this colleague asked for your help [to decide whether to stay with or leave the organisation]?” The instant response, which was followed by stunned silence, was “I’d help them, without giving it another thought”. The realisation was that the situation felt like an ethical dilemma because Julie was a coach, because she was weighing up using her coaching skills to support this individual’s decision making, not because of the nature of the help requested.

It’s interesting to note that in both these cases the coach involved, and the other coaches in the supervision group, appeared to come to the conclusion that the issues raised were experienced as dilemmas because they were experienced as internal coaches rather than because they were dilemmas per sae. I do not suggest that there are no dilemmas facing internal coaches. Nor do I seek to trivialise matters of confidentiality, role-conflict or boundary management. But I do think that these examples are thought provoking. As internal coaches we view our environment through a particular lens. The nature of that lens is determined, in part, by the discourse about what being an internal coach means. A key component of the internal coach discourse is constructed of the dilemmas that we are told that we face, as internal coaches. These two examples, drawn from a single supervision group meeting, appear to suggest that some situations can become ethical dilemmas in internal coaches’ minds as a result of being viewed through their internal coach lens, rather than because of the challenge they face.

To connect with Ian Flanders

Frisch MH (2001) The Emerging role of the Internal Coach. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 53(4): 240-250.
St John-Brooks K (2009) "What are the Ethical Challenges Involved in being an Internal Coach?". UK: Middlesex University.