Leaders: Coaching the perils of success... by Laurent Terseur
A recurring theme I have been noticing in my private conversations with leaders over the past years, is that even those with a great track record and significant successin overcoming perfect storms, can experience moments when they look differently at the climate changing yet another time in unexpected ways. In these moments they can happen to feel for the first time that a shadow is cast on their own ability to operate and lead.
Despite having successfully weathered so many storms, it is no longer obvious to them whether the sun will or will not shine again this time...and as fatigue builds-up, what they would normally have seen as an usual test looks like one of a different kind, possibly a bridge too far.
A pattern I observe in these moments, is that the scope of perceived available options reduces as the pain and exhaustion increases, easily narrowing down to a binary and sometimes draining, “should I stay or should I go?” - type dilemma.
Yet, while this surfacing dilemma might look rightly formulated and valid for consideration, I take away from many examples that it can be easy to be missing out on more available options, or to make an insufficiently informed decision, to the detriment of the individuals' well-being.
I would like to share here some insights from examples of executives who decided to pause and recreate space to think differently when they were feeling trapped in the storm, and how that helped them to get the clouds tear along so they could see how and where the sun would shine again for them.
1. The ’ new boss’ change in the climate
I remember this executive who was considering leaving their company after having lost all their drive due to the lack of communication with their new boss.
The first investment they made was to make the time for reflective conversations. Being encouraged to identify their emotions, they could acknowledge they had gradually grown a form of obsession and better understand what was getting them stuck on “freeze” mode. They then could allow a defined place for these emotions, and remove the obsession standing in their way, freeing up a brand new thinking space in which to review their situation. A major shift happened then, as they realised they were still in charge until proven otherwise. By letting go of the idea of improving their boss, they could focus on doing their job and allow themselves to take initiatives again. Very quickly they were back operating at their best again. It was just as if by looking at the whole wider sky, the dark clouds had just evaporated.
Achieving clarity doesn't always make the clouds vanish though, and can instead establish the need for substantial decisions.
In another situation I have in mind, an executive was getting increasingly exhausted as they were battling ever stormier elements. By making the time for reflective conversations, they could assess the situation. Being encouraged to take a step back and look at the whole journey, they found out that their phenomenal perseverance and stamina had fuelled their tenacity and resilience so far, but had also blindfolded them. They were not agreeing with the new directions, their sponsors and allies were gone, and they were keeping the behaviours of the new command chain in low esteem. The plan so far had been to stay on the boat and sail those hostile waters until more favourable ones would eventually come back.
What casting the anchor and sheltering in a quiet inlet allowed them to realise, is that it was the course that had changed, not the winds. Persevering against it wouldn't work and might just as well throw the boat against the rocks and harm everyone from crew to captain. It was time to either buy into the new course set by the organisation, or move on and find a new journey they could believe in. That clarity provided a deep relief.
2. Old habits meet new Business Climate
In a very large number of situations, leaders keep fighting - they often excel at it. Each challenge is meant to be successfully overcome and quickly followed by the next ones - this is what they do and are used to.
I can think of conversations with executives who had so much hardwired the behaviour of taking on challenges, that they had lost contact with their own motivation. They were heading straight into the next storm by trained habit, with an unsinkable conviction that after the showers, the sun would be shining...or would it ? when those clouds who - rationally- looked just the same as usual, yet appeared to create them more trouble, this was a real disconnect in their minds.
What they had dropped on their way was the ability to look at the sky not only for its shape, but for what it meant to them and to their organisation.
By holding fire, taking their breath for once, and reflecting on the organisation's purpose, on their own values and drivers, some reconfirmed their engagement with much more clarity, consciously knowing now what gap they needed to fill to be motivated, other ones could realise they were up for different challenges. In both cases, it was impressive to see how their levels of energy and well-being rocketed, as they were back in a place where they could make conscious choices.
In those cases, powerful insights kicked in as they reconnected with their values.
3. Personal pride in past successes makes way to future opportunities in a new climate
I think of another leader whose perceived horizon was darkening. As they paused and reflected, they could make sense of what they were seeing. The end of a cycle was also the beginning of a new one. Simply, as they were so proud of what had been built so far, they were emotionally not ready to accept the changes to it. By pausing and reflecting, they could explore all of what they had learned and achieved and then could come to terms with the need to adapt to a changing environment.
The shift was made possible as they acknowledged what they were proud of, so they could let go of it and focus on a new, different sun shining.
4. Personal successes migrate towards collaborative success to improve the climate
I also think of another executive who had reached a point when they were seriously considering leaving their organisation. They had been around for long, successfully leading a high performing division, yet having created for themselves a glass ceiling by inspiring frequently over-competitive relationships across the organisation.
As they paused and reviewed their situation and expectations, taking different perspectives, this executive had an insight on their own values and drivers that dramatically changed their views on the situation. By acknowledging their own important needs for recognition, they could finally make the conscious choices to accept that the top management of the organisation was legitimate in holding a wider agenda than just the one of a star division. A new route appeared, where this executive was happy to play a different game and act more collaboratively, and to consciously address outside the organisation a number of personal beliefs and expectations that were not relevant to a professional context.
By becoming more aware of how their own ways to contribute to creating the storms, they were in position to create a much brighter path for themselves.
5. The eye in the storm reveals alternative routes
Interestingly, this is sometimes when things get quieter that the big dilemma would appear, when least expected. I think of an executive who had been going through the “mother of all storms” for years with an unusual resilience, remaining focused, engaged and even galvanised by the intellectual stimulation and challenge as they were sailing through hurling headwinds. Having been forced to rest for a few weeks, a new opportunity came to them, equally intellectually stimulating but offering a much, much sunnier route.
Whilst no dilemma had surfaced in their mind over those years, it just took a first opportunity to chill out, to be more available to observe, notice, and make the space for a massive insight that completely changed the course of their journey.
So what do we learn from these stories ?
I appreciate these fragments of stories would not exhaust the wide array of insights about these moments in a career when the options can appear to be much reduced. Those moments underline one of the real powers of coaching, which is the way it enables making choices again.
I would like to single out four common points amongst these examples, which I found enabled those concerned to trigger a different thought process and create a positive shift. They did :
Invest in a reflective pause, and secure that space they wouldn't find anywhere else.
Connect to their emotions, to be able to choose their focus and think differently
Revisit a multi-faceted reality, looking at all facets, to rebuild a map for themselves
Make sense and of this reality by confronting it to their own values and motivation drivers
In my experience, the real shift happens mainly with this last confrontation to what is really true to the individual - the former steps being decisive steps to get to the latter.
Amongst the other areas of my practice, I am quite fascinated by the power that the conversations in this area hold, for considerably reducing levels of distress and restoring more options for leaders and their organisations.
What are your own findings in that space ?
To connect with Laurent - firstname.lastname@example.org
Laurent Terseur is a former senior executive with a genuine care for people and over two decades senior experience in multi-cultural, highly competitive corporate environments, first as a group treasurer in pharmaceuticals and manufacturing, then in sales and leadership roles in the corporate and investment banking divisions of Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan and Barclays.
Laurent is an APECS Accredited Executive Coach and an ICF Professional Certified Coach. He coaches individuals and teams, English as well as French native speakers. His practice integrates insights from cognitive neurosciences and systemic coaching, and is informed by his track record in building highly collaborative and effective teams, his business acumen, and his multi-faceted understanding of matrix organisations.