What does it mean to work on the edge?
To work on the edge
- I have to be fully present, take every detail into account and make quick, sharp decisions.
- I feel fully alive and become acutely aware of what I am doing and saying, and
- I have to interpret the meaning of what my client and other stakeholders are communicating to me in words, expressions, and tone.
When I visualize what I mean by edge work, I think of skiing in the Alps along a narrow pathway where I have to ensure I stay on track. Lots of skiers (of various levels of expertise) are around me, some racing past me, others following right behind almost touching my skis. The edge feels dangerously close, beyond which is a drop of thousands of feet. Not being a very good skier, this is both a frightening and exhilarating experience and this is how I often feel when working with my clients.
I do this edge work with CEO’s and senior executives usually over a one year period - a minimum amount of time for the benefits to be experienced. Some of my assignments last over 3 years. When I became aware, some 8-10 years ago, that this is the work I wanted to do, I began declining other assignments that did not challenge me to stay on my toes!
Coaching on the edge
I believe I do my best work when it is ‘on the edge’ as I feel alive, full of energy and I know the stakes are high. I would like to explore in future posts what this edge work entails for my practice, and describe how it can create value for both the client and multiple stake holders in the organization.
In this first case, I describe how I worked on the edge from the first face to face meeting. A detailed example that explores my approach to contracting, following a ‘chemistry’ session to on-board a senior business head (referred to in plural as they/their etc. to anonymise) who was joining the organisation. As part of their visit and orientation program, a meeting was arranged with me.
It all started with a delay
On arrival, I was asked to sit in a bare conference room to await this leader. After about 20 minutes an assistant came in and said, “I just heard that your meeting is going to start two hours later. I suppose it is best you wait here? I can bring you some coffee?” I wondered what the reason was for the delay, but unfortunately the assistant had no further information.
Whilst I was waiting I made two flip charts:  the first hundred days written down with the key focus areas and  the critical deliverables for success of a senior executive. It was part of my preparation of what I’d imagined, from other executives I had coached at this level, would be on their mind. I wrote the following:
- Assume operational leadership,
- Take charge of the team,
- Align with key stakeholders,
- Engage with the culture, and
- Build strategic priorities.
I had used these criteria successfully with other leaders. It seemed to align with typical thinking of what was important for success in the first 100 days.
The initial few seconds of meeting
Finally the executive arrived, very self-assured with an open gaze and half smile, and said, “Oh I’m really sorry, my plane was delayed; and on top of it there were no shower facilities in the arrival lounge at the airport – I had counted on that after an overnight flight!” I raised my eyebrows and half smiled too in response. “So I had to go to my hotel to shower and get ready.” With that smile and twinkle in the eye, it made me feel a sense of lightness of let’s not take all of this so seriously!
They then rolled their eyes and continued “and it took another half hour at the hotel to get my clothes ironed.” I was a bit surprised at the level of transparency with the details of the delay, so early on in our meeting, and I found myself smiling back and making a quick connection to this person I had just met. It seemed to be a mutual feeling as it resulted with “I’ll cancel the first meeting after yours so that we will have at least 2 hours to speak and see what may come out of our discussion around coaching.”
Perhaps, in this moment, I was a source of ‘lack of pressure’ and I had made them curious about coaching too. I felt relaxed and my initial impressions were, “Wow, very self-assured even though they are brand new to this organization.”
The first wave of value: Telling the client what I think they needed
I began with a coaching question that had proven useful with most clients, “Well Okay now that we have two hours together, what would you like to get out of it that will make a difference for you?” Instead, looking straight back at me, they quickly fired back with “I’ve travelled for 10 hours and I’m not sure I want to get asked many questions – you are the expert who has done this before, so what do you want me to get out of this time? ”
I laughed, which is usually my way of gaining some time to think. I quickly processed what I knew so far since meeting, they are being straight and transparent, not playing the social game or following my rules. Rather than following a format of what’s normally worked I responded in kind, “Ok! From my side I would like to explore how we may possibly work together and the value it can give you.” And this was met with a smile, “that sounds like a great result for 2 hours.”
And so I started by inquiring whether any personality assessments or 360s had previously been carried out. We tried to discuss those and it reached its conclusion when the potential client said, “Well, I don’t really put much weight on personality assessments – I have not seen the value add- I have taken a number of them and I do have some 360s. The most important thing for me right now, is how I will get started in my new position and hit the ground running.”
Great! I was now able to share my flip charts then and what they could focus on in the first 100 days. The response was positive, “Wow! Those are great areas of focus – very pragmatic, which I like.” I could tell they were thinking and relating to their experience. They began speaking about each of the criteria for success and as I explained what was behind each, they put their own context to it. They began to take a few notes and then said, “Can you send this to me?” I immediately said, “Sure, I’m happy to send this to you and adapt it based on our discussion.” And then shared more explicitly how they worked that confirmed some of my initial impressions, “I like things simple and straight forward; not too many models that consultants keep throwing around.”
At this point, the conversation shifted into understanding further how leaning into the edge I was offering would work for them. “How does this coaching work? What am I going to get out of it besides talking to you and getting your advice?” I was about to respond with something like, it’s going to be up to you what you get out of it, which I know is also true, however, I made up my mind and stepped up with “Well, that could be one part of it. Often people in very senior positions do not have anyone they can really talk to inside the organization, so being able to discuss the undiscussables and having a thought partner is very useful. In addition, from my experience and what clients have told me, getting real time feedback and suggestions can be invaluable.” They responded in kind, “As I mentioned I’m a very pragmatic person, so I like to know what the outcomes would be.” Here was the word ‘pragmatic’ again and I made a mental note of coming back to it to understand their meaning of this word and how it translated into their leadership style.
Meanwhile, I shared a couple of examples of specific outcomes that other clients had benefited from by working with me. It was through sharing this information and how they were responding, I said to myself, “I really have my potential client listening now!” and followed up with, “I have done several on boarding assignments with leaders taking on key positions and did you know that about 40 percent of senior executives who change jobs or get promoted fail in the first 18 months.” I smiled as I said this raising my eyebrows slightly and they laughed!
Again, looking directly at me and said half smiling “Oh so you’re going to ensure that I make it past the 18 months? Is that the ultimate goal?” I said, “Well besides making it – thriving and succeeding is what you want, right? Well it could be. But I’m not in charge of that. You are!”
The second wave of value: Trust evolves in unusual ways
Another shift occurred in our relationship, when they told me something that they had not shared with anyone yet in this new company, a personal situation that was going to make it even more challenging, than what would be usual for all senior executives, relocating their families to a new country.
Again, I was surprised by this transparency and openness, and in order to reassure them said in a serious tone, “The basis of our relationship, if we decide to work together, is trust. So I want you to know that you can trust me.” Reflecting back on this moment, this is where I made a slight blunder because it was met with a rather serious look and response, “Oh I don’t work along the basis of trusting someone who tells me to trust them! I will trust you. However, if you break that trust for whatever reason, then I will not trust you again.” I wondered about that and decided not to say more on that subject. Yet I appreciated that they were going to be direct with me, and were clearly setting their expectations.
At this point, we still had no ‘formal’ contract and there was about half an hour remaining. In that hour and half, we had built sufficient mutual respect and trust that they wanted to admit something to me, “I have not had (one important organisational function) report to me in previous positions; I would prefer to know in more depth about some of work they do -enough to ask the right questions and challenge them when necessary. Since I need to get up to speed quickly, would you know somebody who could help me?” I said, “Let me think about this. I could see you having a couple of sessions with someone who has this expertise, and whom you could ask any question to, so that you feel more comfortable and competent in your new context.”
I gave them an example of another executive whom I’d worked with who was in a similar role and position. Every time he went into a meeting with people in that important organisation function, all the technical experts involved would smirk at his lack of knowledge of the sophisticated work they believed they were doing. What he did was to engage two experts from outside the company to come and tutor him for couple of months, so he felt comfortable discussing and asking the key questions. I said, “This is quite normal, there are usually some gaps when one takes on a new role with a huge scope. Identifying these ahead of time and speeding up the learning curve is a great strategy.”
In my way I normalized the situation without bringing any judgement to it. This allowed them to express that actually it’s just something that needs to be learnt, and in turn it allowed them, I think, to see me to be a great resource.
Adding future waves of value: Getting into the organization provides big opportunities too
We’d explored quite a few important points when they started to share with me that they really wanted to know what their new organization and their executive team were actually like, because at this point, they had no idea. When they said that, I thought this is good because now I can do what I do best which is to get into the organization and talk to the people. That’s the only way I can support them to on-board quickly.
At the edge: Putting the contract in place
The moment had arrived where we started to seriously negotiate what my role as coach could be. It started with a suggestion of attending an offsite strategy meeting and facilitating that. I was now confident enough to suggest something else. What was offered wasn’t something that would help them make the most important use of my time and strengths AND give them the added value they deserved. And so I countered with, “I can facilitate your strategy meeting, however what I had in mind was to meet your team one on one to get an understanding of their context and what they need from you as the leader.” They hesitated a few seconds and then said, “Yes, let’s think about how we might do this so it can be useful.”
We finally reached the end of our conversation. In the normal way of ending such a session we shook hands, and left on a positive note, “This is great. Really nice meeting you. Thank you. Get back to me on a couple of those points that we discussed.”
I didn’t hear from them for several days and took a bold step to put a contract together. I sent the executive concerned a contract for six months and I roughly calculated I would spend about two days a month working with them. The contract contained the typical fees per day, and other relevant charges and, with the covering email, sent it through to them with the next steps. In the contract, I wrote based on our first discussion, these are the areas we will focus on: your first hundred days with a few bullets (after weighing up what’s really required). And followed with, “Anything else that you want to speak about within this package?”
It was met with a simple response of, and awareness of my previous work with the organisation, ‘Send it to the appropriate person for processing’. I took it as given that this was the approval and contacted their assistant to ensure that it would be taken through the formalities of obtaining a purchase order etc. The assistant and I established a rapport as we communicated on this and turned out to be a key stakeholder because what followed was the challenge of getting our sessions scheduled onto their packed agenda. So I decided a different tactic. This is where many coaches stumble, I believe.
I called the assistant again— and because we had established some rapport, they explained how busy this new executive was and how difficult it was to get on their agenda. I said, “You know what, this coaching is really important for them in the first six months to be successful in this new role. So please make some time on the agenda.” I made some executive decisions on dates together, and found out when the key meetings for the executive were and we scheduled 6 half day sessions at their office.
After our second session, the assistant shared with me the waves of value I was bringing. “I understand that they need you – there are just too many things happening and after they see you, they seem a lot calmer and focused! You are an important person for their well-being.”
We were now off!
Reflecting on the waves of value from working on the edge
Taking the time to reflect on how I add waves of value really starts with knowing that I work best coaching on the edge. Breaking down what that edge is has helped me to realise the number of edges I am working with both psychologically, and physically to create the necessary conditions for that first meeting.
- Working with this client from the start what mattered most was those initial few seconds where we quickly processed a lot of verbal and non-verbal behaviours and made a choice of how we each responded, which provided the gateway into having a longer conversation that lasted two hours.
- In every moment of our conversation the contracting process was happening, and this typically occurred when I had found the appropriate content for the conversation that resulted in them leaning into my edge. It is this connection that leads to the waves of value that I can bring to our working relationship. I can see this in the way that people offer and add detail that allows them to disclose something that is personal and important to them.
- By continually finding and creating the right conditions in that initial meeting – where some approaches may work for some and not for others – it was my job to prove that I was able to ‘add value’. Knowing where my real strengths lie, and when the right conditions and relationship had been created with the client, I was then able to confidently share and articulate the relevance and value of these strengths to them.
It can inevitably always feel like being on the edge - of uncertainty as making a difference, and creating those waves of positive difference involves doing things – differently. Yet, I realise how important it is to get small things just right to create these effects - often small ripples build!
Question: How do you know when you’re working at your edge and making waves of value in that first meeting that leads to results?
To connect with K.C. Char
K. C. Char has held leadership positions in international organizations for many years. For the last 15 years, K. C has applied this experience to advise, consult and coach senior leaders. K. C’s work draws from this rich experience, challenging clients to stretch themselves and find their edge, effectively leading people to perform at their best.