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Empowerment Systems

"........When Change is the Challenge."

Executive Coaching
On The Playing Field

Laurie Weiss, Ph.D.

It's hard to give up a six-figure income, a company car, and the perks of being an executive in a large corporation under any circumstances. It is even harder when you feel that doing so would be admitting defeat. Yet, when you are stretched beyond your limits and are physically and emotionally exhausted, giving up is a very appealing option. Athletic coaches have the luxury of observing their protégés' actual performances. Executive coaches rarely do. We usually rely on reports of our clients' experiences and dilemmas. Now Sara, facing a crucial career and life decision, is asking me to be her shadow for an entire week, to help her learn things about herself that may be very challenging for her to accept. I am awed by her dedication and courage.

Standing in Sara's twenty-fifth floor executive office, overlooking the water, with a contract to observe what she does and suggest ways in which she can reduce stress and do her job more effectively, I know that the real issue is whether or not she will resign. Senior management knows this too, and doesn't want to lose her.

When they originally suggested that consultation might help her decrease her stress level, Sara was very suspicious. One of the major stressors in her professional life was an overactive corporate grapevine, and she was not about to provide more fuel for the gossips. All three of the senior executives she reported to knew she had been working with an executive coach (me) for some time. When she suggested inviting her coach to do the consultation, they readily agreed. They also agreed that I would communicate my suggestions directly to her, and that she would use her own judgement in sharing this information.

I was about to discover why she was so valuable to the corporation. When Sara first accepted the position as Vice President of Operations in Case Management in a major insurance company, she was sure that she could handle the job. When her fourth promotion in five years proved more challenging than she had imagined, she had asked me to coach her. Our initial work was about setting priorities, taking appropriate time off and delegating effectively.
After this initial adjustment period, Sara felt that she was meeting the challenges of her new position. Then a Senior VP two levels above her retired and was replaced by a woman whose close supervision and demands for detailed information infuriated Sara. Now, after seven months of trying to get along with her boss's boss, Janice, she told me she was considering resigning.

Economically, she really does not feel ready to leave the corporate world. Although she eventually intends to start her own business, she has been using the corporate income to build the nest egg that will allow her to do so without risking her family's comfort and security. Her financial plan calls for at least one more year on the job, but she feels that both her health and sanity are at risk, if something doesn't change.

I have accepted this assignment, knowing that my top priority is Sara's well being. However, since the company is paying my fee, we are both aware that we must follow an agenda that is completely congruent with the needs of the organization. Together we develop a contract that calls for me "to provide job development consulting services," including "suggestions for alternatives for improvement in work flow, use of productivity tools, utilization of the support staff and determine size adequacy of support staff to handle delegated tasks." This translates into a request for me to observe and give Sara feedback about how she approaches every aspect of her job.

The First Day: Many Details Now, at eight o'clock Monday morning, I sit across her rosewood desk, listening to her manage her voice mail on the speaker phone, and trying to get a sense of what Sara's world is really like. There is a message from the cost management controller, saying that she believes the figures are one million minutes off. Sara responds with information about what she believes is the source of the discrepancy, sends the message, and goes on.

A call from an executive in a department where Sara had been investigating a new assignment irritates her. She already knows, via the grapevine and some judicious questioning, that she will not be offered the position. She believes the other executive has been avoiding her and says, "It took two weeks to get her to return my call."

One of her regional managers reports that she is ill and is taking the day off, and Sara responds with sympathy. Two additional messages from other regional managers offer information and speculation about upcoming events. Sara responds briefly to these messages, with brief informational replies. Then she sends a voice message to all of her on site staff members asking them to arrange to meet with me to give candid, confidential feedback about their observations of her performance. These meetings will take place while Sara and other senior managers attend a confidential meeting with the CEO of her division--the only activity in the week where I am not welcome.

At 8:13 a.m. she meets with her boss, Dan, and another VP to prepare for the meeting with the CEO. Dan reviews a report and suggests the "spin" he wishes to present. She knowledgeably corrects his interpretation of certain data, and he accepts the corrections while cautioning her to be diplomatic. She has been told recently that she is much too assertive, and she believes that is a strength and not a weakness.

By 8:35 she is in her office meeting with an in house computer systems designer. They are trying to trace how a vendor was incorrectly paid over $60,000 for work that was never done, and was charged to her budget without her authorization. This search is a clandestine operation, and they are both obviously enjoying the intrigue, while seriously considering solutions to the problem.

The remainder of her morning is spent preparing materials for the afternoon meeting, deciding on the appropriate information to ask the controller to put in new reporting forms, based upon a five inch stack of reports Sara has recently reviewed. The forms have sticky notes on many pages. She hurries thru this work and tries to clear some of her stacked up e-mail as well.
E-mail is an enormous problem, she has a backlog of 724 messages in her computer and 466 of them are unread. They go back many months, and a huge challenge is to manage the current messages. As she clears some, the chime that indicates new messages occasionally dings. For some reason her administrative assistant has not yet arrived, and as she works the phone rings frequently with messages going into the voice-mail system. She has 12 "direct reports:" five field managers, six professional staff members, and one support person, all of whom maintain regular contact with her.

Sara is frustrated because her time is being eaten up managing a dispute between two of her staff members. She has ordered them to stop sending e-mails tattling on each other. Gossip about this "negativity" is further disrupting the operation of her team. The trust level is low and Sara complains that "people don't believe each other's numbers" and redo work unnecessarily. As she works, door open, people frequently drop in to ask a question or pass on information.

As I watch Sara work, I see that she has the ability to scan large amounts of information for patterns and discrepancies, and is very involved (perhaps over- involved) in intimate details of the work of her department. Later, in individual meetings with her staff, this impression is confirmed. Sara is seen as "one of the best communicators I have ever had for a boss," "the best boss I have ever had," "doesn't delegate enough," "gets more done than anyone I have ever seen," "works too long and too hard," "does too much herself," and "allows too much negativity among the staff." Angela, identified as source of the negativity, is unwilling to meet with me.

At 3:20 Sara returns from the meeting with a major new assignment: to prove to the CEO that a new way of distributing the caseload among case managers in the field will be effective. As she eats her bag lunch at her conference table, her boss comes in to inform her that her voice mailbox is full. Her secretary has not been in at all and she is swamped. While she eats, she thinks aloud about the implications of the new assignment, and I share the feedback from her staff.

At 4:30 she is deep in voice mail and damage control. She has heard a rumor that Angela has complained to the HR department about being asked to talk with me, and checks with HR to see if there is a problem. There isn't. She discusses training schedules with one regional manager and a personnel problem with another. She sends a voice-mail to other staff members warning them not to panic about today's meeting with the CEO--all will be explained on a conference call at 9 a.m. tomorrow. She learns that her secretary has had a family emergency and won't be in, and that one manager who called in sick worked anyway.

When she hears an appreciative voice mail message from a staff member, Sara tells me she feels angry to have her time wasted "when there isn't any problem," and wishes they would all "leave me alone." I sympathize. There is way too much to do, and she is trying to do it all. I point out that her team has learned that the way to get her attention is to have problems, because that is what she responds to. I suggest that changing the pattern -- to stroke for good things -- might help alleviate the pressure she feels. I predict that if she gives more "thank you's" she will have fewer problems.

I know she understands intellectually that other people process information differently than she does. She is extremely quick, and their need to assimilate and process is emotionally frustrating. I listen to her frustration, and ask her to try to step into their shoes and perceive the world from their perspective. It is a useful exercise. I also suggest that she tape-record her random thoughts on her hour plus drive home. We end the day at 5:45 with plans for me to join her 7 a.m. breakfast meeting sometime after it starts. It is ONLY Monday!

Tuesday: The Normal Day Tuesday is a "normal"day, with nonstop meetings from 7 to 11 a.m. One meeting is clearly enjoyable, getting information and signing off on parts of a developing software program. Another is almost purely informational, a conference call with Sara's staff in five states and with her boss, Dan, and his boss, Janice. I know Sara has had great difficulty relating with Janice, but under these circumstances, Janice seems like just another hard working executive trying to do a good job. The last meeting is cross-team conference about servicing a major customer.

I then discover that Sara has already implemented my suggestions from yesterday. Her secretary is working with the tape Sara made in the car, and she told me about the calls she made from her car phone acknowledging people's successes. At lunch we discuss the personal sensitivities that may be contributing to her difficulty with Janice. The remainder of the day is spent in back-to-back meetings and phone calls, including a discussion with a corporate statistician about how to set up the research project.

Wednesday: Unexpected Developments Wednesday is scheduled as a work at home day, with a two hour morale improvement meeting at a field office near her suburban home. At the end of that meeting she gets an urgent phone message to be downtown at 12:30 for a meeting in her division president's office. During the meeting, Janice is publicly critical of another VP. Now I understand why Sara dreads encounters with Janice. Jim, the president, has more details about the research project, and is extremely supportive of each executive's feelings and abilities to manage the present challenges.

After a very late lunch, where we debrief the meeting and discuss strategies for relating effectively to Janice, Sara has another meeting with Dan, Janice and two representatives from Human Resources. They discuss the options available to deal with Sara's problem staff member, Angela. Nothing is resolved, and Sara is frustrated. She does not like having others involved in making decisions about her staff, but Janice is insisting on it. On the long drive back to her home, we discuss the likely needs and objectives of each person at the meeting. It is a challenge for Sara to accept that their perspectives are different from, and just as relevant as her own.

I meet her children, and hear her husband's views about her overwhelming schedule. Although he has a demanding job of his own, he has taken on responsibilities for almost all home maintenance tasks. Their intimate relationship is suffering, and he would like her to give up her job as soon as possible. He considers her company inhumane and impossibly demanding.

Thursday: Solutions Emerge Thursday morning I skip the 7 a.m. breakfast meeting, and meet her in her office at 9. She has paperwork to do, so I meet with Frank, a quiet, youngish man who is on her staff. He turns out to be a hidden treasure. He has noticed almost all of the problems the others have noted, but he has a broader view, and suggests specific ways she could better utilize the resources she has. He respects her so much he has not wanted to burden her with his observations, but, by the end of our meeting, he has requested that I arrange a meeting where he can give his information directly to Sara. At that meeting an hour later, she tells him "your feedback is immensely helpful" and promises him opportunities to help implement his suggestions.

A software development meeting, a working lunch with me, and a teleconference meeting with her entire staff fill out the day. I watch her implementing strategies we have discussed, and Frank and others assume additional responsibilities. I listen in on a frustrating phone call with one of the HR people, who has interviewed Angela for the executive group. She stonewalls, and refuses to give Sara any useful information. Sara cannot yet terminate Angela, but decides to shift her to different responsibilities.

Friday: Empowering Her Team Friday morning we review a summary of 24 suggestions that we have discussed throughout the week. She has already implemented many of them. Sara briefly interrupts our discussion to request a meeting with Janice, to see if she really can develop a mutually supportive relationship with her.

One of the most important suggestions is to use her creativity to develop people instead of projects, and to encourage her people to creatively develop the projects. In individual meetings with Frank and another staff member, she immediately coaches them about how to define their goals and assigns them more responsibilities. Frank is to work toward becoming her second in command and will use sorting her e-mail backlog as his training to familiarize himself with the issues she deals with. Sara coaches Sally on how to organize and delegate a complex project, instead of doing all the work herself. Sally leaves the meeting saying, "I dreaded this meeting, but it was great!"

As we drive to the airport late Friday afternoon, we are both tired and elated. We have accomplished all our objectives, and more. Sara suggests that this would be an excellent way to start a coaching relationship with a new client. I am not sure. The trust we had developed in our weekly phone conversations certainly contributed to how readily she accepted and implemented my suggestions, but observing her in her work environment definitely gave me a more complete picture of her strengths and needs.

In our talks over the next two weeks Sara tells me about her recent, satisfying conversations with Janice and about how well her staff is responding to her new directions. She says they keep looking at her in amazement. She is finding more time to be with her family, and is very comfortable with her ability to stay with the corporation for at least one more year.


Laurie Weiss, Ph.D., is an internationally known psychotherapist, executive coach and author. She practices in Littleton, Colorado, and is also available for telephone consultation at 303-794-5379. Her latest book, What Is The Emperor Wearing? Truth-telling In Business Relationships, will be released in January, 1998.

All rights reserved. Please contact the author for permission to reproduce this article.


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