For the past few weeks, I have played with the role of defining moments of decision and twists of fate. This week, I want to talk about intentionality in the engagement of defining moments. As a coach of leaders, I move alongside people who are seeking to grow intentionally, to develop themselves professionally and personally. The focus of our work may begin with a clearly stated focus of professional competency that may need improvement but can often end up with the altering of the way of one’s being. These are truly defining moments that can literally change the course of a life. Watching this transformation within a person is my psychic pay of being a coach.
I want to share a particular story that illustrates the power of intention combined with a coaching presence. It happened when I had first begun my work as a consultant in healthcare. My firm, Galloway Consulting, had been hired to address a pressing financial bleed within a well-know healthcare system. The new CEO was brought in to fix it, to stop the bleeding, and turn the organization around. We had worked with this CEO before, which gave him confidence in our methodology and value. He wanted us to arrive the very day that he did and begin an assessment to get the new start off with positive momentum.
Our organizational assessment involves the typical crunching of numbers to discern opportunities and challenges. This work of analysis of data is accompanied with an equally rigorous round of interviews that capture a sense of the culture that is currently present. We go to great lengths to make sure the set of interviews include all level of employees as well as across the variety of departments and locations. It is time-consuming but has always turned out to be key to understanding the issue that is impeding the organization’s health and growth. There’s much more I could tell you about this method but I want to focus on one event of the intentional growth in a leader.
The person that emerged in our interviews was one particular member of the executive team, we’ll call him Bob. Bob was viewed as a hard-nosed, bottom-line driver of people. The words “mean”, “dismissive”, “uncaring” appeared over and over in our interviews. Several folks said that Bob had “no heart”, strictly concerned with finances, while not caring about patients nor fellow staff members. Sound like anyone you work with?
The Catholic Sisters who comprised the governing board, a collection of nuns, readily condemned Bob as “off mission”, that is, he did not understand the values of the healthcare system that the nuns took very seriously. They were clear that the problems they were facing was a result of Bob’s bad attitude. They told me, in confidence, that they felt Bob needed to go.
What was interesting to me was that we had discovered in our assessment of the executive team, two clear facts. One, Bob was a problem in terms of his leadership style and his communication skills. His 360 interviews (interviews of Bob’s direct reports) only confirmed his problematic style as an abusive command-control leader. Clearly, Bob’s leadership was a problem.
But, we also discovered that Bob was really the only one in the leadership team who was driving any kind of accountability. Bob was the one, consciously and unconsciously, appointed by the system, to raise the tough issues that everyone else wanted to avoid, which they excused by their admirable commitment to “being a mission for God”, just like the Blues Brothers. Truth is, which I relayed to the Sisters, in my inimitable style of calling a spade a bloody hoe, they would likely bave been closing their doors if it had not been for Bob’s lone effort to drive a minimal effort at accountability. As I put it to the Sisters, No bucks, no mission. I was thrilled later in our engagement when one of the eldest nuns quoted my comment to a large assembly of leaders, “No bucks, no mission”. She had a time-purchased credibility, and her endorsement represented a sea change in the culture. In a word, the Sister had “stroke”!
Let me be clear, and quick. I work with a lot of talented folks at Galloway who can quickly discover waste, ingeniously redesign systems of work to be more efficient, initiate and drive change initiatives, cascading down through the organization, gather employees engaging them in a creative process to solve problems. And we did that, getting this system up and functioning well for the CEO who brought us in to do just that. Impressively, I think, we did it without lay-offs, the easiest route taken by most turnaround firms. While this turnaround was impressive and proved to the the center of a nationwide conference on healthcare, I want to focus on is Bob’s personal turnaround.
While my colleagues were doing their herculean work righting the ship, I was asked to coach Bob, to assist him in a process of development as a leader, and as a person. Crucial at the beginning of any coaching relationship was his decision to enter into a coaching engagement. Did Bob want to change? Was he up to the challenge of personal transformation?
He had received specific criticism from the 360 surveys as well as diatribes offered, with loving Christ-like love, by the Sisters. Bob was smart enough to realize, his job was on the line. Helpfully, Bob was relieved to find Galloway as allies in his personal crusade of accountability, welcoming our intervention. But, he also knew he had some work to do on his style and way of getting things done.
Fortunately, Bob and I had a good foundation of relationship with which to begin our work. We began our engagement with a series of interviews in which I attempted to get below the surface of his clipped, curt, business-like demeanor that left a wake of fear wherever he roamed. What was behind his personal style of leadership?
Through time, he revealed a telling story of his MBA experience, minted at a prestigious business school, where he was taught that one should be direct, objective, sans feeling and emotion, in the prosecution of his work. That is, he professed, the only way to drive the organization, to get things done. So, entering the high pressure work environment of healthcare, he donned a persona, that is, a “face” of a tough-mined businessman who drove the business, with an eye only on the bottom-line.
As I talked with him, I found him to be natively empathetic, possessed by a passion for the noble work of healthcare. But I also discovered a limiting belief that he had bought into at b-school: to be a senior executive, you must present a fierce, no-holds-barred image of accountability. The pressing issue that emerged was whether or not Bob could be a responsible driver of accountability while also being himself, who turned out to be a nice guy. Could he move beyond the limiting belief of how a Senior Officer should appear within his organizational context? Is change possible? It seemed a tall order to fill.
As we moved into our coaching relationship, we spent time exploring what he was wanting to get from his work. What were the values that brought the fire in his soul? He told a few stories of why he decided to use his management skills in the field of healthcare. He spoke of the frustration of being the “only one that got it” that hospitals need sound principles to enable quality care, to offer the best they could be to their entrusted patients.. Listening carefully below the water-line of his persona, I found a person who cared deeply. It seemed that our early conversation got beneath the encrusted structure that stifled his passion and his ability to lead with vision. On his own, he came to a new dedication to do what he had been doing with forceful coercion with a new way of casting vision and securing buy-in, not mere compliance.
I come across people like Bob in all occupations, not just executives in healthcare. I talk with people who have lost their soul in their work, buffeted by unrelenting bureaucracy and busy work. Not surprising to me, many are clergy who started out with a burning vision to make a difference but find themselves swamped by the busyness and business of maintaining an organization. I know something about that.
Often, I find myself pointing people to certain articles in a discipline that has come to be known as emotional intelligence, or EQ. The principles are pretty simple, and revolve around treating people with respect and dignity, paying attention to how you communicate, and investing time and energy into relationships. I often joke that my mother was my adjunct professor in this field, giving her props. Most people get it, once you put it out there, but sometimes, like in Bob’s case, there is some unlearning that must be done.
Being on site, my job was made easier by observing him in Bob’s daily work. I watched how he interacted with people. I observed him leading meetings, monitored his email communication, sat in on important huddles. Giving him immediate feedback was extremely helpful as he was trying to make a quick turnaround of his style. The 360 assessment after six months gave us the objective evidence that his intentions of changing his style were making a difference. Central to this success was that his critical numbers, in fact, had improved even as he was taking on a more humane persona. He was still driving the organization to be efficient and productive as he was simultaneously treating people with respect, and for toppers, enjoying his work.
I offer this story about Bob to suggest that our lives are malleable, that is, they can be changed. Beliefs about reality that we drag along behind us can be altered if we make a decision to do something about it. The key is INTENTION. It begins with self awareness, and a critical decision to do things differently, followed by a commitment to being mindful of that change. It helps to have a coach come alongside to help you be clear as to what you want to do and why. The coach also provides a monitoring presence that helps you stay honest with your self in your progress. The good news is that we can change, if we want to.
What limiting beliefs might you have about your job, about your relationships, about life? Might a coach help you discover a new way of viewing reality and help free you to be the person you want to be? Liberation presents an exciting possibility for most people who feel stuck. Getting a coach is one way to move intentionally through the stuff of life, between those defining moments and twists of fate. To live life with intention seems to be one of the most important decisions we make as persons.