In my experience as a coach, i have come across executives who are sometimes victims of their seriously unfortunate childhood experiences and this ends up impacting their attitudes towards others at work and in their personal lives. Liberating oneself from the shackles of this, is very tough but, possible. This is one such case :
Sandhya’s (name changed) annual appraisal session with her boss had left her completely unsettled. She was perceived as brash, abrasive and non -collaborative, biased and closed to suggestions. Her communication style and inability to collaborate with peers and subordinates were seen as major barriers to success given the high degree of relationship building and networking, across teams and geographies, required in this role. Also, this was the stepping stone for all future leadership roles in the organization and it was critical that she make a success of it.
Sandhya, who was a highly awarded and exceptional performer in her earlier role was deeply perturbed and reflected long and hard on what had led to this.
Her boss was well aware of how critical it was that Sandhya succeed in this role given what that her future career was at stake here. She was also familiar with some of her personal challenges and was truly keen to help her work things out and move ahead in life. She suggested that they look at Executive Coaching as a possible intervention to help her with her issues
Sandhya agreed but was not sure what to expect. She did not know what executive coaching was and whether this meant that she was marked as a non/poor performer. It was in this frame of mind that she met me, her coach,and in the very first meeting her emotions came out with a rush and intensity that took me by surprise.
Sandhya’s story …
At first sight, she struck me as a pleasant and warm though slightly diffident person and there was nothing to suggest that she was out of the ordinary.She spoke candidly about her appraisal and asked me if coaching could help address these. I needed to hear more to be able to answer that question honestly.
Sandhya was promoted last year, within just three years of working with her current company, from a limited visibility and highly operational role in the company’s middle management to a more strategic senior management position with an involved matrix reporting structure and working multiple domestic and international teams.
Her new role, a Management level position, demanded extensive interaction and collaboration with her peers from other Business units, reliance on teams from other geographies and quick turnarounds on deliveries despite several dependencies that were not in her control.
Initially excited about the challenges of this new role, she soon realised that she was unable to make much headway or get much support from her peers and even team members. She described herself as a perfectionist, did not think much of most of her co-workers’ competence and felt she needed to closely oversee the work produced by her team
She grudgingly acknowledged that working with people and teams did not come easily to her but did not seem to think it was so bad that it could affect her performance ratings.Her somewhat cynical assessment of her situation was that she was losing out on account of seemingly extraneous issues such as communication and people skills, despite being a workaholic and a perfectionist and that people with lesser merit /abilities were moving ahead on account of their abilities to build effective people relationships.
By way of her background, she came from a very conservative family background where girl children were educated only up-to high school/early college level and then expected to get married. She was the middle child among three siblings and raised very affectionately, especially by her father, who was a reasonably successful businessman in a small town in South India. She was permitted to attend college and pursue a degree but with the clear understanding that after graduation she would get married and not pursue a career.
Life’s unkind cuts
When Sandhya was in the final year of college, she suffered a severe disability due to an accident. Her father was so shattered by this that he died of a heart attack within a week of the accident. This double blow completely unsettled her and she even contemplated ending her life.She still had a mother and younger brother to look after so she had to pull herself together and take charge of the house and its affairs. She worked on herself extensively and trained herself to manage and do everything despite her disabilities.
Her education being incomplete she was unlikely to get a good job, so she decided to pursue a diploma course that got her a reasonably good placement. She settled down well in her job, met her future husband(who wanted to marry her despite her disability) and looked forward to a comfortable future but that was not to be.
Her husband lost a lot of money in failed business ventures and so she had to get back to work again to support her family which by now included her in-laws and two children.She did not get any emotional support from her spouse; if anything she had to bear the brunt of his insecurities and failures. Her personal life was stress filled and a far cry from everything that she had hoped for and its day to day demands, in the absence of a caring home environment, had left her bitter and cynical.
She invested all her energies into her professional life and rose rapidly at work. Her job involved back end operational work, that required a high degree of technical skills but limited people skills, and she managed to do it very well. This led to her being promoted to her current role.However, in this role, she had to handle people/teams and interact with other departments for successful completion of projects which brought out the inter-personal issues.
A coach’s hunch
Listening to Sandhya’s story I was struck by her resilience, her apparent passion and her total commitment to making her professional life as successful as she could possible do no matter what curve balls life threw at her. Life had not been very kind to her and nothing had come easy. This and the feeling of constant, unending struggle had left a deep sense of disappointment in her. She appeared wary, did not trust easily and found it difficult to believe that people could like her or find her interesting.
It seemed to me that her profession/work was both her sustenance and a means to escape from the grim realities of her day to day life. She was very invested in her work as she had nothing much to look forward to in her personal life.
A 360 assessment, of respondents nominated by her, ratified my hunches.
What stood out across all, as her dominant positives, was her passion for her work, her complete ownership of whatever she takes on, her desire for perfection and total commitment to her work and team.
All of them were equally unanimous in articulating her developmental needs: her inability to work collaboratively with peers, delegate effectively to her team members, communicate effectively with her counterparts in other geographies and network purposefully with clients. Her people skills were abysmal and almost “dysfunctional” as described by her superior.
It became apparent to me that while each of the respondents knew some part of her past or her personal struggles, no one knew the full extent of what she had gone through.
It clearly came through that she did not have many friends at work place, hardly socialised at work and made no attempt to network/form a relationship of any kind at work.
Almost all her issues were rooted in the domain of inter-personal relationships and stemmed from a deep mistrust of other people
Moment of truth
Through all these data points; a picture began to emerge slowly but surely.
It appeared that her early life experiences had all made her extremely insecure about trusting others. Even when she found someone to be competent and helpful she was very suspicious of their motives, given how many times life had seemingly let her down (This was came out explicitly in her 360)
She was constantly viewing everything and everyone through the prism of her past experiences and was unable to move forward without her past baggage and she did not realise this!
When I shared the composite feedback with her, it took her a while to come to terms with the data and the implications contained therein. It was one thing to get this feedback from a formal appraisal but another thing to get it from the very people she had nominated for the 360 and whom she saw as her trusted associates and friends.
I asked her to reflect on the possible thought that her inter-personal issues and deep mistrust were a possible manifestation of her early years’ bitter experiences. She left that meeting with me even more deeply disturbed than when she had come to see me the first time.
We continued for a session or two but did not make much headway as she had retreated into a shell. I was wondering if I had gone too far and if this whole thing had been too much for her to take, when one day, out of the blue, she called me and said she needed to meet me urgently.A seemingly innocuous interaction with her teenage son, and his gentle but stinging response to one of her comments to him had completely jolted her. He had apparently accused her of the exact same things and asked her pointedly as to how she could ever trust any outsider if she couldn’t trust her own son!
This incident led her to examine some of her recent interactions with her peers and team members and she could clearly see the pattern of repetitive mistrust that was emerging in her dealings with people around her. She conceded that her actions, however unintentional, could have been interpreted as that of arrogance and brashness.
When the possible explanation for her deep and somewhat misplaced mistrust of people became clear to her it was as if a cloud had lifted and she had finally found an answer to what was bothering her all this while.
Sandhya was comfortable working out her change agenda and goals for the future. She chose to focus on two key areas that would help work on her people skills and build a relationship of trust with them..
Her first goal was “to improve her listening skills both at workplace and home”. She decided that no matter what the situation and the provocation was she would commit herself to conscious and active listening and getting more facts before commenting or reacting to the situation and take her time to provide a considered response instead of jumping in with a solution or comment.
Her second goal was “to consciously get out of her shell and network with peers and team members”. She decided to take time to interact with one at least one team member every week over informal coffee and lunch breaks and make an effort to get to know them. She realised that this goal would take a lot of effort on her part and also on the part of others as they needed to be sure of her intentions and motives.
Together we detailed out a plan on how she could do this. Given her passion for seeing things to their logical conclusion, I knew that she would find a way to see herself through this and she sure seemed to be doing so.
In parallel, she had also started work on her communication skills by joining the Toast Masters club.This gave her a lot of confidence in dealing with people, in her professional space.
Slowly but surely, by working on her first goal and the active support of her co-opted boss and peer, she was able to reach out to and build bridges with at least some of her peers and that helped her with her second goal of networking. She has started by first going out with people she is somewhat comfortable with and eventually plans to enlarge that group.
However, the most satisfactory though somewhat unexpected outcome was that her personal life had also slowly begun to fall into place. Her ability to see her son’s point of view, her controlled temper and active listening had begun to have a salutary effect on the home front. Most importantly, she had managed to make the time and effort to take a break and go on a vacation with her family. There was a fair amount of evidence of her consciously acting on her behavioural change agenda and the impact it was having on her.
Her phone call last month, informing me that she had clinched the global role, a role that required a high degree of inter-personal skills, was a ringing testimony of her new found confidence in herself and her having overcome the ghosts of her past.
I realised how our value systems, early experiences, previous relationships and our own expectations from life form the prism through which we view ourselves and others. Our ability to take these in our stride, not let the negative experiences define us and not hesitate to reach out and seek help, determines how successful we are at maintaining and nurturing inter- personal relationships at work or at home.
To me Sandhya is a symbol of hope, positivity and courage and I remain deeply inspired by her.