• Date April 11, 2011
  • Author Fran Johnston

A Coaching Story

I got off the phone this afternoon with a big smile on my face. A person I had coached a few years ago had taken the time to call update me on how things had worked out for him. When we first met, he was a senior executive in an iconic American company that was very successful and very political.

This strong culture had grown over the years and served a small highly networked group of people very well. The problem was that, if for whatever reason you didn’t fit in, you could be frozen out and left behind. Disagreement was often perceived as disloyalty. As a result, dissent went underground, and people there were managed through inneuendo.

The leaders had their protégés and the protégés had their protégés. Year after year, they perpetuated a monolithic approach and the same old business strategies, so as not to offend the elders.

My guy had a passion for a different way to lead the core business.

For years he argued and demonstrated that his way had merit, and for years, he was politically and personally marginalized. While he argued that this new approach would be better for everyone, others said it was his personal ambition that drove him. The whispered attacks hurt him deeply—even executives aren’t immune to the pain of being misunderstood or misjudged.

He questioned himself and wondered why he cared so much when it hurt so much to care. The others questioned his values.  But he stuck to his core faith in himself and awareness of his true motives. Then the financial crisis occurred and everything was shaken up in his industry.

As the industry reorganized and restructured, his firm merged with another powerful company and new leadership came in. These new leaders listened with open ears and no negative bias to his approach—they recognized the values-based leadership he demonstrated.

And his results didn’t hurt.  His team had been contributing very healthy double digit growth for the last ten years.  The new leadership team gave him the resources and power he needed to embed the change in strategy and reaffirmed his resonant leadership.  At a meeting with hundreds of employees, his new boss, an outsider to the former clubby culture, affirmed and acknowledged him for his success. And he was happy, because even very senior executives want their contributions to be seen and their values to be acknowledged.

When I speak about emotional intelligence and resonant leadership, I often hear the following comment, “I like what you are saying, but it looks to me that the ones who get ahead are the ruthless ones, the ones that match their strategies to the preferences of the people at the top.”

I know the questioner is wrestling with how to lead from their values and staying true to their beliefs.  It may not be easy, but being attuned to your values and being the leader and person you would want your kids to be proud of, does work in business. My former coachee is happy, affirmed, and has no regrets.

As I look back on our many sessions together where he talked openly about his frustration and hurt, I also recall his frequent expression of hope.  He believed in the wisdom of his approach to the business, so he persevered and stuck with the company long enough to see his dreams realized. And that makes me happy.