How often have you suddenly realized that what others clearly saw missed? It happens to all of us and is particularly unsettling when it is something of importance. I encounter this kind of situation regularly in my coaching engagements. They present a particular challenge that most coaches miss and mess up. Here is one example of what I mean.
The Blind Spot
I was approached by a CEO who wanted to do a mid-career check up. The idea was to take stock of his experiences (success and failures) and to chart a course forward. As the person was too young for a mid-life crisis, I decided to take the engagement. My reasons were, 1) the request was novel as most people wait until they are in deep trouble before seeking out a coach, 2) he wanted to focus on his limits and potential rather than the rest of the world (a lack of paranoia is always a strong recommendation), and 3) he had a clear set of metrics in mind for the engagement.
We started with a set of assessment exercises. Not the usual 360-types but a detailed process that I have developed over the years. It involved a lot of thinking and writing on his part. and a lot of reading and research on mine. By the time the first phase of the engagement was completed, two months had passed and we had generated the equivalent of a short book. As I read through the material, I was reminded of a movie that Tom Selleck made some years back – Mr. Baseball. Selleck played an American baseball player who was sent to Japan. During his first batting practice, the coach told him “you have a hole in your swing’. My client needed to be told something similar.
Keep in mind that we had drilled very far down into his past and proclivities. The pattern that I found was persistent and limiting. It was an anti-humanist streak that surfaced during times of stress. The more stressful a situation became, the less likely he was to treat members of his team as human beings. At times of great stress, they became irritants, inconveniences or targets for his venting. The latter was particularly destructive.
He was blind to the the implications of this behavior. He knew it took place as he had to, on a number of occasions, apologize for his abusiveness. In his view, it was an unfortunate tendency that he felt guilty about and was determined to overcome. But he had never considered the implications beyond the tactical. and that was his blind spot.
If he was going to take his game to the next level, he need to be able to bring special people onto his teams. He needed to be able to move in a different league. The problem was that he had branded himself in such a way that these very people wanted little to do with him. Those people would avoid working with him.
During the first working session of the second phase, I mentioned the blind spot. It took him a while to get a clear idea of what I was talking about. Then, like a brick through a plate glass window, it hit him. The approaches that had helped him succeed at earlier levels were likely to limit his chances at the next. The thought was a challenge to his vision of a direct and continuous path forward. How could the tendencies that made him a success suddenly turn out to be liabilities?
The insight that took us forward from this rather dire query turned around the rather complex idea of metamorphosis – the reinvention of a person as a result of a life-changing experience. The caterpillar needs to spend time in the cocoon before it can emerge as a butterfly. I told my client, “Feeling shame or guilt about who you have been is a waste of time. The past has happened and can only be selectively reinterpreted. It’s the future that is important. It can happen as a minor variation of the past – the caterpillar can remain – or it can be a new chapter – the butterfly can emerge.
Setting Out on the Journey
After the initial difficult ones, our discussions became at first less tense, then easy and finally positively playful. Part of the reason was that we had moved far from the immediacies of business. His reading assignments were in areas that he had never paid much attention to. The ideas we bandied around were new to him. The journey lead him to the undiscovered country. He got to know himself much better. But something else even more important; he found non-instrumental reasons why there were other people on the planet. I remember a conversation that seemed to herald a turning point. He said, “You know, I never realized how fascinating people are. I used to focus on what they were good for – how I could use them to achieve my goals. Now that is incidental. I realize how much like me they are and how much I can learn from them.”
Our journey together continues. My companion is much more acceptable as a traveling partner. The landscape brightens, the sun shines more often and the people we meet along the way smile more frequently. Who knows. With such a journey, the arrival may not be nearly as interesting as the traveling. But one thing is certain. There will be only cursory resemblances of the people who started out in those who arrive.