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How the right Coaching and Mentoring can improve leadership skills at a much deeper level.

Coaching can often take unexpected turns. For many executives, a coaching session can be the first opportunity in their working lives to sit back and reflect on who they are and what they have become. It can be a powerful moment when light shines into unexpected corners. While younger managers have grown up in more open societies, many older managers have never had the opportunity to talk about themselves.


Here are three stories I found online that illustrate this point. The first is Heike, a 52-year-old German manager of a telecom company, who was devastated to find out that she demotivated her team. She had achieved her business goals and was very popular, so why did her team give her this feedback? After some reflection, she realised it might be associated with her perfectionism. So where did that come from? "My father," she said. "He said I would never amount to anything, so I had to do everything perfectly." Her 30-year career had proved him wrong, yet her drive for perfection meant no one on her team ever felt good enough.


Eduardo, 57, was also struggling with feedback, though from his bosses. A quiet, soft-spoken Argentinian, he was working in the U.S. headquarters, where he dealt mainly with American and British colleagues. He found them loud and aggressive and had lost confidence in himself. Yet his bosses were urging him to speak up more, have more impact. Eduardo was so resistant to the idea of becoming "that kind of manager" that it was worth asking why. When he looked at them, he said, all he saw were noise and arguments--and that reminded him of childhood. His parents had separated when he was three and he still withdrew amid arguments and noise. That pattern was still evident 54 years later.

Perhaps the most interesting case was Martijn, a 55-year-old Dutchman on a leadership development course. The division of his French utilities group was in crisis as his boss had "declared war" on his colleagues in Paris and Martijn was paralysed. Martijn's team was begging him to step in--and his career would clearly benefit from the exposure--but he was deeply reluctant to act. Something in him was resistant to taking on a leadership role. We talked around the subject for a couple of days until, on the third morning, he said: "Leadership was always a dirty word in my house." His father, a German, had fought in the Battle of Moscow in 1941, an ignominious defeat for the German army. Martijn had been brought up in the shadow of the disastrous leadership his father had experienced more than 60 years before.

In coaching--stick to your competence and do no harm - try to catch what's going on at a deeper level. As these three stories show, if people are given enough time and space (and good questions), powerful insights will emerge naturally. Unfortunately, coaches are often advised to work at the "surface," ignoring signals that reveal deeper issues. It is a fine balance.



Suzanna Prout