I met up with an old coaching client of mine recently. She was full of what she was doing currently and the new initiatives she was planning. It was a pleasure to listen to her confidently explaining her audacious ideas and strategies. What a different picture from when we first met!
The newly appointed head of a central government department, she was clearly a high achiever and wanted to do well. She worked hard and had already proven, in her two previous deputy roles, her ability to lead from the front, managing and motivating her direct reports and successfully taking them with her. She was also able to handle the frightening level of detail that flows from any bureaucratic organisation: an excellent all rounder.
The first thing we did, something I always do now, was to identify her personal brand. Her key characteristic was her love of facilitating new thinking and different approaches. When she talked about it, she became animated and excited as she connected with her most natural way of being. As she described the possibilities, it was very real for her and obvious to me that this was what her energy was for in life.
Her new role
The new role, typical of the change in outlook as you rise in organisations, required that she change her focus. Instead of looking inwards to her department, she needed to make contact with and influence more senior players in government and outside. Her initial stance was optimistic but as we went deeper into her motivation, it became clear that she found this new challenge daunting.
Fear of failure
As she acknowledged her misgivings, I saw her confidence crumble before my eyes, as she came face to face with her deepest fear of not making the grade. She was a successful woman and for her, these feelings of inadequacy were very difficult to accept. She had been working hard at sitting on them and focusing all her attention on looking good. I was filled with admiration for her courage and didn’t for one moment believe that she would fail.
In this she was typical of many women (see the Be Visible section in my book, "How to do it by women who’ve done it". Download it free from the Female Entrepreneurs page). It doesn’t come naturally to women to shout about their achievements. In fact many high performing women believe that if they keep their heads down and continue to deliver to a high standard, their contribution will eventually be rewarded with promotion. This doesn’t often happen.
This was the lowest point for her in the work we did together. She found it hard to even imagine how she could ever begin to get the attention of these powerful individuals, never mind influence them in a way that would change government policy. She believed in that moment that she didn’t have the necessary resources to take ownership of this challenge.
We considered the options. It was quite possible for her to reduce her ambitions and accept where she was, taking some time out and nurturing herself, doing more of the things she enjoyed. She tried this, pursuing her hobbies, having breakfast more often with the family, and spending more time with her husband. However all the while, who she really was bubbled away beneath the surface: someone who loved facilitating new thinking and different approaches. When she let her guard down and relaxed a little more, this person began to see possibilities. Without the pressure to perform, she began to see win/win solutions that had been invisible before. Her imagination and natural creativity fuelled some ambitious initiatives where she approached senior players and persuaded them to support her policies in exchange for a benefit she could facilitate for them. It wasn’t long before she was doing this in a variety of ways between departments, and on a Europe-wide stage.
As she explained during our next session, she had quite taken herself by surprise. What amazed her was how much fun she was having! The senior political players she was negotiating with seemed almost as happy with her efforts as she was. Now she was really excited about what was possible and I asked her how she explained this transformation.
She told me that she had realised that throughout her career as a civil servant she had set herself to learn how to write reports, do performance reviews, motivate people, brief bosses, delegate and many more besides, but what she was really good at wasn’t any of those things. The thing she did best was facilitating new thinking and different approaches, and she realised that suddenly she had been given the freedom to do just that in her own way. Slowly at first, and then with ever increasing confidence, she was approaching whoever would listen, regardless of seniority, to facilitate some new approaches in a way that worked for all concerned. And she was getting noticed!
It was ironic that what she most feared required the skills she was best at. She always had what it took to take on the challenge the new role offered, but what was missing was a way of seeing herself in that role. Knowing who she was provided the missing link.
Listening to her that evening, so full of enthusiasm, brimming with plans not just for now but for the rest of her life, was deeply satisfying.