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Coaching Story: Donna

You will see from the stories that I do not position myself as the expert or the authority. We are all in this together on this human journey, and no person is immune to the tragedies of existence. No one is better. No one is wiser. I am merely asking questions, not fixing, not mending, just being present and enquiring.

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At the end of each chapter of How To Get Out Of Your Own Way, there is a “Coaching Story.”. These are stories and observations that have surfaced during a coaching session; personal stories that have touched me. All names have been changed for confidentiality purposes.

Donna had attended a leadership retreat, and the feedback from her peers and the facilitator were that she needed to work on executive presence. She felt the feedback was spot on as she was not being taken seriously at times in high-level meetings. I have noticed that in my work, women are often not shown how to develop executive presence before they start their careers. Typically, people who have executive presence exude self-assurance, composure, and influence. They intuitively know how to bond with others. What’s more, they develop their individual strengths and are comfortable with their authentic self.

I noticed very early on that Donna gave very little eye contact, yet her voice was confident and unwavering. Her lack of eye contact in our first meeting left me wondering what impact this may have on others. We discussed what Donna’s definition of executive presence was.

“I know my contribution to the organisation is highly appreciated and valued. My boss advised me to develop my executive presence to further my career path in the company.”

I asked Donna, “What would you like to get out of the coaching?”

I have found that focusing on the objectives is the best way to ask the client what would be most useful so as to look more deeply into what she wants and what she needs. The question leads to a comprehensive range of other questions and brings perspective and possibilities.

I sensed that Donna had self-confidence, and she transmitted this through a strong sense of authority, albeit without charisma. I shared a definition of executive presence from author and leadership expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett. “Executive presence is something that you signal to the world; you transmit to the world.” According to Sylvia, developing this skill in leadership is not impossible, as much of it is very learnable.

“How are you signalling executive presence?”

“By being the best at what I do.”

“What does that look like, being the best at what you do?”

“Always showing up, always being in control, not letting anyone too near me.”

“What energy does that exude?”

Donna paused.

Being conscious of your energy and its impact and making sure you are aware of people and that people are aware of you are all aspects of executive presence. The hitch is that women seldom do something without feeling 100 per cent assured. So, I asked Donna, “Think about the leader you admire. What does he or she do to radiate executive presence?”

She paused again and reflected for a moment.

“Isabelle, my old boss, she was authentic. She always looked at me when she shook my hand, and she put her other hand on my arm. I felt the warmth and care from her.” Donna was touched when recounting her story. “But she also gave me authentic feedback. She did not try to save me from the truth. Somehow, I did not mind. I trusted her judgement. I felt safe.”

“Is that what you would like to exhibit as a leader?” I asked.

“Yes. And I realise I am not doing enough of it. I recognise that for my team to be bold, I need to let them know I am there. I need to let them know that I have their backs, and I have to create the right environment for that.”

We looked at ways in which Donna could show more executive presence: punctuated practice, regular reflective moments, journaling, asking for feedback from trusted colleagues. And over time, the more she practised, the more easily it became part of her. She had to do the work to see the change.

My belief is that sharing intuition and insights is one of the greatest gifts that coaches can give those their clients. Sometimes I have been hesitant to share my gut feeling, but every time I have, it has been a learning experience for my client and for me.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way: WEBs (Well-Established Beliefs)

Spiders don’t get trapped in their webs as their victims do. Instead, spiders move hurriedly and efficiently across their webs. Similar to a spiderweb, well-established beliefs act as a method to catch their victim, which in this case is us. These WEBs feel real even though they may be dated. Furthermore, they command our nervous system and thus authorise our feelings.

Which WEBs are you prey to?

  • Which WEBs are you holding onto?
  • Which WEBs are useful?
  • Which WEBs are harmful?

Breaking the WEBs

Which WEB still entraps you? A web can be defined as “a complicated pattern of connections or relationships, sometimes considered as an obstacle or a danger”.[1]

  • How are these WEBs getting in your way?
  • Journal your responses, and you will start to see a pattern, a repetition.
  • The next step is to examine your notes with a trusted friend, partner, advisor, or coach—anyone who will give you genuine, authentic, and productive feedback.
  • Develop and implement an action plan.

Be consistent and persistent. Then check in with somebody to keep you on track.

[1] “Web”, Collins Dictionary, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/web, accessed 22 February 2019.

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