Coaching Case Study By Lemise Dajani
(Career and Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
I was introduced to Joe when I was brought in as a coach for a group of high potentials at an international bank. Joe was a mid-level individual contributor who had been nominated to take part in a company-sponsored development program in which participants took a series of multi-rater and self-assessments along with coaching to support their development.
A little background on Joe: he started his career following the typical path set for him without question. He then decided he wanted more and took control to drive that. Since then, he moved to his current organization, took on an ex-patriot role (moving from Europe to the US), and began an MBA program. He currently enjoys his role, in particular the people with whom he works and the impact that his job has on society. Joe has high aspirations and seeks to gain more responsibility, take on more leadership roles, and ultimately have more impact on the organization.
Joe came in very motivated by the opportunity to learn about himself and have support in his development. In addition to wanting to better understand the feedback of his assessments to enhance his self-awareness, he highlighted that he felt he needed to work on his public speaking and influencing skills. As we made links to his feedback and his initial goals, he soon realized that what he needed to work on was much deeper than those skills.
As we looked through Joe’s multi-rater feedback, the data clearly showed that although he did not feel like he was good at public speaking and influencing, his colleagues actually rated him high in these areas. When I asked him what makes him feel that these are areas he needs to work on, he described that he gets stressed going into a public speaking situation and has a desire to gain physical control; for example, he dwells on the upcoming presentation and spends lots of time preparing, losing his breath at times.
At this time, I pointed out that it sounded like what he was describing was less about the act of doing and more about the anticipation and reaction to the situation. Joe reflected and agreed that was the case – in fact, once he started presenting, he was fine. When we dug into his underlying concern, he acknowledged that he had a fear that he would not be able to speak or would appear weak. I then asked how this related to what he felt before having to influence someone and found he was afraid his arguments would not be strong enough. He feels especially uncomfortable when trying to influence someone with more experience than him and will quickly defer to them if they disagree. Upon exploring these thoughts, he acknowledged that the way he has prepared for these situations has been fueled by his emotional reaction and that he needs to be more pragmatic to take back control of the situation.
As we continued to look at his multi-rater feedback, Joe saw a trend that he underrates himself on everything compared to others – in particular, on a competency related to how he responds to setbacks. While others see him externally handling situations well, he internally sees that he tends to dwell on things. I then pointed him to the personality assessment that he took to call out a dimension on resilience and optimism, in which he self-rated an inclination towards taking a more realistic versus optimistic view, readily accepting blame and taking time to overcome setbacks. I asked how he sees this playing out for him. He said he focuses more on the mistakes that he makes rather than what he does well. He has high standards and always wants to do better. When I asked what value that has served him, Joe gave two evaluations: From a constructive point of view, it has been helpful for him to write down the mistake and reflect on what he could do better or how he could handle it differently. He went on to say that it starts to get in the way when he keeps thinking about it and cannot get it out of his mind.
We spent some time digging into that concern and I then became curious how this response related to our earlier discussion on his stress/lack of confidence in public speaking and influencing. I said that I heard him describing this post-action stress and concern and asked how that relates to the anticipation stress that he gets before public speaking and influencing. In reflecting on this, he believed they were stemming from a similar place. We uncovered his underlying fear around messing up and not getting another opportunity. I probed where this has happened to give him this fear and he admitted that it had not really happened with anything major and was something he was afraid of happening.
After having done a lot of reflection, I decided to check in and see what was resonating with him to help us move forward into action. Joe summarized his learnings about himself as: he has high standards and pride in delivering quality work. While these are helpful, they can get in the way when he lets his emotions take over. Rather than stressing about them, he needs a more pragmatic approach to preparing and reflecting. The word pragmatic had come up a couple of times before in our conversation as a comparison to what he typically does, so I asked him what it meant for him to be pragmatic.
Building on Joe’s definition of pragmatic, we transitioned into forward-thinking action with him outlining ways to be more pragmatic so that he could appropriately manage situations instead of them controlling him. We applied this to his original goal around improving his presentation and influencing skills (the preparation/anticipation rather than the reflection). Joe identified the following steps that he could take:
- He will set preparation timeframes in advance to keep him focused and put buffers to prevent him from dwelling for hours.
- Within these timeframes, he will manage his preparation time to focus on activities that will make him feel prepared and confident. For him, this was practicing a speech so that he felt confident with it, rather than spending most of his time re-reading and tweaking the content of his outline.
- Previously he would spend lots of time trying to research everything, which limited his time to practice and stressed him out. We dug deeper and found this was because he was afraid of not being prepared or able to answer questions. I said since knowing everything seems impossible and overwhelming, what is really in his control. He came to the conclusion that he could try to anticipate questions and only focus on research that would allow him to answer those.
Joe walked away feeling like he had a deeper understanding of himself and more confidence in addressing these situations that typically have overrun him with stress. He had clear strategies that he could apply that allowed him to be more pragmatic and in control, rather than reactive and controlled by the situation.
With more time, I would dive into what resources he had to support him in applying this approach as well as what barriers might get in the way.
There were a few instances where I may have dug deeper into underlying fears and concerns. For example, his fear around appearing weak – what does it mean to appear weak; others clearly do not see you as weak so what do you think you have done to contribute to that perception; who is someone you feel is strong –what might they be thinking as they go into those situations?
My biggest learning was that even though this was a corporate environment where people are often hesitant to talk about emotions and want to focus on the action, we were able to have a healthy in-depth discussion about what was driving his emotions. I attribute this in part to working with an individual who was comfortable going there, but also to some powerful probing questions on my end. In particular:
- When he came wanting to work on skills, I challenged him that the issues seemed to not be with the skills but instead the anticipation leading up to them. This opened the door to talk about thoughts and feelings rather than the skills themselves.
- Making the link between his multi-rater feedback and personality assessment themes showed and his earlier expressed challenge around having stress.
- Not spending so much time in the reflection and digging phase that it became a therapy session and making sure that I honored his original ask around the presentation skills to link the exploration back to that. Asking him to describe what he wanted after having those insights and then building on actions that would help get him there.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.