Be yourself

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:23 pm

Be yourself
The cloak of a stern manager can be like the emperors’ new clothing

By Jo Hawkins Donovan, for SBT

Years ago when I was enrolled in Coach University, I learned that many coaches work with clients over the telephone.

Prior to taking this advanced training, my work with executives had been face-to-face, at my office or theirs. At first I was skeptical about doing coaching over the phone. But I’ve found is that it works amazingly well, sometimes even better than in-person meetings in my office.

I’m not sure why telephone coaching works so well, but I think it has something to do with focus and attention. With just language and voice to attend to, perhaps I focus more on the client and listen harder for those vocal nuances that give me valuable clues about how much something means to the client, or how he feels about what he’s saying.

Perhaps I hear more clearly what he isn’t saying.

Maybe the client is more focused as well. I’m not sure why it works but it does. In my practice now, about half of my coaching is phone coaching whether clients live across the country or right in my city.

I have a client who lives and works in Manhattan. We have never met in person. He has moved along the "corporate ladder" quite rapidly, and now heads a department of more than 100 employees. I’ll call him Dan.

Dan was referred to me by one of my "alumnae" clients also living in New York.

When we carved out goals for the coaching, Dan wanted to improve his leadership skills. He also wanted to improve his relationship with his boss, who was the COO of the company.

Dan’s relationship with the CEO had created some complications with his relationship with the COO. The CEO treated my client like the golden boy, and that set off some tension between my client and the COO-Dan’s boss.

At senior management meetings, the CEO would greet Dan loudly and yell, "Come over here and sit by me, Dan."

Dan really liked the CEO and could hardly say "No." Yet he was aware of the slight tension in his boss when those kinds of things happened.

Early on, Dan created and implemented an action plan to solidify his relationship with his boss, and even enlisted his boss’s help in dealing with the "golden boy" designation, which they both knew might well be temporary. The tension between them melted.

When we began to work on leadership skills, Dan kept painting a picture of direct reports that seemed intimated by him. He sensed that they acted very differently around him than when they were with peers. He was afraid that they were keeping vital information from him.

We looked at the grounds for his fears and much of it added up to his interpretations of behavior, ungrounded in fact. Yet there was solid basis for some of his fears.

None of this made sense to me. With me Dan was open, gregarious, hardly intimidating, even humble and easily approachable with a delightful sense of humor. When he articulated the kind of leadership he wanted to model, the authentic relationships he wanted with his staff, none of it matched with the feedback he was getting.

Had Dan lived in Milwaukee, I would have asked for his permission to "shadow" him, to observe him relating to these direct reports that he thought he intimidated somehow.

A coach can often serve as a mirror in this way, reflecting back to the clients behaviors they’re unaware of. I remember one executive I "shadowed" for a day. When one of his staff asked him a question, he leaned back and closed his eyes. His staff interpreted that as disdain, condescension – all kinds of negative stuff. When I pointed out that behavior to my client, he was shocked. "I hate people who do that!" he said. He made an immediate change once he was aware of that little – but toxic – behavior that had become habit to him.

Well, Dan was in New York, one of my favorite cities of course, but it wasn’t convenient for me to whip over there and spend a day watching how he related to his direct reports.

I asked for Dan’s permission to talk with a sampling of those people on the telephone, a much more cost-effective way for me to get some good feedback about what Dan and I were both missing about how he came across to his staff.

So I had phone appointments with 12 people who reported to Dan. I pledged to keep their confidences and explained that I was looking for patterns only, clues to a different Dan than the one I knew.

And that’s what I found from those conversations – a Dan different than the one I knew.

Thosse 12 people described a boss they liked, in spite of himself, but a boss who exploded under pressure, a boss who was rigid and insulated, a boss who asked them "why" a lot and hardly ever gave them recognition for exemplary work.

Can this be the same Dan? I’d ask myself.

And then I asked Dan that question. He said he thought he had to "act" like the boss when he was around his large staff. We started poking around with what that meant, that "acting like the boss." Dan taught me what that meant to him.

It meant that this fun, humane, lively person felt as though he had to put himself into the "boss" box. He realized that once he entered his department he stiffened up, arranged his face in what he considered a face of authority, and put his delightful personality away.

He didn’t feel confident that he could inspire his staff to fulfill their responsibilities unless he came across as a stern high school principal.

It was a sad realization for me, and eventually for Dan when he began to see that all that work he was putting into "containing" the real Dan was unnecessary.

Some clients gradually shift behavior when they "get" an "aha" like this. Dan wasn’t into gradual. He called together all 100 and some of his staff and laid himself bare. He told them about his fake behavior that had come out of his misperceptions of how the leader "should" act. He told them about casting off all of that pretense and pledging to be himself as their boss. He asked for their help and support, and warned them he would probably screw up big time during the change.

I’ve checked in with people in his department in the months following this meeting because Dan wants continual feedback. These people have turned into his cheerleaders. They love being part of his change work. They love the real deal instead of the persona that Dan was hiding behind.

Working with Dan is a privilege and a reminder of the biggest lesson life has to offer. That old lesson we keep grappling with is, of course, simply: Be yourself! How are you doing with this simple – and tough – lesson?

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay, and can be reached at 414-332-0300, or via e-mail at The firm’s Web site is

March 21, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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