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In executive coaching, career coaching, life coaching, health & wellness coaching – the first encounter between the coach and potential coachee is often at the ‘Chemistry Meeting’.

Besides the personal chemistry between the coach and the coachee, there can be a wide range of exploration that can be done in the meeting to establish the likelihood that the working relationship will have a good chance of success.

Typically, the following may be discussed during a chemistry call:

  • Introduction and purpose of the meeting
  • Guidelines for confidentiality of the meeting and the coaching
  • What the client and the coach have been told by the client’s manager and others about the purpose and objectives of the coaching
  • The client’s perceived needs and desired outcomes of the coaching
  • Questions from the client about the coach and how the client would be coached
  • Readiness and motivation of the client for coaching at this time in his life and work
  • The client’s preferences and requirement in coaching and in a coach
  • How the coach works and customisation available for the client
  • Conducting a live coaching session in-the-moment during the meeting to see how it might work with the client
  • Debriefing the meeting and see how the coach and client feel about the chemistry and the coaching
  • Agreeing on next steps and follow-up

Amelia’s career transition journey

One year ago, Amelia left her high paying, high profile career as a Vice President and Business Division Head at a global pharmaceutical firm. The Senior Vice President whom she directly reported for the past 5 years retired, and an organizational reshuffle quickly followed. She founded it difficult working with the new senior management team, mostly hired externally. She was also increasingly seeking clarity on the purpose and meaning in her work and life. Besides, it felt like she needed a change in mid-life at age 45, after working continuously for 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry.

In the following months, Amelia started to make a list of options for her next career move, from concrete tangible ideas to general interests. In essence, she embarked on exploring a whole range of possible selves and sometimes “dreaded selves”.

During the career transition, Amelia’s experience of possible selves was varied in number and range, which is quite common. There were 2 conservative, traditional, respectable “Pharmaceutical Self” and “Biomedical General Manager Self” where she looked back to applying her 20-years of rich experience and skills as a senior executive in the global pharmaceutical industry “old self”. These were seemingly safer options, but she did feel rather bored and unmotivated to plunge into the same industry so soon again, working with the same people, same processes without much learning opportunities. She had an urge to try something else. There was a “Management Consulting Self” which persuaded her to apply for top-tier firms such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and get involved with large scale pharmaceutical industry consulting projects. However, upon closer examination, she was anxious with the long work hours, frequent business travel requirement, and the pressurized demand from global clients. There was a respectable “Academia Self” of studying for a Master’s or PhD degree in hope of becoming a lecturer or scientific researcher at a top university. However, she was unsure of the competition, faculty politics, administrative and research stress that might surface with a tenure-track environment. Lastly, there was an entrepreneurial “Portfolio Career Self” trying to combine her interest in Life Coaching, with Consulting and Community/Charity work, whilst balancing with more flexibility and time spent with her young children and family.

During the career transition journey, Amelia felt rather confused and struggled with the competing multiple possible selves. Some were seemingly safer, more traditional options, whilst others were lacking in detail and being more uncertain. Some were options imposed on her by social pressures from family, friends, and ex-colleagues on what she ought to be. Some were self-imposed on herself on what she thought she ought to be. Some excited her more than others. Whilst some looked more feasible, when others allowed more flexibility providing better work-life balance, bringing up a young family.

For now, after 12-months, it seems that Amelia’s focus is firmly on learning and testing more about the entrepreneurial “Portfolio Career Self”. Trying out more experiments to give form and order to this possible self in order to make it more tangible. This includes: pursuing a coaching certificate and starting up her own Life Coaching practice, starting up a small pharmaceutical business consulting practice, trying out academia work as an adjunct lecturer in business administration at a local university, putting herself forward for several non-profit community/charity projects. She is still unsure whether the new business and career path will be a success, but the most important thing is she remains curious, and can see herself pursuing this in the medium to long term. Most importantly, it “feels right” to Amelia embarking on this current career track.

*All personal identification details have been altered to maintain confidentiality.

Living from crisis to crisis

Jenny engaged an executive coach several months ago after being passed over for a job promotion which she had hoped for this year.

She was almost half an hour late for her first coaching session, as she had apparently slipped and fell whilst getting off the bus and had hesitated on whether to visit a nearby medical clinic for a check-up.

The following week, she arrived very late again for the coaching session having just lost her wallet in an Uber Car, which contained ID Card, Employee Card, and all her bank cards, credit cards. She wanted to know if all her bank savings and identities would be stolen.

The week after that, she had emailed a report to an important client with spelling mistakes and numerical errors. She asked her coach if she would be fired by her company and whether there were any means to retract the report from the email server.

Each week, Jenny would arrive late and recounted various mishaps and misfortunes that had happened during the day, whilst seeking advice on how to handle them.

Her coach continued to work with Jenny each session, refocussing on coaching objectives, exploring options and action plans. But there were so many “fire fighting” episodes in Jenny’s personal and work life, the coach sometimes felt like being a fireman rather than an Executive Coach.

Several weeks passed, Jenny mentioned to her coach that it was increasingly hard for her to get out of bed every morning. She did not feel motivated to go into the office. She was overwhelmed by feelings of stress, anxiety. She would eventually drag herself out of bed to face the world after self-identifying some crisis, emergency, urgent situations that required her immediate attention.

It appeared that Jenny was making use of dealing with crisis after crisis as distractions to calm herself from her stress and anxiety. In doing so, she would have postponed or avoided responsibilities to address the deep underlying root causes of her matters. By taking on various fire fighting activities to stop herself feeling and thinking, Jenny had avoid responsibility for her own self-destructive acts. In her subsequent coaching sessions, Jenny and her coach continued on exploring the insights into Jenny’s conscious and unconscious behaviours.

*All personal identification details have been altered to maintain confidentiality.

Embark on a Transformational Coaching Journey

What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. Whether you are near the top of the career ladder or still have a ways to climb, there is something to learn from how our previous success often prevents us from achieving more success.

There is a crack in everything- That’s how the light gets in

ANTHEM is a deeply reflective song, in the current society where so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos. In Leonard Cohen’s own words:

“Ring the bells that still can ring”. It’s no excuse…the dismal situation.. and the future is no excuse for an abdication of your own personal responsibilities towards yourself and your job and your love.

“Ring the bells that still can ring” : they’re few and far between but you can find them.

“Forget your perfect offering” that is the hang-up that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution of perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect.

And worse, “there is a crack in everything” that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But “that’s where the light gets in”, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the broken-ness of things.

ANTHEM – Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see
I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
Songwriters: Leonard Cohen
Anthem lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Dealing with stress and anxiety

Karuna City Lights

Andrea’s story:

Andrea’s career had been on a fast track. She went to a good secondary school in Singapore, won a full scholarship to study overseas at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a First Class Honours degree. She then joined one of the top law firms in Singapore as a trainee associate for several years. After being headhunted by a leading global investment bank in Singapore, she rose quickly through the ranks and 12 months ago she was promoted to the position of Vice President in the firm’s Legal and Compliance Office in Singapore. Andrea leads the Singapore team and also works with a team of 30 professionals across Hong Kong, London and New York. She has a direct reporting line into her regional manager, Andy, a Managing Director and the Asia Head of Legal based in Hong Kong. She also has an additional reporting line into Sabrina, a Managing Director and the Global Head of Legal and Compliance based in London.

Getting stressed and anxious:

Signs of things not working out too well had come to a head in a more apparent manner after her promotion to the Vice President role 12-months ago. To her managers and immediate colleagues, Andrea’s behavior in the office became increasingly worrisome. Her managers, Andy and Sabrina, commented to the management committee in HR performance discussions that Andrea had become very quiet during review meetings, regional and global conference calls. She would rarely contribute in making any decisions and often opted for maintaining the status quo. She has several important commercial, legal and compliance review projects to be delivered every 3 months but has been seen regularly missing important deadlines to review progress with her senior stakeholders. As a result, this has posed reputational risk for the bank in front of internal client divisions and external clients who are dependent on her to provide professional advice on legal and compliance matters. Interestingly, despite missing important deadlines, she is often working long hours until late at night in front of her computer browsing, scrolling, and typing away on emails in the office. Further, in the past 12-months, Andrea’s colleagues and team members had commented that she is becoming more abrasive and short-tempered in her manners. She would take a long time to prepare for meetings and legal papers, and would check and correct every piece of work multiple times personally and then with her team members. This has caused much stress amongst her team as many of them had to stay late to work after hours on weekdays and sometimes on Saturdays or Sunday evenings in order to be able to finish all the workload in perfection. Recently, in a management review meeting with Andy, Andrea had become irritated and upset over some feedback given on a legal paper that she had produced for a client. Andy was proposing to reframe the proposals in an alternative manner for consideration. She spoke rather harshly to Andy, disagreed with his approach and later emailed Sabrina to express her concerns and disappointment on Andy’s feedback.

Andrea recently did an online course on Self-Help and Personal Development on Coursera. She then realized that she does have a number of problems and mentioned that she would like to seek help from an Executive Coach. She is tired of always feeling like a loser and underachiever.

Over a long lunch that I had with her in a quiet café several months ago, we spoke about the challenges that she is facing with her work, her life. She told me that she wanted to work better with people, if she can ever get over her fears of what people thought of her. She has only a couple of good friends in her life and felt uncomfortable with people her own age or older male. She felt terribly scared, nervous and intimidated when she’s with strong and confident men, male colleagues, or male managers in particular. She felt good with children because she felt they are so genuine, pure, and honest.  She is always feeling inadequate as a new woman leader and have trouble seeing herself as adequate. Much of the time she felt guilty that she hasn’t worked up to her potential and that she’s been a failure, that she had wasted much of her time and let people down a lot. She feels that she could have been made Managing Director long ago.

During our lunch, Andrea mentioned she was the middle child in her family and her parents filed for divorce when she was a teenager. The parents fought almost daily throughout the marriage. The father was the dominant figure in the household and was frequently angry with the mother and the children for no apparent reason. The father had always compared Andrea unfavourably with her older brother (James) and the younger sister (Karen). James was the perfect child: first born, independent, smart, and did well in all his exams and sports since young. Karen was the apple in the eyes of the father being the youngest child and “baby” in the family. The middle daughter (Andrea) was always treated by the father as the forgotten one and often subjected to verbal abuse of being unworthy and not performing well in anything. The main significant turning point and positive points in Andrea’s childhood was her high school head teacher who encouraged her to apply to scholarships overseas after her parents got divorced. One of her university professor provided her with a sense of confidence by helping her get the job at the Singapore law firm. His confidence and faith inspired Andrea to believe in herself in her achievements and potentials at the time.

Andrea felt anxiety much of the time particularly at night. She is often affected by insomnia and would sit up in bed to draft emails, legal and compliance project notes from 4am in the morning as she could not go to sleep. She would be sitting up in bed worrying about how her work is being perceived by Andy and Sabrina, worrying about whether her colleagues and team members respected her and treated her as their manager and Vice President. When she did manage to fall asleep, several recurring dreams continue to be experienced vividly. She dreamed of having to re-sit her High School Certificate, and University exams over and over again; of forgetting to wear her socks and shoes in public; of missing her plane and witnessing a major plane accident; of losing her children in large shopping malls; and finally she would dream of trying to run away but not being able to because of immense drag from the ground.

Towards the end of our lunch, she shared with me that she would just like to start feeling better about herself. She would want to like herself much more than she does now. She hoped she can learn to love a few more people and have a few more close friends. She wants to lose her fear that powerful, confident male and female colleagues can destroy her. She would like to feel equal with others and not have to feel inferior and suffer from anxiety and guilt. She wished that she can think of herself as a good person, a good colleague, a good wife and mother, and a good manager, and also to trust other people more.

Working through the issues with an Executive Coach:

Andrea wanted change in her life and took the step to engage an Executive Coach to help her through the issues. Through working with the Coach, they identify an opportunity to develop a Transference relationship to work through the issues and problems. The opportunity to have more understanding of the unconscious mind and bring it to the conscious level. To gain increasing understanding of the dynamics of her behaviour and also to eventually see connections between her present conditions and problems and the early experiences in her childhood. She explored with her Coach the memories of the relationships with her siblings and parents, and father in particular and how she may have generalised her view of men and women from the view of her own family members. She re-experienced old feelings and uncovered unconscious feelings related to previous traumatic events. She also explored how she has been shaped by these past experiences and is learning to be able to exert control over her present functioning, relationships, living, and working.

Andrea had applied the values and standards of her father and making them her own. The aspirations were unrealistic being perfectionist (unachievable) goals. She was told from a young age that she could be loved only if she became perfect. She tried throughout her life and it did not felt adequate for her. She felt ashamed for having failed to live up to her father’s standards of perfection and achievement. She internalised her anger and guilt, which manifested into stress, anxiety and depressed feelings.

Andrea had maintained a good and close relationship with her siblings whilst growing up, despite the constant comparisons made by her father. Instead of directing her anger towards the parents and siblings, she turned it inwards towards herself. Because she received very little love from her father, she felt deprived and desperately searched for approval and acceptance from others at home and at her workplace. Andrea learned the basis of relationships through early experience with her parents which was constant fighting and verbal abuses. She may have generalised her fears of her father to dominant and confident males in her workplace and in her social life, which reflected on the defense mechanisms and hostility displayed towards her manager, Andy.

The Impostor Syndrome (Kets de Vries M.F.R., 2008) can also be applied to the observations on Andrea. In the cases where “True impostors” seem to devalue their own identity, despite having genuine gifts, clinical psychologists have explained the behaviour by suggesting that people have been forced into an adult role prematurely. In the case of Andrea, the phenomenon of “Neurotic impostor” may be appropriate to describe the situation. The research was conducted by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes who explained that some individuals don’t appreciate their own success and feel fraudulent in the absence of genuine fraud (Clance, P.R. & Imes, S.A., 1978). The research showed that people exhibiting this syndrome attributed their achievements to external factors, not to their personal efforts and abilities.

Sigmund Freud also explained the fear of success in an essay called “Those Wrecked by Success”. It was stated that some people become sick when a deeply rooted and long cherished desire comes to fulfillment (Freud, 1953). When the long cherished wish came true, the individual suffered depression, feelings of self-deprecation, and work inhibition set it. In Andrea’s case, the impostor self-engaged in self-sabotage of the success through procrastination, perfectionism, workaholic behaviour, and fell into ineffective use of her time. She is trapped in the belief that because she is an impostor, success cannot be continued and failure is inevitable. Performance anxieties continued to set in.