How a Successful Executive Can Build Capacity for Big Change
Beth is a petite blond, her delicate features accentuated by an uber short Michelle Williams hairstyle. Her shoulders are slumped under a green cashmere sweater that matches her eyes. Her presence is a mix of invincibility and humble reserve.
“This is a picture of me three years ago,” Beth said, sliding her smartphone to my side of the table. By contrast, the woman in the photo has thick long hair and a plump body. I would not have guessed this was the same person sitting in front of me.
“That was 24 pounds ago. Everything about me has changed.”
Beth wishes to engage my services to support her next career move after going through some life altering transitions.
When a Successful Executive’s Shit Hits the Fan
Beth is a successful executive who worked her way up through the ranks of financial services – from receptionist to the C-Suite. Along the way, she played a key role in developing the technology you and I now use to make on-line stock trades. Life was good. She was married, making big bucks, raising two children, enjoying good health.
Then the shit hit the fan. Within an 18 month period: her beloved father got sick and passed away, her husband revealed his infidelity, and her immediate family shunned her for divorcing him. Then, she was diagnosed with an invasive form of breast cancer that required aggressive treatment. This mash up of events burned through all of Beth’s illusions about life and allowed her to see, with fresh eyes, all of the ways she had used the so-called Good Life to avoid dealing with all that wasn’t working in her life. Such is the gift of seemingly irrational hardships like this. When we are honest about what is happening, we finally get honest about who we are, what we want, where we stand, and how we want to grow.
Beth took a six month medical leave of absence while she received chemo and radiation treatments. In the quiet void of convalescing, she realized how unfulfilled she had become in her work. That had to go too. Deeply grateful for the experience, she could not face returning to “the old work grind. Life’s too short.” She yearns to contribute her gifts and talents in some fresh way, though she has no idea what that looks like yet.
Asking Life’s Big Questions
She asks me if I can help her figure out what she should do now? After all, the fourth and final step of my process for Honorable Closure is to Reclaim Joy and Invent the Next Story. Though she is physically low on steam (she completed her treatments two months ago), I recognize that glimmer of a new light gleaming from her eyes. The worst is behind her. Now what?
Learning How to Build Capacity
We are dining at a restaurant that is right on the waters of the San Francisco Bay. “Imagine we want to take water from the harbor here and fill up a bathtub,” I said. “We could start with a thimble and that would take a lot of time and many trips. It’s not efficient and we’d no doubt get discouraged. We could decide to use this water glass, and that would work better, then we could switch to using a bucket, and so on. The holding capacity of each vessel is different, and the bucket is obviously better suited to the task.”
Carrying on with this metaphor I ask Beth where she thought her holding capacity was right now.
“Somewhere between the water glass and the bucket,” she replied. “Six months ago I probably would have said a thimble.”
“So please, notice and appreciate your progress. Truly. Don’t rush over that.” I told her. “You’ve been through a wild ride and your physical and emotional holding capacity has been temporarily diminished. But, now, you are on the right track.”
Recognizing the Next Right Step
Something common among the people I work with like Beth, who have experienced several major ends at once, is a desire to ‘get on with it.’ The first place we go to (fostered by a culture of rushing) is to what is next. Very often the next action is to regain strength and capacity.
Starting anything new takes vitality and generative juju. A rocket ship uses the majority of its fuel at take-off. It is imperative that Beth and I address the ‘What’s Next’ question by exploring ways she can build her (physical and emotional) capacity. She will have enough steam to uncover her next steps and then get her new contribution off the ground. With the right attention to capacity and timing, the new thing can unfold without unnecessary discouragement or heavy lifting.
Next, I ask, “What are you already doing to increase your physical and emotional capacity?”
Beth describes the sweet relationship that has emerged with her children, and reconciliation with her sister who is talking to her once again. She talks about acupuncture, mindful eating, and her professional women’s group which is filled with other women in transition. This powerful woman is learning how to let other people lend her a helping hand, a skill that will help her make her contribution and live into her future.
She’s drawing upon the healing power of love, community and connection. And she’s paying attention to her body.
Learning to Ask the Right Questions
I encourage her to do more of all of that good stuff. Keep Going! You are on the right track. And I quote my mentor Angeles Arrien who said that “Healing doesn’t happen in the fast lane.” Beth is blessed with the financial resources to take another six months off. I encourage her to spend time in nature, every day if possible. Nature’s rhythms are medium to slow, a much better match for the non-linear process of mending and discovery.
I tell Beth I do not think it would be wise for me to engage with her in an action-packed coaching program until she has taken some more time to regain capacity for action. I suggest two practices and that we revisit working together in two-three months, whatever her intuition tells her. Besides taking time in nature, I suggest that she start a Gratitude Journal and make a list each morning of five things she is grateful for and why she is grateful. Multiple research studies have validated the positive emotional impact of gratitude to support emotional and physical well-being, and those benefits are magnified when we get specific about why we are grateful. I request that she include one or two things on that list that she is grateful to herself for, things she is doing or ways she is being that support building capacity and rebuilding her strength.
Out of that, she could notice all this is working and what life is presenting to her now. I suggest that she inquire within to ask:
- What looks interesting?
- Where is she being drawn?
- How does she want to feel in her work (inspired, of service, creative)?
- What experience does she want to have (leading, designing, talking)?
Finally, at a moment when she feels inspired, rested and unrushed, I suggest that she journal a description of her ideal future two years from now. From that point of view:
- How does she feel?
- What is present in the environment?
- What are people saying about her?
It may not sound like much, but this is how it’s done. . . bit by bit, if she can trust the process, a whole new life begins to take shape.
I welcome your comments and or questions about this post here on Facebook.
Visit my website for more information on how I work with executives and teams in transition.