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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/9/11

World-renowned Executive Coach's Observations on Human-Based Leadership

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My guest today is Donna Karlin, a pioneer in the field of leadership coaching. Welcome to OpEdNews, Donna. Leaders: Their Stories, Their Words, My Conversations with Human-Based Leaders is about to be published. Before we jump into talking about the book, can you tell our readers a bit about what leadership coaching is and how you came to be doing it?

photo credit: Bruno Schlumberger

Some people believe Leadership Coaching is about working with the top echelon in an organization. That is only one of the groups of people I work with. I include rising stars, high-level managers; anyone who strives to strengthen their leadership no matter what their level or position. I started off coaching way back when, close to 30 years ago now, when my son's surgeon asked me to work with her future patients. I say "future patients" as my son, Michael, was her first patient operated on for his type of paralysis. Actually, I believe he was the first globally. Eventually, over the years, I transitioned my coaching from working with long-term care patients to the political powers that implicate and impact health care in our society. From there, all due to word of mouth, I began working with senior government officials and political leaders in Canada, the US, and abroad and eventually corporate leadership as well. When I'm in an organization and staff wants to discuss something with me, I'm there for them. I don't cut myself off from lower levels just because they don't have an executive title.

To get back to my start, coaching in health care, about 25 or so years ago, I asked parents I was working with how their baby was and how they were dealing with the myriad of health care issues and post-operative stressors. Hearing "We're fine. All is well." for the umpteenth time made me realize I had to observe them to see the truth, a truth they often didn't want to admit to, even to themselves. Facing truth when your baby is struggling and in pain isn't easy. I knew that from first-hand experience. I knew I had to coach their fears and insecurities and help them see what was true and what was possible. That's where the seed for creating the Shadow Coaching methodology was planted. Translating the idea of Shadow Coaching to implementing it with senior leaders and rising stars was an ongoing process.

There is measurable success coaching in more traditional methodologies (over the phone, after hour face-to-face sessions, etc.) but coaching clients in the midst of their chaotic environments to see environmental and societal impacts on their lives as well as coaching their shadow sides enabled me to go much deeper. The analogy I use when I teach is comparing X-rays with an MRI. We look at all levels, all aspects of my client's worlds.

I see talents, strengths, insights, insecurities, and fears emerge and shine a light on them for my clients to see. We challenge assumptions and see how personal programming might be changed to better serve my clients. In a political, military, or government environment, we work at the speed of light, dealing with what unfolds, look at implications and ripple effects of change and implications of that change from a leadership and organizational context. In the corporate environment there are other pressures and stressors we deal with, so we end up what I call 'dancing in real time', dealing with change as commonplace, and chaos as the norm.

So, you could say that your son's medical condition molded your career path. You are Canadian and live there. But those who employ you as shadow coach are all over: throughout Canada and the US, correct? And you don't do it over the phone. It's something quite different. Describe for us how it works, Donna.

I'd say my son's medical condition led me to my career path but didn't necessarily mould it.

Yes, I'm Canadian and live in Canada's capital. My clients are in many parts of the world; North and Central America, the UK, Europe, and Africa. Clients in other countries love that I'm apolitical, have no hidden agenda and are there specifically to support them, not any one political party. I Shadow Coach most of my clients, although it's not always possible to be physically present with them. For those I've Shadow Coached before, it's easier to use the same language and laser technique on the phone as I know how they process information, situational dynamics and how they come to the table in our coaching conversations. For those who I haven't had the opportunity to observe in real time, I am still able to use language necessary to reveal their Shadow sides, teach them to be reflective practitioners so they can feed me the information I need to go deep and broad with them in our work together.

To give you an overview of Shadow Coaching, I look at all facets of my clients' lives. They might come to me and tell me they're having a hard time keeping their head above water, or it's a reactive environment and one of continuous change. They might want to hone their leadership and try to figure out when they're going to have time to actually do the work necessary to learn and grow. From my perspective, I look between the words. What assumptions are they making about themselves, cultural and societal programs that aren't serving them? What are their fears, insecurities? What are the lenses or filters they're looking through when they see themselves? It's the context and content of their worlds that I have to process when I coach them. We live in the world of the  "I don't knows", "I haven't yet discovered", and "I don't even want to GO there", (their shadows).

Add to that we're working together in real time in complex and intense environments. I process body language, tone of voice, interactions with staff, colleagues, other organizations, governments, political powers, how they hold themselves in meetings, presentations, media presence, problematic situations and crises. Again, add to that hectic and ever-changing schedules, volume of paperwork, memorandums, email, telephone calls, interruptions, press releases, hot issues, fluctuation of the dollar which affects sales, imports and exports, natural disasters, wars, and uprisings. Well, you get the picture.

The days are intense. My schedule is their schedule and changes on a dime. I might only have time for a two-minute laser session where I have to shine a light on one specific issue, situation, or question to clear the clutter away from what we have to focus on. I reproduce situations through my feedback so they see themselves through a non-judgmental observer's eyes. Then the work begins. We partner to remove roadblocks, hone talents and skills, dance in real time through the chaos and embrace the complexity to make it simple.

Coaching them in real time over a series of days and strategically through a longer period of time. eliminates the need to schedule time in an already over-extended agenda. I see what unfolds, not what is perceived or filtered. Coaching happens when it needs to, so my client can reproduce their behavioural responses to similar situations because they'd processed it with their Coach. Things don't fester or blow out of proportion because they're nipped in the bud. I teach my clients to self-shadow so they can begin to do what I do on an ongoing basis.

Thank you, Donna. That gives us a much better sense of what you do. You're like a fly on the wall, observing everything, processing everything. Because you actually see your clients in action, you can make judgments based on your own observations rather than their interpretations of their behavior or motives. It sounds incredibly intense and exhausting but equally gratifying. Where did the idea for this book come from? It's not standard interviews with a sampling of your clients.

I observe, process, and discern what questions need to be asked and when. Rather than have hour or so long sessions based on what the client shares with me as what he or she sees as most important, I look at trends, behavioural patterns, roadblocks, shadows, and then systematically ask the questions that reveal and deal with all of the above. It's intense, no question, and even though I sometimes come home at the end of the day exhausted, in other ways I'm pumped and energised. My learning is huge. I learn how corporations, governments, and political systems work; their mandates, pressures, and impact.

Some of the work is heartbreaking, such as working with investigators from the Swissair 2000 crash, supporting clients dealing with and located in Indonesia during the 2004 tsunami or clients and staff in Haiti during the earthquake in 2010. Still, I know I'm making a difference through my work.

I've been wanting to write a book like this for a long, long time. When teaching or at conferences, what struck me was how so many coaches were using their training to define the coaching intervention to the nth degree. Many weren't aware they were steering the coaching based on the methods they learned more than what was true and needed for the clients. I also saw a lack of 'coaching the entire person' and really getting to know the coachee, his or her drivers, passions and values. They all have stories and through their stories we can connect on such a fundamental basis. Their stories can inspire others to make things happen in their worlds as well. When I was at a conference at INSEAD and in conversation with one of the attendees, I brought this up. He asked me how I was going to go about doing this and my response was, "Pick up the phone and ask for the conversation." I had many. Choosing the ones for the book was really difficult. I look forward to continuing the conversations with some of these leaders as well as other ones. They're important.

I believe we can't serve our clients in the best possible way unless we take the time to know them and hear these stories. I work with clients in so many areas of expertise, each with its own flavour of leadership, different pressures, complexities, and levels of impact. Not only did I want to share this all with the world but to reveal these amazing people to themselves as we talked. It wasn't as much an interview as a coach-like conversation, an ebb and flow, give and take. I wanted to showcase these extraordinary people as the human-based leaders they are as well as make a point that even though these people impact so many and lead through what I call a sense of humanness, they aren't pushovers. They live and lead through their personal values and set boundaries. They respect people, value people, and support them even if it's through 'tough love'. There is a distinction. Being a great human-based leader doesn't necessarily mean always being nice. I wanted to shine a light on that as well through their stories and my reflections.

You don't really spell it out but your sessions can last a whole day or a number of days, correct? So you really get a chance to see your coachees in action, which in turn makes your recommendations more grounded in reality. Let's back up a bit and talk about human-based leadership. It sounds good but what is it exactly? And human-based, as opposed to what?  

My sessions can last as a series of strategically scheduled days over a period of months or as short as a presentation, meeting, or legal trial.

Human-based leadership is based on leading through what I call 'humanness' rather than command-and-obey, "do as I say" leadership. It's having power with people, not having power over people so, in effect, humanity-based as opposed to power-based.

It's leading people so everyone succeeds, grows, and strengthens individually and in turn, strengthens their organization.

I define human-based leaders as people who marry a passion for what they do with compassion for those with whom they do it. These are people who lead from a perspective of respect, caring, and stewardship while, at the same time, don't compromise the success of the organization.  They also create an environment that enables others to do the same. People gravitate to working with human-based leaders and stick around much longer than in power-based organizations. These leaders create a culture of caring, collaboration, consultation, and continuous learning. They recognize they're only as good as the people they lead and in turn serve. It has nothing to do with the size of the organization or their professions. It has to do with how leaders value and respect people. This is their legacy.

Your book includes conversations with a very interesting and eclectic mix of leaders from business, government, and the not for profit sector. I was interested to see that a number of them either were journalists or had a journalism background. Do you think that's a coincidence?

Yes, I do think it's a coincidence. Joe Saltzman is an award winning journalist/teacher who sees journalism as an avenue to seek and share truth. Ruth Ann Harnisch's background was journalism way back when. Her point of  view is, "If people knew better, they'd do better." Information makes a difference." Add money to the equation and it could be a huge help. As a philanthropist, she challenges you to do something powerful, and not rely on her Foundation for sustainability. Like a great coach, she wants you to not rely on or need her. Laurier's background included being one of the hosts of the most influential news magazine shows in Canadian history, This Hour has Seven Days, which was controversial and gutsy (like Laurier). It inspired two news magazines, 60 Minutes in the US and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

For me, the commonality between them all (the 12 in the book) is to seek and illustrate truth, no matter how controversial. Coaching reveals the client to themselves, again seeking and illustrating truth. Just as in journalism, what people do with what they learn is their choice. I believe great leaders don't hide their heads in the sand. They seek truth, learning and growth. However, the same applies for Ron Worton discovering genes so they can work on cures for diseases. Barry Libert in social media seeks to connect people and create relationships through technology. That is the connection between all the leaders I chose for the book. Rob Zitz recognizes and works at bringing the intelligence world together so there are no silos. Tom Stern helps people find their niches and through that, their strengths and talents. Rick Koca wants people to really see homeless kids and not ignore they exist and why. Great leaders, human-based leaders not only support and inspire people to be their best but shine lights on the tough questions and challenge you to answer them. They don't make life easy for those who follow; they make life better by how they lead them.

I noticed that Ruth Ann Harnisch was the only female in the bunch. Did you originally aim for more of a gender balance?

I did. I contacted equal numbers of women and men. I used a delivery and read receipt to track our requests so I knew if the requests reached them and were read. Almost all the men, save one or two who wanted to have the conversations but were just over-extended, had to refuse but told me to contact them if I did a sequel. Almost all of the women either read it and didn't respond or refused. Two in the group reluctantly refused because of being swamped and couldn't see how they could schedule in the time to talk. I wrote about this briefly in my intro so readers wouldn't think I contacted mostly men.

That is a conversation in itself as the rules are not the same for men and women leaders. What might be viewed as human-based for male leaders is oftentimes viewed as weak for women leaders. Ruth Ann's piece illustrates how that is definitely not the case. Anyone who knows Ruth Ann also knows she's a human-based leader who is tough but fair and cares about the people she supports. She also doesn't suffer fools lightly, which is one of the things I love about her. You know exactly where you stand with her. The other two who really wanted to be a part of this but were over their eyeballs were Anne Mulcahy, former Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer of Xerox Corporation, and Gail Asper, Director and Corporate Secretary of CanWest Global Communications Corp, President of the CanWest Global Foundation, and Managing Director and Secretary of The Asper Foundation. She was in the middle of starting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and was working around the clock. As much as I would have loved having them both in the book, I also had to respect their intense schedules and hectic lives. It doesn't mean I won't try again.

Good to know. We'll have to wait for the sequel. What do you hope that people will take away from this book? And what is your targeted readership? Would they have to be into coaching? Big shots at work?

I hope people see their presence and impact in the stories they read. I hope they read it more than once and ask themselves, "What resonates? What pushes my buttons and why? What lenses have I been looking through that aren't serving me?" and "What assumptions have I been making that aren't true?" This book is for everyone, all people, all ages, all positions in work and life, who want to make a difference no matter what. If I wanted to showcase celebrity leaders, I would have done that. Instead, I specifically chose those people who impact others, some more well known than others, yes, but not celebrities. I hope the readership realises that we can all impact others whether we're famous or not. The ripple effect is huge.

Just as I don't want to set up the book to create expectations for the readers, I invite everyone to see themselves and others in some way in these stories of the lives of these wonderful people. I challenge them all to see beyond labels to attributes and humanity and to ask themselves, "What's stopping me from diving into my life with both feet?" then seek the answer they need to do just that.

It was such a pleasure, Donna. You poured a lot of yourself into this book. I think that it will resonate with many of its readers. Good luck with the book and your work!

Human-Based Leaders, Shadow Coach and Shadow Coaching are registered trademarks of A Better Perspective.

Donna's websites:
A Better Perspective,   The Shadow Coach, and Leaders: Their Stories,Their Words
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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