I had a morning meeting with a client in Dundrum. Like the old joke about the Kerry hitchhiker, I left early to beat the traffic. Parking in the shopping centre was easy. There were about 2.7 million spaces available. By the time I got back to the car a couple of hours later, around 2.69 million people had decided to go shopping at exactly the same time and descended on Dundrum. I couldn’t remember which floor my car was on and spent about 15 minutes going up, down and around in a fog of confusion and self-critizm.
Never Happen: Think it couldn’t happen to you? Have you ever counted the number of black cars in Dundrum car park? Next time I am going to buy a yellow and green car. With a multi-colored umbrella sticking out of the top, which screams I’m still here, exactly where you left me. You idiot! Eventually, I tracked down the car park attendant who was able to tell from my ticket that I was parked on 1M (the mezzanine floor) and not on the 1st floor where I had spent most of my time wandering aimlessly. Obvious, wasn’t it?
Feeling Lost: Those 15 minutes were distinctly uncomfortable. Now, I wasn’t lost in the Gobi Desert. It was unlikely that I would die of hunger or thirst in Dundrum car park or be attached by a marauding band of wild Dingoes. Yet, somehow, the anxiety level was disproportionate to the level of threat. Why?
Hate Ambiguity: People hate ambiguity and the feeling of being lost. Well, most people do. And that car park experience provides a useful metaphor for getting lost in your business or personal life – which stirs up all those uncomfortable feelings of confusion and out-of-control-ness.
Many times I’ve worked with executives, who felt lost in a fog of confusion. Sometimes it’s mid-life stuff – like the title of the Bob Geldof book “Is that it?” More often it’s a discomfort with the current job (issues ranging from boredom to bullying). Trying to manage difficult interpersonal relationships also ranks high on the list. Occasionally, it’s some form of addiction. When the root cause is clear, it’s easy enough to navigate a way forward. But sometimes it’s not easy to diagnose what’s going on or why. Becoming ‘lost’ can be experienced as decreased energy, a sense of low self-worth, or lack of interest in the future– without any obvious external trigger. The fact that executive jobs are well paid means that sympathy from others is usually on the low side (“I don’t know what you’re moaning about. You are lucky to have a job”).
Empathy Fatigue: My wife Linda is a Psychotherapist. People in her line of work are often said to suffer from empathy fatigue (the condition must only affect Linda outside the house!). To address this, the helping professions get support through a formal system of supervision. You might recall the scenes in The Sopranos where the psychiatrist used a more senior psychiatrist to guide her in dealing with Tony Soprano. This happens in real life; partly in recognition that a more experienced colleague can have deeper insights but also to provide personal support to the therapist i.e. supervision is as much about support as guidance.
Executive Support: Executives, faced with enormous stresses on a daily basis, need to find a similar support mechanism. They need a confidant, someone who knows the game and is not afraid to confront them when they are being a worrywart or are causing self-harm through their own behavior. This can be a peer (not usually possible for a CEO), a buddy outside work or, increasingly, an external coach/mentor.
Coaching Explosion: In recent years there has been an explosion in coaching. While consulting is partly a fashion business i.e. hot topics come in and out of focus, coaching has become a stable item, the ‘little black dress’ in every consultants’ wardrobe. The message is simple. Executive jobs, particularly the CEO role, are lonely and can be highly stressful. You should not be afraid to look for support – with the proviso that the support provided is high quality and adds value – a safe place for dangerous truths.
Why Don’t They Ask? Despite the new wave of coaching, some executives are reluctant to ask for support. There are many possible reasons but one is particularly potent. Probably the best-known Psychotherapist in the world is Irving Yalom. In working with new training and therapy groups he often poses the following question:
“If this group could find out ‘everything’ about you, what is the one secret that you would least like them to discover?” The usual response is ‘Oh Jesus’ and people quickly flick through a number of uncomfortable possibilities (time in prison for embezzlement, some sexual deviance etc.). Yet, the answer that typically emerges, head and shoulders above everything else, is much less dramatic. “I wouldn’t like people to know that I am not as competent as they think I am”.
Yalom’s work has demonstrated that insecurity is hardwired into most of us. Across a range of countries and cultures, we don’t want other people to know that we are not ‘perfect’ (or somewhere close to this). That’s why executives don’t ask for help. They feel a strong need to maintain the pretense of perfection. But seeking support is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength. We are all flawed diamonds. The moral here is simple. If you get lost in the car park of life, find someone to help you go forward. You might even enjoy it!
Paul Mooney PhD.
PS The next time I meet Joe O’Reilly (the developer of Dundrum Shopping Centre and one of life’s really good guys) I am going to give him a piece of my mind about labeling part of the car park the Mezzanine Floor. What will they think of next?
For an outline of the key steps involved in Coaching Leaders, visit our website: http://www.tandemconsulting.ie