The Early Road Can Be Rough
by Kathy Green

Have you ever wondered why one person has become successful, while another person has struggled from job to job? Often times, people associate growing up in stable, healthy families with success, while growing up in dysfunctional families or an adverse environment is associated with difficulties later in life.

Yet, we've all heard of at least one inspirational story about someone who came out of a difficult environment and succeeded. I remember seeing a movie entitled "Homeless to Harvard." The main character was the daughter of drug addicts, one of which died of AIDS, and she spent four years living on the streets of New York City without the benefit of high school. Later, while homeless, she enrolled herself in an experiential high school, finishing four years of high school in two, and ended up winning a scholarship to study at Harvard. The movie was based on a real life story. Most of us probably assume this story is nothing short of a miracle. After working with numerous business leaders, I believe it to be closer to the norm.

I have worked with hundreds of senior business leaders over the last twenty years. As a former executive and now an executive coach, I've had the privilege of hearing about leaders' lives, even their childhood backgrounds. There is no doubt in my mind, that most have overcome early hardship or dysfunction, and have grown to know challenge well. Something generated their gift of "drive" and their desire to manage to the outcome they want/need. Like Norman Rockwell, who painted happy country scenes while living above the rough streets of Manhattan, these executives decided to paint life, as they wanted it to be.

One executive talked about growing up in the home of alcoholic parents, waiting until his parents would fall asleep at night before he and his siblings would slip back into the house. Another told of the death of a parent, and the need to put his college education on hold in order to help raise his younger brothers, and yet another spoke of rape, and having to manage through the many difficulties caused by her parents' lifestyle. The stories were various, and ran the gamut from abuse to helping an ill family member, and trying times on a family farm. Many included handed down beliefs from the many generations prior. (Now I understand why "begot" was referenced so many times in the bible.) A common factor was the way each executive smiled as they described working through early hardships, talking about their challenges with emotion, sometimes tears, yet without bitterness. Instead of choosing blame and victim-hood, each executive described how others lacked a capability they possessed, and demonstrated determination in making life what he/she wanted. While early trauma didn't create success for these executives, the way they chose to manage through it did.

Many psychologists and experts in human development refer to "resilience" as the differentiating factor between those who have a rough road and manage through it, and those who don't. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, resilience is the ability to "bounce back" and to be resistant to the effects of adversity. If that is the case, how do we create it? Bonnie Bernard, author of "Fostering Resilience in Children," in ERIC Digest believes that resilience is a term used to describe a set of qualities that foster a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and adversity. She believes resilience is manifested in the following five qualities: social competence, problem-solving skills, critical consciousness (a reflective awareness of the structures of oppression, i.e., an alcoholic parent, and creating strategies for overcoming them), autonomy, and a sense of purpose.

In my opinion, many of the characteristics Bernard describes directly correlate to the characteristics of successful executives. Some of these qualities reference components of the well publicized "emotional intelligence" management theory that is springing up everywhere. Other qualities include resourcefulness, critical thinking, adaptability/flexibility, self-awareness, and setting clear goals/direction, which are long standing success characteristics of leaders. The one quality I continue to come back to is the ability to manage the outcome. It's the ability to identify the things that are negatively impacting you or your situation, and creating strategies to overcome them. It's embedded in what Bernard refers to as critical consciousness. Time and time again, I hear executives describe a situation in which they have looked at a problem/obstacle from all angles, thinking through actions that may get them the results they are looking to achieve. They often think about domino affects, or what I refer to as "connecting the dots." Several CEOs I know refer to this as a game. You might think that means they don't recognize the fates they hold in their hands, but that's not true. It's the strategy to which they refer, once again, trying to manage the outcome.

The other characteristic that I've noticed prevalent among senior executives is a desire to make a difference, and a belief that they can. They have a strong sense of purpose. I believe that a lot of it correlates to faith in something bigger than him/herself. Recent studies indicate that ninety five percent of Americans believe in God, and according to Bob Lorber, a well-known consultant, an active faith in a higher power, is one of sixteen characteristics he's observed in successful leaders. I agree with him. In all of the coaching I've done, only two of the executives I coached didn't have a faith in God or something bigger then themselves. I mention this because I believe it contributes to resiliency. I believe that those people who have an active faith have a greater capacity to "bounce back." Health studies have shown that people of faith even live longer than those without.

So, one of the factors contributing to an executive's success may be resiliency, and a number of factors have contributed to them acquiring it. The next question of course is can we help others acquire it? Some say yes. According to Karol Weinstein, a clinical psychologist trained in human development; "resilience is the hoped for goal in psychotherapy, and all transformative work. Although it may not to be stated as such, resilience is the ability to adapt and flourish in shifting circumstances: and that means and includes reorganizations of the self during childhood to old age. As part of developing resilience, a sense of values and spirit is necessary; as well as a greater clarity about one's own personal narrative." Weinstein claims that the ability to articulate and express one's story are precursors and markers of resilience. She believes processes that help people understand and express themselves contribute to building resilience.

As I reflect on the psychologist's reference, I realize most of those characteristics are included in the coaching process I embrace. We help people reflect, understand their mental models (underlying beliefs and assumptions), become more active learners, refocus, and believe in something bigger than themselves. Techniques we share provide people with a way of detaching from those things that cause them to cycle or spin unnecessarily, and create proper boundaries, thereby reducing the stress level and increasing their sense of autonomy. A good coach's perspective often helps clients see the world more broadly and can enable them to step out of limiting behaviors, and bring back in balance behaviors or skills that may be overplayed, especially in times of crisis. In addition, a coach can help clients understand how their behaviors fit into their organizational environments, adapt and assimilate accordingly, and learn the new skills necessary for success. A good coaching process can demonstrate to clients that the rough roads they have traversed in the past are often the very foundation for their success. By meeting challenges, using mental models, and acquiring attributes of resilience, leaders overcome the odds and succeed.

You may be asking, have any of the executives at the top gotten there without bumps and bruises early in life? Yes, I believe some were spared the early hardships others experienced. (Although, I think challenges find us all in time.) How do some executives still succeed without the early lessons that contribute to resilience? Some experts claim it's genetics, and in a way, that appears to be true. I've noticed that some executives identify with a parent or role model that faced a tremendous challenge or hardship, and overcame the odds. As the executive tells the story of his/her role model/parent, it feels as though the executive has adopted the learning as his/her own. In my opinion, the executive forms an early mental model, through his/her own experience or one with which he/she identifies, which drives behavior. Sometimes, it's as simple as, "You must do your best", "If you want something to happen, you need to make it happen." or "You can't fail, people are depending on you." Mental models can sometimes become so powerful, that the part of the psyche that holds the mental model to be true runs over all of the other parts. Again, that's normally when a coach can be useful. A coach can help the executive reestablish his/her balance.

As we look at our world today and the many crises we face, I can't help but ask if this is some strange way of building the great leaders of which we are in such desperate need. Perhaps our call for great leaders is so strong, that God has responded with the proven tests of time, i.e., war, disease, tragedy, etc. Many of us recall how Rudolph Giuliani recently rose to the leadership hall of fame in his handling of 9/11.

I can't help but smile as I think of all of the parents who I've seen saddened when their child has faced some difficulty, i.e., being hurt by a bully, faced with their parents divorce, or some greater tragedy. Many would stand in their stead, willing to suffer far greater pain to save their children the slightest. Isn't it amazing, that the rough road we try to spare our children from, can sometimes be the very foundation for their success?


Kathy Green, an organization effectiveness consultant, is a founding partner and President of Executive Coaching Connections. Having performed as an officer in Fortune 500 companies, Kathy is familiar with the challenges that executives face. She has 20 years of experience in leadership, team, and organization effectiveness, and spent many of those years leading human resources and organization development efforts at Baxter, Kraft Foods, and Ameritech. Kathy is most widely known for her expertise in coaching senior executives. Kathy's client list is comprised of leading companies, across multiple industries. Clients have included Kraft Foods, Inc.; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; RR Donnelley & Sons; Bell & Howell; Information Resources, Inc.; Ameritech; and Baxter Healthcare Corporation. For more information please visit: www.executivecoachingconnections.com .

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Copyright 2003 by Kathy Green. All rights reserved.

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