The group of leaders Frank Kretzschmar and I invited sat in our usual circle to share personal stories on our latest theme: “Pattern interruption – moments of change of direction in my life”. We asked them to reflect on what caused them to do things differently from then on. Which events provoked them to reflect, and so to change to another level, another direction, another style, of thinking and acting?

When considering changing direction, we shared, that self-awareness and self-distancing help: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” said Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. It is about our growth and our effectiveness.

Many give up shortly before the goal is reached. Why is that? We need to ask ourselves how finite our strengths are. Are they adequate for the challenge? Should we continue engaging or disengage? Advance or retreat? When do we stop? When do we let go? What are the opportunities and risks associated with not letting go and letting go? The decision either way will make a difference to what kind of life we lead. And also to our legacy.

So, the stage was set, and around the walls of the room as always Frank and I had displayed some flip-charts with appropriate quotes. Here’s another one from Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

And here’s a stimulus from Oprah Winfrey: “One of the hardest things in life to learn is which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn.” I really liked this one from Andrea Goeglein: “The thing about perspective-changing events is that they usually don’t announce themselves as such.”

And this one by Hayley Williams: “Sometimes it takes a good fall to know where you stand.”

One can never avoid Winston Churchill: “To improve is to change: to be perfect is to change often.” And, Albert Einstein: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Plus a final trio, first from Harrison Ford: “We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance”; then Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance”; and finally this African proverb: “Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors.”

Get the picture? Started reflecting? Those in our Leaders Circle got straight down to it, telling us about the impact of a serious illness, the loss of a father, the sudden change of career, all turning difficulties into developing strengths and opening up new opportunities.

“It is when we are disrupted and under pressure that we are at our best,” we heard, “needing to detach and be self-aware.”

Like me, one never planned to be in Africa, fearing he would be condemned to a linear existence with a large corporation back home; another realised how much there is to learn from Africa and to take back to Europe; and a couple were inspired by the leadership roles played by their ancestors, including in pre-colonial times.

One takes us back to 1956 when he was fourteen years old in Canada. To fund the purchase of his ice-hockey kit he took to delivering newspapers, tending only to read the sports pages. That is, till he learned about the Hungarian Revolution and then the Suez crisis, which led him to take an interest in the front pages too.

This is where his lifelong passion for peace-keeping began. Another member is in that space too, telling us that too often despite everything one tries no change ensues.

The Maasai among us, tells us he once lectured about his Maasai values and sense of community at Lancaster University. “Who needs certificates?” the admiring listeners asked.

I spoke about my exposure as a fresh graduate to the Iowan ‘Positive Mental Attitude’ – a contrast to my Jewish Romanian upbringing, with its exception reporting on just my shortcomings. When I was growing up at home I was the shamba boy, car-washer and evening dish-washer, and all this was taken for granted.

In just a few hours we learned so much from each other. We felt energised and challenged to take greater advantage of the disruptions in our lives. How about you?

We all have tales about feeling frustrated as unhappy customers, and the question for me is how to go beyond whining and moaning – and then defecting to another vendor – to offering advice to the offending supplier so they can restore our confidence and fix the issue. Hopefully not just on a one-off basis for us, but systemically. Sometimes the issue has to do with the attitude and behaviour of the people, sometimes it’s a policy problem, and just as frequently it’s a systems one.

I’ve written before about good and bad experiences of mine, and here today are some more stories, the first of which I was told about by a friend who, knowing I write on this topic, cried on my shoulder about his miserable experience at a coast hotel. Like me, he also consults on customer-friendliness, and that makes us the more frustrated when we are not treated well, knowing how much better things could be – for the benefit of both parties.

The hotel in question is one where he’d been staying several times a year for over 25 years with his family, from when he was a young child. On the last day of each stay his father would book and pay for their next one, reserving the same rooms. He would always be offered a very generous discount as an appreciation for his long-term loyalty… until this year when the family stayed at the hotel without their father, who had recently passed away. They came to honour his legacy and to bring back the many good memories of their times together here.

This time the attitude of the management had transformed from displaying warm and generous hospitality to being mean and unresponsive. When my friend was offered but a notional discount as he went to pay the bill he asked to see the General Manager (GM), certain that at least some of the earlier generosity would be restored.

But the GM proved to be cold and tense, clearly not interested in the decades-long history of the family’s connection with this hotel, and defensive about the meanness, which he justified thanks to the economic hard times.

Reluctantly he offered a small further discount, but for only some of the days, leaving my friend feeling he’d never want to go there again. Never mind that he’s been sharing his tale of woe with me and so many others since then. As he had been with the top person at the hotel there was no one further to whom to escalate, so that was it – a sad lose-lose ending to the story.

My second tale of woe has to do with DStv, who out of the blue sent me a mail confirming that my password had been successfully changed. I replied, stating I hadn’t sought a change, and another mail came immediately, seeking my personal details so they could deal with my case. I sent these, only to receive yet another one asking for further information, including about the country of registration of my decoder. “Why not with the first mail?” I asked, expressing my frustration. A third mail arrived, informing me that as my decoder is registered in Kenya they can’t deal with it from South Africa, so I must get in touch with Multichoice here, whose contacts they provided.

I called them, and after pressing the right buttons on my phone, to confirm I wanted to speak in English, had “other” queries to pursue etc., a friendly agent listened empathetically to my case. I told her, as I do to such front-line operatives, that I was talking “through” and not “to” her, requesting that she refer my complaints upwards, which she promised to do. Let’s see.

This is the problem with so many automated customer-response systems – like the NTSA one whose portal I accessed to obtain my new car registration number plate, when it informed me that my effort had failed, without explaining why. Again, fortunately when I called them a very friendly agent helped me.

Online banking systems are in my (and others’) experience often the most complex and challenging to manoeuvre through, leading me to wonder if the staff of these – and other – organisations ever go through the experiences we do. It’s why in an earlier article I wrote about coaching the radiologist who was so disconnected from my discomfort while lying on his MRI that he should spend a similar time there understanding why patients find it hard to remain still for so long.

My conclusion is to encourage you to go beyond being the disgruntled customer to becoming the helpful consultant, sharing your bad experience and also suggesting how things could improve – as I did with Multichoice, with NTSA, with my bank and with others. As for my friend’s hotel, you know who you are!

I was recently invited by professional advisory firm Ronalds East Africa to be one of the keynote speakers at their training event for Chief Finance Officers (CFOs) and other leaders of the finance function. My session was about advising the participants on how to interact effectively at the board level.

There was quite a spectrum in the room, from senior finance folk who regularly attended board and board committee meetings, to younger, more junior ones. Some of the CFOs were executive directors on their boards, with a regular seat at the top table, while others were only invited to contribute on specific items.

I asked them if they held responsibilities beyond financial management, and one lady told me she was the finance and administration manager – a not uncommon combination. (To me “administration” has always sounded rather old-fashioned and bureaucratic, and I suggested they think of a more contemporary term).

Elsewhere I have seen CFOs also oversee functions such as strategy and performance, risk and compliance, investments, mergers and acquisitions, and ICT. For obvious reasons, those whose portfolios are broadest are the ones most likely to climb further up the managerial ladder, I emphasised.

In my session I asked a series of questions, first about their alignment with the CEO. Did they work together as a close team, with mutual trust and respect? And then about management’s relationship with the board – individually and as a team. “Do you look forward to engaging with your directors, or do you dread the interactions?” I posed, before also asking if the directors looked forward to engaging with them.

Not very positive responses here, accompanied by several statements admitting that they only speak if asked to do so.

So, what holds them back? Why do so many CFOs underperform when they appear in the boardroom? My first point was that too many heads of departments, including CFOs, feel intimidated when in the presence of directors, and these feelings are reflected in their behaviour. It’s why they keep their contributions as short as possible, they don’t project their voice, and avoid eye-contact.

Others, however, are over-confident, perhaps being expert at spouting the numbers, despite lacking either the holistic organisational perspective or communication skills. They are inadequately prepared, not having translated their overcrowded spreadsheets into easy-to-absorb graphics; not having been coached in how to communicate for this level of engagement; and not having been through rehearsals to the meetings.

My next slide asked “Are you just Dr No?” Here I had them probe the extent to which the image they felt they should portray had them play too much of a stern-parent role, exception-reporting on the over-spenders and the under-deliverers… while remaining silent when the numbers looked good. Alongside this, many of their tribe enjoy being the most risk-averse in the room, displaying consistent worst-case pessimism and merely focusing on why any new initiative will not succeed, and in any case is unaffordable.

“Are you just book-balancers, number-crunchers, cost-minimisers?” I asked provocatively. “Or do you also see yourselves as advisers, consultants and coaches to your colleagues – including directors?” And how good were they at managing relationships, I inquired, whether internally with other functions, departments and locations, and between levels; or externally with investors, bankers, auditors and others?

To help them here I delved into my favourite topic of emotional intelligence, explaining how those with high EQ interact in ways that result in win-win outcomes, where everyone feels adequately satisfied and so owns the plans and commit to their implementation.

Whether in their technical financial skills or their non-technical skills of 360-degree relationship building, they need not only to be competent, I stated, but to match that with a healthy mix of confidence and humility, making others feel comfortable when interacting with them.

It is by expanding their comfort zone through developing new and broader skills that their circle of influence would expand. Their constructive, helpful voice will be listened to more, and those around them will see their potential for both higher cross-functional and boardroom responsibilities.

As in my last article, this one again focuses on customer engagement – or rather lack thereof.

The previous one found me in a hospital setting, coaching the man who had just managed me through enduring a CT scan – but without any accompanying human touch.

Happily, he reacted positively to my coaching, and I’d like to think he now delivers much less stressful customer experiences.

Today I want to tell you about a recent interaction with the lady in a printing and photocopying shop, whom I will not identify by her actual name but refer to as Gladys.

From the outset, as I entered she looked miserable and also behaved in a way that matched her gloomy expression. I greeted her with a smile to try and soften her grimness but to no avail.

“Why are you looking so miserable?” I asked her, not threateningly, just encouragingly, with a light touch. No change. On the contrary, the barrier between us was merely reinforced.

As Gladys worked on my printing I had another go at helping her into a more positive frame of mind, explaining that as a consultant I support firms to become more customer-focused.

Like it’s nice to give customers a smile,” I suggested. Forget it. Not a hint of one. Oh dear, an extreme case, with who knows what root cause. I felt really sorry for her, and it reinforced my desire to cheer her up.

As I was suggesting that smiling at customers is a good idea, another client was just leaving the shop, a lady from some European country by her accent, who overheard my comment.

“That’s totally unacceptable,” she fumed, obviously finding my suggestion to have been politically incorrect beyond redemption.

Was it a manifestation of the contemporary “woke” phenomenon, where one must be hypersensitive about anything one says?

Did she see it as none of my business to influence her mood? Was I harassing her?

Why was she so outraged, having merely caught that small element among our earlier interactions? I decided the best thing to do was to ignore her, which I did.

I’ve no idea what effect if any it had on Gladys, who now asked me why I had described her as looking miserable.

“Because that’s how you looked, and I was trying to cheer you up,” I replied. Sullen silence from her. This was clearly going nowhere, such an unusual encounter for me.

I paid, collected my papers and left, reflecting on this unhappy episode with the two women. What could I have done differently to release Gladys from her obstinate grumpiness?

Should I have been less ambitious – just let her be her uncommunicative and uncooperative self, as I had seen her with another customer too?

What a contrast to her predecessor, who couldn’t do enough to provide cheerful service to me and her other customers.

The consequence of this encounter was that I didn’t want to return, but rather find somewhere else to get my printing and copying done, however less convenient the location – somewhere I could enjoy my visit and my relationship with those serving me while getting my work done.

Later in the day, I met a nice quote from Mother Theresa, which made me feel better about my efforts to help Gladys: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

Then a couple of days later I made a call to a courier company where the agent who assisted me told me her name was Mona Lisa.

“How lovely,” I commented, telling her I assumed she knew about Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa, world-famous down the ages for her tantalising smile.

She did, so then I quoted Mother Theresa’s lovely line about the good that a smile can do, and we enjoyed a great laugh together, as she wished me a good afternoon.

Sadly, I don’t think that either Gladys or her self-appointed defender would have been interested in any of this, and maybe all I can conclude is that we are in a world of diverse characters, some cheerful and some gloomy; some self-righteous wrist-slappers and others wondering how careful they need to be in these days of political correctness.

How did you react to this story? With whom did you align? What advice do you have for me, for Gladys and for the woke lady?

PS I decided to write to the head-office director of the printing firm about Gladys, saying she needed help.

He thanked me for doing so, saying he’d look into it. As a result, I’m delighted to confirm that Gladys is now transformed, so I look forward to returning to the outlet… and to exchanging smiles with Gladys.

Socrates reminded us that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” But who should be doing the examining? Too many of us have never considered the possibility of it being ourselves, of imagining that we have the capacity to self-examine, and acknowledging that it is an important skill to develop.

When we are growing up we assume it is our parents and teachers whose role it is to pass judgement on us, and this assumption remains with many of us for the rest of our lives. We continue being “children”, expecting the ongoing oversight of “parents”.

On arriving here in the late seventies as a manager I expected – as I had been accustomed to in the UK – that the appraisal process would be initiated by appraisees assessing themselves. I was shocked by the pushback I received.

“But that’s your job,” I was told by some, and asked why I was avoiding my responsibilities. Did I not know my appraisees well enough? Was I insufficiently aware of how they had been performing? Had I been too lazy to prepare my assessment?

For some, it just did not feel right to think or talk about themselves. They weren’t the ones who should be doing it, period. Part of the problem was that they were not prepared to “brag”, to “blow their trumpet”, for such immodesty would be against their principles of humility.

(Which is why so many CVs lack the marketing appeal their authors actually merit.) On and on, so many justifications for self-assessment avoidance.

Yet for me one of the main ways I judge a person is by how self-aware they are, by their ability to observe themselves objectively and draw appropriate conclusions about what’s working well that they should feel proud about and what needs to change.

Such is the mature, emotionally intelligent person who looks in the mirror to learn from experience and to grow. Yes, they must be open to the input of others, but more as a way of enhancing how they study and coach and improve themselves.

Some weeks ago I wrote about Think Again by Adam Grant, a book I have been talking about ever since I read it. In my article I shared Grant’s take on self-awareness insofar as the relationship between competence and confidence is concerned.

It is logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become, I wrote. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence.

This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness. (In the context of appraisals, it may just be the appraisee’s way of negotiating for a higher pay review or a promotion.)

At the other end of the spectrum Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it is only their confidence that is lacking, I explained in my article.

This can turn out to be helpful, he and others have pointed out, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. Interestingly, many of those with whom I interact in appraisals display what I call “excess humility”.

Such people over-focus on their weaknesses while taking their strengths for granted – prompting me to move them away from their self-flagellating mindset.

Such guidance is part of what coaches offer, as coaching individuals or groups to indulge in constructive self-exploration is very much part of what those who play this role are meant to do.

So devote time to reflecting purposefully about yourself, generating self-knowledge that helps you navigate your way through life. Do so in calmness, in a quiet place, perhaps by going for a walk. Write about it, indeed make this a habit by doing so in a journal.

Yes, do also seek input from bosses, mentors, coaches and others, and be open to their contributions. Celebrate with them what is to be celebrated, and work on what needs to be worked on. Enjoy the journey. Not least the one where you accompany yourself.

I recently wrote a column on the coaching style of leadership, and today I return to my favourite current topic by looking at what it takes to be “coaching ready.”

Ironically it is often those most in need of such help that are least likely to want it or to benefit from it. Such people, for whatever reason, are simply not suitable candidates for coaching.

It may be that they suffer from excessive yet misplaced confidence, as they go through life with an “I’m OK, You’re not OK” mindset. It could stem from a sense of such gnawing insecurity – a deep down “I’m not OK” ego state – that they couldn’t handle their inadequacies being revealed to a coach. Or it could simply be that they have reached their peak and that therefore they and those around them must simply live with them as they are.

So leaving aside the uncoachables, how can we assess someone’s openness to benefit from linking up with a coach? The first challenge is that everyone is simply so busy these days that making time for it is far from easy. Even many who get going with a coach and find they are enjoying major benefits can fade out just due to being swamped with work.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to stimulate the demand for help, or perhaps a looming opportunity that risks being missed. Either way, are you up for confronting what you need to be doing more of and less of to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be? Are you relaxed and confident enough to learn and to grow, to expand your comfort zone?

Vital to the process is being completely open with your coach, not hiding any awkward truths that could impede how you benefit from your relationship with them. Equally necessary is following up time spent with the coach by putting into practice what you have committed to doing – including not allowing yourself to succumb to having “got too busy”, or to lacking the courage to have a go.

It is by experimenting boldly and by mitigating downside risks through behaving with emotional intelligence that you will reap the benefits of being stimulated into action by a coach. Doing so will allow you to celebrate breakthrough successes with them; to mourn together over initiatives that fell flat; and with the latter to regroup and relaunch.

Now let me move to the organisational level. For even if an individual is coaching-ready, if the leadership of the organisation is not then coaching is unlikely to deliver on its potential. I cannot stress strongly enough the need for those in board and senior management positions not only to be the sponsors and champions of coaching but also to consider engaging coaches themselves. After all, it’s for good reason that people say “it’s lonely at the top”, with no one with whom to share one’s inner hopes and fears, one’s aspirations and preferences.

For leaders to embrace a coaching culture they must first believe in the need and the possibility of developing their people. This in turn requires that employees are trusted and empowered, and that they are engaged and ambitious, innovative and responsive. It also supposes that coaching is but a component in a learning and development strategy; that rewards and recognition come through merit; and that those selected for coaching are neither merely the stars nor just the underperformers.

Next, does your organisation do well with its performance management? Most do not, and in particular they suffer from ineffective appraisal systems and inadequately thought through performance indicators – including in relation to the effectiveness of development initiatives such as coaching.

So time and effort devoted to coaching will be infinitely more effective in the context of robust performance management environments. Not to mention that coaching can play an important role in nurturing exactly such cultures.

My parting shot is that more so in the fast-paced relentless contemporary world we must step back and find time to reflect – at both the individual and the organisational levels. And there’s no one better placed with whom to indulge in such exploration than a coach.