Monthly Archives: October 2013

When Self Deprecation is a Bad Idea

Some of the response to Ruby Tandoh, Great British Bake Off finalist, is instructive for any woman in a public role – and that means any woman in a position of responsibility. Ruby’s tears and constant apologising provoked accusations of being self centred, flirtatious, manipulative. Fortunately Ruby herself made a magnificent response to the moaners in The Guardian newspaper on October 22

But in general we women are too hooked on the idea of putting ourselves down. Doing anything that could be interpreted as boastful creates horror. It reminds us of adults whose scorn was expressed in phrases like ‘Who’d be interested in what you’ve got to say?

One of my coaching clients embodied the dangers of this behavioural habit. P had grown up in a family with an angry, alcoholic mother, herself the product of an abusive home. P was frequently disciplined with hard slaps, deprived of food for ‘misbehaviour’ and punished with silence – her mother once went four weeks without speaking to her. P learnt to mollify this terrifying figure by apologising in advance for anything and everything, regardless of whether she was guilty of any wrongdoing. Although her mother was long dead, P had carried the habit of preceding most conversations with the word ‘sorry’. Her body language conveyed constant appeasement, head cocked on one side, looking up under her eyelashes, smiling when nothing amusing was happening, crying easily. P had notable warmth, humour and outstanding intellectual gifts. She got a first class Oxbridge degree, a PhD and then early promotion to a senior management role, which was when her real problems started. P could not ask straightforwardly for what she wanted. She could not express an opinion without apologising for it in advance. More pushy colleagues got promoted or claimed credit for work she had done. Direct reports did not always understand her feedback when it was wrapped up in so many ifs and buts. Colleagues thought her easy tears indicated emotional instability.

Like many such women, P was deeply hurt when she understood how her behaviour affected others. She thought that self deprecation meant she was showing a becoming modesty and also expressed her belief in equality. She felt that tears indicated a willingness to be authentic. She believed she was being collaborative by praising others when in fact she had done the major part of the work. She thought she was showing respect to seniors when she apologised for ‘wasting’ their time.

In fact P was driving people crazy. People who loved and admired her were exasperated. People who were envious of her gifts thought her manipulative and insincere.

Others cannot read our motivation. This is why we have to help them understand it. But first we have to understand how our own behaviour affects them.

Underneath her addiction to apologising, P was tough not fragile. She wanted to get a grip on her career and that meant getting more of what she wanted, which included more respect. She also dreaded that in the process of learning how to stop her habit of self deprecation, she might turn herself into a ‘bully broad’ of whom there were quite a few in her organization. At first I just asked her to monitor the ‘S’ word and count how many times a day she actually said it – or was tempted to. The answer was dozens – if not hundreds on a bad day. I then asked P to conduct some DIY 360 feedback where she interviewed ten people about her own strengths and weaknesses. It was from this point on that P’s life began to change.

In our coaching sessions P explored how to be more assertive, learning that saying no would not necessarily devastate the person who had been refused. She learnt to give feedback straightforwardly. Even more importantly, she learnt that defences that had been useful in childhood may actually get in the way as an adult. These habits are not easily or quickly dismantled, but adult motivation is a wonderful thing and coaching is one excellent way to accelerate the process of harnessing it.


7 reasons to Say No to a Prospective Client

It’s a tough old competitive world out there for coaches. When I run workshops on how to develop a coaching business, the #1 question for everyone in the room is ‘How do I get new clients?’

A neglected question is when to turn a prospective client away.

Here are 7 common situations when it would be sensible to say no:

  1. The would-be client is a young graduate who is unemployed and has returned home to parents who, much as they love them, really don’t want them there. Desperate to get this giant cuckoo out of the nest, the parents decide that coaching is the solution. You agree to a look-see conversation with the potential client, but when this happens, you find that this young person seems to be prepared to indulge their parents by agreeing to the coaching, but has very little motivation of their own. Without motivation, no coaching can be successful
  2. The prospective client is referred by their HR professional. On enquiry you find that there are serious performance problems where the person’s technical ability is being questioned. The client him or herself is keen for the coaching to happen, but how much difference can it really make to the likely outcome? Probably very little. You are a coach not a mentor. This organization may want to be seen to be doing the right thing – before an inevitable parting takes place
  3. The would-be client has heard that coaching is something available at no personal cost because it is being paid for by the organization and it seems to be something that high-fliers enthuse about. But when you have the ‘what are you looking for?’ conversation, the replies remain vague and the more you press, the vaguer they get
  4. The prospective client’s boss asks you to address his or her alleged ‘lack of emotional intelligence’. EQ is not a piece of software that the coach can install in the client’s brain
  5. During the ‘look-see’ or ‘chemistry’ conversation the client displays unusual or frankly bizarre behaviour which could indicate mental health issues. Keep away – this is not your bag
  6. The prospective client talks a lot about the failings of others and how if only they would change everything would be fine. This tells you that their ability to accept responsibility for themselves is low – an essential pre-condition for coaching
  7. A good friend asks you to coach them, for instance on preparation for a job interview. You can never be as candid with a friend as you can with a client. Coaching is blend of high support and high challenge. If you value the friendship say no.

Taking on a client whom you should have refused is truly horrible. Invariably the coaching goes nowhere. If there is a sponsor who is paying, this person is annoyed and disappointed. Reputation is everything in coaching and your reputation will suffer. As the coach you feel incompetent, you lose confidence.

The guidelines here are that you should, without fail, have a no-commitments preliminary conversation with every potential client where you inquire into their circumstances and motivation, asking them what they are looking for. The million dollar question here is ‘If we could wave a magic wand, look into the future and say that this coaching has been successful, what would have changed for you?’ Make it clear that entering into a coaching relationship is a mutual choice and that you may not be the right coach for that client nor that client the right client for you. Regardless of what other people in their lives are telling them, if the client secretly or openly believes that there is no real need to change, then coaching is never going to work. If people have serious mental health problems, they need other kinds of intervention. Where what people need and what you offer is clearly a poor match then suggest other sources of help.

My book Developing a Coaching Business is available on Amazon in print and Kindle formats.

What makes a workshop work?


Nodding off recently in a hot, stuffy room while the presenter droned through 70 slides has got me thinking yet again about what makes a workshop work. So many times something billed as a ‘workshop’ is actually just a series of lectures with a few feeble activities sprinkled in as a nod to interaction. I find a whole day of this saps my energy like nothing else can.

If you are intending to run a workshop, what can you do to make sure that the event is enjoyable and useful for the participants?

First, get clear in your own mind about the aim. If it is to transfer knowledge then never rely on verbally transmitted information. It is amazing how often the hole-in-the-head idea seems to be the theory-in-use of so many tutors especially if the event has anything to do with a university. The nature of adult short term memory makes this a very ineffective way of learning.  Adults do not have a hole in the head through which information can be poured. Send people stuff to read in advance, assume they’ve read it and if they haven’t, tough, and do something on the day which involves activity and which is fun and challenging – eg a quiz or a discussion.

Take care with the room. You have more than enough to wrestle with without having to wrestle the room. Generous space, an excellent acoustic, proper ventilation and heating, comfortable chairs, natural light – these are basic needs which so often remain unmet, let alone thinking about how to arrange the furniture to facilitate learning. Cabaret style or a circle without tables is usually better than rows where the only person with a good view of everyone is the tutor.

Most people coming to a workshop will already have knowledge of the topic. They are there because they want more. But what more, exactly? And how to make use of what they know while giving them at least some of what they want? The way to get around this is to be absolutely clear in advance about what the topic is, who it is aimed at and what previous knowledge or skill you assume. I have been to many so-called workshops where, frustratingly, it only emerged in the last 30 minutes of the day that the room was full of people who had valuable experience to share.

Plan the event in detail, calculating how long each activity will take. If you only have 2 hours it is a waste of time to do ‘creeping death’ as an icebreaker, asking each person who they are, why they are there and what they want. I well remember a premium-priced workshop which started 45 minutes late and then used up a whole hour while one by one the 20 participants rambled uninterruptedly on about their background and amazing skills and what they wanted from the day. Each minute of this subtracted from the time we might more usefully have spent with the leading expert who had been brought in from the US to enlighten us.

Design activities with meaning not just that limp ‘turn to your neighbour and discuss what I’ve just said’ stuff. Some ideas here: try out a skill, carefully briefed, with observation and feedback; run a demonstration and ask for comments; do a ‘fishbowl’; facilitate a whole-group discussion where the validity of your ideas is subjected to scrutiny against people’s actual experience of the topic. Use different media – YouTube is full of free video which could be relevant to your topic.

Ask for feedback throughout and again at the end. Listen calmly and undefensively to what people say. Make it possible for people to be brutally honest then if you’ve run a clunker at least you’ll know what to do differently next time.

Two of my books, both published by McGraw-Hill, have more info on these topics

Adults Learning is a general guide to how adults learn and how to design and run learning activities with impact

Facilitating Groups is about running events as a facilitator with chapters on how to handle facilitator nightmares and how to design and run a variety of activities for groups

Available from


CV Lies: don’t!

A senior City barrister has been caught telling gargantuan whoppers about his CV. He did not have a Masters from Harvard, he was not at Balliol College as an undergraduate, he did not get a 1st class honours degree from UEA, nor had he been a member of the New York or Irish Bars. Oh, and he did not go to school at Radley.

Dennis O’Riordan is only the latest of a long line of apparently successful people to be found out inventing backgrounds they do not have. The only odd thing about Mr O’Riordan is that he held a number of senior roles, for instance at Nomura and the National Bank of New York without being found out.

But for every well known person who gives in to this temptation there are thousands of others who believe it is worth taking this risk in order to boost their chances of getting a job. In my work as a coach, especially when the client has come for career coaching, I have sometimes unwittingly discovered that a senior executive client has lied in some significant way about their qualifications or experience. In the first session I usually ask the client to talk me through their educational and career history with an emphasis on what attracted them to each job and what led to their decision to move on. Many years of listening to these stories have alerted me to subtle but unmistakeable signs that, in very rare cases, aspects of the story do not ring true. When respectfully challenged, initial bluster can quickly change to confession. More frequently I have worked with executives who have discovered to their horror, after a new hire has performed with puzzling lack of competence, that they have appointed someone who did not have any of the qualifications they claimed.

Less gross lies include: raising the class of a genuinely-held degree, changing the name of a previous job to sound more important, increasing salary level, adding to the length of time the person was in a job.

It is never, repeat never, worth inflating anything on your CV. The bigger the lie, the higher the chances that someone will guess the truth. We don’t know how Mr O’Riordan was unmasked but my guess is that his flamboyant style created enemies, one of whom became suspicious. A few simple phone calls would have been enough to confirm that his early CV was a fiction.

Lying is so common that most employers have wised up to the desirability of checking qualifications and previous jobs, including job titles, salary and length of stay. Finding out that you have improved on the truth on any of these facts will be enough to lead to the withdrawal of a job offer or to instant dismissal if it is uncovered after you have started work. The logic is brutal but unarguable: if you will lie about your past history then maybe your moral compass is generally adrift and most employers will not want to take the chance.

Lying about qualifications is particularly unwise because qualifications are so easily checked. Also, although possessing a first class degree can help in very early career, qualifications become less and less important after that first job: track record, achievement and emotional intelligence begin to matter more and more.

Maintaining a lie is exhausting: it needs constant vigilance. It is stressful, underpinned by perpetual fear of being found out. When a client has confessed to me that this is what they have done, after their initial sheepishness and self-reproach, all have said that there is a feeling of relief. Then the work of the coach is to look at what the temptation was about. The answer is usually some deep sense of shame and inadequacy which began in childhood. Facing up to this, looking at what validity it has now, considering how to trust people to judge you on the basis on your real self: this is where the hard work for coach and client begins.


The Pointlessness of a Career Plan

Many of my coaching clients report feeling guilty about their failure to have a career plan. The idea persists that this is something that every respectable and modestly ambitious professional person needs to have. Somewhere they have the image of that fiercely dedicated genius who knows by the age of 6 that they are going to be a world-class brain surgeon, winning Wimbledon or running the country.

If there are such people and their plans do come to pass, they are the exception. Having a career plan is a pointless exercise for most of us. What would have happened to a budding executive who joined Woolworth’s graduate trainee scheme at 21 in 1989 with the career plan of becoming a Board director by the age of 40 in a household name company, on every high street and apparently as solid as any company could be? First, he or she would have been subject to innumerable reinventions of the brand, buffeted by takeovers, mergers, de-mergers and acquisitions and would probably have been very lucky to have survived such changes. Let’s suppose that this former young grad has somehow clung on to their job. By 2008 They would have been part of the mournful process of selling off every single thing that was left in the stores including the shop-fittings. If you mentioned the name Woolworth to my teenage grandchildren they would undoubtedly look vague.

Organizations are shaped by external events. Woolworth could not survive in an era of pound shops, internet music, internet shopping and international competition. Individual career plans are worth nothing when faced with forces that no individual can control such as exchange rates, oil prices, technological development, political pressures, climate change or natural disasters.

What works instead of a career plan? At the heart of it is getting very clear about life purpose. What is the core of what motivates you? What is the thread that runs through every job you have ever had? When have you experienced the pure satisfaction that comes from doing something for others, not just for yourself? Which skills do you love using? What brings you joy?

These questions distinguish between inner and outer motivators. Inner motivators are about knowing that you are using and developing your gifts in ways that could make the world a better place, even if on a very small and personal scale. Outer motivators are about the grand titles, the fame, the corner office, the car, the money: useful and nice to have, but alas, there is always someone who has more of them and they all depend on the approbation graciously bestowed by someone or something external. The satisfaction they bring never lasts long.

Some organizations make this worse by purporting to manage your career for you. This is a fiction. The organization never really cares about you or your career but they can unwittingly encourage the idea that one day someone will spot your talent, tap you on the shoulder and offer you the dream job. Dream it is, unfortunately, or perhaps nightmare is a better word because this attitude eats away at self-confidence, leading to the common belief that your skills are not transferrable, when in reality they are.

Good questions about life purpose can replace pointless questions about career planning. Here are some to think about:

What do I want people to remember me for?

What would I like my legacy to be?

What are my so-far unmet personal goals?

How up to date are my skills?

How much time am I devoting to my development?

What state is my network of contacts in?

Where are the growth points in my sector?

Who might need my skills?

How up to date is my CV – and how much sense would it make to someone outside my current organization?

Given all of this, what might my next move involve?