The Wisdom of Winnie the Pooh

Rabbit said, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” 

Winnie the Pooh was so excited that he said, `Both!’ and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, “But don’t bother about the bread, please.”

At 54 I still love Winnie the Pooh. He was a regular at my bedside as a child and my mum loved doing the different voices. Likewise, my wife is a big fan so “Both! Said Pooh” is a regular phrase in our household when someone asks for a choice between two nice things!

Why talk about this conversation between Winnie the Pooh and Rabbit? What has that got to do with coaching and leadership? 

Most successful people love a challenge, and get antsy if things are too easy for too long. that’s one of the reasons they’re successful. They look for a challenge and once that’s overcome, they go looking for a new one.

There’s a little psychological trap here that people who love a challenge can fall into. It’s not a visible problem like Pooh getting trapped in Rabbit’s front door. No, this is a hidden trap that we need to bring into our awareness to deal with. The trap is unconsciously thinking of challenges and problems in a frame of either/or. This is how clients often present issues in a session – as a struggle between two things. “I’m struggling with this situation. I could do A, or I could do B…”

This unconscious habit of thinking of things as either/or supports our internal programming because as long as it’s either/or we can struggle with it. It’s being presented as a dichotomy by the unconscious, even when it’s not. This is Pooh’s genius. It’s not in his nature to struggle with anything so doesn’t frame the choice as a dichotomy. To him, the obvious answer is both!

Because of my love of Christopher Robin’s companion, in coaching sessions it can be difficult not to shout out “Both! Said Pooh”! Thankfully I’m not as impulsive as Pooh (or Tigger) so I hold myself back and challenge the either/or nature of the dilemma.  

“Is it really either/or or can it be ‘also/and’?”

“How could you do both?”

“What if you lengthen the timescales? Are both possible if you think months rather than weeks?”

“If you did one after the other, which would be first and why?”

I’ll wager as you read this you can think of situations where you’ve struggled with an issue and then realised you were struggling for no reason. I’ve known for years now that my unconscious will present things as a struggle when they’re not.  I kick myself when I realise I’m still channeling Rabbit when I need to be channeling Winnie the Pooh. He may be a bear of very little brain but he has the right of things here!

So it’s a good practice to develop an either/or detector. When your people come to you with issues that seem a struggle at face value, they may have just fallen into the either/or trap and there’s a more elegant solution if the challenge is approached differently.

There’s another reason to look out for this tendency in your people. People with this habit can often bite off more than they can chew, especially if combined with a high need for recognition and/or perfectionistic tendencies. The either/or trap is a clue that these team members might be susceptible to overcommitting and/or overwhelm.

Owl thinks he’s the clever one, Rabbit thinks he’s the sensible one but in my book Winnie the Pooh is the wisest.


Developing Awareness – Triggers

In my last post I talked about a client who had been unaware of a serious problem perceived by his boss. Of course it’s not uncommon that a CEO has a perspective as yet unavailable to others in their organisation. A leader being informed of a deficit is often the kick-off point for some coaching.

Coaching often starts this way, with the client in what can be called the ‘Unaware Stage’. They then progress, through feedback, to the Aware Stage. When clients come directly to a coach, they’re clearly already aware of at least some of their challenges.

One of the things a coach will do is help a client integrate this awareness and then progress from the Aware Stage into the next phase – the Trigger Aware stage. Let me give an example that many may recognise.

I was coaching a finance director. She was a strong leader, with a good reputation in the business. She not only got great results, but did so with really high engagement with her team. She also had good stakeholder relationships. So where was the problem? Her ‘strength’ all but disappeared when presenting.

A great question to ask is “Is this a full-time or a part-time problem?”

Usually, it’s a part-time problem and that means there is likely to be an external trigger or triggers that cause the unhelpful state to occur.

This was a part-time problem.

When did it happen? When she was presenting to the CEO and her team.

Had this always been a problem? No it hadn’t. She didn’t have the issue with the last CEO.

There was something about this CEO in particular, that was triggering the unhelpful state.

Three things were useful to do here:

  1. Identify the trigger(s). What was it about this CEO in particular that triggered this lack of confidence? Was the context different from before?

We nailed what the triggers were so my client was fully Trigger Aware’.

  1. Resourcefulness. We worked on being more resourceful in the face of that trigger. What were the things that she could do, before and during these interactions, such that the trigger had a neutral or positive effect instead of a negative one?
  2. Progress to the next stage. We moved on to the next stage, and that’s ‘Internal Process-Aware’ – identifying what was going on internally within my client that was causing the lack of confidence, and developed new strategieLeaderships and distinctions.

I don’t do therapy and most coaches don’t. I won’t ask a client to get on a couch and tell me about their childhood! However, what is productive is becoming aware of decisions that clients make early on in life that are playing out right now. Especially those that trigger them into less useful states. I must emphasise that we don’t explore the incidents that caused those decisions to be made in the past. That’s in the therapeutic realm and as a coach, I’m just identifying those decisions that are playing out unconsciously right now in the present.

It’s not always necessary or even desirable to move on to this next stage, but working on internal processes helps the client evolve and grow as a leader and as a human being. This model of Unaware > Aware > External Trigger Aware > Internal Process Aware needs to be attributed to the therapist Kim Barta. His model goes further if you’re doing therapy but stops here for coaching. Even though the model comes from therapy it’s great for coaches, or for managers taking an employee at least one step on from feedback.

Helping clients develop awareness around external triggers that cause less resourceful states, and developing new strategies is another example of coaching adding significant value. So ask yourself, what triggers you?

Transforming Relationships

One of the CEO’s direct reports had reached a ceiling. They were blocking the leadership pipeline. What was to be done?

I was in conversation with another executive coach. We were sharing success stories in terms of what the organisation got out of it, not just the persons being coached. It came to me that while coaching should really be a no brainer in terms of investment, many organisations aren’t getting as much value out of coaching as they could. Some organisations are hardly using coaching at all.

I was going to start a single blog post and then realised that this issue could provide the basis for a small book! So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts hitting on several areas of value that coaching regularly delivers for organisations and individuals.

I’ll keep away from the straight financial benefits but I can give a few client quotes to demonstrate:

“I estimate (the coaching has delivered) several hundred thousand dollars of extra value.”

“Increase in profit of £0.5m this year and this will lead to an increase next year of up to £1.5m”

“Approval for additional investment in transformation programmes of £14m with benefits of £48m over 5 years”

Transformed Relationships

This first post about value is about that which comes from transformed relationships.

Improving relationships is probably the most common theme I deal with when coaching more senior executives and is most often mentioned benefit in my assessments.

Leadership has become less about being the smartest in the room and much more about how leaders collaborate, work with diverse stakeholders, inspire and bring the best out of others. At the core of all this is the ability to establish and maintain strong relationships, particularly with peers. As said by one HR Director “The leadership challenge now is not the people that report to you – but all the others you need to get on side.” *

Senior leaders have often come up through the ranks by showing how talented they themselves are at doing what they do. They bring value to the organisation in a specific area but suddenly this is not the only contribution the company desires. Modern leadership is so much more than doing your own bit well.

To the example mentioned at the start of the article, Terry (name changed) was a very valued contributor. He looked after his own business well (the most profitable in the group) but wasn’t contributing nearly enough to the rest of the organisation. He was a blockage in the leadership pipeline because without learning to contribute globally, he would never develop and deliver value on a greater scale.

This sort of leader is a valuable resources and the cost to replace is huge. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates the cost to replace highly educated executive positions as 213 percent of annual salary. Developing these leaders to the next level and retaining them is clearly worth the investment.

Executive Feedback

This sort of engagement often needs executive feedback, with the coach talking to the client’s senior stakeholders. The client may have had feedback before but there’s feedback, and then there’s coaching feedback. Input from a coach who is not only independent but also with the coachee’s interests at heart. We can challenge in ways managers generally can’t. This sort of feedback works better than online tools etc, because the coach is also able to probe further with the stakeholders for context and for the consequences of the client’s action or inaction.

So if you’re an HRD or Talent Director and see a leader who struggles with establishing and maintaining the right sort of relationships, someone who struggles to collaborate well and contribute across the business, then it’s time to employ an executive coach. The return on investment of this sort of intervention for the organisation is likely to be huge.

What about the individual though? Well in this case a whole new world of possibility became available to them (along with other benefits!). The thing that had an impact on me though, was when he shared what had happened with his son. The relationship with his son was really difficult and continuing to go downhill. The coaching around relationships at work had transferred over to home and transformed for the better how he and his son could relate. By enabling the client to change the relationship they had with themselves, they were able to change the relationships they had with everyone else in their system.

Transforming Relationships. As Peter Hawkins says – the value is in the connections, not the nodes.

*Global Research Report, Henley Business School, 2018