Q1 · 2016Is it business-critical?Finding the time to ask that simple one question

Hello everyone,

First, may I wish you all a very Happy New Year. 2016 is a year of special anniversaries for me. I received my first mandate as a performance psychologist in 1996 (20 years ago), and I officially founded my company in 2001, after having completed my PhD (15 years ago). Time flies indeed.

In this issue of “Spotlight on Performance” I could simply update you in detail about an amazingly successful year in 2015: I published one business book (More Life, Please!), and co-authored Olympic Champion Dominique Gisin’s book (Making It Happen); I worked with many leading companies, coached some outstanding leaders and athletes, and gave presentations and Key Note speeches in many different countries (I boarded an airplane about 45 times during the year). But rather than explore this further, I want to share something more personal – and more valuable.

I want to share something more personal – and more valuable.

In 2015, a client of mine (now a successful senior leader in a blue-chip organization) learned that her husband had been diagnosed with cancer. To make matters worse, she found out when she was working on a project abroad, a long way from home.

Although it was a very personal matter, she wanted to tell her manager what had happened. She approached him and asked, “Do you have some time – may I discuss something with you?” The company was in a very busy period and so was the manager. His response was, “I’m really busy. Is it business-critical?” She reflected for a couple of seconds before replying that it wasn’t.

My client never told her manager what happened, but soon afterwards she decided to leave – first the department, and then the company. It is a real loss for the company, since she had been an over-performer and top talent.

I know you have already realized: it was very business-critical.

As leaders, we may be tempted to say, “This would never happen to me.”

As leaders, we may be tempted to say, “This would never happen to me – I would never react like this, I would never let it happen”. But the truth is, that I have once made a mistake like this. It wasn’t as dramatic, but it was still significant.

Let me take you back in time and show you how this mistake shaped my career just as I was starting out.

In 1996, after I had been forced to retire early from professional soccer due to multiple knee surgeries, I decided to study performance psychology and build up the expertise to become a performance coach. To achieve this, I went to study in Canada with two of the leading professors in the field. At the same time, I worked with a women’s soccer team, the Ottawa Gee-Gees, to apply a high performance mindset to the team. For the first time in history, the team won the National Championship (scoring the match-winning goal in the overtime of the final).

One incident still sticks with me – and it wasn’t the Championship celebration.

While working with the team, several of the key players had reached out to me to help them maximize their individual performance, including one player in particular – a talented forward called Cassandra (not her real name). Cassandra was one of the leading players, but during the season she had suffered an ankle injury, so I helped her recovery by coaching her with an individual performance program. I thought we were making wonderful progress, but after a few sessions Cassandra didn’t come back; she dropped out of the coaching program completely.

I took this very personally – I just didn’t understand what had gone wrong. So on the evening when we were all celebrating the Championship victory, I approached Cassandra and asked her why she hadn’t kept our appointments. She said: “Chris, I loved your structured program, but it seemed you were so blinded by it that you forgot to ask me how I felt – you were more interested in the progress and metrics of your program than in my current state of mind and how I felt about the injury!”

“You forgot to ask me how I felt.”

Cassandra’s words really hit me. I realized that this was my first failure as a performance coach. It gave me so much to think about – and looking back I credit a large part of my subsequent development to that incident, because it changed my approach entirely; ultimately, it made me more ‘human’.

Expertise and excellence do not arrive overnight, as you know, and you certainly won’t achieve them if you aren’t ready to learn from your mistakes along the way. So I am always grateful for Cassandra’s feedback because she taught me something that, to this day, I have implemented in my professional life.

She showed me that, as well as technical skills, I needed to show empathy and humility, and take into account all the aspects of a given situation. I realized at this very early stage in my career that ambitious performance programs could only make a true and sustainable impact by combining these elements.

I hope you as leaders can do this, too. Never forget to ask your people: “How are you?” (and really mean it!), and truly listen to their answers, as a major part of your leadership. It will pay off.

Never forget to ask your people: “How are you?”

We are all busy people, but however busy we are, finding time to ask that one simple question: “How are you?” can be very business-critical indeed.

Wishing you every success in the year ahead,