north of neutral dialog

February 14, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Carol Kauffman, Founder & Director of the Institute of Coaching, Boston

At North of Neutral we work with successful leaders and their teams to achieve lasting positive change. Part of my due diligence as a coach is to ensure a consistent level of quality service to clients and, as part of this, I consider it to be my responsibility to continually invest in my own personal and professional growth and development. An element of this involves regular coaching sessions with a supervisor coach, in my case with Carol Kauffman.

In addition to being supportive, asking insightful questions, and giving feedback, Carol stands ready to confront me when needed. Occasionally this involves giving me a ‘swift kick’ to move me forward and help me realize my full potential.

I often come out of sessions with her full of energy and laughter (which, as we know from research on motivation, is one of the best indicators of engagement), and ready to take on my next challenging assignment.

The role

Dr. Carol Kauffman is Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and heads up the Institute of Coaching that she founded in 2009. The mission of the Institute is to offer education and research on Leadership, Healthcare and Applied Positive Psychology. Kauffman is also co-director of the annual Harvard Coaching Conference, and initiated the annual International Coaching Research Forum, an organization that promotes progress and community in coaching research.

Kauffman a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology, and is an Examiner for its Board. She is Chief Supervisor for Meyler Campell Ltd, a business coaching program based in London and, as a Professional Certified Coach, runs her own coaching practice working with seasoned C-suite executives.

A frequent key-note speaker on topics related to coaching, and Founding Editor in Chief of the academic journal ‘Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice’, Kauffman has also published a number of articles, including her 2009 Harvard Business Review publication “What Can Coaches Do for You?” the first of its kind to take a close (and quantitative) look at the realities of executive coaching.

Her work is featured and referenced extensively in the media – including publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business week, NPR and her coaching is featured in a documentary film by the CBC.

The journey

“I had a very unusual childhood,” explains Carol Kauffman when I ask her about her upbringing. She recounts how she was born into a lower middle class family in a small town in New Jersey, where her father began manufacturing tools. He grew increasingly successful, and over time the family became well off.

On the family’s journey through social classes – coming from “rats in the basement” through to living next door to Keith Richards and a home next occupied by the Shah of Iran – Kauffman describes her life at times as feeling like being in a movie set: “It was fascinating but odd, often I would be the only person in the room without a title.”

In addition to experiencing a wide range of socio-economic statuses, Kauffman’s parents also enabled a broad and inclusive view of spirituality, and a mature perspective on life’s purpose. Her father was Jewish, and her mother Episcopalian, with a vivid interest in Buddhism and psychic phenomena.

Kauffman credits this array of socio-economic and spiritual elements in her upbringing for her ability to coach a wide range of clients with ease, including the most senior leaders of the most powerful organizations worldwide. ”I am grateful to the chaos of my past,” she says.

In addition to these elements, from an early age Kauffman discovered that she had a profound curiosity about people. She explains that transformative experiences, such as the Jesuit priest who approached her at a retreat where she participated as a 10-year old, and who with rapt attention seemed to listen to her responses to his questions, “made me think: I must have something to say, something to offer.”

Still, as with many teenagers about to graduate from high school and getting ready for college, Kauffman had little idea of how ‘something to offer’ could take shape in the form of a future career. She recalls being 19 years old, out gardening with her mother, with a “beautiful view of the New York skyline, pulling weeds, and whining that I did not know what to do with my life.” Kauffman laughs as she shares her mother’s somewhat exasperated response: “Oh Carol, just figure what it is that you like to do, and then how to get paid for it.”

In ever so pragmatic terms, Kauffman’s mother had pointed out what positive psychologists and research have proven to be at the core of professional engagement and job satisfaction: identifying your strengths, and applying these as much as possible to what you do on a daily basis.

Based on her natural ability to talk to people, listen to their concerns and “sort things out”, Kauffman decided to major in psychology. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology in 1984 from Boston University.

As she practiced though, she was troubled by the common pathological approach of treating people at the time: ”Most clients seemed like people to me, not bundles of pathology. I could see their potential, rather than making my sole focus how ill they were.”

She goes on to share her experience with one rather challenging patient with multiple personality disorder who came, in part the result of therapy, to turn things around and lead a mentally healthy and productive life. Much later when Kauffman asked this patient why she thought the turnaround had been possible, the response intrigued her: “It was clear you trusted me, then I was able to trust you and learned to trust myself.”

While Kauffman was passionate about helping people, she saw herself surrounded by colleagues who did not think the way she did, frequently giving her a sense of being the “perky” psychologist rather than having an approach that was as equally rigorous as her more traditional peers.

The glass is half full…

When, in 1998, the positive psychology movement was called to life by newly appointed American Psychology Association President Martin Seligman, Kauffman “jumped aboard”. The call to scientifically study what is going ‘right’ with people and what we can learn from that (as opposed to the focus of research over the previous 50 years on fixing what was wrong with people), was what she had desired all along.

Kauffman attended Gallup meetings, started speaking at positive psychology summits, and founded her own coaching practice in 2003, where she integrated the principles of positive psychology into her primary areas of interest: peak performance and authentic leadership.

For the past eight years Kauffman has run her psychology and coaching practice on parallel but separate tracks. At present she has a tiny clinical practice, and spends the majority of her time as a leadership coach and supervisor of business coaching.  She has had the privilege of participating in well over 38,000 client sessions. The core coaching and leadership purpose is to “discover things that ignite eternal change with people who matter,”she explains. “‘Matter’ may mean that they are simply good hearted, or that they are key change agents in the world.”

On the importance of being ‘yourself’

It is clear that Kauffman has found her own coaching style and that she is comfortable with who she is as a professional. And her authenticity, resulting from her life story as well as her values and passions as an individual, is part of the reason for her success. It enables her to play in a variety of different leagues and to not be intimidated by challenging situations:

“I like the high challenge. For example, I was called, alongside a group of coaching colleagues from the Authentic Leadership Institute, to coach the top 100 in a Fortune 50 organization. The debriefing was fairly intense: unless the coaching yielded a significant change in their leadership quality and interaction with others in the organization, some of these top players in the firm would not be able to move forward; on some occasions they were about to be fired – despite being huge moneymakers.”

After 5 full days of coaching, intensive 360s, conversations with peers and the CEO, Kauffman and her colleagues – together with their clients – designed powerful change programs.

Two months later many of these leaders were on a good trajectory. A number of the leaders she had been working with one-on-one received promotions, and had clearly made real progress as a result of the process.

When I ask Kauffman about her ‘tricks’ with a particularly difficult leader she laughs:”Essentially, it came down to asking direct and forceful questions. How did this individual think his previous behavior of humiliating his team served him and his leadership? The key was to find his absolute core strength and to leverage his motivation to become a good leader. His destructive behavior then became less tolerable to him and while he still isn’t exactly a walk in the park, he is much more collaborative.”

What makes for a great coach?

This is a question organizations, their leaders, and HR teams ask repeatedly as they seek to find the best coach to facilitate change in their organizations.

As part of knowing what drives her, Kauffman has learned when to say ‘no’ to some potential client engagements:”Being an effective coach also means having the good sense to know when not to get started and to have a good filtering process in place. Recently I had a client who needed a degree of structure that just wasn’t exciting for me. Certain people are not interested in the process of discovery. They primarily wish to fix something and may have a particular performance goal in mind, such as being a better public speaker, where they don’t really require nimble or agile thinking.”

Kauffman knows that she has the right client to work with: “when at the end of a session I am filled with more energy and zest than when it began. In fact, that happens nearly all the time, coaching is fundamentally exciting.”

Here a few key ingredients on Kauffman’s list on what constitutes great coaching:

1/ Be compassionate and confront.

“A deep interest in others is key. You have to really be delighted with people and willing to put yourself on the line to be of service to them.”

On her road to developing her personal coaching style, Kauffman has worked with many mentors and role models along the way (much as I do now with her). One of them is Ruth Ann Harnish, a former journalist and well-known coach and philanthropist. To Kauffman, she “embodies the spirit of coaching: extraordinarily warm, very engaging and highly confrontational.”

Carol Kauffman also remembers some useful advice she received from one of her peers, David Peterson:”When you are coaching an executive and you are not willing to get fired on the spot for saying what you feel is the right thing, you are not doing your job.” Being able to be true to herself and her coaching principles allows her to add real value to a client’s situation.

2/ Offer substance.

Powerful questions, exceptional listening skills, and holding a client accountable to move towards a particular goal are at the core of coaching. However, these skills alone do not suffice, particularly in the world of executive coaching:“Working knowledge of different models and theories of coaching and leadership is essential. You need to be able to really adjust to what you are doing to the particular person you are working with. Mental, emotional and interpersonal agility is key to making sure clients get what they want.“

The conviction that coaching is a powerful force of change was ultimately the motivator for Kauffman to launch the Institute of Coaching as it offers learning tours, master classes and rich resources to the coaching community.

3/ Untap potential.

“You need to be clear about the strengths of a person, and not get stuck in the default option of only looking for ‘gaps or defects’. Coaching is about creating a strong awareness about where someone is and allowing them to hold on to the perspective of where they want to go. ‘Failures’ are there to learn from, and as a coach I ask them to look back and mine their crucible (most painful) experiences but also harvest their most positive experiences. Together, these help us know our story, and what leadership lessons we have learned that bring us to the keys of great leadership: Positivity, Authenticity and Edge.”

On the importance of staying grounded…

Much of Carol Kauffman’s success seems based on realizing an equilibrium in her life, on being grounded and confident about who she is and regardless of which ‘hat’ she is wearing: that of a coach, teacher, leader, mother or friend.

When I ask Kauffman about her biggest challenge in coaching clients effectively, she is quick to say in her own irreverent way: “Listen more and learn to shut up.”

This disarming honesty reminded me of an anecdote she offered during a coaching session when I expressed concern about entering a coaching engagement where I had little previous exposure to the client’s industry. Kauffman shared how she had been in a similar position when she had been asked to coach some of the senior partners at the Boston Consulting Group. When one of the partners asked her whether she had ever done such an assignment in the world of strategy consulting, she described looking at him, and responding with warmth and enthusiasm, straight out “No! That’s why I’m so excited to be here.”

Knowing her disarming habit of being completely candid (in an even-handed and somewhat playful fashion),the BCG partner was intrigued by her answer (contrary to what one might intuitively assume), and probed further, ”So how can you help us?” Kauffman replied:”I have no idea, but my brain is at your service, let’s figure out how to best use it.” Kauffman got the assignment and, of course, worked successfully with the senior leadership team of the firm.

An authentic life

Needless to say, Carol Kauffman’s authentic way of free-thinking candor is coupled with a healthy dose of tact and warmth in addition to convincing substance.

To instill trust and confidence in others is to find and practice one’s own authentic voice. There are no universal traits, attributes or styles linked to success. Much as I admire and enjoy Kauffman’s coaching style, it will never fully be mine.

As Bill George emphasizes in his book ‘True North’, being an authentic leader or professional requires a commitment to developing oneself. It involves “testing [oneself] through real-world experiences and reframing life stories to understand who one is at the core.”

In fact, grasping the purpose of one’s work and realizing that being authentic is at the very core of thriving both professionally and personally – as exemplified by Carol Kauffman.

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