Early start in the leadership development field
The original plan was to be a doctor. Three months into medical school at the University of Michigan, I decided it was time for a new plan. After a long winter of knocking on office doors in Washington DC, I received a remarkable call out of the blue. On the phone was the senior partner of a small but blue chip consulting firm I had recently interned with. “Amiel,” he said in his Georgia accent. “We have a job for you.”
Thus, at age 22, began my apprenticeship in leadership development and organizational change. My job was to manage contracts with a dozen clients, serve as point person for three executive search processes, and oversee operations for a week-long executive development program. In spare moments, I read everything I could on the office’s bookshelves and pulled my mentors aside to ask them what it all meant. In this sink-or-swim experience, I swam, but not without gulping down a lot of water.
Shift into executive coaching
After getting an MBA and then running my own consulting business for several years, I decided to get into executive coaching. This shift, around the turn of the millennium, happened for three reasons:
- I got frustrated. Even the best week-long leadership programs have little long-term impact. Without ongoing support, most participants returned to their old habits. Surely, I thought, there’s got to be a better way to support people than this.
- People started asking. First it was a friend who got dumped by his girlfriend and spent a week camped out on my couch, wondering what had happened. Then it was young sustainability professionals seeking advice on career changes. Then it was mid-career executives wanting support for taking on larger and more complex roles. One by one, people started asking for me to coach them.
- The work was meaningful. After a couple dozen coaching engagements under my belt, I realized that helping leaders improve their skills and find more meaning in their lives is immensely satisfying. So I doubled down and haven’t looked back since.
Return to organization-wide work
For a decade, my work with clients was almost exclusively one-on-one coaching. This experience allowed me to hone my skills, deepen my presence, and adapt my approach to the person and situation. Both the Enneagram and what I call conversational micro-habits became core to my work. As I partnered with increasingly senior executives, I developed confidence in my ability to work with any person in any size organization facing any range of challenges—provided, of course, that they wanted to grow.
This intense period of one-on-one work led to a surprising realization: I missed working with leadership teams on organization-wide issues. Fortunately, this epiphany coincided with several organizations requesting such engagements. In nearly every case, before working with the team I had coached its leader for six months or more. This sequence—first the leader, then the team—allowed us to start the wider work in a deeper and more grounded place.
This happened for two reasons: first, as the leader grew, their assessment of the situation shifted from a distorted projection of their own personality to more “realistic” sense-making ; second, team members witnessed the leader’s growth and got inspired to follow suit. For all our society’s acclaim for role-modeling, it’s still underestimated!
Although I continue to accept a range of engagements, my sweet spot has come into clear focus: First, coach the leader of a team. Then, if there’s interest and a genuine opportunity to have impact, work with the team as a whole.
I continue to adapt my approach to the people and situation. Having said that, both the Enneagram and conversation micro-habits almost always enter the picture. They allow me to offer what my clients value: an actionable, customized approach to developing people and improving the organization.