People who worked directly with Sally were left with an overriding sense of someone who had not anywhere near fulfilled her potential. She first came to work for a major UK restaurant chain on a junior talent program, and after graduating she stayed on in the marketing department. Over the 15 years since, she has been a consistent performer in individual and junior management roles. It hasn’t always been easy. Through that time her department has had a high churn rate as the business has struggled to deliver strong results.
During these years Sally has married, had children, and moved to a part-time role. Her colleagues would describe Sally as highly competent, hardworking, and reliable—but on a bad day they might also say she is highly dependent and avoidant of conflict. The net result is quiet compliance and acceptance of others’ (sometimes clearly wrong) direction.
Fear is an understandable reaction to working for many years in a department with many cycles of public “failure” and rapid changes in leadership. Sally had also worked with a number of high striving, controlling, and approval-seeking leaders. In response, she has deployed a survival strategy of “don’t rock the boat” and stayed safely in her comfort zone.
It has worked for her—in the sense that she still has a job, but the personal cost has been high.
Templates Past Their Use-By Date
The management team recognized the long-term challenges the business faced and adopted an “in it together” approach to transforming the business. They brought in the Heartstyles methodology as a shared language and a system to develop more productive leaders and teams.
At the same time, Sally reached a new phase in her home life and was ready to refocus her energy towards building her career. During 1-2-1 sessions with us (with lots of encouragement needed), Sally started to share her underlying frustration that she had not achieved what she had aspired to in her career. Formerly satisfied with the status quo, she was starting to feel frustrated and even depressed by what felt like repeated rejections, as others not so competent were promoted around her.
Together over six months, we explored very honestly why Sally’s career had not progressed. She started to realize that she was the one in control of her destiny, and she had for a long time been in survival mode, not thrive mode.
Sally began to recognize her barriers were nothing to do with experience, functional expertise, or changing her role to part-time (all of the reasons her denial based self-talk had offered). In truth, she was holding herself back due to her own self-limiting thinking and behavior based on out-of-date templates about “how to get on” in a business which had completely evolved around her.
Her personal motivation and the change in the business culture came together at the perfect time for Sally to enter a “new season” in her life and career.
Using the Heartstyles framework, week by week we unpacked specific situations from the previous week that had triggered Sally’s behavior from above to below the line, and discussed specific actions to lift Sally’s thinking from follower to leader. In every meeting we tasked Sally with observing the behaviors of people she respected because they got things done in a constructive way.
Sally started to transform before everyone’s eyes. Her body language, tone of voice, and overall approach became far more confident. Her progress was not without setbacks: in situations when things were going wrong Sally would default to dependent behavior. In analyzing those situations later, we used questioning like: “What do you think?” or “If you were advising someone what would you say?” Over time, the anchor phrases have become a mutually understood code. Sally smiles now whenever we say, “What is the worst that can happen?” knowing that it is code for “Heads up, no fear needed here.”
Eventually, Sally reached a plateau of a “new normal.” Organizationally the restaurant chain had some senior changes and decided to offer Sally a double step promotion opportunity to take a “Head of” position. The role was designed to enable Sally to keep working part-time with a healthy work-life balance while giving her the challenge that she needed. However, to Sally the opportunity felt like a terrifying leap. Initially she turned it down—she felt it was too big a risk and it triggered all of her legacy fear-based templates. We applied a bit of tough love, and with a combination of encouragement and compassion she finally agreed to accept the role. Sally has not looked back since.
Timing is everything. Sally was ready for development; we have had less successful outcomes in what (on the surface) appear similar cases but the individual was not ready to face their fears. Now, Sally is strengthening her own coaching skills to enable her to pass on her learning to her team members.