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Serving the Business and Professional Community since 1983! 

N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.

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The Executive Coaching Corner:  Now in Session


Note:  This is another departure from my previous blogs.  Instead of being a 2-minute read, it's a 5 minute read.  The piece is a compelling executive coaching case study that has far reaching implication for you, your friends and your loved ones.  I hope you find it worth the the extra few minutes.  If you have a moment after you read it, please share your thoughts and email me a note!

July 1, 2013: Never Ignore a Blow to the Head!

I was somewhat bewildered when a client called late one Friday afternoon.  It was very uncharacteristic of him to call without an appointment, since he is such an organized scheduled person.

“What a surprise to hear from you—especially so late in the day on a Friday. Is everything all right?”  I asked.

 “Yes, everything is great—very busy, but great.  I’m getting ready to go out of town, but wanted to talk with you briefly.  One of my guys is having trouble and I thought you could help,” he responded.

“Trouble?” I asked.

“Yes, I think he is suffering from some of the issues I had, when we first began coaching.  His name is Alan. He heads up one of our divisions.  Could you set up a meeting with him next week and see if you can help him?  I’ll send both of you emails so the two of you can connect,” he said.

“Of course, I’ll do what I can,” I confirmed.

The following week I met with Alan, a warm and friendly executive is in his mid-50s.  First he gave me the history of his career and then talked about his working relationship with the president.  They had worked at a previous organization several years ago and were presently working together again in the current company. 

“So what’s going on now?” I asked.

His voice lowered and his smile faded as he informed me that he was struggling to find his way.  He explained that the company was in a high growth mode with lots of pressure.  It had been accelerating its acquisition activity, while at the same time attempting to maintain a leading edge market position for new product development.  In previous companies he had always been highly successful in his roles.    In this case with the flurry of acquisitions, his original role had changed and he felt pulled away from his core function.  This left him somewhat isolated and generally unhappy.  He claimed he really didn’t know where he really fit organizationally any more.  It became increasingly difficult as things were constantly changing and the pace was increasing.  Activity and change hadn’t bothered him before; but now he was feeling lackluster and generally disengaged.

At first I thought he was like many executives who have been elevated and were no longer in the “scrum”—a Rugby term he used to explain being in the midst of things.  Often when these executives aren’t using their technical skills in their broader roles, they feel like they aren’t contributing at the same level.  They worry they are getting rusty.  This often leads to isolation, boredom and ultimately depression.  Thus, I considered helping him with a reframing technique to get back on track.  By adjusting his perspective, he could see that although he may have been partially  selected for his current job based on  his technical skill,  his experience of guiding the design teams to success was what really prepared him for his expanded role--a role that  could significantly contribute to the overall growth of the current company. 

As we talked further he mentioned a lack of focus and disinterest, a real sadness and a feeling of loss—like he was losing himself.  He asked me to review his recent 360 feedback report. The report revealed that his peers saw him as the absent minded professor, forgetful, inattentive and unfocused in meetings, getting too detailed sometimes, and then oppositely shooting from the hip.  After reading this, something just didn’t feel right to me.  Did I need to refer him to a psychologist in addition to general coaching?  Or was this something else?  So I let my intuition be my guide.  Before embarking upon a typical coaching protocol, I decided to take a risk and went in a very different direction. 

At our next meeting, I said, “I think we need to rule out anything physical before we go very deep into coaching mode.  We can still do some general behavioral and values assessments, but I don’t want to go much further than that.  Is it okay if I ask you some questions about your health?” 

“Sure,” he responded with a quizzical look on his face.

“These feelings you are having could be related to a hormone imbalance,” I began matter-of-factly. “So, when was the last time you had your testosterone checked?” 

He stared at me for a moment with a raised eyebrow, as I clarified my question. “I ask this because low testosterone often can impact mental sharpness, assertion, and so forth.”

“Actually, I just had it checked during my physical and it is within normal ranges,” he answered

“How about your general blood work?” I continued.

“All normal” he answered.

“Good,” I said.  “Now I’m going to talk about something that is somewhat unconventional.  “You may or may not find this acceptable, but I’m going to provide you with the information.  You can reflect on it and decide what you want to do.”

I then explained that he may be a candidate for neuro-feedback.  I suggested he consider having his brain mapped, using a non-invasive procedure, akin to an EEG.  I further explained that this procedure may determine if anything could be impacting his ability to focus.  If so, he could undergo neuro-feedback training to help him get back on track.  I shared my own experience with this training and how it helped me with some memory issues.  Then I encouraged him to get the book Biofeedback for the  Brain by Paul Swingle so he could make an informed decision.

“Now for the bad news,” I began.  “Be aware that your insurance company probably will not cover this, and it is very unlikely that your company will either.  Mapping usually runs around $500 and treatments between $100 to $150.  You could require as many as 30 sessions to yield results.  The person I’m going to recommend is highly skilled.  He also works with the VA with PTSD patients.  In his private practice he deals with a broad variety of brain issues such as ADD, ADHD, autism, or Asperger’s.  I have great confidence in him.  He certainly helped me.”

Alan shrugged.  “At this point, I am willing to try anything,” he replied in a skeptical but resigned tone.  Then he made his appointment. 

During Alan’s appointment, as part of the intake the doctor asked him if he had ever suffered any brain injuries.  Alan told him he never had any experiences that would fall into that category. 

However, after the mapping procedure was complete and upon interpreting the results, the doctor said, “It’s interesting that you say you have never had a brain injury.”  Then he touched the right side of Alan’s head by his temple and commented, “Because right here, the report shows that you have somehow experienced a traumatic brain injury.”

Alan’s jaw dropped as he had a sudden memory flashback.  “Oh my gosh!  About 18 months ago I was “umping” a baseball game and got hit on the right side of my head by baseball at that very spot!  In fact, I blacked out.  I came to pretty quickly and felt okay, so I just got up, shook it off and said ‘play ball. I was a little sore on my right temple, but I never thought anything about it—no big deal.  But now that I think back on this, about two weeks after that incident, I started having all these focus problems, which have continued for the past year and half.  I never put the two together until now!"

For Alan, knowing that there was an actual physical cause for his lack of focus and overall malaise was liberating.  He was so relieved to know he wasn’t losing his grip—that there was a real cause for these dreadful feelings.  To understand why he was feeling so mentally sluggish and inattentive coupled with the hope that there was treatment available helped to lift the shroud of worry he had borne all these months.  On one hand, he couldn’t wait to get started on treatment.  On the other hand, being an engineer, he maintained a clear skepticism.  Was this neuro-feedback stuff really going to work?

The doctor set up a treatment plan that involved some supplements, increased cardio activity, and twice daily meditation to help with the healing of his brain.  Alan then began his neuro-feedback training to help retrain his brain that had been overworked and stressed from compensating for the injury. 

Alan had never meditated, and asked me if I would teach him.  I had learned Transcendental Meditation (TM) years ago and but had gotten away from it.  I knew that simple relaxation CDs or like would do the trick so I did some research on binaural beats to keep it simple, and purchased a series of CDs for him.  Then I explained the process and told him I would be his accountability partner to ensure he stuck to it.  Simultaneously he began his neuro-feedback treatments.

After about his fifth or sixth neuro-feedback training session, we met for one of our regular coaching appointments.  He was waiting for me in the lobby and was all smiles.  His face looked more alive than I had ever seen it, and his eyes were twinkling.

“How are you feeling?” I asked

"I feel GREAT! " he exclaimed

"Wonderful!  Can you be more specific?" I asked eager to learn more.

“I just don’t feel like I’m living in a fog anymore.   I am able to follow the conversations and contribute in meetings.  I just gave a presentation to the group that was well received, and my boss said the other day that he feels like he’s got the old Alan back," he added as his grin widened

Alan still has more training sessions to go until he reaches full recovery and is making steady progress.  I have encouraged him to take it slow.  With this new surge of clarity, he felt ready to take on the world, but I cautioned him resist this inclination.  I suggested he wait until his treatment is complete. 

This was a major win.  First, from a personal standpoint, I was so pleased and happy he had improved.  Secondly, I am grateful that I had the foresight to recognize his case was more than just a standard coaching engagement.  Finally, and equally gratifying was that I was even aware of neuro-feedback and had a competent resource to help him overcome the problem.  I am part of a neuroscience study group that does brain-based coaching and that is where I met the neuro-feedback practitioner and used myself to check him out before referring him to a client. 

Key Points: 

The final and  extremely important key point that resulted from this experience is that it also points out a major lesson we all need to heed:  NEVER NEVER NEVER, ignore a blow to the head!  Always get it checked out or serious consequences can develop.  They can range from the diminished cognitive capacity that Alan experienced to the horror of death.  Do you remember what happened to Liam Neeson’s wife, actress Natasha Richardson?  She was in a skiing accident, hit her head, said she was fine, and died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage.  The critical lesson here is that although you may feel fine at the moment it is not evidence you are okay.  If you sustain any form of a head injury, always have it checked out by a competent doctor, no matter what.  Your life may depend on it!

Did this resonate with you?  Please share your thoughts and email me a note!

For additional one to two-minute sessions on other topics,  go to the Executive Coaching Corner Archive.