CHAPTER 28 – Teaching Pigs to Sing

Dan and Carla have a 1-1 Meeting

Dan and Carla Meet

Dan waited for Carla in the conference room.  She arrived carrying a notebook and a thermos of coffee.

“Hi, Dan,” said Carla, taking a seat next to him.  She wore cotton slacks, a golf shirt, and leather running shoes to this and almost any meeting.  People said she carried her weight well, but Dan thought that missed the point.  He’d seen her on the tennis court.  With her stocky frame, she managed to cover the court efficiently, and she moved like a cat at the net.  But it was her serve that demonstrated how much power she could unleash.

“Hi, Carla,” he said, turning toward her.

Dan thanked her for having taken the time to give feedback to Michele.  He told her about the significant themes from the feedback and asked for her comments.

“Dan, we’ve known each other for a long time.  You don’t have to be so formal with me.  Why don’t you just tell me what you want to work on, and we’ll talk?”

“Sounds good, Carla.”  He pulled the chart from a folder, handed it to her and said, “These are the five key behaviors that I’m working on.”

Reading aloud, she said,

Context: in meetings with senior executives, where Dan’s direct reports are presenting data…

Dan…A: (Old Behavior) interrupts his report and takes over the presentation.  Result: The direct report feels publicly humiliated in front of his or her superiors, unmotivated to make future presentations, and perceives the working environment as oppressive.

Or, B: (New Behavior) Dan allows his direct report to present the data and handle all follow-up questions.  Dan only comments if his direct report truly needs help and in that case he is both supportive and honest.”

“I’ll take B any day,” said Carla.  “I know Peter would, too.”

“That’s what I’m shooting for.”

“This sounds good on paper, here in our private, calm conversation.  We’ve had a lot of beers at Dempsey’s a few days after you’ve blown it.  You were nice and rational then.  Do you think you can pull it off when you’re in a critical meeting and you see data that is wrong or a slide that makes you want to scream?”

“That’s the only time it counts,” he said.

“You know that one about why you shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing?”

“I have a feeling I’m going to hear it.”

“Well, that’s why I’m working with Michele.  She makes her living teaching pigs to sing. Carla, take another look at the chart and see what else pertains to you.”

Carla began reading.  At first, she skimmed.  Then, she slowed down and mouthed the words as she read.

“I like this one,” she said.

In meetings with his staff, Dan adopts the following leadership style…

A: (Old Behavior) listens to status reports, one at a time, processes the data, and tells each individual staff member how to proceed

B: (New Behavior) Dan states the frame and the rationale for the meeting.  When appropriate, he helps team members understand the project more broadly, beyond their own contributions and concerns.  He encourages the group to collectively look at their interdependencies and how they might help each other.   He invites the team to brainstorm and build on each other’s ideas.  Dan encourages the contributions of others before he states his own opinions.  As much as possible, he relies on the emerging wisdom of the team.  If he needs to make a decision contrary to their ideas, he says so and gives the rationale.  He may be open to discussion on these decisions.  In this way, he builds the team’s capacity to function at a higher level of autonomy and develops team members into future leaders.

“Now, that’s good,” said Carla.  “That would make my life much better.”

“According to Michele, it would make everyone’s life better, including mine.  How would it affect you?”

“I see things that you don’t, Dan.  I could’ve told you that the milestones you set for this project were way too aggressive.  You over-promised and we, predictably, under-delivered.  We ended up feeling oppressed by unreachable goals.  I tried to say something about the deadlines, but you brushed it aside.”

“I know, I remember that.”

“If you’d engaged us in the decision making we would have had more realistic goals and we would have been more committed to them.”

“Yes, that would have saved us a lot of grief.  Let’s see if we can operate,in the new way going forward.”

“Dan, I feel like you’re sincere in wanting to change, but even if you pull it off, it may take a little while before people come out of their defensive crouches.”

“I’m planning to have a two-day off site meeting where we redesign how our team functions.  Hopefully, that will help us all reset.”

“We could use a reset right about now.  By the way, I think Peter could use some TLC.  He’s not a happy camper.”

“Is there anything specific I should know?”

“Nothing that you can’t get from talking with him directly.  But if you want to keep him, a little appreciation from you will go a long way.”

“Thanks, Carla.”

“One more thing.  Whatever you and Michele are doing, in spite of what I said before, I see a difference.”

“As the lead singing pig, I appreciate that.”

Click here to read Chapter 29.

 How is Dan progressing? Do you think he can change? Let us know in the comments.

Click here to start reading Chapter 1 of Dragons at Work now.

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Bill Ryan’s Interview on Chapter 7

Dragons-at-work-chapter-7-Bill-RyanBill Ryan, co-director of Toward Harmony Tai Chi & Qigong in Northampton, Massachusetts, has been practicing, teaching and learning Chinese movement and healing arts for over thirty years. He specializes in the healing aspects of the arts. In addition to teaching, he has an active private practice seeing clients and using “qigong tuina bodywork” to help people regain their health. Tuina means push-pull, qigong means energy development.

SJ: In Chapter 7 of Dragons at Work, Michele teaches Dan about relaxation and ease. Bill, what are your thoughts about what Michele shows Dan?

BR: What’s most striking is that the coach (Michele) is actually giving Dan a method with which to relax. Too often we’re told, “Well, you should relax,” but the process of how we relax is not well understood, at least in our culture. In Chinese culture they’ve been studying the art of how to relax for many thousands of years and have developed those capacities to a very high degree.

SJ: How is she teaching Dan to relax?

BR: She’s primarily working with what we call “pulsing” the body. Pulsing is one of the most fundamental phenomena of life, right? Everything pulses, from the stars to amoebas, and we’re no different than everything else in nature. By directly influencing Dan’s hand to begin to stimulate and regain its natural pulsing capacities, that influences the whole body through the nervous system. The hands have a lot of nerves in them, so the signals or pulsing that you establish in the hands are translated back through the whole body through the nervous system, as well as through the fluids of the body. In qigong tuina the fluids of the body are considered to be key building blocks that influence our ability to relax and be healthy.

SJ: Could you say more about that?

BR: We often use young children as an example. We say, “Oh, if you learn to move in waves like a young child, you’ll move in a very relaxed way.” Or, “If you move fluidly like a natural athlete…” but most of us don’t have that experience. And we’ve forgotten what it was like to move like a child.

So Michele is giving her client (Dan) an opportunity to experience what fluid wave movement feels like in the body. Rather than a muscular contraction and holding it’s more of an effortless pulsation. The truth is, we knew this as children. We’re really reintroducing ease into the nervous system, and for that reason, it’s quite easy to assimilate. Given a choice, we adopt what feels natural and healthful.

SJ: How is that used in healing?

BR: Well, one of the things that happens to people, particularly in our culture where we sit a lot of the time or when we suffer from injuries, is that the body becomes stagnant or stiff and frozen in some way. The natural pulsations of the body are forgotten or diminished. So this practice gently stimulates the natural pulsing in the body. A central principle of Chinese medicine is: if you stimulate the body to regain its capacities to move naturally, both physically and energetically, then health follows. So Michele’s working with the joints of Dan’s fingers is a primary practice within our tradition of qigong tuina.

If you can get your hands and feet to pulse that way, and then join that with your breathing, all the body systems kick in. You’re then on your way towards health and relaxation again. The main focus, at this point, is getting him to relax, and she’s picked a wonderful place to start that process with him.

SJ: There are many breathing techniques and some of them are rather forceful. In my experience, the more forceful they are, the less they will help you relax. Michele wants Dan to use the experience of ease in his hand as a model of how it feels to take an effortless breath.

BR:Yes. One of the things the Chinese found is that if you want to relax, you move rhythmically, moderately, and continuously, so that you’re never holding the breath or anything else. Holding creates tension. As one my teacher’s teachers used to say, “You become what you practice.” For me, that says it all. If you practice tension, you’ll get tension. If you practice relaxation, you’ll get relaxation.

SJ: Another thing that she’s teaching him is not to go to extremes. He’s not inhaling or exhaling to his full capacity.

BR: Exactly. If you go all the way to the point of strain, you build tension into your system. Always stay within what we call the “70 percent” range of motion. This means that you’re fully engaged but never exerting past your point of comfort and ease. In this way, your capacity, your range of motion, naturally increases. It’s the opposite of “No pain, no gain,” and it brings home what we often hear in Chinese philosophy: “Less is more.”

SJ: The idea of pain in pursuit of gain is counter-productive for another reason. It’s inefficient.

BR: Exactly. If you go to that extreme position, you have to actually put in energy just to maintain it. Whereas, if you can create in a system a wave pattern that is in constant rhythmic motion, it just continues, efficiently and unimpeded. This natural pulsing capacity creates a soft and sustaining energy without strain. As we’ll see in a later chapter it can also generate tremendous power in the martial arts.

SJ: I’d like to talk about the work that you do with people. Once you’ve awakened this capacity in someone what else can you do with them that moves them to further heal or revitalize?

BR: Well, one of the things that you do with the pulsing… For example, where she started with just the hand, if you do that enough, then because of the way the fluids in the body are connected to each other, you’ll naturally start to cause the wrist to start to pulse; the elbow to start to pulse; to work back into the internal organs and gently massage and pulse them; to release places in the neck or shoulders or spine that have become bound because they just relax and start to let go.

So from the hand you can actually (if you’re a skilled practitioner) awaken every single other part of the body. And that’s something that from a health standpoint or healing standpoint can be extremely valuable in allowing you to gently wake up parts of the body that have become traumatized or just have stopped working because they’ve not been used enough.

SJ: I imagine that if someone has trouble in their shoulder or neck, that not going directly to the shoulder or neck is actually a better way to get that to release.

BR: It’s often the key, because this pulsing is also designed to stimulate what the Chinese call the “chi” of the body. The chi is just the energy that we wake up with everyday and say, “Oh, I have a lot of energy,” or “I don’t have much energy today.” But it’s this energy that gives the body the information on how to organize itself. And to be healthy your chi has to flow all the way through your whole system; all the way out through your hands, feet and head, and all the way back deep inside your organs, spine and brain.

So if you only work on the shoulder, but you don’t open up all the associated other areas and pathways of the body through a technique like pulsing (there are many other related techniques that you can use), then that spot will open for a while … but then it will close back down.

So this ability to get the whole body awakened and connected in order to allow one place to heal or to open is a very important principal in qigong exercise and qigong tuina. You go from the small to the big and the big to the small. You’re always going back and forth between the whole system and then the particular place.

SJ: I understand that you teach Dragon and Tiger qigong, and opening and closing is a part of that.

BR: In our tradition, Dragon & Tiger is our introductory qigong set that can help prepare one for learning pulsing and it’s a wonderful introduction to learning how to relax. In Dragon & Tiger we primarily teach a practice that we call bending and releasing. You can begin that process (anyone can) by just gently curling your fingers and then extending them a little bit, just curling and then extending. It stops shy of actually being able to get your mind’s feeling awareness inside your hand to directly open and close your finger joints but it’s a bit easier to start with.

A major practice within Dragon and Tiger qigong is to have the hands and the feet come alive. And that eventually enables you to open and close the joints yourself. In this chapter Michele works with Dan to get him started.

SJ: I understand it also moves energy along various energy lines or meridians in the body…

BR: Yes. As you bend and release your hands in this way (letting your hands flow in and out) you’re actually pulling energy in and out of your hands naturally. It’s happening all the time when you move that way. And as you do that you also move your hands in certain patterns across your body in your energetic field to stimulate the acupuncture meridians and other energy channels in the body. So through doing the seven movements of Dragon and Tiger, you can basically give yourself the equivalent of an acupuncture treatment in ten or fifteen minutes of exercise a day; or even as little as five minutes, if that’s all you have.

The nice thing about Dragon and Tiger as an introductory qigong set is that you learn all these important principles of movement and relaxation and continuity and rhythm; but you can learn it and do the movements really badly and still get great results. So you can be relaxed while you’re learning, because you don’t have to care about getting something really well from the start.

SJ: That’s great. Tai chi, in contrast, requires a lot of precision in getting the angles and the postures just right.

BR: Exactly. In tai chi there are a fair number of complex movements and if you don’t do them pretty well, you don’t get much of the benefit. My teacher is Bruce Frantzis and his company is called Energy Arts. After he learned this particular Dragon and Tiger set he said, “This is the best introductory qigong set I’ve ever found because it provides the largest immediate return on investment of time spent learning and practicing.”

SJ: You referred to “return on investment,” and Dan, the hero in our story, works in the business world. I know from your background that you also worked in that realm and that it was quite stressful. How can qigong help with the stress of the workplace?

BR: I initially worked as an environmental consultant to corporations and then after doing my graduate work at MIT I worked for a decade for environmental groups as a technical and legal expert. Throughout those years I was working seventy to eighty hours a week, just like many people do these days. I’d be dead, I think, today, if I hadn’t learned these practices.

When I first started taking classes to learn the practices, they used to call me the “man of steel.” And fellow students would beat on my shoulders to try to get me to let them go. At the beginning I wore shirts with 34-inch sleeves, but as I practiced and relaxed over the years (even while working those crazy hours) I got to the point where I had 38-inch sleeves…

SJ: Wow…(Laughing)

BR: …My shoulders had relaxed and dropped so much that I had to have custom-made shirts to wear with my suits. So even with the stressful workload, I learned to not only be relaxed but also to transform my body from one of being extremely tight to one of being very flexible. I started when I was twenty-six. I’m fifty-six now and I’m much more flexible and have far greater capacities, even athletically, than I did when I was twenty-six. That’s a good thing to be able to say.

SJ: And you also used to be a swimmer, right?

BR: Swimmer, runner, and basketball player. I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was a good athlete. And when I got to be twenty-six, I found that I couldn’t improve at those sports. Then, when I found tai chi and eventually qigong, I discovered Oh, I can just keep getting better at this. And that’s continued throughout the thirty years. Every day when I get up and practice, I know that I can do it better than I did the day before. My body is more relaxed, more comfortable. It hasn’t allowed me to become an immortal. Something will get me eventually, but I’m in far better shape than I was all those years ago when I started.

SJ: That’s an amazing thing to be able to say; that thirty years later you actually have better range of motion and more fluidity in your body than you did when you were twenty-six.

BR: Oh, far more, far more. Like I said, I was very tight. But I’ve seen this happen with many people who practice these arts. Most of the people that I teach have come in injured in some way. And if they resonate with the arts, the practices of this particular approach to relaxation and health, you often see them transform themselves.

I have one client who had been partially paralyzed from a roofing accident. They told him he’d always be limited in what he could do, but somehow he got started in another qigong system and began to redevelop his capacities. Then he came to us and now you wouldn’t believe what he’s able to do. He looks like a totally functional human being and is in much better shape than most people who are fifty-five years old like he is now.

Of course, our system isn’t for everybody, but there are many tai chi and qigong systems out there. The key is you’ve got to find the system and the teachers that work really well for you.

SJ: So if people want to know more they can go to your website. Do you have Dragon and Tiger instructional material that people can use at home?

BR: From our website,, you can link to my teacher, Bruce Frantzis’, website, At Bruce sells a lot of home study materials. He has a good package on Dragon and Tiger qigong, as well as an excellent DVD on breathing. The Dragon & Tiger package includes the book, the DVD and a poster of the movements of Dragon and Tiger. It’s a great set of introductory materials to these practices.

SJ: Thanks, Bill. It’s great to get your insight from your many years of teaching people how to deeply relax and build their vitality.

Did you miss the previous chapter?

Stephen Comments On How To Design the Coaching Relationship

Dragons At Work Weekly Wrap UpIn Chapters 4-6 Dan decides to hire a coach and he interviews three coaches before he makes his choice.

There are multiple outcomes for a first meeting with a potential client. Most important is to provide the richest set of experiences possible, so the client can make an informed decision. Many executives haven’t worked with a coach, so they’re unfamiliar with the interview process. But they are familiar with job interviews, and they may want to interview the coach the way they would a prospective employee. Although they may feel comfortable and in control doing it this way, it won’t give them the information they need to make a good choice.

I believe a coach needs to persuasively invite the client to, as Michele says, roll up his or her sleeves and have a brief working session. There is no substitute for the direct experience of working together.

Of the three coaches, Michele succeeds in engaging Dan. She sidesteps his request for a theoretical conversation and using humor, she gently confronts him: Does he want to work or not?

The first coach makes the mistake of acting like a consultant. It’s helpful to have pertinent technical knowledge, but the real job of the coach is to develop the client. Simply offering technical advice, especially to someone who’s already an expert, is a losing proposition.

The second coach loses control of the meeting. She falls into the trap of answering Dan’s questions. His behavior unmistakably tells her that he doesn’t care about the questions or the answers. Instead of addressing that head on, she talks about what holds interest for neither of them.

To begin their coaching, Michele asks Dan what questions about the project are on his mind. He floods her with questions. Dan becomes frustrated with her when she says, “Those are all good questions.” He wants answers. Of course, Michele would be foolish to provide answers for two reasons. First, she has no answers. Second, even if she had great answers, Dan, who has yet to begin any self reflection, wouldn’t be able to understand or assimilate them. Michele’s job is to provide the framework and act as a catalyst for
Dan’s inquiry so the coaching reveals what he needs to know.

Michele also uses the interview to test if Dan can follow her breathing instructions and calm down. His response tells her that he may be able to take advantage of her expertise in mind-body disciplines.

After a sleepless night, he chooses her over the other two coaches.


For Executives: To choose the best coach for yourself…

  1. Be transparent and hold nothing back in an initial working session. That will allow you to check out the coach’s real competencies.
  2. If you have questions about the process, ask the coach directly, rather than making private assumptions and judgments. The coach’s responses will help you decide whether or not to hire that coach.
  3. Chemistry is important. Trust your gut. You’ll spend a good amount of time together, and the coach has to be someone you can respect and collaborate with.

For Human Resource Executives: In choosing coaches for your executives…

  1. Coaching is a profession without entry barriers and few recognized credentials. Check the coach’s background and experience.
  2. Make sure that your coach knows how to deliver results so that evidence of success is apparent to key stakeholders. It’s even better if the coach is schooled in how to quantify results and offer a business rationale that speaks to your company’s strategic goals.
  3. Make sure there is a true ROI for coaching. Coaching should deliver a return that is worth 10 to 20 times your investment. If that is not the case, consider alternatives.

For Coaches: In choosing clients… (it’s much the same as for the executive choosing you)

  1. Be transparent and hold nothing back in a working session. That will allow you to check out how the client responds to your approach, and it will deepen your connection with them.
  2. If you have questions about the client’s responses, ask the client directly. Your job is to make sure the client gets the best coach, and it may not be you. So, inquire and be ready to refer.
  3. Chemistry is important. Trust your gut. If you don’t think this client is a good fit for how you work, be honest and offer alternatives. You need to coach people who are a great match for you. If you give that value primacy it will best serve your clients and your business.
  4. Make sure you have a strong working partnership with your internal HR partner. S/he can provide you with background and onsite observations you can’t get any other way.

Question for Reflection: If you had the opportunity to work with a wise and skillful coach, what would you tell the coach about yourself and your goals that would lead you to the core of what your coaching would be about?

In the next chapters we’ll see Michele and Dan dive into their coaching work. Intrigue, more tools and useful stories are to come.

Stay tuned.

Did you miss the previous chapter?

CHAPTER 6 – Dan’s Choice

Dragons At Work Chapter 6 - Dans ChoiceBetween brief bouts of exhausted sleep, Dan contemplated hiring a coach.

Could he afford the time? He was over scheduled as it was. He imagined Janice and Maggie visiting him in the hospital, worried and trying not to let it show. In the darkness of their bedroom, Janice sleeping soundly beside him, he ran future scenarios.

By the time he abandoned the idea of sleep and began his day, he decided to hire Michele.

Click here to read Chapter 7.

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CHAPTER 5 – Two Executive Coaches Voted Off the Island

Dragons At Work Chapter 5 - Two Executive Coaches Voted Off the IslandTwo coaches struck out with Dan. The first, a thoughtful man, positioned himself as an Information Technology expert, and presumably a natural fit for Dan’s needs. He offered his own ideas on restructuring the project, but Dan’s careful questioning revealed this coach was out of his depth. “Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” the coach said in summation. “It’s a bear of a project.” No shit, Dan almost said.

Because Dan was in no mood for meeting the second coach, he flooded her with a cascade of questions about the value of coaching, her training, and how coaching actually worked. Did she get paid by the project? By the hour? Would she attend meetings? Shadow him? Had she ever coached someone through a project like this?

The coach launched into what might have been a credible defense had Dan been listening. Instead, he thumbed his Blackberry: Re: Tuesday. No, don’t meet with freddy’s team until I see what u propose. must sync with carla’s team. call me @ 3.

He looked up. She was silent, probably had been that way for a minute or two. “Do you conduct all your meetings this way?” she asked, a vertical line deepening on her brow. Under the table, her foot shook while Dan continued texting: 4’s better.

“Sorry,” Dan finally said. “What were you saying?”

“Tell you what. Obviously, you’re busy. I understand you’re meeting with one more coach. Why don’t you get back to me when you’ve made your decision?”

The third coach was Asian. Jet black hair framed her face in a simple cut – elegant and functional. To Dan, she appeared to be twenty-five, then again she might be forty. She wore tailored black pants and a simple fitted white blouse with an upturned collar.

“Hello, Dan. I’m Michele Wu. I’ll be your coach today,” she said, deadpan.

“I guess you know you’re the last of three,” he said.

“Yes. Did you like the others?”

“I was unimpressed.”

“How come?” said Michele.

“The first guy had his own mediocre ideas about how I should run the project. I can’t remember much about the second coach, and frankly, I don’t have time for this conversation, either.”

“Sounds like you don’t want a coach.”

“Tell me how a coach is supposed to help.” said Dan.

“I can do better than that. You and I can roll up our sleeves and have a brief working session. At the end, you’ll know whether I can help and if it’s worth your time. Want to give it a try?”

Dan looked at Michele. He had dealt with many salespeople in his twenty years in business. Nothing salesy about her.

“Why don’t you tell me about your background first?” he said.

“OK. Blah, blah, blah – Stanford. Blah, blah – MIT. Blah, blah – eighteen years of coaching experience. Now, do you want to work or not?”

Dan smiled. “I’m on unfamiliar ground here,” he said. “You start.”

“All right,” she said. “What questions have occupied your mind lately?”

“What do you mean?”

“This project is important to your company. From what Marcia told me, CSI has a lot riding on it. They chose you to head it up, and it’s not going well. Yes? I imagine you have questions about this.”

Dan nodded.

“Yes, I’ve got a question. Every project I’ve ever been assigned to I delivered the results on time and on spec. This is like a freakin’ hydra. You take care of one problem and five more come at you from out of nowhere. I think I’ve got something solved, and then weeks later I find my solution just won’t work. Every day I get out my hammer and nail a new piece of Jello to the wall.”

“What’s your question?” she said.

“Why is this falling apart? Why can’t I get people to think? Why can’t I get good information from them? Why can’t they just do their freaking jobs? What happened to standards, work ethic? Why am I the first one here every morning and the last one to go? Why is that?”

“Those are all excellent questions,” said Michele.

Dan frowned. “What are you, some kind of consultant?” he said. “I need more than someone telling me I have excellent questions.”

“Yes, you do need more than that.”

Gesturing with both hands and speaking more loudly, he said, “Great. How is this supposed to help? I need results. I need to get control of this project, and get people off my back and stop second guessing me. How am I supposed to – ?”

Michele raised her hand, palm facing him at chest level. “Dan, stop…stop.”

He stared at her.

Notice how you feel right now: Wound up? Frustrated? Do you feel it in your body? In the muscles of your face?”


“That’s part of the problem. You like walking around like a coiled spring?”

“I don’t have to like how I feel. I have to get things done,” he said.

“They’re connected. Take a breath.”

“What’s that going to do?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet, but I do know the way you’re breathing now adds tension which interferes with clear thinking, and it’s bad for your health.”

Frowning, Dan audibly inhaled into his upper chest.

“OK,” she said. “Now exhale…slowly….now, another breath…good, keep breathing this way.”

The red started to fade from his face, and his expression softened slightly.

After a few more breaths, she said, “I want to give you a model to play with and then ask a question.” Sliding her hands apart on the table she said, “Imagine this is a continuum of energy – mental and physical. On one end is low energy – depression, apathy. On the other – a manic, driven, even angry energy. At both extremes of the continuum, people make bad choices. On the low energy end, they may not have enough juice to find alternatives. On the high end, they may seize only one solution and run with it. It’s in the middle zone where the number of intelligent choices goes up. Where do you fall on the continuum?

“Most of the time I’m a high energy guy. But I don’t usually make bad choices. And I’ll tell you this, I’d make better choices if I could get the right information,” said Dan.

“How are you going to get better information?”

“Keep demanding it, I guess. Maybe they’ll catch on.”

“Do you think people sit on bad news before they let you in on it? Do you ever shoot the messenger?”

“That’s been said about me, but it’s inaccurate. Sure, I can get upset. I demand excellence, and I express my frustration. What’s wrong with that? They shouldn’t take it personally. They get over it.”

“What’s your attrition rate?” she said.

“I lost 21% last of my people last year.”

“That’s a lot.”

“People who work for me know I’m not Mister Nice Guy. They know they’re going to get their butts kicked from time to time. But the survivors know how to assess a problem and solve it the way I do.”

“Is that how you learned?” she said.

“I was trained by a boss who should have been a Marine drill sergeant. I hated it, but I learned. I became his go-to guy when everyone else cowered in the corner.”

“Where is he now?”

“Unfortunately, he died a few years ago,” he said.

“Let me guess. A heart attack?”

“As a matter of fact, it was a massive stroke. No one saw it coming.”

“I’m sorry. Were you close?”

“About as close as you can get to a Gila monster. I admired him, though.”

“And did he send emails out at 2:00 AM like you do now?”

“Indeed, he did. He worked harder than I do. Nobody works like he did.”

“Sounds like hard work is a point of pride for you. Dan, I’m not here to ruin your work ethic or tone down your passion for excellence. No one can take that away from you. I can offer you new ways to achieve your goals that will build a smarter organization under you. Your leadership style adds a lot of friction to the machine, and I can help you remove the heat and operate far more efficiently. Are you interested?”

“Let me sleep on it.”

“With the little sleep you get?”

“Yes, with the little sleep I get. And now I have to get to a three o’clock meeting.”

“OK, I’ll wait to hear from you,” said Michele, standing up.

Dan got up and shook Michele’s hand. He grabbed his briefcase, and as he wheeled around to head for the door, his Blackberry, perched atop the briefcase, took to the air. Helplessly, he watched it in its arc toward the floor, hoping it would survive. Instantly, Michelle dropped low, spine straight, and with her left hand plucked it in flight, inches from impact. In one fluid motion she returned upright and handed the Blackberry to Dan.

“Sleep on it,” she said.

Click here to read Chapter 6.

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CHAPTER 4 – HR VP Finds an Opening

Dragons At Work HR VP Finds an OpeningMarcia surveyed the remains of the last meeting – styrofoam cups, crumpled paper, McDonalds wrappers, and plans for a phased rollout scrawled in blue and red dry erase marker on a whiteboard – signs of another team thrashing to meet its milestones. This was the Thoreau Room, one of many windowless meeting spaces. The HVAC register dispensed just enough air flow to support human respiration. Not exactly Walden Pond, she thought. But between meetings, it offered her a place to sit alone and take stock. As was often the case these past months, her thoughts turned to Dan Schaeffer.

No one could deny Dan’s knowledge of the Data Consolidation Project. His brain was hardwired to every detail and problem confronting the teams under his command. And this brain was truly a marvelous instrument, equipped with lightning processing power and seemingly endless memory. Supporters and detractors both acknowledged Dan’s intellectual capacity as “scary.”

At first, Dan’s commanding presence comforted the senior executives. They understood the critical importance of systematizing seventy-five years of chaotic insurance records – some of them centrally located, others in remote offices around the globe – in order to mine and manage the data efficiently. The success of the project was a matter of survival for California Sentinel Insurance, a mid-sized life and property company. Over the last year, its CEO, George Corbett, determined that a strategic investment in IT would yield a significant competitive advantage. Industry analysts concurred, and tracked the project’s progress at every investor relations meeting.

As the initiative gained visibility, it became ever more important that a strong leader deliver the project on time and on budget. Dan was the unanimous choice. But as problems spawned and mutated across organizations, Dan’s intellect, will, and drive seemed to come up short. Milestones slipped, and early attempts to bring parts of the new system online were embarrassingly substandard.

Dan’s response: work harder. Seventy hour weeks grew to eighty. He confided in Marcia that each morning he rolled out of bed at 5 AM, logged online, and ate breakfast with a Bluetooth headset grafted to his ear. Conference call voices swarmed in his head, following him into his car, and onto the freeway. At work, he hurled himself through a morass of meetings, juggling phone calls in the margins until he returned to his home office at night to get some “real work” done.

As VP of Human Resources, Marcia witnessed executives slip into downward spirals. Dan’s descent bore all the familiar signs, including office gossip with its now predictable refrains: Dan yells at people. Dan walks out of meetings. Dan won’t let anyone finish a sentence. What is it with Dan? He’s losing it.

Marcia knew Dan was not entirely at fault. Senior management bought into the project with its $4 million price tag. They spent a great deal of time looking over his shoulder and there were no early wins. As Dan’s team worked to make the system meet the specific needs of sales, customer service, and finance, they found it needed extensive custom programming. The added requirement of integrating five different legacy systems that had previously never talked to each other, presented intractable snarls. Much of the data needed to populate the new system had been low quality from the start. Garbage in and nothing reassuring coming out.

Prior to this project, he’d been the golden boy. No challenge was too complex or daunting for Dan to tackle. He became a vice president at age 42, and was on the fast track to succeed the Chief Information Officer. But this project was bigger and more unmanageable than anything Dan had undertaken.

No one, least of all Marcia, liked seeing Dan stagger under this weight. A few months earlier, she suggested retaining an executive coach to help him better manage the project. “What the hell for?” he said. He knew what to do, and didn’t want to waste time explaining the obvious to a coach.

She wasn’t sure what accounted for Dan’s change of heart, but she was glad to get his e-mail.

She replied: I’ll set up initial meetings for you with three coaches. You pick the one you like the best. And if you don’t like any of them, we’ll cast a wider net. OK? M.

He replied: Set it up.

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Stephen Comments On How a VP of HR Evaluates Executive Coaching

Dragons At Work Weekly Wrap UpIn Chapter 1 we meet our hero, Dan Schaeffer, whose tensions at work spill over at home.

In the interview, our expert, Dr. Redford Williams, advises us about how to deal with anger. The skills in his system help us evaluate the difficult circumstance, so we can decide whether to take action or to “chill out.” He also informs us how anger physically takes its toll on us. I have met abrasive managers who claim they don’t get headaches, they give them. Now we know what’s happening to their arterial walls.


For Executives: How to not take anger and stress home with you…

  1. Before you leave the office, organize the next day. Having confidence that you can smoothly re-enter your workplace helps you drop the emotional charge of unfinished business and relax.
  2. Before you enter your home, take a moment to reflect on and appreciate who and what awaits you. Set your intention to relax and enjoy your evening.
  3. Before sleep give yourself the suggestion that in the morning you’ll have new insights about how to re-imagine the difficult situation and move it in a positive direction. While you sleep your unconscious mind is the supreme problem solver.

For Leadership Development Professionals: Working with angry employees/clients…

  1. Connect with their frustration. Listen first. Any judgment conveyed in verbal or non-verbal behavior will get them to dig in their heels and categorize you as an enemy.
  2. Ask them, “Given all of the difficulties you just described…”
    a. What are some useful outcomes you can imagine for the situation?
    b. How would that move the situation forward in a positive way?
    c. What’s the first small sign of positive change you can put in motion.
    d. (If at any point they continue to complain and rant, repeat step 1, and then 2.)
  3. For helping them manage their anger, Dr. Williams gives us an excellent formula in the interview.

Question for Reflection: What is the positive use of anger? When have you been able to harness it without incurring its negative by-products?

In the next chapter we’ll see how a coach works with Dan’s anger.

Did you miss the previous chapter?

CHAPTER 3 – The Heart’s Hostage (cont…)

Dragons At Work Chapter 3 - The Heart's Hostage ContThe cardiologist examined Dan on his first visit and delivered his diagnosis to Dan and Janice on the second. It was nasty, brutish and short. Though his stress test and EKG showed nothing remarkable, Dan’s blood pressure was high at 158 over 90. Though his chest pains and shortness of breath mimicked a heart attack, they may have come from the stress of his argument with the driver and moving the couch. Still, he needed to be watched. His waist size and high cholesterol indicated metabolic syndrome and therefore, increased his risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The doctor asked Dan about his lifestyle and if he was amenable to change. Dan equivocated. The doctor said if he didn’t make the necessary changes, he’d have to put him on statin drugs. Would he rather just take the drugs? No, he’d try to exercise and lose weight. Privately, Dan thought this was impossible, but when he saw the anxiety on Janice’s face, he said he’d give it a try.

As Janice drove them home, Dan texted Marcia Crawford, the VP of Human Resources:
Marcia, I surrender. Set up the interviews with the coaches ASAP.

Click here to read Chapter 4.

Click here to read Stephen’s Comments on Chapter 4.

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CHAPTER 2 – The Heart’s Hostage

Dragons At Work Chapter 2 - The Heart's HostageJanice came home to find her husband slumped in a chair in front of their wide screen TV – no sound, just silent football replays.

“Something wrong, Dan?”

“No. Just a little cardiac arrest,” he said.

“All right, then. Can you help me with the groceries?”

“I need to sit here for a moment,” he said, taking shallow breaths.

“OK, I’ll get the first load,” she said. “Then, can you pick Maggie up at Tara’s house? It’s 3:00. Their party is over by now.”

“I need to sit here.”

“OK, you sit. I’ve got to put the milk into the fridge.”

Janice returned and stood in front of him, holding a bag of groceries in each hand. There was no color in his face. “Are you OK?” she said.

“Just catching my breath.”

“You don’t look so good.”

She put down the groceries and touched his arm. “You’re all clammy.”

“Yeah, but not happy as a clam.” He stared ahead and smiled weakly.

She put her hand on his forehead. It was moist with perspiration.

He looked up at her and said, “I think I need to go to the emergency room.”

On the way to the hospital, Janice called their doctor and told his answering service they were headed for the ER. She also called Tara’s mother who agreed to keep Maggie at her house until they could pick her up.

In the ER, a mother sat with her feverish infant and her two prepubescent sons working their Nintendos. A young man clutched his mid-section and moaned with closed eyes. There was a woman with a knee brace, an elderly man with a nasty looking skin condition, and a pregnant woman pacing with her cell phone.

There’s a four hour wait,” said the nurse at the admitting desk.

Deep tubercular coughs rattled out of an unshaven man slumped against the wall in a corner.

Dan turned to Janice, “Suddenly, I’m feeling a lot better. Let’s go home.”

Janice felt his arm. It was less clammy, and his face showed some color.

“Are you sure?” she said. “We’re here. I think we should have a doctor look at you.”

“I don’t want to spend the next four hours in this microbe-infested waiting room to get examined by a sleep deprived intern. I want to go home,” he said. “I’ll be all right.”

“If you tell the admitting nurse you have chest pains, they have to take you right away.”

“But I don’t have chest pains.”

“You have shortness of breath.”

“That’s gone. I feel OK.”

Scanning the waiting room, he added, “Janice, I just want to get out of here. I feel better now.”

She stood in his path to the door and said, “Will you see a cardiologist, first chance you get?”

“Yes, but I don’t think there’s a problem. I just got a little short of breath.”

“Promise me, Dan.”

I promise,” he said.

“Are you feeling any pain? Do you feel nauseated?”

“No, I feel better. I’m all right. Let’s get out of here.”

“All right,” she said.

On the way home he told her about the love seat incident: the driver, the cop, and Helping Hand Inc. Embellishing the story, his sarcastic wit returned. She was glad they had something to laugh about — something even to talk about.

That night, in bed, a mild ache on the left side of Dan’s chest kept him awake. Moonlight projected shadows of trees on the bedroom wall. As he watched their shifting shapes, the ache persisted, and he imagined himself an invalid. Memories of seeing his father in Intensive Care flooded in — the beep of his dad’s heart monitor, a profusion of tubes running in and out of him, his father struggling to speak but no words come out.

Would he end up like him, with words unspoken, promises abandoned, and a family stunned by loss and regret? No, not if he could help it.

Was his disability insurance intact? He knew from working in the industry that there were scores of technical tricks to deny payment. Was he vulnerable? Was his left arm numb?

Click here to read Chapter 3.

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Redford Williams Interview – How Anger Hurts the Heart, Part 2

Dr. Redford Williams - How Anger Hurts the HeartRedford Williams, M.D. is interviewed by Stephen Josephs, Ed.D., author of Dragons at Work.

This is the second half of an interview with Dr. Redford Williams, who has spent the better part of his career researching how the cardiovascular system is affected by emotions. His programs give people who are prone to anger and stress reactions practical, research-based advice about how to mitigate the effects of anger.

(For the first part of the interview click here. It explains what anger does to our bodies.)

SJ: What advice would you give to people who are under stress and react angrily?

RW: In our work with hostile personalities we have found a simple, effective system that really works. To illustrate, let’s go back to Dan in the driveway. When he saw the truck driver getting ready to pull out, he immediately thought: This guy is incompetent. This guy is not going to take my couch like he’s supposed to.

Dan’s getting angry, frustrated, and his system is producing all the flight or fight reactions I described in the first part of the interview. Instead of storming to the driver’s side and barking at the guy, it might be a good idea for him to decide whether this is a situation where he needs to do something or to chill out. Because when you’re feeling stress, when you get angry, sometimes your anger is a signal that you need to do something about a situation, because you or people you care about are being harmed. Rosa Parks would still be riding in the back of the bus if she had not done something about her anger.

On the other hand, a lot of times your anger is about something that you really can’t do anything about, or maybe it’s inappropriate anger; and so when you’re getting angry you need a way to decide: Is this Rosa Parks in the back of the bus time or is this a time when I need to chill out?

And the Williams LifeSkills program has a tool that people like Dan can use to decide whether the thoughts and feelings they’re having should lead to action or chill time.

People like Dan need to have a way of evaluating their thoughts and feelings in the light of the objective facts of the situation. And in the LifeSkills program we have people ask themselves four questions:

  1. Is this situation Important to me? Lots of times the things we’re getting upset over are trivial, like the little old lady who can’t find her credit card, and don’t merit our taking it any further. On the other hand, in Dan’s case, this probably is important. He wanted to get rid of that love seat. It’s taking up space and he had gone to a lot of trouble to get it out there, and so forth.
  2. Are the thoughts and feelings I’m having Appropriate to the objective facts of the situation? Would any reasonable person in this same situation be thinking and feeling what I’m feeling? If you get a no to this question, it’s time to chill out. But if you get a yes, you go to the next question.
  3. Is the situation Modifiable? If you’re not certain, ask yourself if it ought to be modifiable? Ought I be able to get this truck driver to take my love seat? And if so, when I consider myself, the driver and any others involved, I ask the next question…
  4. Is it WORTH IT to undertake the actions necessary to change the situation?

A “no” to any one of these questions means it’s time to chill out. You can chill out by just telling yourself Hey, this is not that important or Hey, it’s not appropriate because this guy has a perfectly good reason for not wanting to take the love seat. If I can’t stop him from leaving, it’s not modifiable. And if it’s not modifiable it isn’t worth it for me to get myself all riled up.

On the other hand, it is Important. It is Appropriate. Dan believed it was Modifiable, but when he got evidence to the contrary he should have chilled. A no to any of the four questions means it’s chill out time.

Four yes’s, and it’s time for Rosa Parks to move to the front of the bus. You need to do something. But four yes’s is not 007 with License to Kill time (which is the way Dan is reacting here). If he’d asked those questions and gotten the four yes’s, he would need to take effective action. And in this case, it would be assertion, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Now how do you remember these four questions when you’ve got enough adrenaline in your bloodstream to kill at least two rabbits, if you injected it into the rabbits? Important starts with the letter I; Appropriate, A; Modifiable, M; and we add “worth it”. I AM WORTH IT! You are worth taking the trouble to figure out whether this is a time to do something or a time to chill out. And the phrase I AM WORTH IT! reminds you to ask the four questions.

SJ: Wow, what a great system! I like how it interrupts emotional patterns, like Dan’s anger. Just asking those questions is a form of chilling all by itself.

RW: The I AM WORTH IT! tool is a really neat way of telling yourself Hey, wait a second. I am worth it. And it also recognizes that sometimes your anger is valid and that you do need to do something. This is where Assertion, not 007 aggression, comes in. Assertion has three steps: 1) describe the behavior that’s bothering you, 2) describe the feelings you’re having, and 3) ask for a specific change in behavior in the other person.

In addition to assertion, we also train people in relationship skills that prevent them from getting into these situations in the first place. While we don’t have time to describe that program here, people can find more information on our website.

We now have several randomized clinical trials that have evaluated effects of the Williams LifeSkills training program, published in peer-reviewed medical journals. The results of these trials have been very gratifying.

In one trial involving men who had coronary bypass surgery, the LifeSkills training brought their anger levels down. Also their depression levels went down. Their social support levels went up and their satisfaction with their life in general went up. In addition to that, their resting blood pressure and heart rate went down.

Before training, when participants were asked to recall a situation that made them angry, their blood pressure went up about 25 mm of mercury, which is a pretty hefty increase in systolic blood pressure. After the end of the LifeSkills training, those patients’ blood pressure only went up about 12 mm, and three months later, with no further training, it only went up around seven or eight mm.

SJ: Now, that is brilliant. Those are great results.

RW: In contrast, depression and anger levels increased among men in the control group, and their blood pressure still went up 24 mm at the end of the six-week training period and three months later it went up 28 mm.

This is cognitive behavioral training that has been shown to work using the gold standard test — the randomized clinical trial. We don’t know whether the heart patients in the study are going to have a lower mortality rate, because it wasn’t sufficiently large to be able to answer that question. And as I’m sitting here talking with you, we are planning a larger study that will include 2,000 to 3,000 patients to see if in addition to these physiological and psychological benefits, there is also a medical benefit – reduced risk of another heart attack or dying.

SJ: Dr. Williams, we’re at the end of our interview. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you. I’m glad your work is bringing so much benefit to people and that its effectiveness not only lasts post-training, but actually increases over time. And because the instruction is video-based, you can reach a lot of people.

RW: Thanks, Stephen, for the opportunity to share with your readers what I’ve learned from this research over the past 40 years.

Click here for information on the Williams LifeSkills Program.

And here to sign up for your chapters of Dragons at Work.

For the part one of the interview, click here.