Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

Leadership Coaching – The sequence of your life — July 9, 2019

Leadership Coaching – The sequence of your life

Leadership Coaching – The sequence of your life

My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I help businesses innovate more quickly than they innovate their products to accelerate their time to market. One of the tools I use for that is leadership coaching or leadership team coaching. In leadership coaching I really focus on silences, sequences and stories. I want to say something about sequences and life scripts.

One of the levels of pattern recognition or sequence recognition is what we call the life script. A life script is an unconscious pattern of behaviour that you learned in early childhood which was confirmed by your parents or events, and ends in a well-known payoff.

When you ask people: what do you think will be on your tombstone? Leaders answer something like: “I worked so hard, yet here I am.” Or, “I forgot what was important” or, “I accomplished a lot but my wife left me.” I often have to coach leaders who are caught in their life script.

Recently I had a female leader and she started off by telling me that she had a new leader. I said, “Oh, that sounds like news?” and she said, “Yeah, but it’s a female leader. And I can’t work for a woman.”

“Why can’t you work for a woman?”

She said: “Oh it’s just impossible. Women are impossible.”

I asked her what would happen if she worked for a woman.

She said: “We’ll get into a fight. I know that for sure.”

“How do you know that for sure?” So we went back bit by bit in her life script story and I probed when was this taking place for her.

She said, “It’s my mother. I never had a good relationship with her and I just think I couldn’t work for a woman because of that.”

I asked what happened between her and her mother, and she told me that when she was 26 she got married, but her mother didn’t go to the wedding, and that’s how she knew her mother didn’t love her.

I probed further.

When she was 22 she was the first in her family to succeed at university but her mother wasn’t there for her diploma ceremony, so she knew her mother didn’t love her. I went back in time and asked when was the first time she thought this.

She said: “Well, when I was very young I had to do communion in the Catholic Church. I was dressed in white and I had these shiny black shoes on and I went to up to my mother, I stood in her bedroom doorway as she was sitting behind her makeup table, and I said to her, ‘Mama, mama, look at me. I look so beautiful!’ and my mother said to me, ‘No, look at me I’m beautiful.’ And that when I knew my mother didn’t love me.”

“But now you’re an adult. What do you think about this?”

“Well, I don’t know. I remember that my father had just died the year before. My mother was really sad.” I asked my client to remember what else was going on in the preparation of my communion. “My mother had gone to church and at church she met a man who was the father of another little girl who was doing communion. I think they really liked each other.”

I said to her, “Well you’re a grown up woman now. What do you think was going through your mother’s mind?”

“I think my mother was really nervous because she was going to meet this guy again when I was going to church to do my communion. Ha. Now I realize what she was doing was really telling me we’re women together and we’re both beautiful but I’m really nervous.”

I said, “So how does that make you feel?” And she started to cry. She hadn’t realized that her mother was a human being too. “Now when you think about it what does this mean for you as a leader?”

She thought: “I feel much better about working for a woman now. Maybe now I can do something that I was never able to do with my mother.”

When I work with leaders I always look for the script. The script is really the pattern of life that people have decided when they’re very young to survive, but which may not be very functional at this moment in time. What I often see is that people repeat old stories that aren’t necessary in their life today.

The life script concept really helps me see the pattern of life that we need to interrupt, to have a better life and to become a better leader.


Leadership Coaching – Respect rank but relate as equals — July 2, 2019

Leadership Coaching – Respect rank but relate as equals

Leadership Coaching – Respect rank but relate as equals

I’m Sari van Poelje, and I’m an expert in business innovation. I help businesses innovate more quickly than their products, so that you’re time to market is accelerated. One of the things that really helps is leadership team coaching. What I pay attention to in this coaching is usually silences, stories and sequences.

In the last video we talked about the sequence of ego states.

What I’d like to talk about now is the sequence of relationships and communication. Sometimes I notice that leaders are really stuck in certain relational patterns. So for instance they find themselves top down.. Yes in position and rank you are perhaps more ‘top’ but in terms of relationship I think a good leader should be at an equal level with her people, else you don’t promote initiative or leadership in your employees.

What we teach people in leadership team coaching or leadership coaching is really to recognize the difference in rank but to communicate and relate in equality.

So what do I use for this? Well first of all it’s really good if you can distinguish if people are an equal or higher or lower level, as a leader. We often see that leaders create what we call symbiotic chains. It’s as if they position themselves on top, and they’re the ones thinking for the organization, and they expect their employees to just execute what they think. That means that employees are excluding their Adult and Parent function, and the leader is probably excluding their Child ego state.

Neither is a very healthy position to be in. When you exclude your Child ego state, everything that’s intuitive, feeling, spontaneous, relating, intimate in your life, that means you become a kind of a robot thinker who has values and norms but doesn’t feel very much. Not a good place for a leader to be.

When employees exclude their Parent and Adult ego state they’re just executing and in submission. What they’re excluding is their ability to think, to have values and ethical norms. Not a good place to be for an employee.

We teach people, in terms of relating in a healthy way, is yes respect the rank but relate equally. That means that we teach people to communicate in a way that invites leadership from employees, asking questions, asking why, asking what would you do, instead of just telling them and giving orders from a position of I know best.

If you want your organization to innovate teach them to lead differently.


Leadership Coaching – Sequences and pattern interruption — June 25, 2019

Leadership Coaching – Sequences and pattern interruption

Leadership Coaching – Sequences and pattern interruption

My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I help businesses innovate more quickly than they innovate their products. And one of the things I do for that is coach leaders. I’ve been doing this for 33 years and every year I think what is it that I do? Can I do it better? What can I add into this to accelerate the process? And I figured out that actually I only do and focus on three things: silences, stories and sequences.

I want to focus on sequences now. What is it that we mean by sequences? I mean a pattern of behaviour, of thinking or feeling that leads to a known outcome. So it’s kind of like going: “dat da de dat da…” and someone else goes: “dat da!” That’s a sequence and it’s so inbred that you do it automatically.

Our responsibility as coaches is to help interrupt patterns because as soon as behaviour is automatic you know people aren’t really learning anything, but repeating patterns that have worked in the past.

So how do you distinguish sequences? How do you identify them? What I use for that is transactional analysis. TA is a psychological theory that was developed by Eric Berne in the 50s and it is still useful today.

The great thing about TA is that nearly every concept describes a pattern. And because our job is to be pattern interrupters, what better theory can you have than one that distinguishes patterns.

So one of the kinds of patterns that we talk about in TA is ego states. Ego states are kind of the building blocks of your personality. The definition of ego states are that they contain patterns of thinking and feeling linked to patterns of behaviour. We distinguish three types of ego states: parent, adult, child.

The Parent ego state is the ego state that you’ve learned or taken over from your parents. For instance if I hold out my hand to you and I say how do you do people will usually take my hand. That’s a parental introject or parental behaviour pattern.

We also talk about Child ego state. Child patterns of thinking and feeling linked to behaviour have helped you survive your childhood. For example let’s say I notice when I get into a group I feel a little anxious. I realize that this anxiety for bigger groups comes from when I grew up in these other countries, in unknown places. As an expat that actually helped keep me safe. It’s just not so happy to feel anxious nowadays though.

We also talk about Adult ego state, where we have thinking and feeling linked to behaviour which is fitting for the here and now, with the competencies we have today. These might be patterns of problem solving or patterns of thinking or patterns of feeling that actually help you find options in today’s world.

When I do leadership team coaching I look to see which ego state they are actually talking from. Are they talking from an Parent, Adult or Child.. Because if they’re talking from Adult they’re well connected to the here and now. If I hear people talk from Parent or Child I know they’re probably in a rubber band to the past.

As a pattern interrupter it pays to pay attention to ego states.


Leadership Coaching – The Hero’s Journey — June 18, 2019

Leadership Coaching – The Hero’s Journey

Leadership Coaching – The Hero’s Journey

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m an expert in business innovation and I help businesses innovate their enterprise more quickly than they innovative products. One of the things I do is coaching individual leaders and leadership teams.

We’ve spoken about my interest in silences, stories and sequences. I want to go deeper into that theme of storytelling. One of the things I use to help leaders understand their story is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is based on a book by Joseph Campbell called The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Christopher Vogel simplified Campbell’s list of steps, and demonstrated how each myth in each saga goes through the same steps:

  1. Prologue

  2. Call to adventure

  3. Refusal of the call

  4. Meeting with the mentor

  5. Crossing the threshold of power

  6. King for a day

  7. Meeting with the goddess

  8. The ordeal

  9. The dagger

  10. Back to the light

  11. The resurrection

  12. Return with the elixir

We’ve dealt with this in previous podcasts and in previous articles.

I put the hero’s journey on the floor as I am coaching leaders and I ask them to walk their journey, walk the journey of the organization, walk the journey of the team and see where they get stuck. Sometimes when people get stuck it’s because they haven’t spent enough time in the previous step.

Last week I had someone who wanted to go straight from prologue into power which is step 5 and skip all the rest. I asked him, “Why do you want to skip all the rest? If you have never learnt to say ‘no’ to the call to adventure you don’t build enough strength, persistence or resilience in your life to push through when the going gets tough. So going straight to power won’t help you because then you have the power, but as soon as something goes wrong you don’t have the resilience.”

“Oh,” said this leader, “Maybe I should go back a step?”

“Yeah maybe you should. Maybe that could help you to realize you also have the right to learn step by step.”

Sometimes leaders get stuck in other ways.

In the hero’s journey, you see that sometimes the heroes get stuck not in the previous step but on the diagonal. I see people for instance who are in ordeal, they’re going through their worst nightmare. But the reason they’re going through their worst nightmare as a leader is because they answered the wrong call to action.

I had one leader who told me that every time he ends up with the same job even if it’s got a different title. “Every time I have a job where I have to introduce change in the organization. Because I’m good at it they keep asking me for the same thing. But each time I get into the ordeal, because I get all the resistance of the organization without having any allies.”

I said, “How do you get called?” “Last time I had a job like that the biggest boss called me up and he said, ‘John you’re the only one who can do this.’ And I said yes.”

I asked him if this was the way he usually accepted projects, as ‘the only one – the hero.’ He said: “Now I think about it. Yeah that’s really a way you can seduce me to do the project.”

One of the points in the leadership coaching with this guy was to help him check out what conditions he needed to accept requests. Instead of focusing on the the honour of getting a call from the highest person to change the organization to really check out if the conditions for change in place.

The last step in the hero’s journey is the elixir. Let’s pretend that you’re at the end of your life and you’re looking back, what have you done to make the world a better place? Sometimes leaders come up with surprising answers that lead them to a completely different path.

Last time I had a leader and he said to me: “I’m not so interested in making another product for a multinational, I think I’m much more suited to do Silversmithing. So I’m going to build out my hobby into my job because what I want to do for the world is to make beautiful things.”

When we look at leadership team coaching one of the things we look at is stories.

What I use to look at stories is the hero’s journey and I really invite you to use it too.


Vogel, Christopher (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers.

Leadership Coaching – Story telling — June 11, 2019

Leadership Coaching – Story telling

Leadership Coaching – Story telling

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m a specialist in business innovation. I fly around the world helping multinationals, family organizations and start-ups innovate their business more quickly than they innovate their products.

One of the things I do is coach leaders and leadership teams to help and support this process of business innovation. I’ve been doing that for 33 years and sometimes I ask myself what do I really do.

In the first part of this series of video trainings we talked about paying attention to silences but in this current training I’d like to talk about paying attention to stories.

Many of the leaders I’ve talked to have a lot of stories. They tell me about what happened, what they want, what they went through, war stories about their leadership usually with them in the role of the hero having conquered the world, and sometimes with them in the role of the victim having suffered.

Last week I had a leader who told me about his problem of speaking up at meetings and he said: “You know, I’m really good at my job but I don’t really dare to say what I think, especially when there are leaders higher placed or peers around, mostly males. I find it really hard to talk. And so the feedback I get is you’re great at your job, you’re a great manager technically. But we want you to become a leader and as a leader you have to speak up.”

He called me and I asked him, “What kind of story do you have around speaking up?”

He said: “Well, in my job I remember being an intern in this firm and the first time I had to give a presentation for the CEO I sat outside the room waiting for my turn. I was really nervous. They called me and I presented this project I’d been working on for months. I was really proud of it. After the first five sentences the CEO looked up from what he was writing and he said, ‘Sonny you’re really good but go do your homework.’ And he sent me out. And at that moment I decided I was very uncomfortable speaking up.”

I said: “That’s interesting. And really painful.”

He said: “Yeah, it was kind of painful.”

“What’s the other story before that one about speaking up?”

So he told me the many stories that validated his anxiety about speaking up. One of the stories that stands out was “Show and tell” time at the American school. Every week the kids would come in and have to say something about what happened to them during the week, or show something. My client said: “Every time I stood up, I told kids about biology and my nerdy fascination for facts and science. These kids probably got bored. They booed me and at that point I concluded speaking up is really not the thing for me.

I said: “Oh, do you have any memories before that?”

“Yeah, my mother is a university professor and my father’s a doctor and I used to speak up at home but it was never good enough. My mother always corrected me.”

I suggested he interview his mother to understand her idea of success.

He went back home and interviewed his mother: “Mom, what is your definition of success?” And she said, “Oh, son I went through so much in my life. I had to prove myself as a woman, as a professor at the University. And my only definition of success is be good at your job. Speak up and be good at your job.”

My client looked at her and he said: “Mom I really love you. But for me success is love – being loved and loving my family.”

When he came back and told me this story his whole face had changed.

In exploring his stories he realized that actually the roots of his not speaking up came from much deeper and earlier issues. He’d inherited in a way his mother’s ideas of success from his mother’s struggle to prove herself.

I pay attention to stories and I think you should too, because helping our clients create more empowering stories is what we do in coaching.