Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – It’s A Kind Of Magic: The Art And Science Of Executive Coaching — October 29, 2019

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – It’s A Kind Of Magic: The Art And Science Of Executive Coaching

It’s a Kind of Magic: The Art and Science of Executive Coaching


My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I’m the director of two businesses. One is called the Intact Academy where I train coaches and consultants from absolute beginners to supervisor level. The other business is Team Agility where I help businesses innovate their business more quickly than their products. 

I decided to go back to basics now after the summer and back to basics for me is really individual coaching and  executive coaching. I coach a lot of leaders, usually men over forty, who are at a crossroads in their career and their life. Sometimes they’ve gone up the ladder and they’ve developed patterns of behaviour that have brought them to that point but now they want a break through. Or they want to go to a different level but they don’t know how to do it. The other reason that people come to Executive Coaching is personally, they’ve become successful in their career and then they realize that they don’t really have a personal life anymore because they’re always busy working. They want to get that balance back. 

A lot of the coaching I do is through zoom, so I do distance coaching with executives all over the world. I might start as a mentor, become a coach and end up as a sparring partner. 

Sometimes people think what I do is magic. I guess for me Executive Coaching is kind of magic. It’s an art. But it’s also a science. 


Science or Art?


When you’re an executive coach it’s OK if you coach based on intuition. That’s the art part, the magic, but it’s really important that you use the science part, the discipline, too. The discipline part includes observing, interpreting, conceptualizing behaviour and then helping people to break out of patterns. What I teach my students in executive coaching and what I also explain to leaders who have to manage employees is the disciplined scientific part of coaching. You must build up a discipline of observation, interpretation, conceptualization and then intervention. And that sounds complicated but actually it’s not. It’s something that I practice all the time, every day. 




So to figure out what to do in executive coaching I first observe. For observation we use transactional analysis, because transactional analysis like no other model has concepts to think about patterns. So I observe. I observe how people talk to their peers, talk to their employees, talk to their bosses. I watch their mannerisms. 

I had a client just the other day who every time he talked about his boss started nervously twitching his pen and usually ticking very loudly on the desk. And I thought, that’s really weird, I’m going to see if this is a pattern or not. So I purposefully dropped in his boss now and then in our executive coaching, and every time he’d grab a pen and start ticking. 

I wonder what’s going on there. The reason he came into coaching was that he felt as if he was not being completely himself in his leadership role. After a time I asked him if he realized that every time we talked about his boss he started ticking with his pen. He didn’t realize he was doing it. Sometimes people have mannerisms where the unconscious betrays itself. 

I asked him to exaggerate what he was doing, and he started ticking much much louder with his pen. I said, What are you really doing? 

He said very softly, I want to beat him up. 

He told me about the experience he had the first week in the job, almost ten years earlier. As his boss introduced him to his new employees, his boss shared a confidential fact about his private life with all the staff. When he had discussed this with his boss he had never meant for it to be shared publicly. In his mind his boss publicly humiliated him. He felt a mixture of shame and rage.

This mixture of shame and rage came out every time he talked with his boss. This was something he had never spoken of, for the last ten years, which he still needed to repair in that relationship. This little kernel of rage and shame is why he started to hide himself, and not feel so free. 




Once we’d observed this behaviour we talked about the interpretation. 

He said, I still have this mixture of rage and shame, I felt humiliated. There’s still something there and it hinders me in my work. I feel like a very vulnerable balloon that’s about to burst every time my boss checks in.




In an earlier article we talked about the people regulate intimacy and proximity through the way they transact. Well this guy had decided to only talk from Adult and Critical Parent and create a dominant distant relationship with his employees. His employees saw him in his ivory tower, and felt they couldn’t really talk to him. 




Then we talked about what he could do as an intervention. What he could do to change that. 

He said, Well, what I really want to do with you is to practice other ways of being,  other ways of communicating. I want to use other ego states more. I want to transact in a different way. I want to communicate in a more intimate way with my employees. 

I asked him, You do realize the consequence of that is you’re going to have to let them get to know you? And he kind of blanched at that and got nervous, he said, I won’t be able to do that unless I resolve this with my boss first.

We did a lot of work on how he could give feedback to his boss about an incident that happened ten years ago that was still influencing his behaviour today. We worked on creating internal protection for him, because he’d never learned to do that for himself. 

After about three months work he was ready to have this conversation with his boss. He learnt a bit more about how to transact from different ego states, to create more intimacy in his relationships and his employees were already reacting well and expressing their appreciation. 

The big thing, of course, was this talk with his boss. We prepared it really well, we scripted it almost because he knew he was going to be really nervous when he came into that room with his boss. Fortunately, his boss had also been in coaching and had learned to reflect on his own behavior and accept responsibility. So when my client explained the issue, the boss did the right thing. He apologized profoundly for his behaviour, and asked what he could do to help and support my client. A beautiful reaction. My client was free. He’d been apologized to, he got the support of the boss that he needed, and he started to be a different boss at work.

In executive coaching we observe behaviour. We talk about interpretation – what does this mean? Then we use theory: how can we conceptualize and generalize this observation? Is this a pattern which is something that they use all the time or is it an incident? Is it a longer term pattern? 

One of our jobs as executive coaches is to interrupt the patterns that are not empowering an. So what could help you break out of the pattern? I believe a lot in sharing and partnering with my client in this observation, interpretation, conceptualization, and that’s why teaching TA to your clients is really helpful.

From Why to What to How – what’s your purpose? — February 12, 2019

From Why to What to How – what’s your purpose?

One of the enduring factors in creating an agile and innovative business is purpose. Purpose answers the question: why do we do what we do? It gives a sense of determination to your ambition and direction. It gives a different flavour to your work then a  vision, mission or strategy. To me a vision provides a point on the horizon, the guiding light for your ambition. A mission directs the task that will lead you to your vision. And a strategy is a process or road map to realize your vision.

Purpose makes economic sense

Jim Stengel, ex-CMO of Procter & Gamble, postulated in his book Grow (2011) that there is a very sound economic argument for a focus on purpose. A ten-year study of the growth of 50,000 brands shows that companies with ideals to improve people’s lives at the center of all they do outperform the market by a huge margin. The world’s fastest growing brands are organized around ideals. The top 25 like Apple, Red Bull, Google and Starbucks – excel at clarity, consistency, commitment and creativity.

Ignoring the flaws in Stengel’s research (he didn’t compare with the worst performing brands to demonstrate the opposite, for example) the idea is intriguing and endearing. According to research done by R. Sisodia (2007, Firms of endearment) and Edelman (The good purpose study, 2013) a company based on purpose has distinct advantages:

  • Get and keep best employees: 1.4 x more engaged, 1.7 x more satisfied, 3 x more likely to stay
  • Attract, retain and engage customers: 89% of the clients believe a purpose driven company will deliver highest quality, 72% of global consumers would recommend a company with a purpose (up from 39% in 2008)
  • Increase return for shareholders: 10x purpose led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 10x between 1996 and 2011, 120% meaningful brands connected to human well being outperformed the stock market by 120% in 2013

So, how do you, as a business find your purpose?

How to find your purpose

Purpose can be best found on the intersection of:

  • Personal desire: transforming pain into contribution
  • Customer dreams: connect with the core values of the people you serve
  • Business direction: creating value together

We’re going to look at how we can use the idea of the Hero’s Journey to consider our business purpose and how we can write the business story that serves our personal desires, our customer’s dreams and the business direction.

Let’s first consider personal desire. Humans are not just the sum of our experience or even our relationships. We are ultimately the sum of our stories. It is not the events in our lives that determine our actions, but the interpretation of those events.

For example, I could describe my expat childhood in very different ways. I could tell you a story of a nomadic existence, with a subsequent lack of belonging or feeling of home. Or I could tell you a story of the rich cultural experiences we had and the opportunity to build friendships all over the world. Of course both stories could be true. But the important thing is: depending on the story I choose, my experience of life will differ.

Narrative theories, like J. Campbell’s “The hero with a thousand faces” (1947) and Berne’s Transactional Analysis, can help frame this idea. Within TA we believe that people create a life script at a very early age, a story about who we will be when they grow up. This story informs our actions like a kind of bass tone in our lives, and determines many of the main themes that run through our personal, relational and professional lives.

Formally we define a life script as follows: A script is an unconscious life plan learned in early childhood, reinforced by parents and reinforced by later events, resulting in a known pay-off.

The same holds true for organizations. At the cultural level, it is the script beliefs of founders, reinterpreted by successive generations of company leaders, that influence the culture in a company. Your leadership, what you have learnt through it, how you write the story of your learning, in part determines the purpose of your organisation.

RATE: Radical Agile Transformation Exercise: Review your key learning moments

You have probably already completed the RATE exercise from a few months ago. Things will have changed in the intervening months. It’s important to regularly review what you have learnt, so go ahead and revise your answers to the questions from What are the key learning moments in your leadership?

Bibliography: References & links

A culture of purpose: how to choose the right people and make the right people choose you, Lueneburger, C, Jossey-Bass, 2014

Common purpose, Kurtzman, J & Goldsmith, M, Jossey-Bass, 2010

Firms of endearment: how world class companies profit from passion and purpose, Sisodia, RS, Seth, J & Wolfe, D, Pearson Education, 2014

Lead with purpose, Baldoni, J, AMACOM, 2011

Passion and purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, Coleman, J, Gulati, D et al., Harvard Business Review, 2011

Start with why, Sinek, S, Penguin Group, 2009

The happiness of pursuit, Guillebeau, C, Harmony, 2014

The purpose economy, Hurst, A, Elevate, 2014

What On Earth Am I Here For? Rick Warren, Zondervan, 2012

Grow, Stengel, J, Crown Business, 2011

Engaging customers – how do you know who you really want to work with? — December 12, 2018

Engaging customers – how do you know who you really want to work with?

Engaging customers – how do you know who you really want to work with?

Love your customers, and your customers will love you back

I like to work with customers who are willing to do the personal and professional transformation to become innovative and agile. If I look at my customer set, they’re usually between 32 and 55 years old. They already have work experience, but they either want to be able to create sustainable change or innovate their business. I understand them, I like them, they happen to be like me, and fortunately they can afford to work with me!

In a recent article we looked at why you needed to explore, engage and extrapolate to discover the pains, gains and jobs to be done of your customer. This is part of understanding what your customer wants before they even know. Now, let’s have a look at the engage part of the looping, and decide what customers you want to engage in the future and start building a customer map.

Of course, you know who your customers are today. Over the years you will have built up and attracted a certain type of customer based on your activities and products, and on who you are. These are your traditional customers.

Now we need to decide which customers you know, you like and can afford you given your new sense of purpose. That may be a completely different set of customers than you have today.


Know yourself, know your customers

Let’s start with knowing. Ask yourself, ‘What customers do I know?’

Knowing customers doesn’t mean you know their statistics, data, and stereotypes. It means you know their problems profoundly, probably because you are like them. In the agricultural machinery business that I work with, the founder was a farmer who couldn’t afford the machines he needed and started to make his own machinery. He now builds machines for farmers who are discerning in what machines they use because they’re engineers and farmers too.

So knowing means you have to know yourself first, then ask:

  • What stages did I go through in life?
  • What were my problems, issues, needs, trends in that period of my life?
  • What are the emerging problems, issues, needs, and trends?
  • What do I know deeply to be true about this customer based on my own experience, but also the experience I have gathered in serving this customer?

We know that if you base your business on customers you know, you’ll build a sustainable business because they grow as you grow.

Customers you like

Now let’s consider which customers you like. So, of all the customers you know make a subset of those you like. If you can’t find anything to like in your customer, you’re in the wrong business. If you’re in it for the long-term you have to like your customers, perhaps even love them.

The customer map is a shared work in progress. It’s not just a photo, it’s a film, continuously in development.

Customers who can afford you

Now you need to figure out which customers can afford you. There are two ways to go about that.

  1. Return on customer investment: One way is to think about the return on investment you want at the end of the year. Traditional businesses want to maximize profits and shareholder value every year – this is what we’ve put in, this is what we want to get out.Businesses that are most innovative and agile, look for customers that can also afford their contribution to society. In our experience organizations that only focus on maximizing profits usually have short-term cycles of production and innovation, and that does not help them to create sustainable income.
  1. Work backwards: The other way to calculate which customers can afford you, if you’re a startup business or a solo business, is to think backwards. Ask yourself what income you want to have and then calculate backwards to work out what you need to make every month, every week, every engagement. You might find, surprisingly, you come to very different calculations than if you just go for maximizing profit.

So, we know the pains, gains and jobs to be done, we know what customers you want to engage (know, like, and afford) now it’s time to create a customer map.

Radical Agile Transformation Exercise: Create a customer map

Based on the exploration and engagement activities we ask senior leaders to make a mosaic, a mood board or a customer map.

On the wall in your agile war room put:

  1. The pains gains and jobs to be done of your customer.
  2. List the types of customers who you know, like and can afford you.
  3. Add photos of real customers if possible, make the map realistic.
  4. Give each customer avatar a name, write down their problems, issues, needs and trends, to create a customer map.
  5. Hang the customer maps in the hallway from workplace to canteen with magazines, scissors and glue underneath so that any employee can add to the map as they go by.

These customer maps become works of art over time. Hang them in your lobby behind the reception desk. Write your purpose above them, ‘This is why we do what we do, and this is who we do it for.’


Mine the business innovation gaps: Seasonal sharing for scalability — December 4, 2018

Mine the business innovation gaps: Seasonal sharing for scalability

I’ve been working with an agriculture machinery company over the years. This family run business designs and manufactures huge innovative machines that solve the current problems farmers face. Their industry is subject to the seasons, which means all farmers want new machines just before the harvest, so there’s a big peak of work in the period running up to harvest time, roughly from April till September in Europe. When the harvest is done, there is a downtime in these factories.

Of course, the company doesn’t want to lay-off it’s workforce, nor have a factory shut down and workers idle for six months of the year. So we looked to other industries to spot a business innovation gap, that would allow them to continue to make money even in the off-season. We found that the joiners, welders and assembly people are very profitable for the car industry. So, now there’s a possibility to make an exchange of labour between the two industries, and that makes both industries more scalable.

Many organizations are quite old fashioned, frequently with a sub-organization, a department, or a satellite organization busy with product innovation in splendid isolation. When you are slow to mine the innovation gaps – not only for your product, but also for your business – you leave money on the table, a workforce under-utilized and customers unsatisfied.

Every time you think of a product or service innovation, your reflex has to be, ‘How do we have to innovate the business to support this?’

RATE: Radical Agile Transformation Exercise

The next question you should ask is, ‘What consequences should this have on the structure of my business?’

One way to mine the innovation gap is to make a customer analysis: what do they need to diminish their pain, enhance their gains and accelerate their jobs to be done?

And then check if your assets actually allow you to support them. For instance:

  • Do your products or services diminish pain or enhance gains?
  • Do you have key people who you can outsource to the client to accelerate their jobs to be done?
  • Do you have excess factory space that others could use?
  • Do you have innovative processes that could help others achieve their goals?


We are moving towards a sharing economy, where the name of the game is not proudly invented here, but proudly co-created with others.

Explore, engage and extrapolate to discover the pains, gains and jobs to be done of your customer — November 20, 2018

Explore, engage and extrapolate to discover the pains, gains and jobs to be done of your customer

Explore, engage and extrapolate to discover the pains, gains and jobs to be done of your customer

Response-ability is all about your ability to intuitively anticipate the future and to know what your customer wants before your customer knows it. Intuitive anticipation is the main differentiator for successful, innovative companies.  

Looping, one dimension of response-ability, has to do with your ability to explore, to engage, and to extrapolate what your customer tells you. At every stage of development of a product or innovation you must involve your customers and get their feedback. We also call it intuitive anticipation (see article)

How do you create a looping process in the organization? You start with where you are, then you go out and look at what the customer is doing. You find out what the customer needs and wants. You investigate their pains, and gains and jobs to be done.

Pains, Gains, Jobs to be done


Pain: Quite literally a pain is something that’s hurting your customer, that’s keeping them awake at night, at that point in your journey. What do you want to get rid of.

Gain: Their gain is an ambition, a dream, what they want to get out of it at that stage of the customer journey.

Job: What job are they trying to get done at each point in the journey?

People don’t want drill bits, they want holes.

Modular machinery for young farmers

Imagine a traditional farmer, interested in technology who has problems with sustainability, succession planning, implementing robotics and automation in the farm. They want to buy a new machine. What are their pains right now?

  • Most farmers don’t want to spend money, if it were up to them, they would buy a tractor that doesn’t rust and works for 20 years.
  • Today’s farms are very different than their father’s farms, they have to create a sustainability within changing regulations.
  • They have to maximize crops on fields that they used to leave fallow during the winter, so they want to work seasonally.

“I really don’t want to spend the money, but given the acceleration of the farming cycle, I have to buy a machine that’s very expensive that will help me accelerate harvest.”

What do they want to achieve, what’s their gain? They want to save money. They want a fully automated farm where they can maximize crop harvesting through big data.

The job to be done is to choose the right machine from a field of me-too-machines. How do they discern the right machine at that time? They have to make a choice, not based on general quality, but based on the quality they can achieve on their farm with this machine.

With this information, as a farming machinery business, you have an idea of the innovation you have to implement: create machines that are adaptable in size, depending on the customer and the crop they want to harvest. Implement modular innovation on the machinery so that the same tractor or combine harvester can expand or change depending on the size of the farm and the crop. Create machinery that the farmers can test on their farm.

These pains, gains, and jobs to be done occur at every step of the customer journey. From their initial contact with your company, and that could be by email, telephone or your website, right down to your after sales, follow up and complaints handling.

RATE: Radical Agile Transformation Exercise

Create cross-functional teams and get them to go out, find the people on your customer map, and do short interviews with them, either face to face, through telephone or through video, to check if your presumptions about their needs are true. Maybe they’re not.

Make one big wall in your innovation and agility war room about real people. Put their photographs up there. This extrapolation helps you refine your customer map with real people, and actual information. This is not guessing. You are documenting real life stories, anecdotes, and experiences.

The next step is to take all these stories and categorize the types of customers you actually have. Now design the customer journey for this type of real customer as they have contact with your company.

With that person in mind you draw the customer journey that they have when they get in touch with your product or your process or your service by hand on your war room wall.

There are no rules to drawing the customer map and customer journey. You work it out together, as a team. Now you can write down, from the real information you have collated, their pains, gains, and jobs to be done at each stage of the journey.

Understanding your customer’s world deeply and having empathy for their pains, gains and jobs to be done makes you a better innovator.

Bibliography: References & links

Business Model Canvas,