Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

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.


Leadership Coaching – Silence is a signal — June 4, 2019

Leadership Coaching – Silence is a signal

Leadership Coaching – Silence is a signal

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m an expert in business innovation. I help businesses innovate their enterprise more quickly than they innovate their products to accelerate their time to market.

One of the things I love doing is coaching leaders and leadership teams.

They are key in this road to innovation. I’ve been coaching leaders for about 33 years now and lately I’ve been thinking “What is it that I actually do”. Apart from all the theories and models I’ve heard and learned I realized I concentrate on three things:

  1. silences

  2. stories and

  3. sequences

Let’s take silences first.

What I mean by silences is the things people don’t talk about. For instance they tell me about a traumatic event and they don’t show any emotion or they tell me about a demotion or a project that didn’t work, and have gallows laughter.

I listen for four types of silences:

Silence 1 – Feelings: The first level of silence is when people don’t talk about their feelings. A lot of leaders feel free to talk about their thinking, about what they do, but not about their feelings. Specifically the real and authentic response to the situation they are in.

I usually give leaders that are not very emotionally educated a multiple choice. I educate them in emotional intelligence and the different functions of feeling Angry. Sad. Scared. Shame. Guilt. Happy. For instance anger helps you create boundaries when you feel threatened. A “rational” explanation about the function of emotions really seems to help with my client group.

Silence 2 – Behaviour: Sometimes when leaders talk about their situation they don’t talk about their behaviour. Sometimes they talk about other people’s behaviour, blaming or shaming other people. For example: “So the project wasn’t finished. I was the project leader. But the reason it wasn’t finished was because sales didn’t give their data on time.”

Sometimes that’s a really relevant silence. What they don’t talk about is their responsibility and what they did in that situation. As long as they only talk about others’ behavious they also stay dependent and it’s harder to find options for themselves

Silence 3 – Thinking: Sometimes people tell me stories about what they’ve gone through in their leadership role. But they don’t tell me what they think, which is a really interesting kind of silence because usually leaders are proud of thinking faster than others.

The type of thinking that most leaders are silent about is reflective thinking, the ability to take a meta perspective. We want to educate leaders to observe, interpret conceptualize and then to take action.

Silence 4 – Existential Questions: For instance why am I here? Beyond the data what is the meaning of the data for us? What is the purpose of the team? If I don’t hear that in the in the way that leaders present themselves or present the situations that’s obviously one of the silences I’ll pay attention to.

So here we have it during leadership coaching, the first thing we pay attention to is silence.

Silence about feeling, behaviour, thinking and purpose.


Leadership: Founders, leaders and interdependence – video training — May 28, 2019

Leadership: Founders, leaders and interdependence – video training



Leadership: Differentiating the levels to avoid confusion in roles

I’m a business consultant and I specialize in helping businesses innovate as quickly as they innovate their products. I travel around the world helping multinationals, family businesses and start ups create new types of leadership, new types of cooperation, new integrations of innovation and sales, and new purpose.

I’ve been doing this for 33 years. I also have a school for TA coaches and consultants, and upon request I coach leadership teams. I love my job. I love being both healer and surgeon. On the one hand, I help raise people’s consciousness and awareness. And the other hand, sometimes I have to be incisive as a business consultant.

I want to tell you a story about incisiveness.

I was called some time ago to coach a startup team. It’s a brilliant startup. It was founded by three brothers. The three brothers had a fantastic idea for a high-tech business that could conquer the world. One brother was great at operations. One of them was technical. And the other had a general management profile.

They tried out the first product, decided that hardware wasn’t really where the margins were, jumped on the software wagon, and have now got a product which they launched in partnership with a Chinese business.

Expanding A Startup

They have launched in 22 countries and have gotten $10 million investment in from outside investors. At the same time as they’re expanding their business, they are also innovating their own organization. And they’ve started hiring people. Like most startups, they first hired people they know, generalists, and gradually they started to recruit other types of leaders as well.

Some leaders might come from other startups. But in this case, some leaders came from other multinationals. That’s an aside really, but sometimes I wonder if startups are trying to emulate their investor’s organizations, especially when they suddenly start to call themselves CEOs and CFOs, even when there’s only 20 people in the business. I’ll talk about that another time.

I was called in to give management team coaching. The presenting problem, was that they weren’t able to take decisions together. At the time, there were three founders in that team and three external people. The three founders had shares as well. The external people could get shares as the company grew, but didn’t have shares yet. I wasn’t really clear yet what the underlying problem was, so I asked the CEO, who commissioned me, “Can I sit in on one of your meetings?” And so, I sat in on one of their meetings.

It took ages, I was sitting there for three hours with six people who really did not take any decisions.

Getting Distracted

They discussed a lot. They got distracted by details. They started to discuss the Christmas party. They involved other people, sat in with the team, who were not management team members. We ended the three hours without any decisions taken, but a lot of heartbeats going much faster because of the stress.

What really happened here? What kind of distractions were there?

A distraction in technical terms for me is when people start to talk about the process in the group much more than they talk about the work. As a guideline, when the dynamics in the group, of pressure or agitation or intrigue, get higher than the forces of cohesion, people tend to turn inwards and start to talk about the process and the group, the lack of leadership more than they focus on the task.

Confusion in their roles

One of the things that struck me is that most of the dynamics were around the confusion between the shareholder and the management role. So, three founders were actually busy fighting with each other during management team meetings, while the others were bystanders and silenced by the process.

I decided to speak to the three founders separately: “Look, there’s a difference between being a shareholder and running the company strategically long-term, and being a manager, where you make sure that these decisions are executed and you’re focused on creating cohesion within the management team.”

My proposal was to coach both groups separately, instead of together, to see if a differentiation in structure would help them to solve their problems. Now, I manage them and coach them separately, the management team has calmed down a lot.
What has emerged in the shareholder team is very usual for startups, and that’s really what I want to talk about as well.


When you start a start-up, you actually create a partnership based on interdependence, in which you share the ownership of the company. In this case, there was someone who was really good at operations, someone who was really good technologically, and someone who was a really good sales and general manager. And they started off their journey together saying, “Hey, we’re brothers in arms and we depend on each other for the success of the whole.”

As time went on, they grew and they become more successful. And gradually the sales function and the general management function became more important in relation to the investor. The product was already there. It was selling well. The technology was gradually being improved, but didn’t need any leaps and bounds.

And so, the person who was the CEO got to think, well, actually I’m not so dependent on the other two to be successful.

This happens in startups a lot. You start on a basis of equality and interdependence. And as you become more successful, you start to think you can do it without the other two or three or whatever number you are. One of the really important things as a team coach is to teach people the notion of interdependence.

Interdependence: I can only win if you win. If you lose, I lose.

The difficulty with that is that we spend most of our lives avoiding interdependence. Especially in the west, we’re taught to become independent. And as the pressure grows, that striving to be independent becomes bigger. What I would really propose is that one of the jobs of team coaches is to promote interdependence and teaching people that actually together we can win more.


Further reading/watching:

Cooperation in teams: Contracting Level 3: Psychological Contract – video training

Cooperation in teams: Cross-functional cooperation breeds innovation – video training


Leadership: No Exceptions – Leadership in family business – video training — May 21, 2019

Leadership: No Exceptions – Leadership in family business – video training



Leadership: No Exceptions – Clarifying The Formal Leadership Structure

Today, I’d like to talk about leadership, because leadership is a concern not only in organizations, but in the world today. The first thing I want to say about leadership is the importance of clarity of structure.

One day I was speaking at a conference and the grandson of the owner of a business comes up to me. And he says, “Would you be willing to come to help us?” So, I flew out. He chauffeured me to a very expensive restaurant and started telling me about the various incidents they had as leaders within their family business.

He told me about the good things, the growth of the company, expansion internationally, the beauty of the product they make. And on the other hand, he spoke of robbery, of betrayal, of the falling apart of the family during this whole process. And he actually ended up by telling me, “Look, they’ve asked me to be the successor of my grandfather, but I’m not sure I want to take this role as it stands. Do I want to belong to this community and do I want to take over the responsibility and accountability for all of this?”

“Doctor, do you think we can be cured?” I had to think about that, because when you work as a team coach or a business consultant, curing is on your mind, but perhaps not in the way that he thought.

The way I think about curing a family business like this is three step process. The starting point is clarity of structure, then clarity of relationship. And then, what kind of culture do we want to set up to be able to work together?

Clarity of Structure

So, let’s start with the clarity of structure in this case. One of the first things I asked him to do before I decided to take on the coaching was, to study the organogram? Can I see a picture of how the structure of your business is?”

And I said to him, “Okay, so explain this to me.”

And he said, “Well, look, we have a headquarters here and this is the London office.” And I looked, store manager, three employees. Okay. Then I looked at Hanover. And he said, “Oh, yeah, we have a business here as well.” I looked at the picture, store manager employees, etc., etc.

And then, we looked at Dubai and I looked and it said two store managers, three employees. I looked at him and I said, “Do you know what’s going on here?”

He said, “Well, look. One store manager is for real and the other store manager is in a relationship with my father, but we didn’t know where to put her. So, we put her there.”

Now you may laugh at this, but in my world, mixing the formal and informal structures creates significant problems in any organisation.

When people mix the levels, then invariably the dynamics in the company are affected. Some people are favourites and others aren’t, some are closer to the leader and others aren’t. It also means something to the rest of the people in the company who are clear about who they are and where they are, but who see an example of management by exception.

Family Business Relationships

One of the things I teach leaders in the family business is the importance of separating the shareholder relationship, the family relationship and the management relationship. So, that’s where we started in this company as well.

1. Shareholder group: Your shareholders set long term strategy, take decisions about investments and key players

2. Management team: You have a managerial relationship with each other, because a lot of family members were also managers. How are you going to create a business relationship, across domains and disciplines?

3. Family relationships: And there is the level of you are also family members with a long term history. How are you going to manage that?

In this case, the most important intervention I could do at this early stage was to clarify the structure, the formal structure, and to teach the family the importance of proximity and equal distance.

Treat everyone the same, and everyone will treat you the same.

And that calms down the system and makes it possible to manage.


Further reading:

Team agility and business innovation: Agile boundary paradoxes

To be agile you have to align your organisational structures vertically