Tuesday, March 17, 2009

John Engels

John Engels is founder and president of Leadership Coaching, Inc., a leadership consulting firm in Upstate New York, focused on the mentoring and growth of CEOs, presidents, their executive teams and their families. His Advanced Leadership Course for CEOs has been recognized nationally for its depth and practical emphasis on high-level functioning at work and home. He has traveled widely, participating in developing world projects in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Peru. An insatiable curiosity for knowledge and a constant search for depth in life and self are a few key values John brings to his consulting practice.

Tell us a little bit about how you got started and what put you on the path of wanting to give back in this way.

I think started is a funny word. Lots of dramatic events happened in my childhood which had an impact on me. I grew up Roman Catholic. So, there was a lot of emphasis in my upbringing on service; concern for the poor and for people that don’t have enough. My parents came from poverty. They had to learn how to survive and they appreciated the small pleasures in life. I got a feel for that early on.

Though they were poor, each of my parents had a lot of motivation to succeed and get ahead. They had tasted poverty and they didn’t want to taste it again. I think it was very influential for me. I am the oldest of five, so from that sibling position an expectation was programmed into me that I would be successful. That I would be achievement oriented. It was just in there.

I’ve always had an insatiable desire to learn. To look for insight in off-the-beaten-path places, where others aren’t going. I can remember my mother telling us, “Don’t be a conformist!”

I’ve looked in very strange places for knowledge and that habit has been very useful for me; bringing a perspective to my clients that is not only different, but in many ways subversive. So, that’s a big competitive advantage. I’m like a sponge. Yes, I have the academic degrees, but that has not stimulated the greatest learning for me. Book knowledge simply readied me for the real learning, which has come in prison visits, wilderness adventures, hospital morgues, villages in developing worlds, and to a large degree, in conversations with my clients.

What does your business and its delivery system look like?

People choose to buy an apple based on the skin. Is it shiny? Dull? Red? Yellow? Does it have dimples on it? The skin of the apple is not the meat of the apple. The skin of the apple is not the apple, it is just the cover. Most leaders live in a world where only the superficial elements of leadership are looked at - personality, physical appearance, resume, compensation, etc. My team and I help veteran and high-potential leaders look at the meat of the apple - their emotional maturity, their confidence and skill as coaches to others, the clarity of their thinking and decision-making, and so on. We help leaders know, trust and communicate their substance. That enables them to influence others - both at work and at home - in more meaningful ways.

Our business model centers on a course that I founded thirteen years ago, the Advanced Leadership Course. It takes CEOs and other senior level leaders through an eight month process - one full day a month for eight months - teaching the science of leadership and developing them as high functioning mentors. The course is often the beginning of a relationship with Leadership Coaching, Inc. that extends far beyond the eight months. Half of the graduates end up in some sort of long term relationship with me. I offer an annual retreat that about 100 graduates of the Advanced Leadership Course come to every year. And, I feed them...I give them more.

My belief is that what ultimately impresses people is the depth, not the skin. That is something to know about life. Don’t just look at the outside and what seems to be. There is more than that going on. I deal all day with people that have made a living out of trying to look good, and to stay comfortable. And, unfortunately for many, that’s where their focus ends. We try to lead leaders in a different direction. For example, we make an effort to help leaders manage and overrule discomfort instead of trying to avoid it. Sometimes, progress is not possible without discomfort, so managing it becomes critical. Leaders who learn how to do this can take the world by storm.

What advice would you give to the people of Western New York?

That’s a really easy question to answer because I don’t give advice. I never give advice. Don’t know what’s best for others. It’s challenging enough to figure out what’s best for me. And, that is an important point right there.

The last time I was asked that question it was by Mayor Robert Duffy, just before he took office. He invited me to breakfast and asked me for advice. I told him the same thing, “I don’t give advice,” and I could see he was somewhat stunned by my answer. We went on to have a very animated conversation.

Everybody seems to have lots of advice for everybody else which is a sign of a toxic and regressive culture. Do I really know what you should be doing? Do I know what that guy over there should be doing? Should I tell him what to do because something that worked for me should work for him? I have no idea. That is the most honest answer I can give.

If someone asks me what I have found helpful, I will tell them. Not in an advice-giving way, just sharing my own experience.

When I say, “I don’t know what you should do”, it leaves you with the responsibility to figure it out. And, it turns out that you figuring it out provides more value to you then all of the advice you might be getting elsewhere. So, I’m actually giving you a gift by saying I don’t know. I’m driving value to you because the alternative would keep you in a helpless, dependent position.

Anybody who falls into the trap of telling others what to do is not thinking clearly. How can somebody, no matter how smart they are, know what’s best for me if they’re not me? They don’t even know me. This is true in families. It’s true with spouses. It’s true with kids. Do your parents know what’s best for you? They can’t possibly know. Most often, parents don’t even know what’s best for them! That’s just the way it is.

This is the kind of experience that I try to give my clients; discombobulating their assumptions. Challenging these things they take as automatically true. I question them. I ask them, “Who told you that?”

For example, when a client says to me, “I’d never ask my people to do something I’m not willing to do myself.” They tell me that and they really believe their practicing good leadership.

I say, “That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would you be doing what your people are doing? You’re not them. You’re not where they are. You’re leading. Why would you, as a Principal of a high school, think that you need to set up chairs in the auditorium? So your people think you’re one of them? Why do you need that coziness? Why do you need their approval? What should a top-notch Principal be doing? Do we need the Principal to set up chairs or to think about where the school is going?

This is an example of really helping people think at a deeper level. Not just trite, throw away phrases. I’ve studied people and leadership for a long, long time, so I have at least a modest idea what this leadership thing is all about. Most people are very superficial in their understanding and I’m talking about people who head businesses, families and even nations.

My business is thriving because we offer people a level of value that matches what they need. And, often times, what they don’t know they need. It is high value, high risk, and high reward type of work. It requires understanding someone’s life and work, so we can help them with the most important challenges. Meeting with people at this level brings a high level of meaningfulness and satisfaction to me, and to those who do this work with me.

I know you work a lot at the family level with people as well. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

It’s not so much work-life balance. It’s you understanding as a leader what the influence of your multi-generational history is on how you function everyday. Each of us grew up in a family system that produced patterns in us; emotional patterns, ways of acting, and ways of being that profoundly impact how we function. Those patterns are unconsciously governing our behavior everyday. We help leaders name and understand those patterns so they can make clearer choices about how they want to lead.

So, the first part of my work is to help my clients get thinking about what the connection is between how they were raised and how they lead as well as how they show up to their own kids and their wife or husband. Again, I think this is a deeper look at self.

My clients are quite wowed by this. I’m talking about people that have been all over the world and have done all kinds of things but they’ve never examined how their family history has influenced their functioning. We do a four generational family tree. We actually develop that with all of my clients, in an effort to help them go deeper and broader with their thinking. They’ve expressed profound appreciation for this aspect of what we do, and I think it’s because they’ve never thought about it.

We do individual coaching, work with teams, and give presentations all over the world on leadership, but the Advanced Leadership Course is our core. I give those 25 people each year everything I’ve got because every one of them is hungry to grow and influential to many others.

Where did the search for depth come from?

It came from my own experiences as a youngster. I experienced a lot of chaos in my life growing up. I grew up during Vietnam and the assassinations. There was a lot of heaviness during my childhood, in our home and in the world. The war was on TV every night, so I got sensitized to it all. It wasn’t something that I could ignore. I was thinking about it a lot. Then, my twin brother was killed in a car accident when I was 21 and a senior in college. That just rocked me.

From an early age, I was on a mission to find myself. So, what I’m asking my clients to do I am familiar with. I had to figure out how to grow up, deal with pain, with loss, and with the fact that I only have one life to live. What do I want to do with it?

I have been fortunate to marry a woman who is a person of great depth. We have shared questions and conversations with our three children from way back. We have tried to make conscious decisions about exposing our kids to the often-overlooked realities of life. As a quick example, we’ve made three trips to Bangladesh and two trips to a Harlem soup kitchen with our kids, but we’ve never been to Disney World. We don’t have anything against Disney World because for some people it’s great, but it’s just not our thing. My two sons would rather be wilderness camping than hanging out in a resort.

Bangladesh is a pretty out of the way place. I was introduced to it many years ago when a cyclone hit and I was wondering how I could help. Then I met a girl in an orphanage there who is now our daughter. One thing leads to another.

My purpose in life is to live at that deeper level. That’s what I want to do, and that’s what I invite others into. Some of the world’s best thinkers, individuals like Dr. Murray Bowen and Dr. Ed Friedman, have been my teachers; I know I did not arrive at this place without help. So, I have committed the rest of my life to teach others the ideas, principles and strategies that relate to being a more emotionally mature and responsible self. That’s what I’ve studied and that’s what I’ve tried to live.

It’s not really about business, it’s about life.

What’s next for you?

Lately I’ve been thinking about putting many of these ideas and principals into print. So, I think that’s next for me.

In addition, I’ve been doing this advanced level leadership work with CEOs for 25 years and a large percentage of my clients have reported to me that they wish they would have been exposed to this material earlier in their careers. These people are generally 35 to 60. One of my dreams is to deliver these ideas to 22 -30 year old high potential leaders.

These are life changing ideas. It would be great to find a way to give these skills to people earlier in life.

Final thoughts?

One thing that I’ve tried to do in my career that has really helped my business tremendously - and, it’s a great way to live - is win-win relationships. I never want to take from somebody unless I can give and I don’t want to give unless I can take. I’m always looking for the mutual aspect of an exchange.

I have three children; Nick, 23, Joe, 19, and Maria, 18. It’s important to me that our children see a lack of pretense when they look at my wife and myself.

My business is not slick or fancy. It reflects my own blue-collar background and values. This lack of pretense is what our clients are looking for. At the end of the day, our clients respond to the genuineness they see in us. They know we will ask them the important questions and challenge them without worrying about their approval.

John Engels
Founder & President
Leadership Coaching, Inc.
E: John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com