Mike Johnson was lost in thought as he made his way into work, the car driving itself past fields and then into the city centre where Mike worked as a senior project manager for one of the local utilities. It felt like he’d been doing this for years and his Blackberry buzzed as the latest emails arrived for his attention. It used to be fun but competition had struck his industry, the hours were long and he lived in a world of cost control, endless meetings and constant reorganisation. His wife had started to complain that he was no fun anymore and his constant need to be in touch with work interrupted their family life.
He sighed as he thought about his day. At his last performance review his boss had offered him the chance to work with a coach, something about a new initiative for all senior managers. He saw that he didn’t really have a choice and had agreed rapidly, not wanting to appear difficult. There were rumours of more redundancies and Mike knew he had to toe the line but their first meeting was today and it was a 90 minute distraction he could do without.
Still the coach, John, had sounded OK on the phone – not one of those airy, fairy HR types – someone with a bit of business experience, and he’d asked Mike to think about what he wanted from their ‘coaching sessions’.
And that’s why he was so deep in thought. He didn’t really know. He’d assumed it was another useless initiative from HQ and that all he’d have to do was pay lip service. The question had shocked him a bit. He thought he’d have a bit of fun with it though. ‘Let’s see if this coach knows his stuff when I tell him I don’t know’.
That should shorten the meeting nicely.
“Hi Mike” said John, walking into the office. Relaxed and fit at a little over six feet, his hair was longer than Mike was used to seeing at work. Mike handed him a black coffee.
“So, let’s get started then, what is it that you really want?” Mike was thrown off balance for a moment, he’d expected some small talk first but fine, if that’s the way he wants it. He put both his hands down flat on the desk and looked at John. “I don’t know” he said, sitting back.
John smiled “You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t know”.
“How do you know that you don’t know?”
“Well,” said Mike considering the question. “The truth is I’ve never really known.”
“I see” said John “Forgive me but what DO you know about what you don’t know?”
Mike surprised himself. “Look, I’m a senior project manager here, I’m busy, I’m well paid and I’ve had a lot of fun over the years but I’ve always had a vague feeling that there is something else. I can see that if I’m not careful I’m going to spend the rest of my life here, although I know if only I could figure out what I really wanted I would go and do it.”
“I used to enjoy solving problems but now I’m beginning to get the same questions and the same problems repeating themselves. Truth is I’m a bit bored and a bit tired. I know people who’ve stuck at a job they don’t like for years. They talk about doing something different but they don’t know what.” He paused. “My kids are growing up and soon they will have to make decisions about work. They are going to ask me and I feel a bit of a fraud helping them because I still don’t know after all these years.”
John stabbed a finger at him “Your problem is, you’re too bright!”
“What do you mean?” Mike shot back, annoyed at the abrupt tone. This wasn’t going the way he’d planned it.
“You’re too bright and you’ve got too many choices” said John. “The truth is that you could do almost anything you wanted and be good at it. The funny thing is though that instead of feeling excited by all these choices, you feel paralysed. You just end up with a vague feeling that you could be doing something else but not ever doing it.”
“That’s it exactly” said Mike
“It’s a lot more common than you might think. Would you be interested in some help to figure out what you really want?”
“Yes,” said Mike “but what about the stuff from Corporate HR, what’s your brief?”
“I see that they haven’t told you.” He paused. “You’re part of a new initiative designed to help this business plan its ‘managerial succession’. They have identified managers who have a high potential for promotion and given me a free hand to work with them. How do you feel about that?”
Mike groaned. “Truth is, the thought of taking on a bigger job doesn’t thrill me and although the money would be nice, my wife would walk out if I gave any more attention to work. Maybe it’s time I figured out what I actually wanted for a change.”
“Great” said John, “Why don’t we start now?”
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