4 min read

The Career Coach

Sometimes your future asks questions of your past.
The Career Coach

The questions my coach asked were difficult. They were delivered in perfect English and they were not the ones I was asking myself.

Why do you assume leadership positions? Why do you struggle to delegate? Why are trust and loyalty such an important thing for you? Why do you think that your work ethic negatively affects those around you? Why are you unable to simply do nothing?

Het Coachhuis was an ornate building, located at Boschstraat 45. It was the former home of Petrus Regout, founder of the ceramic industry in Maastricht. Ceramique, on the first floor, was his former office.

The room in the building where my career coach and I talked every few months was called Faïencerie. This was the name for the area of the factory in which the earthenware was made; the foundry.

It might be fair to say that I tend to distract myself from the real issues at hand.

Coaches and therapists used Het Coachhuis to meet clients. Or patients, as I suppose some of us might be called. The building had the air of a gentleman's club. Therefore I felt, as I often do, awkward and under-dressed. I was born under-dressed.

My coach asked "Why?", a lot, deploying a technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda of the Toyota Motor Corporation. Toyoda used the "Five Whys" to determine cause-and-effect. By asking "Why?" five times, he surmised that we can reach the root of any problem.

Unless you are a coach or a therapist, I do not recommend to use this technique in meetings. People become quite annoyed.

In our introductory session, my coach and I found out that her parents lived no more than fifteen minutes from my mother in England.

Over time, my coach and I moved away from dismantling the typical work challenges of fundraising, human resources, and coping with stress. Sometimes we didn't talk about my career at all.

What it was like being the eldest of six children? What was your relationship with your father like after he left? How is it that you find doing nothing so hard? Why are you so preoccupied? Do you ask the right questions?

At the heart of the building where we met was the Sphinxlounge, a large room with a skylight, a reading table, and Ionic columns. There was an empty bookshelf and a mosaic floor. When I walked past, I always half-expected to see King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands in there, puffing on a De Olifant cigar.

One of the therapy rooms, Encastage, was named after the part of the Sphinx factory where workers loaded the kiln wagons. Triage took its name from the factory's sorting department. The person who named the rooms was clearly partial to a metaphor, therapy as industrial labour.

Maastricht, Sphinx-Timmerfabriek_ca. 1905

My coach and I used to sit in Faïencerie on angular armchairs inspired by the 1920s. Sometimes I avoided eye contact and stared at a potted fern or distracted myself with the geometric tiling of the restored fireplace. Out of the window was an unremarkable view over outbuildings surrounding an unseen garden.

On the wall was a poster, an illustration of a blue dragonfly, une libellule. Dragonfly is de Libel in Dutch and die Libelle in German. Recently I learned that they are all derived from the Latin lībella, meaning balance or level.

Over time, my coach and I formed a bond that allowed us to work on more substantive matters. Our sessions were hard, I was challenged to think about my background. For the first time, I forged connections between my childhood, my person, and my work.

Later, at home, I often discovered the answers to her questions. She set in place an industrious kind of thinking, one that would not stop after the sessions ended. But often my answers contrived yet more questions.

One day, she shared a quote with me:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world."

This stayed with me. Are we asking ourselves the wrong questions? What potential are we limiting when we do so?

My coach was unsure of the origin of the quote. She thought they might be words from Mandela's inauguration speech after becoming the first black president of South Africa.

The hour always passed swiftly. Afterwards, I would take a walk around the cobbled Markt, down from the old Sphinx factory district, and think about that quote as people around me bought smoked fish.

I later learned that Mandela did not, in fact, say the child of God speech. The origin is not as important as the lesson: asking the right questions is the real work.

In our final coaching session, three years after we first met, I revealed to my career coach that I would quit my job. The pandemic had forced us to do speak via video conference. She asked me what I was going to do next.

I told her proudly that I had asked myself the right questions. I was going to take a year out and write a book.

My coach looked at me through the screen.

Very good. But which is it?

I didn't understand. She laughed.

Which is it? Are you taking a year out? Or are you writing a book?

‌Thanks for reading

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Thanks to my Foster editors David Burt, Alfonso Guerrero-Villa and Dan Hunt. And to Julia Hildebrand for the counselling.