On how to step back, trust your team and embrace a completely different business culture

Ralph was the Head of EMEA Sales for a Technology Company headquartered in the West Coast of the United States. Of German nationality, he was based between Frankfurt and London and had been in the company for 12 years. He had started as a software sales professional and had made his way up to being EMEA Head of Sales.

Ralph was a valued and admired member of the company, however his career had reached a ceiling the previous year when the position of Head of EMEA (all divisions) had become available and the role was offered to a US colleague. This role would have been Ralph’s natural next step in the company so he was naturally very disappointed and talked to key stakeholders about this. It soon became clear to Ralph that the company valued him enormously but that they did not see him as a leader, able to inspire and motivate people under him. Indeed, Ralph was seen as a strong sales person, detail-oriented with great analytical skills, but some of the basic leadership skills he needed were missing. Some described him as “very German, inflexible, and slightly negative, always anticipating what could go wrong”, which clashed with the company ‘s “can-do” attitude.

Ralph had started his career in this company as a sales person and was very inflexible on how things should be done by his team. “He had been there and knew best”. He found it difficult to accept other ways of working within his team, which led him to micro-managing people and processes. Ralph knew he needed to change certain behaviours which were limiting his potential so he talked to HR and some of his senior peers for advice. All agreed that Executive Coaching was the right next step forward for his personal development.

After four chemistry meetings, Ralph chose Natalia as his coach. He liked the fact that she had a business and multicultural background and responded well to her direct and pragmatic style, which was balanced by a highly empathic and supportive nature. Ralph was very open to coaching, which made the task a lot more straightforward for Natalia. However, it was clear from the very beginning that he had a lot of difficulty talking about himself, his feelings and his emotions. This would turn out to be the most challenging part of the coaching programme.

Desired outcomes

The desired outcomes of the programme were defined in a three-way meeting with HR and Ralph’s direct manager. During that meeting, it was agreed that a 360 survey would be carried out among Ralph’s team and key stakeholders to support the process. In addition, HR were keen to apply a psychometric tool like MBTI, having used it previously within the company.

The desired outcomes for the programme were as follows:

  1. Leadership and interpersonal skills: Work on the leadership skills that would allow him to grow within the firm. He had difficulty inspiring and motivating his team. Some of the key stakeholders based in the US complained that Ralph was not visible and always “hid behind” another member of the team.
  2. Team interaction: Inspire and accept differences within the team. As a leader, he was to identify and transform ineffective patterns co-created by him and his team (micromanagement, ineffective communication patterns, failed delegation, stress and anxiety).
  3. Adapt to the culture of the organisation: Ralph was to embrace a more positive “yes we can” mindset. This was a real barrier for him as he found it difficult to understand the culture of the company and of some of the top members within the organisation.
  4. Business results: By doing better at the above, what else might change? What might happen in terms of tangible results? Ideally Ralph would grow more independent in his role, achieve better results, grow and develop his team members, and eventually get the promotion he was after for the last few years. He would develop more presence, become more integrated within the firm and be perceived as a leader by the board. In Ralph’s case, the business result would be to get promoted to Head of EMEA, all divisions, or to a similar role within one to two years.


What were the results of the actions taken thus far? What benefits did these results have on the individual and the organisation? How noticeable were they to others? What was the return on investment? What steps were taken to sustain all the work which had been done to this point? How might this case be summated? What commitment was there for further work?

Below are the results from each outcome:

  1. Leadership and interpersonal skills: Ralph ranked himself a 5 out of 10 at the beginning of the programme. By the end he ranked himself a 6.5. One year later he was at a 7. What happened for that change to take place? Ralph quickly realised that as a leader he needed to think strategically and have vision. Somehow, his day-to-day was so busy that he found it very difficult to leave his “doing” way of being. He realised that by changing the external environment where he was working, he could see things from a different perspective and be more creative. He got into the habit of diarising 2 to 4 hours a week: he would leave the office and work from other locations where he was not constantly disturbed and didn’t have all the day-to-day distractions. Ralph also worked on his presence. He started to pay more attention to his body, relax more, be more mindful about what was happening around him. As a result, he realised that his body language had changed, he was more inclusive, more light-hearted, and even managed to make some jokes in meetings. He made the effort to travel at least once every 6 weeks to the Headquarters and meet with key senior people. The latter more than welcomed Ralph’s visits and his sharing of information about business in EMEA. He became more visible, open, connected, positive. Ralph was still quite risk averse and always needed to overanalyse information to make a decision. This did not change dramatically, but he became more aware of it.
  2. Team interaction: Ralph ranked himself a 5 out of 10 at the beginning of the programme. By the end he ranked himself a 7. What happened for that change to take place? This goal was a difficult one for Ralph: he had been a successful salesman for many years, and found it difficult to reconcile other ways of working. He always knew best. Ralph realised that the only way to understand the different perspectives from people in his team was to spend more time with them, listen what they had to say, and connect with them more. Ralph started to diarise one-to-ones with different people in his team, both in the office and offsite. For the first time, Ralph organised a team retreat in Venice, where having fun was the top priority. This was completely outside of Ralph’s comfort zone — he was too serious to relax and have fun with work colleagues. However, something changed over that weekend and the mood of his team noticeably lifted. Ralph decided to organise 2 team retreats per year, which the team responded very well to. Ralph described the shift in his team as more “committed and motivated”. He found that his team performed perfectly well without his micro-management. Business results had aligned with previous years, but that was good enough for Ralph. He had always thought that if he let go things would collapse, but this was simply not the case.
  3. Adapt to the culture of the organisation: This was not an easy goal, however Ralph knew that by having more positive thoughts and visualising what being positive might look like, his feelings and behaviours would change as a result. Identifying people that he admired and who were part of this culture helped him to imagine what things might look like for him if he were more open-minded. Ralph recognised through the programme that by applying the principles described above — being more present, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and centering himself — he was able to fully understand and embrace the culture.

Next Steps

To finalise the programme, Natalia met with HR and Ralph in a three-way meeting. They discussed his progress and how they could sustain some of the behaviour changes which took place during the programme. As part of the process, they agreed to have 2 follow-up sessions per year. HR and Ralph’s direct manager would also be involved: they agreed that they would collect records of Ralph’s reviews twice a year and make them available to Natalia for the follow-up sessions. Ralph also outlined a list of tasks and actions which would help him sustain these behaviours after the programme had finished.

The overall feedback following the coaching programme was that Ralph was less reactive, more present, happier, more fun, and engaged more with top managers in the company. This feedback was so rewarding that Ralph was very keen to maintain behavioural change and made a very conscious effort to do so. At the time of writing, Ralph has not been promoted yet but continues to be commended on his performance and contribution to the business by colleagues and seniors alike.

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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