Case Study

8.1 Case Story

(The names and some details have been altered to preserve anonymity.)

Act 1: Situate

I worked with a medium sized service organization that was experiencing turbulence in the wake of the sudden departure of the CEO. Nancy was a senior manager in her late fifties who was increasingly being called on to step up as an interim leader and advocate for the management team and the staff in the midst of this unexpected vacuum. She was resisting these pleas even though she was not clear why she was doing so. The purpose for our session was to help her decide what she wanted to do about the current situation.

Nancy’s first story was about coaching a young staff member who felt stuck in not knowing what to do about a client’s difficult legal situation. What struck me about this story was her mentoring of her new staff member about how to ‘get out of the middle.’ It echoed the sense of feeling stuck that she herself faced as she was caught between those who wanted her to step in and her own uncertainty about what was hers to do.

Act 2: Search

At one level, Nancy seemed to be quite willing to let things drift along as they had always been. However, parallel stories emerged about how she had responded at earlier times in her life when she faced big changes, for example, stepping into new roles when she divorced and more recently as her children moved away from home. This began to open the conversation to larger themes at play in her life and to what was calling her now.

Nancy spoke about her young adult children as establishing their own lives and continuing to evolve a new relationship with their mother. She saw herself at a turning point with them. The poignancy of this phase in her life also came across through a story about her return to her alma mater to take some classes and soon finding herself talking with young women who ‘didn’t know the history of what went on here.’

She said that she wanted to be able to build relationships at work on her own terms before the ‘huge stereotype of older women gets in the way.’ She expresses her ambivalence about this transition ‘because I’m older than everyone, there’s an expectation about knowing things in a way that I don’t think of myself as knowing things … I just see myself as somebody at the table, like everybody else at the table, and you’re just tossing out ideas. … You know that feeling of just being peers … and now that’s not true. Now that’s not true.’ This was said with a sense of sadness and loss, as often is the case in this phase as people confront that which is ebbing away in order to prepare for what is to come next.

Act 3: Shift

Her ‘object of desire’ emerged through an inquiry about role models that yielded stories about the pioneering women in her family of origin. She saw herself as entering a time in her life and her career that called for redefinition, but she wasn’t sure what that looked like. She described herself as ‘betwixt and between,’ and ‘not quite sure what it meant to be 58.’ She became aware that her lingering uncertainty reflected the fact that she was being asked to choose a new place for herself at work at the same time she was seeking a new place in her own life. We returned to the stories of the elder women, who somehow seemed important for her at this juncture.

She remarked at one point, ‘I have great role models going into old, old age. We have a very strong Irish woman connection through the generations in my family and a strong ongoing community in our family, particularly through my aunts.’ She regaled me with some of the powerful tales they told her over the years.

I asked her near the end, ‘If you were to take these older women as your council of elders, how would that change what you did at work?’ She responded that she had taken them in as her council and they were with her all the time as wise voices even when they were not nearby. She then went back into a story she had mentioned before, but this time she told it in more detail. In so doing, she was able to break through to the heart of her dilemma about what role to play at this critical time of change in her life and in her organization.

There was a ritual in my family, and I don’t even know if it was conscious, but the women in the family would get together, and the tea would come out. They would sit around the table, and they would drink tea. That was always the first question when I came in the door, ‘Would you have a cup of tea? Can I fix you a cup of tea, darling?’

And you knew that you had been accepted, that you had passed from childhood into a new status as a young woman, when you were invited to the table for tea. It was a huge honour for my daughter when it was her turn, though she didn’t really appreciate it until she was older. That’s one of the family rites.’ [Long pause … ] ‘It’s my turn to serve tea, isn’t it?’

And with that insight, tears came to her eyes. She realized that while she was not ‘ just one of the gang’ anymore as the most senior member of the management team, she still was free to make her own choice. In recognizing that ‘it’s my turn now to be an elder,’ she realized that all of her life she had been the youngest (the last of 36 cousins, for example). ‘I am truly a youngest child and only know in an academic sense what an oldest does – and I am an oldest now.’

She realized that the challenge at work was emblematic of a much larger transformation in her life. From this new narrative about herself she could begin to explore what being an oldest would look like for her.

Act 4: Sustain

After the session, Nancy decided not to take on the role as interim leader, but instead to use her experience to help her peers on the management team move through the crisis. While our formal work was done, I stayed in touch as part of a larger project that involved her organization. She remained content that she had made the right choice and seemed to have found a new vitality for work.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you notice about the flow and the pacing in this coaching session?
  • What role did identity play in this process?
  • What are the connections between stories and decisions?