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Some readers may feel that my characterisation of the mind-set of financial markets executives and the zero sum game in my previous note implies that coaching these executives is akin to “shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.” However, in this second excerpt from the original article I share success stories.


In my experience, financial market executives value a competitive advantage and the leading edge. They will latch on to coaching interventions if you can demonstrate the relevance to them of becoming a new observer. You need to get a sense of what they really care about, of what is missing for them and the inherent waste in their current practices. You also need to explore with them how they can improve the engagement and profitability of their teams and organisations. 

Changed Behaviours and Moods

Having just returned from a coaching meeting with one of my clients, I am humbled and inspired by how much he has changed – and he is but one example. He had exhibited classic traits of needing to be right, being judgemental, dismissive, distrustful, and unable to ask for help. Today he is visibly transformed. There is a spring in his step. His face is much more relaxed. He can turn his Blackberry off. He can and frequently asks for help from his colleagues. He coaches and celebrates the success of his reports. He recognises that focussing on not being “good enough” or “having enough” and living in a mood of resentment is exhausting. He can see instead the many things material and non-material for which he can be grateful. He can be satisfied that there will always be someone who will have more than him or earn more than him. He has shifted from victim mode. He acknowledges that missing out on some promotions and not having a powerful public profile is within his remit to alter. He is full of possibility and eager to try on for size the body disposition of sovereign.#

Industry Context

Recall that this industry and the economic models on which it is predicated are based on fear and scarcity. It is therefore not surprising that these executives can be micro-managers, perfectionists and linear thinkers. They are motivated more by the 20% they or their reports got wrong than celebrating the 80% they or their reports got right. 

Control to Engagement

Another of my coachees was renowned for saying “no” and setting targets well within his ability. He felt very uncomfortable in stepping outside of what he knew; of not being in direct control and shifting from management to leadership. He considered his colleagues the “conduits to the process.” His transformation too, has been remarkable. He no longer treats people as conduits; rather, he embraces the “messiness” of human beings having a full range of emotions, histories and cultural preferences. 

He engages with his colleagues, from the most junior of secretaries to the executives at Head Office. They have very different communication styles and he now recognises what motivates and concerns them. He acknowledges that inspiring them to follow him entails managing his own mood and that of his teams. A tall, imposing man who previously unwittingly set the tone, now he actively flexes his style and interactions with others. He is visibly joyful when recounting the successes of his team and rather than “getting the tanks out and going in all ablaze” he now facilitates the space so that his direct reports come up with the solutions and “walk a mile in each other’s moccasins.” 

He notices the world around him and he engages and motivates his children to do their homework and practice. Notwithstanding another promotion and the need to roll up his sleeves and help his new team, he is having fun and he is prepared to dance with the unknown. 

Commitment and Dedication

These shifts have come about due to my clients’ dedication to self- reflection, practice, taking risks and what they have learned from the ontological distinctions developed by my teachers, to whom I am indebted. Their learning has been reinforced by their buddies and bosses familiar with the same distinctions, who themselves have undergone significant shifts in who they are as observers. Also, their new CEO has embraced and funded a programme of ongoing learning at the Executive Committee level through off sites and, at a broader level, a cultural values assessment. In my experience, individual coaching in isolation has a reduced likelihood of success. A growing body of research (see for example, Schlosser, Steinbrenner, Kumata, & Hunt, 2006) identifies the importance of having one’s manager informed, aligned and supportive in the performance environment. In this instance, executive team alignment, coaching and group work can create a virtuous circle of support and reinforcement. 

How do we talk about care?

In working with this cohort of executives, I noted my own initial reluctance to discuss what they care about. I was worried that notions of care would be seen to be inappropriate in this most brutal of industries or that they’d say they had had enough and wanted to exit their firms and industry. As my confidence grew and my learning was supported by Bob Dunham and my classmates, my effectiveness as a coach has improved. 

In some arenas, business or organisational coaching is devoid of any conversation about family or personal life. As one coach said to me, “I don’t go there. My role is to help them increase their turnover and their margins. Personal stuff is too much like therapy.” As my experiences and those of my clients show, work encroaches on our private life and vice versa. If we are to assist our clients in gaining new perspectives, then to me it is self-evident that exploring their industry, family life, historical and gender discourses are essential to help them become new observers and so see new opportunities and sustain their transformation. 

Clearly, I am not advocating that we become zealots, espousing our own views of what constitutes a more enlightened world. Indeed, some extremely successful financial executives believe that their very success is predicated on being paranoid, not being satisfied, being insecure and having something to prove. They fear that if they change and consider the human consequences, then they will lose their edge and investment prowess. However, we fail in our duty and responsibility as coaches if we do not provoke and show our clients a different way of being and the costs to them and society more broadly of their behaviours. As Dunham (2009) argues, we become more effective as coaches and leaders when we can observe what is missing. 

Bigger questions

I am intrigued by developments in economics and complexity theory (Beinhocker, 2007) and the arguments put forward by Lietaer (2000) and confess that the observer I am is still blinkered, so that I can’t yet envision what a more collaborative market might look like. Is it even possible, if arbitrage and the supremacy of information and knowledge are the way to make money? Does bringing back humanity to the process paradoxically work against the community in general as decisions can no longer be made dispassionately and hence are unlikely to generate the best returns for clients (and their livelihoods)? 

There are just so many questions, so many ways to examine and challenge the status quo. For example, 

  •  Is greed really a basic human instinct? Clearly self- interest is or we wouldn’t be alive. Or is greed a choice (conscious or unconscious)? We are not automatons; what sets us apart from other animals is that humans can be educated, become aware and make choices. 
  •  It’s too easy to point the finger at the bankers, shareholders, evil CEOs, etc. We are all part of this capitalist society that seems to dismiss or avoid any discussions of morality.
  • What of the bonus culture? It’s fine to be rewarded for doing a job well done, but “privatize the gain, socialize the loss?” How can the asymmetric risk be addressed more sensibly and equitably? 
  • How do the regulators make a difference sooner, not after the horse has bolted? 
  • Moral hazard: Can the income stream of agencies be separated from the ratings they bestow on new and complex products? 
  • How can the insights and concerns of back offices, compliance, risk assessment, etc. be integrated into the trading rooms rather than being laughed off the floor? 
  • Is competition the most effective way to organise a community? Some argue that collaboration is a function of a more sophisticated community. 
  • If people really want to make money sustainably, what role can independent thinking play? I don’t think that herd-like behaviour, insecurity and wild punts will do it. 

I invite the reader to engage in correspondence with me to explore how to challenge what are currently seen as “natural laws” of human behaviour, organisation of developed economies and market systems. 

As Dee Hock, the founder of Visa International, stated, 

In times of extraordinary change, it is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream – the failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we might realise. (Lietaer, 2000, p. 18).  


# For a thorough explanation of how important our bodies are to what we can and cannot achieve, see Strozzi-Heckler (2007). 

*This is an edited excerpt from My win, your loss or the Zero Sum Game: The Mind-set of Financial Markets Executives, written by Sylvana Caloni, IJCO The International Journal of Coaching in Organizations™, 2009 7(4), 18-43. 


Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • A natural law that may need a shake-up is that competition is the most effective way to organise a community. Competition between organisations certainly enables each to spread the cost of R&D as each nicks the others’ ideas but, the natural competition experienced within teams for individual status, recognition, salary, bonuses etc can stifle innovation and creativity. If a team is a group of people pulling together toward a common objective, it must be a collaborative affair.

    • sylvanacaloni says:

      Good point Christopher. The days of “dog eat dog” are increasingly recognised as suboptimal for the best team outcomes.

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