From Black & White to Technicolor
Episode #1005: Turning the key of change with Norma Rosenberg, an Executive Coach and Vistage Chair. Discover Norma Rosenberg's journey of moving from analytical-based management consulting to intuitive-based coaching, and how she paved the way for others in the then, male-dominated world.
About Norma Rosenberg
Norma Rosenberg is an executive coach and a Master Vistage Chair who has been working with CEOs and senior executives for 40+ years. She came to coaching after a career in management consulting with PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies. She has been a Chair with Vistage International since 1999 and has been coaching executives in management, sales, operations, marketing, customer service, and human resources. Her practice today is based in Manhattan and her clientele is a blend of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Norma is highly intuitive and perceptive. She is curious-minded, an innovator in the executive coaching field, and is pushing the limits of what coaching can be, particularly in our stay-at-home world.
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A serendipitous path
For the first 16 years, Norma was working with the public sector. After starting Columbia's Executive MBA program, she started thinking about shifting to the private sector. In 1980, she went to Coopers and Lybrand, which later became PwC. This transition turned out to be a change she needed. Because the private sector functions differently than the public sector, Norma needed to get used to it and "bring [her] own brand to the table," as she describes it.
Being a Vistage Chair
After working with PwC for 20 years, Norma realized that she finds working with Fortune 500 company CEOs intellectually stimulating but not emotionally rewarding. She realized that, when working with clients who were leading hundreds of thousands of people, no matter how great the work they managed to do with Norma was, they couldn't do anything about some of the company's issues.
That is one of the reasons Norma decided that, when the chance presented itself, she would start working with small to mid-sized companies. That's exactly what she did and it is just as she thought—much more emotionally rewarding than working with large corporations.
The pandemic’s impact
As Norma explains, the businesses she works with have been impacted by the pandemic one way or another. However, some have managed to pivot in a way that even helped them grow their business.
Norma has worked with her clients to reimagine what people are going to need in the future. A few decades ago, the work would be focused on five or ten years of strategic planning. However, with things changing at a faster pace than ever, it is vital to stay sharp and nimble.
A woman in a man’s world
Norma started in a field that was male-dominated and excelled in it. She managed to break the glass ceiling and become a leader in the field.
In the 1980s, she was the only woman in the room. There were no female consulting partners in New York at that time. So, Norma says:
"I had to learn how to survive in that world.”
She knew that, then, it wouldn't work for a woman to walk into the CEO's office and say what needs to be done. She realized she has to downplay her intelligence and ask them questions.
“I would say, ‘Well, what do you think your choices are for the future?’ And I had studied the whole thing and what would work and what wouldn't work. So, they would say something. And if I thought it was going to bomb, I would say, ‘Well, you know, if you did that, that would work if the competition would stay in place for the next six years. So, what's your next choice?’ And they would go on to something else. And as soon as they hit on something that I knew would work, I would say, ‘That's a brilliant idea.’”
At the time, she didn't know that what she was doing was called coaching. It was considered consulting. But, as a woman in a man's world, she had to lead by asking questions and letting them discover the answers. That is how she came into coaching.
One of the main questions Norma likes to ask her clients is:
"What do you think your choices are?"
After that one, many other important questions follow. And those might vary depending on the person she works with.
She makes an effort to get to know every person she’s coaching as an individual while she works with them on fulfilling the goals they have. Although they are trying to grow their businesses, they are also always trying to achieve something that they personally believe in or that they are going to get rewarded for.
After they share their goal with Norma, they try to find a match between the client’s own goals, what they are passionate about, and where the company is going. If they find it, that is what they work on—"When you have that match, it's nirvana.”
Her Practice Today
Norma's current practice is a blend of for-profit and not-for-profit clients. She explains how the not-for-profit leaders have a different focus and that always brings more to the table. That is why 25-30 percent of her clients are coming from not-for-profit businesses.
Becoming an effective leader
After decided that she wanted to become a coach, Norma realized she needed to focus on listening and asking questions more.
She describes that she never had formal coaching training, despite coaching for more than 40 years now. But, her experience was her greatest teacher. She learned that she should quiet down and put herself in the other person's shoes and meet the person exactly where they are because we are all different.
Her coaching skills aren’t coming from a book or a curriculum, but from feeling what is going on with the person she is working with or feeling what is going on in the room when working with a group of people.
She is looking for clues that tell her where the person is at with the topic or a certain issue. She finds that more important than what she has read in a book or taken in a course.
Although today almost everything is done via Zoom, that hasn't impact her ability to feel what is happening. Even in a virtual environment, she can use her power of intuition and feeling to gauge a person and their situation.
“I absolutely love helping someone get to where they want to be, as long as that's not something harmful or illegal. They give me their goals, and if I can help them get there, I'm thrilled. That's enough for me.”
The Best Day as An Executive Coach
When asked about her best day as an executive coach, Norma explains that she has had many best days. Surprisingly, one that stands out happened recently on Zoom. It is interesting because, just as most coaches, she didn't expect it to happen while coaching via Zoom.
She proceeds to explain how she has the gift of having somebody trust her, even if she doesn't know the person well. Recently, she was working with a very successful individual, who she had just met. In the first minute or two, she felt he trusted her enough to share with her something profound. And her gut feeling was right; he shared something that happened to him personally and physically that has changed everything and caused him to go through a major transition. She sat with him on Zoom and told him:
"You know, you don't have to know the answers. This is what transitions are like. The questions are more important."
For Norma, the fact that somebody would trust her with something that will change everything for them in the first couple of minutes of the conversation, and that it would happen on Zoom, is thrilling and remarkable.
Norma’s Coaching Tools
The most powerful tool Norma uses isn’t an intellectual tool. Whereas earlier in her career, she spent more time learning all the facts, she realizes now that it isn't so much about the facts. It is about listening, quieting down, being with the individual without any distractions, and feeling what they are feeling. When she manages to do all those things, and the individual is trusting her, she can ask the questions that help turn the key to doing something they couldn't do before—and that changes everything.
Failures and Valuable Lessons
One of the failures Norma experienced that led to a valuable lesson happened at the beginning of the pandemic when she made it her mission to get all 40 of her clients through this challenging period. She soon realized that she couldn't get everyone through it because some of them weren't capitalized enough and they didn't believe that they could overcome all the difficulties.
So, she lost some of her clients but managed to add new ones. Not succeeding in what she made her mission to do and losing some clients wasn't easy, but she has learned how to accept it and realize that she did her best.
Changes in the Coaching Industry
Norma believes that the coaching industry is too focused on some of the tools and techniques from the past. That is an issue in this fast-paced environment, where changes happen all the time.
She believes it is essential to help people with their biggest issues, such as COVID relief.
“It's that Maslow's hierarchy; if you don't help people get paid and fed and believe that there will be a tomorrow, then you can't go anywhere else. They're too frightened.”
From Black and White into Technicolor
In her early coaching days, Norma was like most coaches using spreadsheets, tools, and techniques. However, those don't work for her anymore because they can't bring the enormous change that comes when a person realizes they can do something they never thought they could. She believes this kind of realization can't come from a spreadsheet or tool. It has to be a realization from the inside. That is why it is so important to sit with people and feel what's going on inside them and, if needed, help them turn the key to change.
This is how she describes it:
“That opening of a door to another world, which I experienced in my own life when I was in my 30s. Something was going on that was life-changing. And when I got on the other side of it, I felt like I was in The Wizard of Oz, you know, when the movie turns from black and white into Technicolor. That's what it felt like to me. And that's what it feels like today when I'm helping someone, and they're walking from black and white into Technicolor, and they realize there are all these other possibilities.”
An Attribute that Makes Her Stand Out
Norma thinks her ability to empathize with others is what makes her a difference-maker in the coaching industry. She describes how there are very few people she wasn’t able to feel a connection with. If she felt there was no connection, she knew that the client wasn’t for her.
Because of editing her own life over the last 15 years, she can only work with people she feels a connection with.
Editing Her Life
“I believe that in the second half of life, which I'm in (…), we're here to find what gives us joy and follow that. And we can jettison the things that don't bring us joy and spend less time with the people that don't serve us well and don't bring us joy. And this doesn't mean conflict. I just move away from things that are not right for me, that don't bring me joy.”
Another important lesson Norma learned came from Pat Hyndman, who was her role model. He said, "People don't grow old. They get old when they stop growing." That is something that has stayed with her ever since.
Measuring Her Life
When asked how she will measure her life, Norma shares that she would measure her life based on her ability to help others, create the best life possible for herself, and use difficult times as a learning and growth opportunity.
A Piece of Advice
Norma's advice for anyone considering a career in coaching comes from her own experience.
Her advice is to learn how to listen to people.
When she started coaching, it is something she didn't know how to do. She would get affected by stories people told her and didn't know how to channel her empathy in a healthier way.
What helped her was advice from other Vistage Chairs. One such helpful advice was to imagine a transparent membrane around herself where she can see and hear everything but has protection.
So, now she can listen, feel, and have empathy without having what she hears destroy her. If she didn't learn how to do that, she isn't sure if she could do what she is doing today.
A Wisdom for Her Younger Self
If she could go back and talk to her young self who was starting in coaching, she would say to follow her gut and intuition more and not be afraid to do it.
When she was younger and was learning different techniques, she had her own ideas but didn't use them. She felt compelled to use what others were teaching her without adding her own flair. It took her decades to realize there was a lot she could bring to the table.
Becoming true to herself and using her own ways and methods, even if others weren't using them, made her better at what she does.
When asked about the one question she wasn't asked during the interview, Norma first shares a beautiful metaphor:
“Last night, I was on the treadmill in our fitness center in my building and I was watching the space launch... It was 10 minutes and you saw the first part of the breakaway and come back to Earth. I was thinking that that's a little bit about life... We have things that help us soar, and we don't need those anymore. We just go on to something new. And the foundation is still in our memory, but we don't need that.”
She proceeds to say that the question that would tell us more about her is:
“What was the most profound thing that happened that made you change?”
Norma shares how something happened in her personal life that was profound and made her learn something she didn't know before. She thought of it as the end of something but later realized it was actually the beginning.
“But when I changed my thinking towards—how can I work with this—that was when my life opened up into Technicolor, and there was no return because the other side was so beautiful. It's like being over the rainbow. So, I'd say that it's—when you're going through something difficult, just pause and see what you can do with that, that would change everything, maybe even for the better.”
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