JM: I start with wherever the person is at. I don’t judge whatever comes up. I have an unconditional regard for the person I’m choosing to work with. I take some time getting to know the person, see if they are teachable, open to change. When I was working at Four Winds Nursery, I learned to be situationally oriented which is a key to all of my client work, and to be totally oriented on the people and what was going on with them in their particular situation. And if I thought back, I’d say, that’s what I was doing with the customers at Four Winds. I was totally focused on them, learning a great deal about human nature without realizing it. In understanding human nature, it was essential to get acquainted with the situation, the customers I was dealing with, knowing their needs, their wants, what they were struggling with. And I brought that into my consulting. As I said, I start with wherever they’re at, and I get them talking about that. But then what I do is I move them from that in the process to where they start talking about what they want to accomplish. Goals are important in a business environment. Since we’re dealing with something practical like a business environment, we need to be addressing practical issues and problems, so we need to set goals at some point. You want to do your best to get acquainted with the situation and then at some point, try to move toward concrete goals. Obviously, goals have to be in line with your values and be realistic. Someone may say, “I’d like to build up our sales from 20 million to 30 million,” which may or may not be realistic depending on the company or market. Also how you build sales—by ethical versus questionable means comes into play. Sometimes in the process of determining goals, you find out the goals and issues are completely different than what you originally thought, which is ok. That happens a lot.
BW: I realize this work is much harder than it sounds—even though your approach is simple, the work can be very complex. I would imagine there was a lot of trial and error.
JM: Trial and error was definitely part of my work. I found out early that if I don’t really know what to do in a situation, I come up with some options and try them out. For example, I consulted with a company that had two executives who were fighting with each other all the time. I came up with several different techniques for the president to try out, and he tried each one with the executives to see what worked and didn’t work—basically experimented to see what worked. And so whenever it wasn’t clear to me what to do, I would take different actions and if they didn’t work, I would learn from them and then try something else. And so trial and error became a necessary part of my work. Sometimes I discovered some good things by accident. And sometimes experimentation would happen unintentionally. A president or executive would make a decision and then find out later that it just didn’t work. For example, one of the banks I consulted with, a decision was made by a president and an executive to get rid of bank managers to try to save money, and it was a mess. They made the tellers take on a lot of the duties of the managers and because the tellers became so preoccupied with this additional responsibility, the customer service plummeted and customer complaints skyrocketed. They found out, through this trial and error, the need for bank managers.
BW: A while back, I think I asked you one time, when did you feel like you really “had it down,” your technique or whatever you want to call it, and you said it wasn’t until you were in your fifties you felt like you really “had it.”
JM: Right. I think I was as old as 59 when I felt I had it down.
BW: I’m assuming, until that time, it was a lot of trial and error.
JM: And even afterwards.
BW: Early in your consulting career you were teaching classes, leading discussions, helping salesmen in small businesses, ferreting out sources of problems in bigger situations like the example you gave in “The Early Days and First Big Break.” Eventually you were working more one on one with the executives and presidents, applying what you learned during the war about authority, accountability, responsibility, and leadership, and also using inquiry and trial and error. This eventually led to the discovery or realization that a lot of the problems in an organization were rooted in the leaders. Working with individual leaders eventually came to be known as “coaching.” You were a pioneer of this field that is now known as “executive coaching” or “leadership coaching.” At the time when you were just starting out, did you know of anybody else doing the kind of work that you were doing?
JM: I wasn’t aware of anyone else. Now there’s a whole bunch, a wide variety of people calling themselves coaches—like executive coaches, life coaches, those sorts of terms—but their approaches may be very different from my basic approach, how I worked when I was working. My style was unusual for its time and maybe it still is. Today, a lot of the focus seems to be motivational—in the sense of becoming a “success” in the conventional sense, whatever that means—which is different than what I was doing. My approach was based in inquiry and self-examination, and also investigating the root causes of problems, finding the source of symptoms. Which in the long run would help you to be more effective and successful. Although I did use motivation in my work. Because, as I said, we needed to move toward concrete goals. Mine was a fruitful but time-consuming approach. People want instant fixes now more than ever, but many things can’t be fixed instantly. So going back to your original question—no one that I was aware of was working in the sense of “coaching” like we know today—working one on one with the president or an executive—but there was a lot of competition. There were five international consulting organizations. They worked in many countries. They generally operated by preplanned programs. Nothing similar to what I was doing. But they were very successful. They had big clients and they charged millions of dollars. So it was competition. They brought in a lot of highly educated staff people to work on the company problems.
BW: So yes, consulting for businesses did exist; and this competition had educated staff people, experts—meaning people from top universities with degrees in business, that sort of thing?
JM: They had a lot of MBA types. They might have had different labels for them back then, but they were trained in business. And the big difference between my approach and theirs is that they often had what we call shelf programs. They had say, five or six programs. If the company called them in and said, “We have a problem,” and they would say, “We know how to fix that.” And they would come in with a pre-determined program. Also if there was a problem in say, engineering, they would typically bring in engineers. In many cases, there probably was a problem in engineering because of the president or a manager, but they weren’t interested in that. They wanted to sell their packages.
BW: And the packages generally didn’t focus on the leaders?
JM: No. Not individually like I did.
BW: So I’m sure these consulting companies were in demand because the problem was abstracted and dealt with through a shelf program, rather than as something possibly rooted in the president or management.
JM: That’s right.
BW: You worked directly with individuals—your focus was on the individual leaders, managers. How did you market yourself, given the competition? How did your business grow in the beginning?
JM: My consulting grew from word of mouth. I also did cold mailings to companies and presidents describing my work and track history. I got some work that way, but it was mostly through word of mouth.
BW: Executive coaching is an occupation that is respectable now. At the time you were practicing, did you view this as a great opportunity for advancement?
JM: No. It is true that I wanted a good career that paid well to take care of my family. But my real interest was that I was challenged by the problems they had in managing companies. And I enjoyed the challenge. I enjoyed solving the problems. And I didn’t care about advancement in terms of status. The kind of work I was doing, especially early on, didn’t have any respectability or status. Companies were usually hiring me and trying me out because all of their other options had failed.
BW: At the time the field wasn’t well-known or didn’t exist in the way that it does now. It was kind of obscure. Were you aware of any competition who were specifically using the term “executive coaching” when you were starting out?
JM: No. Not that I recall. The term that was known and popular was “consulting”.
BW: As far as you know, you were one of the first people, possibly the first person, doing what they call “executive coaching”? Were you the first to use the term “executive coaching”?
JM: I was using the term “coaching” in my work in the sixties so I may have been the first or one of the first, but I don’t know for certain. People would ask what I was and one of the words I used was “coach.” The way it came about was—sometimes in starting with a new client, they would ask, “What are you?” I think I even had one client ask literally, “What in the world are you?” I wanted to differentiate myself from the other consultants with package programs, so I would sometimes say, “I am not a consultant,” and I tested different names. I would say, “Well, I’m a leadership counselor. Or I am a leadership coach. Or I am an executive counselor or an executive coach or I am a presidential counselor or I am a board counselor,” and they could pick and choose whatever names they wanted.
BW: So you were coming up with these terms off the top of your head and you had never heard them before.
BW: “Managerial counseling” and “organizational counseling”—were those terms circulating at the time when you started this work?
JM: They were not commonplace. It was still mostly “consulting.” That’s the word everybody liked.
BW: Just “consulting.” No other word attached to it, like “business consulting.”
JM: There were words attached to it, like “business consulting,” “management consulting.” Probably the big term was “management consulting.”
BW: What about “counselor?”
JM: The word “counselor” they also heard for years.
BW: And you stuck it together with these other terms?
JM: Yes. But eventually the use of that term became contentious. The word “counseling” is now more associated with the field of psychology. In fact, two of my partners in Ann Arbor, Michigan were PhD psychologists, and one day, I came back from a very successful workshop with a large client and they asked how it went. I said something like, “I think I did a good job of counseling,” and both of the men said, “No you didn’t. You’re not a counselor. Because in the psychological field, it’s a special, licensed word.” And I said, “Well, I’m not a psychologist so I can use whatever word I want.” Of course, they were angry. So anyways, those were some terms that were used. I did have a couple funny nicknames over the years. One of my clients called me “Weaver-bird,” since in helping to solve problems in this company, I talked to a lot of different people at all different levels of the company, in addition to people at the top, connecting and weaving together the bits of info.
BW: Keeping track of the details and seeing the whole picture both at the same time.
JM: Right. And one client I worked with kept calling me Moses, which I thought was funny.
BW: That is funny. Some of these corporate environments are a form of bondage or slavery. Did this client feel that you led them out of this sort of thing?
JM: I don’t know, I suppose—it was a long time ago. I prefer the nickname Weaver-bird. It was more reflective of most of the work I was doing.
BW: Today, people who are hired to do the kind of work that you do usually have psychology degrees, or degrees in what they call organizational psychology or management degrees. You have no degree at all, and maybe that is why you have such a good sense about people.
JM: Right. It’s a funny thing, but many people who become psychologists frequently can be so overeducated they’ve lost common sense, lost their basic gut sense about human nature, the basics. They just know the academics of their field. And my proteges who had those type of degrees frequently had to unlearn a lot of it to become effective.
BW: I know you are very observant, situation-oriented. Being around you I know firsthand that you give a person your full attention—you totally take in what a person has to say and make a sincere effort to understand what they are going through and what is going on. You genuinely want to know what a person is going through. And you don’t make assumptions—there’s nothing in your mind projecting onto what a person is saying. I’ve had the experience of someone listening to what I say, but they’re running it through a filter, they’re hearing what they want to hear or they’re making assumptions that aren’t true. Or they’re not listening at all, their mind is someplace else.
JM: I don’t have an academic mind. I have difficulty with abstraction, retaining abstract concepts, which was a benefit in my work since I never had a pet theory or agenda. I just stuck with my core approach of listening and inquiry that I learned at Four Winds Nursery and from Socrates, giving a person and situation my full attention. Every situation I treated as a completely new situation that I had to learn about. So many people don’t truly listen—truly and fully listening and fully taking in what somebody is saying—it’s a difficult skill. So when someone encounters it, they’re kind of startled by it, even transformed by it in some cases.
BW: I think it’s important to point out people trust you and open up to you. You mentioned you built relationships of trust quickly. People like being around you. Your presence, personality, and demeanor have a calming and grounding effect. It comes from who you are and how you processed your life experiences and probably also from your work in gardening, landscaping, your work at Four Winds Nursery. You have a humility and calmness from surviving things like the Depression, World War II, and personal misfortunes such as bankruptcy. Just being around you, your physical presence lends itself to the transformative work that you did. I know people trust you a lot.
JM: I think it helped in my work. I helped people examine themselves which can be very difficult to do in this culture. Especially for people in positions of power. They’re very easily threatened. So having the kind of personality I had and the kind of approach I had helped.