In this Center for Executive Coaching alumni interview, Mary Ellen Wasielewski shares how she helps leaders and their companies deal with the very challenging issues of burnout, grief, loss, and personal catastrophes. This is a specialty area of coaching, and Mary Ellen makes a big difference to people in crisis, and to the world. Enjoy!
Mary Ellen Wasielewski is the Founder of Blt Strategies. Her company solves the problem of declining profits from disengaged executives dealing with burnout, grief or loss and personal catastrophes. As experienced business executives, health coaches and nutrition experts, we understand the demands of business, yet also clearly recognize the emotional, physical and psychological toll personal catastrophes take on executives. We provide practical strategies for minimizing the disruptions , while helping to remain productive, healthy and engaged.
Andrew: Welcome, I’m here with Mary Ellen Wasielewski, a Center for Executive Coaching graduate. Mary Ellen, thanks for being here.
Mary Ellen: You’re welcome, my pleasure.
Andrew: So, tell us about your coaching practice?
Mary Ellen: My coaching practice began quite a few years ago. We are transition coaches. We specialize and focus on leaders who are going through a personal catastrophe but still need to remain productive and attuned to the business needs during that time.
Andrew: How has your practice shifted, or grown, or changed over the years?
Mary Ellen: All good entrepreneurs start off with a vision of where you see your role being, and often end up with something a little shifted right or left of that. So, I believed we were only going to be working with senior leaders and executives at that time. But I have found that we have been drawn in as often by corporations as we are by individuals who hear about us. We primarily grow by word of mouth because we do have to keep such strict confidentiality to our clients for the sake of their high performers. Often if you were to know that I was working with X, Y, Z Company, you can usually catch up on the news and find out, “Oh, someone of there is going through a major divorce or just lost a wife.”
This situation does not allow me to really market our abilities and our successes like we would like to in order to acquire more clients. So we have modified this approach a little bit — not the confidentiality — but by offering our programs down a level or two for individuals or for just leaders in organizations that are not yet at that very high pinnacle.
Andrew: Sure. And you mentioned before we started recording, that you have also moved into coaching front-line personnel and first responders in healthcare and emergency services?
Mary Ellen: Yes. Just very recently, we recognized this opening through a call that actually came in off of marketing on LinkedIn. We got a call from a fire department. That was a surprise to me. What they wanted was to reinforce their leadership skills and at the same time they had to let us know that they had a suicide within the ranks. This then opened the doors up to me to do much more research and finding clients in this area, including physicians, who are experiencing a very high level burn out and stress. Our programs in coaching really peel back that chronic stress which over time affects us physically, spirituality, and emotionally in multiple ways. So, we deal with those multiple ways in order to bring them back to a good base level. And we help them to build their resilience from there.
That is what started us to work more in the nursing facilities right now. With demand for nurses being short by 200,000 positions already before we hit Coronavirus, and now many more of them leaving obviously because it has been a very difficult time for them, that is where we are launching programs right now. I’m very excited by these opportunities.
Andrew: Given the confidentiality of what you do and the difficulty in marketing, how did you get traction for your practice when you first started out?
Mary Ellen: It was basically word of mouth, especially from people that I had already worked with before I took certification and became an executive coach. I had been doing it for about three or four years and just didn’t see it or recognize it yet as a business. That’s how it goes. Somebody tells somebody else. They see me speak. They hear me at a conference. And that’s usually how I pick up clients.
Andrew: So, initially it was your network. But now, you are getting out there and being visible by speaking. You are at conferences. You mentioned LinkedIn. So, you are doing the things needed to get visible. Good, good.
Well, let’s make it specific, whether it’s a case study or talking about the issues that come up if people don’t call you. Give listeners a sense of something specific that you do in your work and when clients might contact you.
Mary Ellen: I’d be glad too. I’m going to give you two very quick scenarios. The case study of the one that I appreciated probably the most was a large organization had one of their senior leaders whose wife had an illness. That was a long illness. They supported the leader through the illness. Subsequently his wife passed, and the leader decided it was time to retire. But the company did not want to see that happening. So, they brought us in. We talked to him for a while. And we kept him functioning. We talked to their CEO, too, and decided that a really good avenue was to give this leader a break from his position. So, what they did was send him out to visit all the customers that they had that they really hadn’t been in contact with. They sell them the product, they do a bit of marketing, and that was it. What happened when they shifted his role was take the pressure off of him. And it allowed him to take his 25 years worth of experience and talk about it and bring that back to a relationship that became stronger. And orders went up. So, they decided to keep him that in that role. He has been there now for 15 years. He never did retire, and is loving it because he is also training up the next level of sales and staff to understand how to build relationships during the sales process. So, it was a combined effort of our coaching and our programs along with the fluidity of the senior leaders to say, “I don’t want to lose him. He’s valuable. Let’s adapt.”
And not to take up all of our time, but what I really want to say is that this case is a rarity. I find more often is that individuals call me because something happened in their personal life. The business would not functionally allow them to take into consideration that this is depressing their mind day in and night, physically, mentality, emotionally — it is attacking everything. One happened to be an executive district manager running 42 stores. And after the death of his son, the company gave him 10 days off. When he came back he said, “This was sudden. It was unexpected. I can’t function.” The company basically replied, “You have a choice at this point because it’s July and we have to get ready for Christmas. You are either in or you are out.” And so, he went out.
Now, what did that cost that company at that time that they were saying it was so critical to have someone in his position and then to take his place? What did it cost that poor man who was in that position? So, there is a financial loss, there is a personal loss, so you are either going to see us now or see us later. One way or the other we are out there to try and help you stop your declining profits from going out the window.
Andrew: So, as I hear this, I’m sure some folks listening might be wondering what is the boundary between executive coaching and therapy, in terms of what you do? What you are talking about is quite different, a little bit different than a lot of executive coaches do. You go deeper, you hit on issues that are certainly personal. How do you address that?
Mary Ellen: Well, therapy is dealing effectively with just the emotional issues. What we deal with are the emotional issues as well as the physical issues, psychological issues, that come up that prevent you from keeping the business going. So, we have to understand what your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are. We need to understand how your team is functioning on right now. That’s how we get in there and set up that scaffolding, as I call it, to be able to transition and get the whole team around you so you can stay in that role. We do not want to take any roles away from you. Because for most senior leaders, they find comfort within that. But we do have to say that there are times when you’re just not functioning enough.
So, therapy is not incorrect. But it is incomplete in the business world. You have to still be functioning. You still have to be looking at your profits. You still have to look at your sales, your revenue, and all the things that go along with it. If you don’t, you usually have those people leaving you within 18 months. So, our retention goes up when we work on the support team that is in place, if that makes sense.
Andrew: I love the metaphor of the scaffolding. That is really good. So, what advice would you give to anyone listening that is thinking about getting to executive coaching? What should they consider? How do they make the transition?
Mary Ellen: Well, take the time, learn from others, and know that it is hard work. That is the simplest answer. And what I mean by that, take the time. I don’t think there is an executive coaching training firm that I did not scrutinize and talk to. I found candidates that graduated from them and where they had gone. And then I found you, Andrew, and you answered the phone on the first ring. And it threw me off. But we had a really good conversation. I was coming out of the entrepreneur field, I have always been an entrepreneur. What I needed was concrete, very specific, tangible frameworks and skills that I could add to my depth in my field, and increase it. I didn’t want soft and fluff. I know enough that my field is a very emotional, kind of life coachy field. So, I didn’t want that. Because what I was seeing was that people that I had already been working with needed the support. But they also needed the guidance to understand where all these pot holes were going to come. Where are all the things that are going throw them off their game? And what was going to happen during that time? They also needed help so that their teams could set up a formula to allow them to be able to be flexible for a great deal of time. And I found it. I found it in Center for Executive Coaching. I still have my framework book that is so dog-ear bent from using it all the time. Your methods and tools always allow me when I get out of a session with someone, to re-look and say, “Is there a different avenue? Is there something that I can help them go a little bit deeper?” Because a good coach is not giving you the answers. A good coach is helping you get from point A to point B and discover the answers yourself. Just like good parenting, you know. You can tell them what to do but it’s much better when they learn what to do.
Andrew: Is there any other advice you might offer to someone who is thinking, “Hey, I want to get into this. I want to make it happen.”
Mary Ellen: It’s like with any business, surround yourself and start building yourself a good board of directors. People who will mentor you, help you, and some of them just cheer you on as you are going. Because what a good coach does is change lives and change the world. And that is a big undertaking. You are helping someone to become a better version of themselves using skills that they have to look and dig deeper at. That’s a great responsibility. Make sure you are learning from the best. Mistakes take time. If you want to grow like we wanted to grow, time was something we didn’t want to give up. We just wanted to be very specific, very intentional, and get results.
Andrew: That’s great. Mary Ellen, thanks very much.