How Paying Attention Leads to Personal Transformation

The Fast Track

In the fall of 1999, I was in the thick of launching a high-speed data access company. This enterprise was sure to become the next AT&T or at least to be bought by AT&T. During those heady days, I thought my timing was perfect. It was about six months prior to the zenith of the dot-com boom.

My wife Tricia and I had registered to attend a retreat being held about an hour west of Colorado Springs. A friend had convinced us to go – her story about her retreat experience and the philosophy of her teacher had resonated with both of us.

Disconnected from Loved Ones

As was often the case, I was physically present when we discussed going to the retreat, but then soon after, I dove back into my over-scheduled and demanding work world. In the midst of this breakneck pace, I forgot we had committed to the retreat. This tendency to put personal commitments on the back-burner often caused disconnections with my wife that were subtle but, on both a mental and emotional level, not healthy for our relationship.

I grudgingly disentangled myself from work to go. As we drove down the dirt road on the retreat center property and came to a “Y,” I turned to my wife to ask “Which way do I go?” She said “The sign is right there, ‘Yoga Retreat.’ ”

I was shocked. “We are going to a yoga retreat?”

I had let Tricia do the paperwork for the trip so I hadn’t realized we were signed up for yoga. This did not fit my Presbyterian choirboy roots nor did it fit the priorities of a soon-to-be gazillionaire, master-of-the-universe who had plenty of fires to fight at the office this weekend – I was nervous and a little frustrated.

A Look at One’s Inner Life

I had grown accustomed to luxury hotels and four-star restaurants. The retreat site was a 30-year-old camp, of sorts, owned by a Protestant church group. The stark surroundings and, what seemed to me, new-age personalities at the registration desk had me disoriented.

After 30 minutes of yoga, the attendees were asked to stand to greet the teacher. At this point, a man with long, grey hair wearing a saffron robe walked into the room. The people at the front had ‘star-struck’ expressions on their faces as they folded their hands in prayer position and fawned over him with their eyes.

On one level, I was a fish out of water. Yet, filled with new calm from the yoga, once I started listening to the wisdom of this man, I started to feel like I was coming home from a long trip away.

A Long Forgotten Stillness Revealed

Over the past 20 years, I had narrowed my focus to making money and being a business success. I had all but eliminated the rich spiritual and philosophical self that was so alive through my first few reflective years of undergraduate school.

I was not the same after that weekend. I realized that nothing I was pursuing had ever and would ever bring me the happiness and peace I was seeking. This man’s teaching had me look at the insanity of the exercise wheel that was my life and find a long forgotten still point inside of myself.

He also introduced me to the jumping bean in my head that was whipping me around from one craving to the next. I had to have money to feel free. I had to have business success to feel affirmed. I couldn’t lose the comfort and attention I got from the exclusive venues at which I ate, drank and vacationed. Outwardly, I had a healthy body, what looked like a satisfying marriage, and two healthy children. I was leading a company that was adding five new employees each day, being courted by bankers and investors, and spending $5 million a week.

Yet, I was neglecting my internal life. I was so anxious to profit from the IPO boom of the late 90s, that I had begun to make management selections based on criteria encouraged by my bankers. I gave lip service to adding leaders aligned with the people-centered values on which my partners and I had founded the company. But, I had become very focused on the short-term with a need to succeed at all costs. Not only was this bad business, but I had also allowed a big misalignment to develop between what I believed and what I was practicing.

A Profitable Personal Transformation

What transformed that weekend (and many times since) was the lens through which I view the world. The way I looked at things had shifted and as a result, I experienced a tremendous increase in clarity and personal power.

Within six months of the retreat, the stock market crashed and the dot-com boom went bust overnight. The management of our company went into crisis-mode and I experienced the huge personal financial implications of a broad economic downturn.

Yet I remained relatively at peace and grounded. The connection with my wife, children, and friends had deepened and my perspective had broadened to include other possibilities. Over the next 12 financially tumultuous months, I stopped spending money on what I had never needed in the first place and began leading and creating from a much wiser place – one that integrated my interior view with my external behavior.

I launched a new business that took off with little fretting or pushing. In the years that followed, I began generating more real income than I ever had before and stopped chasing ‘paper wealth’ that had never really been about the money. I still appreciate my creature comforts and apply high standards to my work yet my relationship with my vocational life and material things has changed. Today, I am a much richer man, in all senses of the word.

Executive Coaching and the Inner Journey

It is my mission to help senior executives bridge the gap between the highly demanding business world and their own inner needs and lives. I recently wrote a whitepaper entitled “Seven Success Factors for Coaching Programs that Get Results” to help companies ensure their professional coaching programs balance leadership learning with the inner journey of becoming wiser and clearer.

Coaching processes that include the inner life of a person (or ’a collective’ in the case of Team Alignment work) lead to sustainable, organic transformations and incredible jumps in leadership maturity. By comparison, programs that merely focus on skills development and behavioral change yield results that are more incremental and superficial.

This paper has its roots in my own transformation. Whether I’m coaching executives, acting as a YPO forum retreat resource, or engaged as a top team facilitator, I have not stopped studying, discovering and teaching about the inner life since that fall weekend in 1999.