“Have you ever seen Frida Kahlo’s painting, The Two Fridas?” I asked Ellen.
Ellen shook her head.
I opened my iPad, googled the image, and shared it with her. “What comes to your mind when you see this painting?”
I could see Ellen trying to make the connection, but failing.
“Ok. Let me reflect back to you what I’ve heard, so that I’m not missing anything.”
Ellen gave me the go-ahead.
Ellen was a thirtysomething marketing professional whose parents had immigrated from Singapore. Married with two kids, Ellen lived in New York with her husband, and within a short subway ride from her parents. Ellen was widely respected within her organization, Alpha, given her track record of execution.
However, Ellen was feeling a vague discomfort at work. In our coaching session she mentioned that she’d just gotten a new manager, Linda, as her previous one, Bruce, had recently retired. Ellen had gotten along fabulously with Bruce, working together for five years. In fact, Ellen had met Bruce at another employer, Beta, and when he’d decided to move, Ellen had joined him.
“Tell me more about your discomfort with Linda?” I asked.
“I can’t read her. She’s a closed book. ” Ellen responded. “She’s new to Alpha. I don’t know what she thinks of me.”
I then asked Ellen to describe her relationship with Bruce.
Ellen gushed about Bruce. How the two were a great team. They collaborated well on projects. Ellen was good at execution and as her manager Bruce gave her ample credit and projection.
“We clicked almost from the start five years ago. It was such a relief to work with Bruce at Beta. He didn’t make me miss Tim at all!”
“Wait. Who’s Tim?” I inquired.
“Tim was my manager before Bruce. I had worked with Tim for four years. Moving to Beta from Gamma, where Tim and I met.” Ellen clarified.
“And, where did you work before Gamma?” I asked.
“At Venus. I worked there for four years. Venus was my second job. After college, I started my career at Mercury where I spent three years.” Ellen elaborated.
Suddenly, something struck Ellen. “Ok. I see it now! I work for 4 years and then I move. THAT explains my dissatisfaction!”
“Possibly.” I smiled. “Can you tell me why you moved from Mercury to Venus?”
“Oh, my manager, Allan, quit Mercury to join Venus. He asked me to accompany him.”
It then clicked for me. “So, here’s my hypothesis. Tell me what you think of it.” I added “The pattern isn’t that you move every four odd years - it’s that you move with your manager. But, that pattern is now broken because Bruce retired and your new manager was hired from outside. So now you don’t know what to do, or explain the uneasiness.”
I continued: “The real question is: why do you move with your manager each time?”
As her energy shifted, I could feel that our conversation had taken Ellen to a sacred place, deeper than job dissatisfaction. “Because I don’t trust easily.”
I sensed a pattern of past betrayals behind that response, but did not probe further. Staying in the present, I asked “How do you think your trust issues impact your career?”
Ellen reflected. “I’m always someone’s sidekick. I only get credit for execution. But, I’m never seen as the lead. I now see that my trust issues create relationships of dependency.”
I showed Ellen The Two Fridas again.
“That’s why I brought up The Two Fridas. One serves as the life force for the wounded other. But, you don’t need it. You’re whole. You could chart an independent path, if you wish.”
Having seen the myth she was living, and finding no reason to continue doing so, Ellen later applied for a more senior job at a competitor and now leads a department.
(*) Name and tertiary details have been changed to ensure client confidentiality.