“Do you also offer training sessions just for women?” – I get asked on a regular basis. No, I do not. It does not make any sense to me that women (apparently) lead differently than men or that different rules apply to their careers than to those of their male counterparts.

Recently, however, some women have lost their Board seats in German corporations, the best-known example being Janina Kugel, Chief Human Resources Officer at Siemens. It is speculated that this is due to the fact that women are less successful at boardroom power games. Wiebke Köhler gained media attention by publishing a book about the end of her career as a Board member at Axa insurance called “Schach der Dame” [Checkmate for the Lady]. Am I once again missing another important trend here? Utterly possible. In my training sessions, however, I want to convey key messages that are concrete and feasible. What should these be for women in leadership positions? I have no idea!

My own professional development in 2019 consisted of my participation in the “Nature of Success” executive program. It is led by Australian high performance coach Matt Griggs and professional surfer Taylor Knox. The program is about learning how to create a healthy high-performance environment. The central tool that Matt and Taylor teach is a practice called Kelee meditation. In addition to intensive workshops and individual coaching sessions in which you practice Kelee meditation, learn to deal with your fears, and achieve presence, there are surf sessions in which you can try out your newly gained mental strength in the waves. The training took place in the Maldives on board the stunning yacht, Carpe Vita.

It sounded perfect to me at first. But when I saw the list of participants, I became more and more nervous. The group consisted of managers from New Zealand, the U.S., and above all Australia. I was the only woman and by far the least experienced surfer on board. When I discovered the video of a former participant in the program on the internet, I started having serious doubts. The video showed men surfing a few barrels and then racing off into the sunset on a jet ski to the sounds of AC/DC. That frightened me a bit and I really wasn’t looking forward to macho types and male egos.

Surfing involves a great deal of ego anyway. Everybody wants to have the best wave for themselves. The attraction and challenge of surfing is that every wave is unique. If you make a mistake, you miss the wave or you fall, and the wave remains unsurfed. You can’t go back and try to ride it again. Chance wasted. Gone for good.

There are clear rules on the water to avoid chaos and fights breaking out over the best wave:for example, whoever is closest to the breaking part of the wave has right-of-way. This is to avoid accidents and conflicts. It gets interesting when someone does not follow the rules while surfing, just like it does when this happens in our personal and professional lives. You can choose to handle this in a relaxed and tolerant way. This is easier when there are many good waves and only few surfers in the so-called lineup. If everyone has their sense of achievement, generosity is easy. However, if you perceive a shortage of resources, the mood may change. Then the grumbling begins. Accusations. Complaints. In extreme cases it may even come to blows. Gossiping behind someone’s back is another option:“Did you see that? He arrived last and took the first wave just like that! Absolutely no respect!”

That always feels a little like water cooler gossip to me. People in large corporations often talk behind their dear colleagues’ backs while hanging around the water cooler. Instead of addressing and resolving conflicts directly, people badmouth each other. By providing them with clear and appreciative feedback, we could give our colleagues the chance to genuinely change their behavior. But we rarely do that. Instead, we rant. And we will always find someone who is willing to listen to our complaints. We often think that when we get something off our chest, we will feel better. My experience has been different. We gossip, we keep our anger going unnecessarily, and therefore make it worse. Because now our colleague, whom we have shared our story with, will also be upset with the culprit. And just like that we have created a divide between us and the other person. This is how wars are started. Sometimes while standing by the water cooler, sometimes while residing in a tropical paradise. On the subject of gossiping, I therefore clearly recommend to just let it go. It won’t make you happy. It won’t make you feel good. It won’t bring back wasted opportunities. It’s an absolutely senseless waste of energy.

Often, however, it is not at all other people’s fault if our performance suffers. According to Matt Griggs, two factors affect our performance: fear and fatigue. We can live up to our potential if we open our mind. In one of the workshop sessions we dealt with our fears and mindsets. Readers of my blog are aware that the successful, bubbly consultant in me is often plagued by fears of failure and violent anger. I note down the top 3 of my limiting beliefs in my booklet.

During the next surf session I observe that despite the turquoise water and perfect waves I am suddenly in a bad mood, when I see a fellow participant being towed into a lineup by a jet ski while I am paddling against the current like a madwoman. The more exhausted I get, the louder the usual voice inside my head screams:

“I’m too old for this!”

“I’ll never make it!”

“Maybe I should just quit surfing?”

With this mindset I consistently fail to catch a single wave. When one of the other surfers then drops in on me, in other words, steals my wave, I freak out. Just like Walter Sobchak in one of my favorite movies – “The Big Lebowski” – I feel like screaming –“This is not Nam.There are rules!” Time to get out of the water, Lara.

Back on board the yacht, Taylor approaches me and asks me how my surf was. I’m close to tears, annoyed with myself and life in general, and I’m not really making any sense. Taylor looks at me very calmly and says with his clear voice –“It’s just an ocean experience. ”I am completely stunned. And in that moment my anger disappears without a trace. Just like that.

Very moved, I tell Geoff, a cardiologist from California, all about it at lunch. In the next workshop Geoff tells me that this conversation helped him through his low after the same surf session. SAY WHAT? Geoff had a frustrating surf session? The same guy who, on his 40thbirthday, which he is celebrating on board, pulls into a barrel and comes out alive? I’m thinking – if I could surf as well as Geoff, I’d always be happy in the water. Ha! How wrong can you be!

Taylor talks about how frustrated he was surfing for many years. He has won many individual competitions, that’s true. But he was denied the top spot in the World Surf League Tour in his career. He “only” made it to 4thplace. This seems to have gnawed at his ego for many years, even though Taylor has godlike cult status among countless surfers due to his unbelievable style. He attributes the fact that his “defeats” did not break him to his daily Kelee meditation practice. Not only is he not broken. Taylor is a warm and absolutely lovable person. You simply have to like this guy with his mischievous nature. Matt, this giant of a man, has a calm, unagitated presence and is an interested and empathetic listener. Wait – a man who listens and is empathetic? AN AUSTRALIAN MALE? Maybe it’s time for us women to say goodbye to a few stereotypes about men? But maybe there is just something magical about Kelee? During the week we all become more relaxed, more open, and get better at supporting each other.

Matt and Taylor encourage us to try something new. Many surfers are stuck in their old routines and just want to finish the wave. They don’t have the courage to try new maneuvers, they are too worried about losing the wave. “Look at the pros when they warm up for the competitions. What is the difference?” – Taylor wants to know in another workshop. Silence in the group. “Pros fall more. They sacrifice some waves for trying out new things. This is how you learn.”

I fell a lot during this trip. My entire body was covered in bruises and small cuts. Did I improve my surfing skills? I’m not quite sure. My wave-count was not too impressive and I still feel light years away from the cutback I am aiming for. But I learned a lot, for example, that a man like…

  • Bill, who to me is the ultimate tower of strength, is sometimes afraid of big waves too.
  • Tony who is a great role model for me in terms of flexibility, suppleness, and vitality, finds me inspiring.
  • John, who is so clever and an excellent observer and who always finds exactly the right words to say, nevertheless sometimes has doubts about his intelligence.

The list is almost endless! I learn so much with and from great people. I love it! No matter whether they are male or female. The key insight is once again: we all hear the same crazy voices in our heads. We are all familiar with topics such as:

“I am not good enough.”

“I feel like I don’t belong in this group.”

“I feel guilty, because I don’t spend enough time with my family.”

“I should be more self-confident.”

“I cannot say ‘no.’”

Is any of that typical of men or women? I don’t think so. Fear develops independently of the Y chromosome. Our mind has no gender. In the end we are all just humans, and to quote Matt –“It is not always easy being a human, let’s face it.”

We can make each other’s lives hell or go on the journey of our lives together. If we are fully present, we are already in paradise. Even when we’re standing by the water cooler in a big corporation.

When things once again get rough again in German boardrooms, I want managers to realize that it’s not the end of the world, even if it feels like it. It’s just a business experience. When they are annoyed that they have fallen victim to a reorganization measure or an intrigue, I would like to shout out to them –“Pros fall more!” That doesn’t make the fall any less painful, but it reduces  suffering immediately and gives us the opportunity to focus our energy on how to make a difference.

  1. It’s just a business experience.
  2. Pros fall more.

Maybe I should develop a new training seminar based on that? Why not? But one thing is crystal clear: Men would also be most welcome in my training session!

Photos: Andy Potts