Career Pivot. Body Image - How my decision to become a strengths coach redefines my identity
Updated: Jul 27, 2022
and transforms everyone around me.
#careerpivot #strengthscoaching #transformationalchange #bodyimage #positivebodyimage
As I told some of my fans and followers a few months ago, this article is going to be a raw and deeply personal one. It is a long one, but I promise you it’s a highly relatable article, and as usual it touches on several topics.
Where should I begin? I guess it all went back to my secondary school days. (For my US fans, we follow the UK system that combines junior high school and high school together and, in my days, it was 7 years before you go to college. We call it Form 1 to Form 7 instead of Grade 7 or Grade 10.)
“You are not from within.”
I went to an all-girls school in Hong Kong. It also has a primary school and a kindergarten under the same name, so for those who are familiar with the HK educational system, it’s not uncommon for some girls to go to the same school for 16 years.
Not for me. So, when I joined other “external” girls in my secondary school, we faced a peculiar social situation. Not only we knew nobody, but also there were close-knit insider groups already. Like I learned later in my A-level English Literature studies, we were the “others”. (The “I” vs “The Other” theory explains everything from social constructions to racism.) We were 12 at the time, without any orientation or social integration training from our parents and teachers, so we just had to adapt to a whole new social environment, not to mention our subjects went from four in primary school to twelve in Form 1.
Looking back, I am amazed at how brave we were in that huge transition. None of us would give much thought about social anxiety or how to be more prepared (although we did have information at the time, compared to what we know nowadays, it was nothing). I guess it had to do with our task-oriented, results-driven educational environment – you just have no time to think about anything but homework, deadlines, extra-curricular activities, how to make new friends so that you can find project-mates. The top 25 girls among the 180 girls in each grade would get a certificate on stage, and you would also get a small certificate if you scored the highest marks in each subject’s final exam. The bottom 25 girls would be notified individually on Parents’ Day.
“Larraine is so ugly. Her boyfriend must be ugly too.”
There were uber smart high achieving new girls every year – grade 8 piano or violin by the time you were 12 was a given. Some were even four-time speech or music festival champions before they turned 12. When you came from an average primary school, it was a whole different world. As I am writing I can vividly recall the feeling I often had: how on earth can they squeeze time to do all these: volleyball team captain, painting competition champion, playing double bass in orchestra, being a prefect and then scoring straight As.
I was never one of the top 25 girls, because I flunked math badly: I just couldn’t get my head around algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. And oh, don’t even get me started on probability. (How interesting that my first headhunting placement was actuaries, who spend their lives dealing with probability lol.)
Since I started secondary school, I had to make my mark. Who am I? What am I good at? What should I be known for? My grades in primary school were more than fine but now I am no longer the superstar. My primary school at the time was considered the worst one in the area because they admitted a lot of mainland Chinese immigrants, who generally had poorer performance in English. My secondary school is a traditional English school with colonial architecture situated in the affluent Mid-Levels, with notable alumni such as Hong Kong’s first female Legislative Council (LegCo) member and first female LegCo Chairperson. It was such a stark contrast.
Coping with new academic demands was one thing, dealing with new social norms was another. On top of that, I started to have bad acne when I was about 14, like a lot of other teenagers. I stopped exercising properly since I was 12, when I started Form 1. I was basically so body conscious that I dreaded wearing a swimsuit. I was not as toned as before. One girl, who was an “insider” girl, hated me for 6 years purely because I got high marks in English and I was not “one of them”. I never asked her why she hated me so much--I just knew her eyes and her face scared me. When I was 14, my friends told me one day that this hater said “Larraine is so ugly. Her boyfriend must be ugly too.”
The scarring: psychological reinforced by physical ones
Going to an all-girls school in those days where teachers were not properly trained to handle language bullying, body shaming and about the importance of inclusivity of all body sizes, we were left on our own to deal with these hurtful remarks. I certainly internalized the negativity a lot, because there were just girls who were always slimmer and taller than you without the need to exercise a lot. I wasn’t fat at all, but I had these thoughts a lot: I wanted slimmer thighs, I wanted nicer teeth and all that.
To add to my insecurity about my body image was my worsening acne. This time, it exploded on my upper back. I thought it was just stress, because I wanted to get straight As in the public exam so I didn’t put too much thought into it, only to realize that my acne didn’t go away even after I graduated from university and started working in the post Lehman-Brothers saga days. I remember when I was chilling at home after intensive headhunting weeks in my 20s, I had this voice in my head: “I hate myself. I hate my skin. I hate the way I look.” The back acne was certainly reinforcing that I was not good enough.
At the same time, all those years my mum made comments on my looks and body weight. Although I knew she meant no harm, still she wasn’t helping.
When you have both internal and external negativity, it just messes up your head. “Which bit is true? Which bit has been exaggerated or over-internalized by me?”
All these negativities just fueled my own negative self-talk. The chatter became part of the way I think.
It became part of me.
“Come on L, you are always guarded.”
Little did I know that my repulsive stance towards my body image had such a significant impact on my psyche and attitude towards so many things in my life: my achievements, how I took in and celebrated others’ achievements, how I saw what’s possible in my life and other people’s lives. The manifestation of negativity just spilled over to other aspects of my life unknowingly.
One of the breakthrough moments came, when one day my dear friend Robin Roberts, who had a reunion with me a few years ago, told me, “Come on L, you are always guarded.”
When most of us hear these not-so-positive comments or out-of-place remarks, our natural response is to shut down after five seconds of bafflement. I simply exclaimed, “what do you mean? No! I’m not!”
A few years onwards, Robin still hasn’t changed his perception, “no L, you are still guarded.”
Unexpected life-changing decision
Before I set up Ascension Associates, I had overseas candidates who would call me up and had hour-long discussions on their senior career move (and I still have them in my current company of course). Literally people would run through significant life-changing career decisions with me. Then I thought to myself, “I’m coaching senior folks, and I should get paid. If I’m not of any value, why would they come to me?”
In the early days of Ascension Associates, one of my former associates was certified in DISC and MBTI. I thought to myself, why don’t I get certified in Gallup CliftonStrengths? It doesn’t make sense to have two MBTI certified professionals in a start-up in my opinion. I didn’t know too much about Gallup or CliftonStrengths at the time. I had only heard about their employee engagement survey and seen people in Hong Kong putting up their top 5 strengths on their LinkedIn profile.
Gallup only ran their courses once a year in Hong Kong, but the timing turned out to be perfect because when I wanted to get certified for the first time in my life, I could register in time! And not to mention I was doing it for my own company.
I had no idea that this decision transformed my life immensely.
Develop strengths or fix weaknesses?
The whole tool is built upon one simple question raised by Donald Clifton, Father of Strengths-Based Psychology, “What would happen if we studied what was right with people versus what's wrong with people?”
Strengths can be developed, but you cannot develop weaknesses. Fixing weaknesses leads to prevention of failure, but does prevention of failure automatically guarantee success? However, if you do develop your strengths, it does lead to success.
I still remember that as a newbie strengths coach, when I first asked a C-Suite in transition to use the tool and shared this strengths-based philosophy with him, he was very surprised. It’s not like we are not aware of the basic principle that we should use our strengths but in nine out of ten situations we tend to find faults, focus on fixing weaknesses and preventing failures. Put it simply, most of us are not able to apply the principle, being unconscious about how this consciousness of fixing weaknesses has given us more trouble unintentionally.
Gallup’s way of defining and promoting strength is interesting: turning your innate ways of thinking, acting and feeling (i.e. your talents) into your strengths. Just because you have this talent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your strength, as strength is the sum of your talents x investment of time + knowledge. You have to turn your talents from raw to mature so that you can flex your talent muscles accordingly.
Their definition of weakness is also thought provoking for a lot of us: what exactly is weakness? Not able to get an A+ or GPA 4.0? They have a fantastic one-liner: anything that gets in your way of success. So take my body image issues as an example: do I suffer from any health problems because of my weight? Just because a few people in my life have consistently made me feel bad doesn’t get in my way of becoming successful in what I do.
Like DNA, everyone’s talent profile is unique
Instead of showing you a report in colors or opposite camps, they use the imagery of DNA as a metaphor, reminding us of the wholeness principle of appreciative inquiry – each of us is a whole person as a human being. What I learned in my coaching training is also to coach the whole person, and most of all, we are not cookie cutters. The probability of finding another person who shares the same ranking of my talents is 1 in 33 million.
After seeing my talent DNA for the first time in my 32 years of life back in 2018, and actively practising for the last few years, I have become mindful of my innate ways of thinking, acting and feeling. That has led me to understand why, how, and when those ways take over when I am on autopilot (because it’s “innate ways”, I can now explain why I behaved in certain ways when I was small). I have opened more possibilities, more room to choose how I want to respond, and most crucially, to choose what I am responding to.
Transforming by seeing the strengths in myself
The most amazing thing along the way is that finally I am internalizing something positive and neutral, not negative comments reinforcing my negative chatter. Slowly I began to embrace my own flaws, and realize that as long as my flaws or imperfections in my head don’t get in the way of me achieving any success, they’re not my weaknesses and I certainly don’t need to magnify them. Like how some of todays’ successful singers in their early 20s advocate self-love and positive body image (Check out Camila Cabello and Chloe Bailey’s interviews here), it’s ok to feel insecure, to have imperfections in our own bodies. After all, who defines perfection, success and weakness? There are certainly cultural and contextual differences.
Instead of fixating on my skin and my body shape, why don’t I focus on how to let my true self shine? I was so insecure about my ongoing battle with acne and weight at times, and the insecurity has etched on my bones.
The a-ha moment - now I understand why Robin said what he said.
That’s when I realized why Robin told me I was so guarded: whenever I was in a social event, when I needed to get close to someone or vice versa, my subconscious would light up. “What if they see my back acne? What if they see my scars? What if I am not looking good?” On top of all these, there was demand from myself and expectation from society regarding women’s behavior in professional social events. “Am I dressing properly? Am I sending wrong signals?” “Have I?” “How much of my true self can I reveal?” “OMG this guy approached me for something else other than work. How should I respond? Do I even like him?” “If I reject this man, am I being too choosy?” “Jesus this weirdo came out of nowhere?!”
Acceptance and Self-Love - How much do we internalize external comments and societal values?
I can tell you as I am typing now, there’s a lot of flashing memories of my male candidates, female mentors and my own mum talking about how young female professionals should approach relationships and go out with men. Taking in other people’s expectations or advice is not the ideal way to go about it in most personal social situations.
Our self-perception has been influenced by so many social comments in a larger cultural context that it’s just unbelievable. This realization literally dawned on me a few months ago. Now I can understand why Robin could sense my defensiveness that I wasn’t even conscious about. I was basically ashamed of myself. Whenever there were other people who said “no, Larraine I think you look good! You are fine!”, I shut out these comments, and denied them. Instead I was ready to accept the comment that I am not good enough and ugly. As I am publishing this deeply personal article, what a co-incidence that Emma Thompson has noted the same thing in her interview promoting her latest movie Good Luck to you, Leo Grande that we have bigger purpose in life than to worry about our own bodies.
You can't bring out the best in others if you can't bring out the best in yourself.
Now, looking back with more hindsight, if you can’t accept yourself at the most basic level, you simply cannot love yourself. And if you don’t love yourself, it’s hard to talk about self-care. Worst still, you can’t accept love and appreciation from others fully. My imperfections can be my perfections and my own signature strengths, depends on how I perceive and utilize them.
It is because if I can’t embrace my own innate talents, if I can’t see the strengths in me, and instead running around all day trying to fix my imperfections, I won’t be able to see the strengths in others either. Then how can I build my own team? Nobody likes to be constantly reminded of their flaws, and nobody likes to be criticized all day.
Sometimes, all you need is just one friend or mentor or coach who just gets you, who share observations and give you that life-changing a-ha moment. Just one sentence could change your life for the better or the worse.
Career pivot from a pure headhunter to being my own boss and wearing 3 different hats
After becoming certified by Gallup to use the tool, it took me only a few months to realize that I wasn’t pitching coaching properly to the right audience, nor did I have a solid understanding of what coaching is all about. I had associates and classmates sharing their ideas with online resources, but the bits and pieces were not structured enough to help me become a successful executive coach. Some good-hearted folks would always try to help, but after all they were not entrepreneurs. They were thinking from the lens of corporate users. Selling is both an art and a science, so running around like a headless chicken would only create confusion and frustration.
A couple of strengths coaches recommended me to check out coaching training school, though it took me a year to make the decision as it was not cheap, and since June 2019 life was nothing but constant chaos and escalating violence for Hong Kong people. When I started branching out and reinventing myself to become more than just a headhunter, I went through two years of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Am I good enough? Do I need testimonials to go out there? How do I present the whole idea? Like what I have posted on LinkedIn recently, a coaching training school teaches you how to be a coach, but certainly doesn’t teach you how to run a coaching business.
After taking intensive coaching training in 2020, I was still not sure where I should go in terms of my business direction. Even though I had cheerleaders and people telling me that I could do it, I was still in murky waters with cluttered thoughts.
My breakthrough came, just like how I got the idea that I should go into coaching, when a C-suite asked me to have coffee over his latest career move. As the conversation unfolded, a coffee chat for quick advice turned into a two-hour meeting and he went, “Larraine, you are good. How much do you charge? What’s your program? I feel like I am taking off my clothes in public (with a big grin on his face).”
Executive coaching, to many people’s surprise, is not about giving advice at all. Our job is to help you understand your goals and issues and hold the space for you to craft your own path rather telling you what to do. Likewise, it’s not our job to enhance your performance but to help you develop a system to enhance your performance, on your own. After all, we are not meant to be there with you all the time, and there’s an end to the relationship at some point.
How a pragmatic decision to become a strengths coach has become the most transformative experience for me and my clients
After much trial and error in the last few years, I went from constantly questioning myself, not sure where I should go and how I can reach my destination, to having peace of mind with more zen and tranquility. Through becoming a coach, being coached after I got my first coach seven years ago and, most of all, coaching others, I have gained tremendous awareness and calmness, which is much needed in today’s leadership landscape.
In 2017 I didn’t know what was meant by keeping things in perspective, nor did I have the know-how to do so. I am glad that by April 2022, I have gained a good hand at it. By creating space for myself, I have learned how to create space for others. The feeling that I am at ease with myself has grown much stronger, and now by working with my new coach, I have never been more enabled and empowered to achieve my new goals and exploring new arenas.
I have learnt not to pay too much attention to what others are doing, as they are not living my life and vice versa. Internalizing the fact that to find another Larraine Chang or Susan Smith is a chance of 1 in 33 million reminds me that what works for you really might not work for me. I don’t need to go around in circles after taking in too much, sometimes unsolicited, advice.
In most cases, conversations in our relationships must be unfolded organically and naturally, being effortless and adaptable. We must stay present, so that we can listen to the unsaid, and notice subtle body language cues.
By shifting my focus from what’s wrong to what I have naturally, I have become a woman on my own two feet, solid and grounded.
Our most valuable “natural resources” - ourselves
True self-care, and the moment when we reach “nirvana” in establishing our own identity comes from the moment when we are aware of our own resources. Our innate ways of thinking, acting, and feeling are essentially who we are, and they can become our unique strengths if they are nurtured. They are our most valuable “natural resources”. Knowing when our strengths might become our weaknesses so that we can actively manage them and choose how we want our strengths to show up in different scenarios, understanding that we do need one another to build our own tribe and community to ascend together when building up a business, is the most liberating moment I’ve ever experienced.
It has helped me to become more empathetic, to harness my intuition more effectively. Taking a strengths-based approach helps me to see the balance my coaching clients need much more quickly than before. Instead of focusing what’s wrong with them and get into a “problem-fixing” mode, now I enable them to be fully aware of their unknown strengths, when they might hit their blind spots, and how to manage them with more ease and resourcefulness.
We always finish the sessions with an uplifting feeling, and a new gained confidence you see when they walk out of the coaching room knowing they have what they need to face tricky leadership situations and make management decisions alone.
I have no idea by making that decision out of pure pragmatism in Fall 2018, had turned out to be the most transformative decision for me, and for my clients.
Looking forward to empowering others with more zen and tranquility.
Video Bio of Larraine Chang, the author