Jean-François Cousin became a global executive coach in 2006, after a first career in management around the world with a Fortune-500 company. He has served over 750 executives, from 50 nationalities, as well as dozens of executive teams.
Accredited as a ‘Master Certified Coach’ by the International Coach Fede
ration, the highest distinction in the profession, Jean-François coaches CEOs, Region and Country Presidents and Board Members, most often on executive leadership development, on-boarding and role transition, organizational & cultural change management, strategic planning and cross-cultural leadership.
Jean-François also regularly facilitates or coaches executive teams.
Jean-François is also a speaker and a published author. Marshall Goldsmith wrote about his latest book ‘Game Changers at the Circus: how leaders can unleash Greatness in organizations’: “[this] book is full of surprises – many counter-intuitive ideas that can help leaders change even the most stagnant and inflexible organizations into thriving, dynamic performers.”
9 Lessons on Leadership through Humility
My podcast guest Jean-François Cousin is an author and fellow executive coach, who has gone through extensive changes in his life. He is an expat, a French citizen who lives in Asia, and today has worked with people of 50 different nationalities.
Like many of my followers, he transitioned from his corporate job into a career centered on his passion. Today as an executive coach and speaker, he helps people unleash their inner greatness.
I asked him to discuss some challenges he has experienced with life’s great constant: change. Like so many of us who leave comfortable corporate jobs to hang out our own shingle, the biggest change he made was starting from scratch again when he was 40 with a new business and new career.
1. In Change, Find a Mentor
Though his corporate operations career was satisfying, he didn’t find the jobs above him fit his personality. At that point, he had to ask himself: what do I love best about what I do? What is my greatness? One of his favorite tasks as a manager was helping his team members to blossom. He decided to become a coach.
As you can imagine, everyone told him he was crazy. Asia seemed fertile ground for coaching, so he rented a “crappy” townhouse in the business district of Bangkok and started working hard. Though he was passionate, he still felt like a nobody and very much alone. After many weeks, nobody was biting.
One day his friend introduced him to a Thai coach, who gifted him with some business advice. This coach also reminded Jean-François to talk to his ex-colleagues as potential contacts. He even presented him to a client of his own as a good fit. When you embrace change, it’s important to look around for good mentors who can hold your hand and help you move forward.
2. Share Your Results, Not What You Do
When Jean-François began to call his former colleagues, nobody responded with more than a “that’s nice” until he started explaining his results: bringing out the best in people. The listener’s ears perked up and Jean-François got to explain what he did. This experience taught him: don’t tell people what you do (or how you do it); first tell them what it’s all about. When they are interested, explain its purpose and how you go about it with all your being. With this approach, his very next former colleague gave him a referral.
I went through a similar journey, making big changes in my life and career, starting from scratch and feeling very lonely for a time. After several years of not getting all the clients I went after, it slowly became evident that I needed to talk about the why—without trying to sell my services. This resonates with people. They want to be empowered, tell their stories, and dream about your service or product. They don’t want to be pushed into a corner, or into a decision.
3. Humility, Vulnerability, and Honesty Are Magnetic
One day a prospective CEO emailed back: “Tomorrow, your office, 2pm.” But Jean-François’s townhouse was a mess. The first floor was rented out for aluminum pipe storage, the second as a messy pottery studio, and his little office was at the top—very plain indeed. The CEO arrived on his own motorcycle and walked up two flights of stairs. He asked Jean-François lots of questions and left. Jean-François did not expect him to call back. But he did, and Jean-François was hired.
The CEO gave him a chance (he found out later) because he saw his humble surroundings and how honest and vulnerable Jean-François was being. It developed a great seed of trust between them. Don’t pretend. Be yourself. Come as you are. And accept who you are.
4. One Client at a Time, No Rush
The truth is, when you start over, you start with one client. The first one may be the hardest to get but it’s the opening for trust and credibility. Winners are the ones that fight the longest. Don’t drop the ball too soon. And don’t put undue pressure on yourself to get a raft of new clients as soon as you start. Get 12 clients in 12 months, not in 3.
5. Accept Rejection
Jean-François also learned to accept being rejected by some people. There are coaches for every client, he says, and you might not be the one for that person. And that’s fine. Show up as who you are and already you are being the best you can be. People are not fooled by inauthenticity.
6. Focus Your Services: Specialize
Another mistake Jean-François made early on was to be the jack-of-all-trades. He listed: life coaching, cross-cultural, leadership, executive, anything. That’s not attractive to people, he said. They want an expert on one thing, a specialist with deep knowledge. Reflect on what you are most gifted at (for which there is a market), and what resonates with who you are and what you stand for as a human being. This helps you come across as authentic and vulnerable too.
7. Offer a Taste of Your Services in the Initial Consult
Another lesson entailed the most effective way to have an initial informational or “chemistry” session, where you and a potential client learn about each other and get a sense of what you can do for them. Coach your clients right away in that first meeting, he advises. Pick up an issue they want to reflect on and do your job as a coach with all humility. If that works, then the client really knows who they are hiring and what they will get.
8. Certifications Polish Your Skills
When Jean-François received an email from a company with a dream location in the Maldives, he immediately replied. Their first question: are you ICF certified? Having to say “no” helped motivate him to get that certification. Certification enables you to offer more solutions or improved skills. Both the training and the continuing education keeps you on top of leading thought in your area of expertise.
And Jean-François reminded us that these programs also help you meet and network with your peers. We learn continuously, and casual conversations with our colleagues are valuable.
9. Confident Vulnerability Is the Goal
Overall, Jean-François was most affected by the experience of the CEO coming to his “crappy” office. That man saw him at his most authentic and vulnerable and humble and winning. It helped Jean-François’s self-awareness and self-acceptance. “We can all do this and choose where we will mindfully grow,” he says. It will enhance your sense of self-worth and self-confidence, and expand you further into confident vulnerability.
When a leader can see themselves as a work in progress, it changes the rapport they have with others and attracts followers. It becomes easier to inspire others with their own example, for instance, that it’s ok to try things and fail, to not be ashamed but take the lessons and come out wiser and bolder.
Book Recommendation: Game-Changers at the Circus
Jean-François’s book, Game Changers at the Circus, helps leaders bring out what is great about them and their organizations. The book begins with a parable of hostile circus animals who don’t collaborate and almost hate each other. Despite all their differences, they learn to recognize and implement their gifts, one by one, and then as a team across the circus. I highly recommend reading this book!
Progressing in self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-growth definitely attracts others. Humility and vulnerability should be the first things we work on. Look at yourself for who you are and start to accept all your scars. Don’t be ashamed to be who you are; people will actually follow you more if you are im-perfectly you.
Contact Jean-François Cousin at Greatness.Coach and Info@Greatness.Coach.