Maxine Nwaneri, a founder of a successful strategic advisory and coaching business, explains why coaches and mentors are essential for helping people to overcome obstacles to career success and the importance of having a vision.
Believe that anything is possible, have goals, don’t try and do it all and never be afraid to seek help and support – that is Maxine Nwaneri’s recipe for success.
She leads by example, having pulled herself up from rock bottom to a high-flying career in the financial sector, before developing her business, The Future is Greater and becoming an international best-selling author.
The Future is Greater creates customized leadership development solutions for companies and individuals that focus primarily on helping women – although some clients are men – to overcome work-life balance challenges so that they can remain and excel in the workplace. There is also a social support programme for widows and orphans.
The power of coaching should not be underestimated, as Nwaneri explains: “You can’t always see the wood for the trees. As one of my own coaches often says, even the sharpest knife cannot sharpen its own handle. Everybody has blind spots; everybody can miss something.
“This is where coaching and having a vision is key; otherwise, you may find yourself endlessly floating through life, and settling for something way less than you were born to live.”
Refusing to settle for less and believing in a greater future is why Nwaneri is where she is today. As a teenager, she rebelled against her strict religious background, mixing with the wrong crowd and getting involved with drugs. Life could have got even worse when she accompanied a friend to an interview, which turned out to be with a pimp.
“I was so naïve,” Nwaneri recalls. “He told me I would never amount to anything but to work for the likes of him. Then I heard a voice within me saying, ‘this is not what you’re meant to be. You’re meant for so much more’. That was my turning point.”
The journey to ‘so much more’, involved going to university to study finance and banking and eventually culminating in several leadership roles with IBM and an MBA from Cambridge University.
However, her determination to continually prove herself, and worrying that nothing was ever good enough led to stress from overwork and a spell in hospital. It was reading First Steps to Success by Dani Johnson – who had experienced homelessness and drug addiction – that inspired her to change direction.
Nwaneri is a believer in divine intervention and convinced it was the reason she happened to be in Los Angeles when Johnson was running a seminar. “It was just amazing,” she says. “She taught me what I was doing wrong; working, working, working with no sense of having a life, time for relationships and a semblance of balance about things.”
Then, while living in Norway – still working for IBM – and on maternity leave, Nwaneri responded to an advert for a transformational coach training programme that she happened to see on Facebook. She took the course, became certified as an executive coach and, by the time she returned to work, had built her business.
Don’t be afraid of no
She has learned the value of having mentors to help her to fulfil her goals, which is why she advises not being afraid to ask for a mentor or sponsor. “If you’re ever going to succeed at anything, you can’t be afraid of no,” Nwaneri explains. “I’ve found that most people don’t say no, because they rarely get approached because people are afraid to do so.”
She cites the example of a women client who, although performing better than her male peers, was overlooked for promotion. This was because the men had sponsors. Urged by Nwaneri, the woman approached one of the men to be her sponsor, who happened to be an ally but was unsure how to proceed. It turned out to be a win-win for both parties: the woman won a substantial promotion, and her sponsor learned how to be a better ally to women of colour.
“I pushed her step out of her comfort zone to get an older white man as a mentor so that she could learn from the ‘old boys’ network what it took to reach their position in business,” she argues.
Surprisingly, for someone experienced in coaching others, either face-to-face or virtually, Nwaneri admits to being an introvert and uses a coach to overcome any misgivings. Before starting any session, she will, “take a moment to breathe, draw in some energy and remember it’s not about me.”
Personal mission motivates
And while her sessions are indeed not about her, Nwaneri has a fascinating story to tell which she shares in a book she co-wrote, while training as a coach, with Vicky Gould. Called Courageous World Catalysts, it’s an anthology featuring 40 inspirational stories.
In many ways, it was a form of catharsis and has spurred her desire to help others overcome challenges. Nwaneri explains: “I had a brush with death in 2019, an experience that gave me even more strength and drive. At the time, I remember thinking, if I die now, would I feel like I’ve lived my purpose?
“I don’t think so, especially when I look around now, at all this uproar on so many different levels with women and racism and people feeling helpless. I feel like I’m meant to help people see that there’s no need to feel helpless. It’s not just about the people I work with; it’s about the ripple effect it has for them, with their community, their family, their networks, with everything.”
Having a personal mission is what motivates Nwaneri, and she devotes two hours at the start of every day to set it. It’s not about being perfect, and she believes that people need to be compassionate with themselves when they fail and to communicate better with others.
She says: “If you are clear on your vision and mission for the day, and all expectations are aligned around success but still don’t’ work, there needs to be communication, accountability, an apology where it’s due, and the ability to move on with compassion.”
Understanding how individuals work
One of the biggest, challenges in the workplace is a lack of understanding of how individuals work by senior managers. People have different strengths, values and needs. Nwaneri uses coaching to encourage clients to understand their workforce by empowering and listening to people.
She points out: “When you weigh up the collective costs of having people within the organisation who are either disengaged or fretting over an issue, you realise the true value of professional coaching and getting someone in to help harness the best ideas to make changes.”
For example, how COVID-19 has disproportionally affected the black community has not only caused personal distress through the loss of loved ones but exacerbated the problems they face through systemic racism at work.
Nwaneri says they must have access to and actively seek help – which may be in the form of mentoring or coaching: “I’d encourage anyone living with any form of negativity first to seek counselling, forgiveness, or the support of friends and family.
“Once you can manage the pain, it’s time to reset the mind to refocus on the vision and how to achieve it should an opportunity present. This is when women, especially those of colour, find sponsorship, mentoring and coaching at work invaluable.
“A Women in the Workplace report said that black women especially are suffering more because they’re not supported at work. So I encourage people to look beyond just surviving and believe that by having a mind-blowing vision, anything is possible because it is.”
Her underlying message is to have a vision, celebrate successes big or small and get help: “And by help, I mean get a coach who will challenge you, someone not like you; otherwise you’re going to keep doing the same thing if you stay in your little groups.
“To people who say they don’t recognise in a coach anyone who looks like them, I say that there are eight billion people on the planet who look like you, because we are more alike than we are different.”