Leading From The C-Suite: Dr. Ana Lueneburger

Dr. Ana Lueneburger of ‘Fox meets Owl’ On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive

An Interview With Doug Noll, Published in Authority Magazine.

“Meet your clients at eye level. Given that my clients are extremely successful, be it a CEO of a Fortune 50 firm or an ultrahigh net worth individual as part of a family office, when they approach me for coaching, I need to be able to show up as a confident partner who can effectively support and challenge them — key ingredients to coaching success.”

As part of our series called “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ana Lueneburger. Dr. Ana Lueneburger has had a global career with organizations such as INSEAD, Danone and the Boston Consulting Group. Following a decade and a half of coaching and advisory work, Ana is a Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation, has a PhD in business from the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, was a postdoctoral research fellow in change management at INSEAD, France, and a founding fellow of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard Medical School, USA. Ana is also a fully licensed and accredited integrative psychotherapist in the UK. Her book Unfiltered: The CEO and the Coach was recently published by Penguin Random House.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I always had a passion for people and for the psychology of human behavior. The ultimate catalyst was hiring my own executive coach when I was a young leader in my early thirties. She helped me understand my blind spots, fast tracked my learning curves on how to effectively motivate my team by sharing psychological insights, and she also modeled the power of not ‘going it alone’. Coaching others looked like such a rewarding, impactful role. So fifteen years ago I decided — next to my full-time job — to train and certify as a coach myself. And I have never looked back.


Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Probably my first team coaching gig a few months or so after getting certified as a coach. Despite NYC being a big corporate playground, I was invited to coach a group of senior executives in Shanghai as part of my affiliation with INSEAD, the business school. I left NYC in the middle of a snowstorm and fifteen hours later landed in another world: Tai Chi in every park with cherry blossoms emerging, small dwellings with open fire pits among modern high rises, mainly fish and dumplings for breakfast, and senior Asian participants who had not travelled much outside of China and who had a minimal knowledge of English. And not to mention that this was my very first team coaching intervention. It was baptism by fire. It definitely mitigated any concerns I might have had around failing in the future — if I managed to get through this one, I was ready.


Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” T. Roosevelt

At the age of 27 I suffered a cardiac arrest. Out of the blue. I only survived because there was a doctor nearby. It was one of the most vulnerable junctures of my life. One moment I had been this successful young talent finishing her PhD at a prestigious university and the next moment I was hitting rock bottom.
But after some reflection I realized that here was my invitation to explore early on what gives me purpose and makes me happy, to step into the arena and to show up, even if my first instinct might be to play it safe. It has been my guiding principle since almost thirty years, to keep it real, to put myself out there, to seek deep connection with those around me. I ultimately think it has saved my life.


Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your coaching style? Can you share a story or an example of that?

Yes: A primer in positive psychology by the late Chris Peterson. My cultural background is German and from a young age I have been trained to think critically, to look at what’s missing, and to strive to make it better, to make it ‘perfect’.

This perspective may support delivering excellence, but it does not necessarily breed a sense of joy — the other half of the equation when we look at what constitutes success and well-being and what facilitates change. Chris’s book introduced me to the science of positive psychology, and in particular the strengths movement. Reading his brilliant overview was truly like a thousand light bulbs went off. From that day forward a strength-based coaching philosophy is central to how I work with all of my clients. As a result, they see quick learning curves, they feel energized as they embark on their demanding change journeys, and they see results that last.


What do you think makes your work stand out? Can you share a story?

As I mentioned earlier, my coaching is rooted in a strengths-based approach where — rather than fixing clients — the focus is on clarifying their strengths profile and helping them leverage these in novel and broader ways. My business training and experience coupled with being a certified psychotherapist allows me to help clients move beyond mere skill and behavioral change. Clients can effectively and safely lean into the unknown as they explore what parts of their self they wish to let go of as they define their authentic path going forward. Finally, having lived in five different countries and worked with over 50 nationalities, has provided me with a broader perspective, one that I can bring back into the coaching room.


You are a successful business coach. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The first trait is striving to be real, to be authentic and to seek honesty, with myself and those around me. The second trait is an innate curiosity, about people and the world, which is tremendously helpful in facilitating insight and change. Finally, kindness, a trait that is often underrated, particularly in business, is critical when it comes to connecting with my clients, to be able to put myself in their shoes and to build confidence that I have their best interest at heart — a key ingredient to solidifying trust and building the relationship.


Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a coach?

Yes, probably the most recent situation was when one of my clients, a CEO of an investment bank at the time and who is now running his own asset management firm, and I explored the idea of writing a book about our coaching journey. The premise was to open up that confidential black box that protects the coaching space and to share, from both our perspectives, the ins and outs of our coaching partnership. One aspiration was to move the needle for the coaching industry and to — through our transparency and openness — let readers test drive what it feels like to be coached and to be test drive coaching as to whether its right for them.

This was an exciting idea, it had a pioneering quality as such a book does not yet exist in the market. However, I also knew that this step was risky, particularly for my client. We did not want to hide behind a carefully curated case study but were committed to share our lived experience, up close and personal. Might this negatively impact their business? My primary objective as a coach is to protect and uplift my clients. Was writing that book putting my client at risk?

We discussed it at length and we ultimately went ahead with the project, resulting in ‘Unfiltered — the CEO and the Coach.’ Our desire to make a contribution won over the hesitation to make ourselves open and vulnerable.


Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive coach does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive coach who works with the C-suite does that is different from the responsibilities of other coaches?

My practice:

  • type and depth of change (developmental, transitional, transformational)
  • length of engagement
  • meet at eye level and navigate that with not being the other alpha in the room


What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a C-Suite executive coach? Can you explain what you mean?

1. We are enlightened buddhas who know it all.
Like all human beings, we are works in progress. Key is to not lose sight of that and to remain curious, to admit when we don’t know something, also to our clients, and to embrace growth which brings uncertainty and change.

2. We only ask questions.
In the executive coaching space my clients also want to hear what I think, how I might approach a certain problem, and what I advise them to do. If done in a non-prescriptive fashion, this can a real value add to clients, sometimes simply affirming them in their own views.

3. You have to have the same profile as the client to be of value.
The opposite is often the case. If we have the same profile we risk having the same views, we look to inspire from a place of sameness which is challenging and we tend to share the same blind spots. What clients often want and deserve, however, is a fresh perspective, someone that quickly spots and points out what we can’t see, and someone who challenges us so we can grow.

4. Its about the credentials, the tools, the shiny object.
Credentials and a good reputation are table stakes in my opinion. Tools are useful, but they cannot replace the impact that comes from establishing a trusting, strong rapport between client and coach. With that as a foundation, anything is possible.

5. We are here to fix people.
I do not see myself in the business of fixing people. I am here to help leaders become the best version of themselves, starting out from a place of possibility. This is where leaps happen — it comes back to what I mentioned earlier in that playing to our strengths more effectively.


What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One common mistake is assuming that, in your new role, you should know the answers. To be sure, there are instances when that assumption works, for instance for leaders who have taken on assignments in dire circumstances, such as a turn-around with a limited runway. But most C-suite leaders, rather than being omniscient, have been promoted to their roles in large part because they understood, on the one hand, how to discern the most critical questions were that needed to be answered for their business to thrive, and on the other how to build and motivate effective teams capable of answering them and operationally delivering on those answers. One of the implications of this realization is having the freedom to listen when starting to lead a new team — and perhaps listen longer than instinct might tell us — before acting. It’s in that period of listening that some of my clients have done the most to not only articulate the key questions they needed to address, but also build real followership among their teams for the next phase of shaping and implementing a strategy people felt ownership of.


In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Recognizing that culture and purpose are not fluffy concepts, but muscular ones that deserve significant attention and can pay enormous and compounding interest. I remember one of my clients hosting his first townhall not at headquarters, but in the original building of the company, which had since been repurposed as a storage facility. He used the space to remind people why the company had been founded, and how the mission of the two founders was as relevant today as it had been so many decades ago. And he proved that he meant it with an internal fund, governed by a committee of employees, to evaluate ideas from any colleague across the company and fund those that profitably furthered the purpose of the company. One of the most anticipated elements of his subsequent townhalls was the announcement of ideas that had received funding and the celebration and rewarding of the employees who had championed them. This initiative, together with others that focused on re-energizing the company’s purpose, ended up being a key driver of value creation, not least because it drove engagement and innovation.


Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive coach”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1. Meet your clients at eye level. Given that my clients are extremely successful, be it a CEO of a Fortune 50 firm or an ultrahigh net worth individual as part of a family office, when they approach me for coaching, I need to be able to show up as a confident partner who can effectively support and challenge them — key ingredients to coaching success.

2. Be true to yourself and only accept mandates that feel right to you. I have just recently turned down one of the most senior players in the media industry as I truly struggled to connect at a human level. Under such circumstances, if of interest to the other party, I often go through my global network of peers and make a couple of referrals so they can interview more coaches and find the right match.

3. Confidentiality is the heart of any coaching. Frequently organizations hire me as they wish to see a talented leader become even more successful. Yet, my client ultimately is the individual leader and I will uphold a shield of confidentiality to ensure they feel safe to be open and transparent with me. Only if they share key information will we be able to realise significant impact in our coaching.

4. Invest in the relationship. It is the relationship that ultimately determines successful outcomes, we have seen this in studies again and again. Of course, there is a proven coaching protocol, there are resources and tools that all serve the process of self-discovery and self-growth. But at the core is building a trusting relationship, one that establishes the foundation for the work, that allows for the client to stretch themselves in a safe non-judgmental space, where they can experiment with new behaviors or ways of being to move from being good to being extraordinary.

5. Fire yourself. Coaching typically comes with clear objectives and deliverables. Sometimes there may be several rounds of coaching with the same client. The temptation may be, once the trust and the relationship is cemented, to slip into a ‘leader on the couch’ dynamic where coaching stretches out seemingly endlessly. This is where as a coach I need to ask myself: have we clarified as to what we want to accomplish together and does the mandate we are designing make sense in this context and serve the client?


In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?

I want to be careful with the attribute of “fantastic” — it’s probably worth dissecting. Cultures vary enormously, and so I make no claims about being comprehensive here, but in the experience I have had with clients, many great work cultures share a few attributes. They tend to be purpose-driven, as outlined previously; transparent, in that people understand and trust what they hear from their leaders (even if they don’t always like it); rewarding, in that people are provided opportunities to learn and develop while seeing their contributions as being recognized; and nimble, which in many ways is what equips purpose with durability as markets change and tastes evolve. To pick just one of those, I remember being impressed with a client who stepped into CEO role at a company that was performing well enough financially, but had seen its sector leadership to erode over time. One of the conclusions she came to was that the company culture had been so anchored to excellence that people were afraid to take risks. Years of playing it safe had produced operational excellence and decent results, but others had caught up. What she did, as a result, was to establish as part of the annual performance review process, a section called “My Favorite Failure” for each of her direct reports to declare. Within a couple of review cycles, several things happened. First, she de-stigmatized risk-taking by acknowledging that good failure is the cost of doing business. Second, as direct reports likewise used this framework for their teams, it became part of their cultural vernacular. And third, by at least one metric, which is patent registrations, the company more than doubled innovative output by year three compared to her first year in the office.


You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

As a coach I am in the fortunate position of being a natural multiplier. I work with the most senior leaders in organizations. If such a leader serves as an inspirational visionary force for their teams as a result of our coaching work, then not only will that leader experience the benefits but so will those around him or her.

If I could create a particular movement, it would be to step away from a world of mental shortcuts and assumptions and to step towards being furiously curious. If we can get out of our own heads and inquire as to what others are thinking, what makes them behave and decide in certain ways, and to learn to truly listen to their responses, I think we would see a different world. One that is filled with a greater understanding and appreciation of differences, one that embraces the other’s humanity and does not see it as an attack on one’s own. Ultimately, I think we would see a world with greater compassion where leadership is there to uplift and inspire those around them.


How can our readers further follow you online?



Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.