Home Concepts Ethics Coaching for the Greater Good: Interview with Bill Carrier and Alex Petroff

Coaching for the Greater Good: Interview with Bill Carrier and Alex Petroff

18 min read

William Bergquist conducts a 30 minutes interview with Bill Carrier, a successful leadership coach, and his exceptional client, Alexander Petroff, who headed a program for many years directed toward lifting people in the Eastern Congo out of poverty. Here is this interview (followed by a written summary of major points made during the interview and an additional written comment by Alex):


Some of the key insights offered in this interview were:

  1. Bill C: I do nonprofit work with an organization called “Support TED”, which was founded by Renee Friedman (co-editor of this issue of The Future of Coaching). Support TED connects experienced coaches to people who are doing the greater good in the world. She connected me to Alex.
  2. Bill C.: It is a great pleasure and honor to coach someone like Alex, for it can be a leverage point, where the work you are doing as a coach can impact so many people beyond just the person you are coaching. Alex has literally supported more than 20,000 people to find their way out of poverty in a sustainable way. It is an amazing thing to do in life to help someone like Alex do their work in an even more effective manner.
  3. Alex: I have been doing this work of helping people out of poverty who live in rural areas. I first became interested in this work when I was a child. My mother introduced me to economics and to the issue of poverty. We were ourselves living in poverty, so I knew what it was about—and what poverty isn’t about. I wanted to discover how lives can be changed when people are no longer poor.
  4. Alex: I first wanted to do poverty-reduction in Maine (the state where I was living), but became realistic, recognizing that there might be major barriers for me to do poverty-reduction in Maine given that I was a nobody. So, I chose instead to work in another country where I can provide more leverage with the least amount of resources. This was to be the Eastern sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  5. Alex: I found in my work that I was “learning as I was walking” (to borrow a Latin phrase). I cam in with the big idea that I was going to transform everybody’s life, but over the years realized just how difficult and disruptive this transformation can be. I learned how to listen and be focused—a much more powerful way to be with other people.
  6. Alex: This type of work has to be founded in humility. When you are sure that you are right then you aren’t open to the real learning that occurs. I would like to think I knew this right way, but it came over time.
  7. Bill C: Alex is a perfect example of what it means to be a servant leader – a blending of head and heart. And he is adding hands and feet to this. He is out there actually doing the work. My job as a coach is come up alongside someone and see what it is I can provide that helps them see the world in new ways that help them act with greater speed, greater power and fewer errors.
  8. Bill C: An example of how Alex and I work together concerns fund raising. Early on, Alex came to be and indicated that he hated fund raising, even though this necessarily had to occupy quite a bit of his time. He hated to approach people in order to ask for their money. Alex felt that people were willing to give him money in order to influence what he was doing; or the fund-raising was making them feel uncomfortable and guilty, so they gave money in order to feel better. Alex dreaded these activities and the big fund-raising events that were needed to help meet the yearly budget. I helped him reframe the request. These are people who have the financial resources and want to help. They can see that you are someone who can actually do something important with their money. They aren’t going to travel to Africa so that they might work on the ground. They don’t know how to be helpful. By asking for their financial support, you are helping to guide them into discovering ways that they can do good in the world. You are doing them a favor. This seems to have made a big difference. You raised more than $200,000 and said this was one of the best experiences you had in doing this work.
  9. Alex: Yes, this changed my entire perspective – and I went from spending 98% of my time fund-raising to spending about 2% doing this work. By rephrasing it as giving people an opportunity to do something good with their money makes all the difference. They don’t want to be spending their time working in the war zone of Eastern Congo. They have other things they want to do with their life—but this is a wonderful way in which to leverage their own financial resources to do good in the world.
  10. Alex: getting the money is only the first step. You have to be effective in the use of this money. Many people have burned a lot of money in the Eastern Congo and had little impact. Many big organizations have tried to make magic in this war-torn area and failed. The key for me was to work with a small number of individuals in the region and to help them be more impactful in their work. It is about finding the right people to engage in specific pieces of the project. I worked frequently will Bill on personnel management issues.
  11. Alex: Eastern Congo is a very messy place. Getting people to work together under conditions of high stress is quite a challenge. This part of the Congo has been in a state of conflict since the early 1990s. It is very difficult to sort everything out and find an effective strategy in our work on behalf of poverty-reduction.
  12. Bill B: We need to give Alex credit. Eastern Congo has been known for many years as one of the most dangerous places on Earth. My own work in the US Army helped me to appreciate the single-focus, mission-driven mind-set and attunement to danger that is needed when working in an area such as the Eastern Congo.
  13. Alex: Actually, I am one of those weird people who finds that my life becomes very simple and easy under conditions of stress. I feel like my brain functions better and I felt better about myself under conditions where quick decisions must be made. My problem arose when I was no longer in this stressful circumstance. Bill helped me realize that I was not adjusting well to this shift in circumstances. It was taking a toll on me and I was not a good person to be with. Without Bill’s help, I might have only had a year or two in me before I crashed. By 2010 we were helping hundreds of people each year – but I wasn’t helping myself. The 20,000 we eventually helped wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten myself in shape and learned from that issue of adjustment.
  14. Alex: This capacity to work effectively in this kind of high-stress situation and to replicate our successful practices is critical in an organization such as the one I was running. It is important to note that the money was coming from outside the conflict situation – so I had to work in two different worlds.
  15. Alex: Bill reminded me that I was providing an opportunity for people to find dignity and meaning in their lives by getting out of poverty, yet it was also important for me to remember that I too am a person who deserves to find dignity and meaning in my own life. Just being a PTSDed-out wreak is no way to live.
  16. Alex: Coaching can’t provide either drive or direction. Drive is very important. What coaching does is that it tempers your drive. While some people might think this is a negative about coaching’ however, I find that this tempering allows me to focus and deepen the drive – tuning out all of the outside distracting noise. When I was starting my project in Congo, I had very little support other than my parents and few people who would throw me $20 after a library talk. Almost everyone was a naysayer and my drive wasn’t really focused. With coaching I am less sure about everything. Bill and I worked on the discernment of work that I was doing—in what ways was I doing good? In what ways was I making life better for the people I was serving? Where do I focus and how do I listen? That makes the determination deep, because it is not based on your willpower.
  17. Alex: When I started in the Congo it was based entirely on willpower. I was not listening. What was I going to impose on the world? That is a strength, but it is not as strong as listening.
  18. Bill: For people seeking to do this kind of good work, there is always the challenge of having some much to do. In trying to meet these impossible demands, those working in these organizations lose themselves and eventually lose their capacity to have a lasting, sustained impact. Infinity is the enemy of impact. If you narrow the space in which you are applying force, you can have much more work. This is true in physics and in life.
  19. Bill: When people are doing good work in their life, they need to include themselves in their mission. For Alex, this recognition made him a much more powerful envoy to help others.
  20. Bill: This is wonderful work. In coaching remarkable people like Alex, one gains much greater leverage to help our world. You make wonderful friends with some incredible human being.
  21. Alex: I begin my own future work by listening. I am tempered in my willingness to impose my will on any area. I am interested in Energy – particularly in rural areas. A specific domain in which I would like to work concerns draft animals and the role they might play in the future. Most importantly, I am interested in and continue to emphasize listening. This what it is all about for me.
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