Vivian Rigney left Ireland in 1990, and has since lived in London, Munich, South Africa, Paris, Helsinki and now New York. “The whole world was beckoning,” he explains, when asked about his decision to live abroad. “I was strong under the hood, but I hadn’t found my voice. It was like this quest.” And thus began his journey, one that’s filled with historical moments (Eastern Europe after the wall fell, South Africa during the first democratic election) and the seven summits of the world. Rigney is a fantastic storyteller who just happens to have some great stories to tell. So read on!
It seems like you’ve always managed to be in the right place at the right time: Europe right after the wall came down, South Africa around the time of the election. How do you do it?
The company thought, “Well, everybody’s going to be down there. We want to be riding the wave.” So I went down [to South Africa] in November. I was 24 years old, and I didn’t know anything about anything. And I failed spectacularly. My job was to build a business with our dealers and partners. They took one look at this Irish kid with all the ideas in the world, and they said, “What’s going on?” After six months, I wasn’t being invited to meetings. I could feel the arctic winds blowing through the office. Half the people wouldn’t speak to me. I called my boss and said, “It’s not going well,” and he said, “I’ve heard.” I said, “So what should I do?” He said, “Vivian, I’m in Munich. I can’t hold your hand. I’ll give you a tip. It’s about relationships. You’ve got to get close to them.”
Were you their manager?
No, I wasn’t. I was a bit like the Mercedes Benz representative coming to the United States without a dealership. We had loads of dealers, but all of them were independent.
So you weren’t the muscle.
I was like Kofi Annan, coming in to assuage the situation and get them all to work together. So I pulled them into a conference room one day. I said, “I’ve been here six months, and I’m failing. I’m letting myself down, and I’m letting my company down, and I’m letting you guys down.” I had no idea I was going to say that. I was trying so hard to be perfect. And I got it all wrong.
Then what happened?
The room changed. A third of them were nodding their heads like, “Now we’re talking.” I asked them for their help.
That’s so humble.
I had to do it.
It’s a game changer.
Yeah, a game changer. Half of them went red—the ones of that were busting my chops the hardest. A third looked at the carpet. You could hear a pin drop in the room. It was like I stopped trying to be perfect. This huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Then I could just be myself.
That’s so magical.
It was a release, and luckily they played ball. I lived there four years. Business boomed, but I never forgot the scars of the first six months.
A few years later I left the company and did an MBA in Paris. I knew I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was with these amazing people. We had an Israeli fighter pilot in our class. You name it, we had it. Twenty-eight different nationalities. I did a paper for France Telecom Mobile, and then one for Nokia France. I ended up being hired by France Telecom Mobile International after business school. Eventually I got out of there and went to Heidelberg to work for a U.S.-Israeli company, and from there I moved to Helsinki to run an IT company. I didn’t know anything about IT.
So I’m sensing a pattern in your work life. On multiple occasions you’ve talked about taking new jobs at places where you don’t know anything about the business. How does that work?
I connect with people. I connect with where they are, with their challenges, with what they want to do. I don’t think, “I can help the problem,” I think, “I can help these people.”
Did realizing that get you to where you are now?
I was flying from Helsinki to Oslo one day, and I pulled the magazine out of the back of the seat. There was a four-page article about executive coaching. I remembered my time in South Africa, and I thought, “Why didn’t they get me a coach?” Then I got to the end of the article and I thought, “Why didn’t you ask for a coach, buddy?” I woke up the next morning, and this article was literally burning off the page at me. Within three days, I had signed up for a course in NLP, neuro-linguistic programming. I did a master’s in NLP and then a coaching certification. I launched a coaching practice in Helsinki in 2004.
So the idea was teaching people how to interact with other people and learning to sell things by developing relationships?
That was the bridge. I remembered feedback that I had gotten while I was in South Africa. I had moved people. People were touched. The minute I read the article, it all came back—who I was. It just somehow made sense. It lit my circuit board up.
Can you define executive coaching for someone who doesn’t know what it is?
It’s really helping people take ownership of themselves.
When people come to you, what are they generally looking for?
Companies hire me to work with their teams. They have these people who are good people, smart, efficient, high-achievers. They all have leadership responsibilities. My purpose is to help them become more emotionally intelligent. What does that mean? It’s about helping them become more aware of who they are, more aware of others. It’s about showing them how to read the room, how to be aware of the room, but most importantly, how to read themselves. It’s about learning how to be intuitive, how to be free, how to be authentic. The idea of authentic leadership is a big thing now. It’s about being real. But in order to be real you have to be aware of who you are.
How would you diagnose what someone’s issue is?
I open up and tell them an abbreviated version of my story. Then they feel comfortable telling me their story. They tell me about the choices they’ve made. They tell me about their successes and failures. And the whole time, I’m peppering them with questions because I want them to take ownership of the whole tapestry of how they got to where they are.
I’ve been told that you climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The Kilimanjaro thing was when I was in South Africa. I was 26. You go there, and you charge up Kilimanjaro because you can, because you’re 26. And then you hit the altitude, and you go, “Whoa, what’s going on here?” And you realize there’s stuff you can’t do. Then I heard about the seven summits, the highest peaks on every continent. I started a quest. I said, “I’ll never do Everest, but I’ll do six of the seven.”
Why not Everest?
Because Everest is for the nut jobs. So I ended up doing them one by one. I failed at Aconcagua in South America. The weather was terrible. We had to retreat after twenty days. Then I did Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, and then Denali in Alaska.
How was that?
Very tough. Very cold. Very technical. And I’m terrified of heights.
How does the whole I’m-afraid-of-heights-thing figure into climbing mountains?
It’s temporary. You overcome it. You know inside that if some other people can do it, you can do it, that it’s only a mountain, and that it’s in your head.
What was next?
I did Antarctica in 2009, and then I did Acancagua the second time, and I got it right. And then I said, “Is Everest going to happen?” I wasn’t sure if it was me or the mountain that was blocking me. The more people I talked to who had done it, I realized it was me. I left for Everest in April 2010.
Did you summit?
So you’re done.
I’m done. It was a really traumatic experience. Life-changing. It really opened me up. Enormous vulnerability. There was a darkness that rose up inside me. The darkness said, “Why do you always have to prove how good you are?” I closed my eyes and I thought, “You’ve just got to let go.” My sherpa came to me and said, “You have to go, or else you’re going to die here.” And I followed him over the knife-edge, up the Hillary Step—I have very little recollection of the Hillary Step. I put my crampons exactly where he put his. I let go of everything. Complete autopilot. At the top I sat and I looked around. I was exhausted. Releasing the dark cloud had taken everything. I was happy to be there. I was at the top of the world. But the learning was way bigger than me. For weeks and months after I was affected by it.
How did it change your coaching practice?
It showed me how important it is to puncture the ego and feel vulnerability. On Everest, the ego will not get you up. In fact, it becomes a huge burden.