Grand Coach Robert DuBois is Head of Product at a B2B2C SaaS business and has spent the last decade in startup leadership roles—but in another life, worked as a farmer and studied agroecology. His coaching philosophy: we're already whole, and a skilled coach and group of peers can help us get un-stuck from what's preventing us from seeing or experiencing that wholeness.
As told to Claire Zhang
Let’s hear your story of how you came to The Grand!
I actually had my own coach a long time ago. Then I did a workshop at Esalen, where I got exposed to some of the materials from the Conscious Leadership Group. They had a peer coaching group called “forum.” I joined one of their forums and I was a member of a forum for three years. All of my peers there were founders, and we had our lead coach, and we just dug into it—a lot of deep peer coaching with each other, a lot of honesty and vulnerability with each other.
I loved it, and decided at some point during my journey there that I wanted to go on and get a certification so I could support groups and also support people with one-on-one coaching. I went on to get certified and have one-on-one clients, and then I found The Grand. It was so resonant with my past experience with CLG that I knew I wanted to give it a try.
What piqued your curiosity about coaching in the first place?
I was in extreme burnout. Deep burnout. I somehow convinced my team to let me go to Esalen for a month. We had a startup in the ag-tech space, and I was working really hard. I was working out of my own past patterning behavior and not understanding myself well. I couldn't see a way out of my burnout, but I knew I needed a break, and I had a little bit of a connection to Esalen through friends and an ex-partner.
I found my way there for a month-long coaching themed work study. It was called The Inner Journey of Inspired Leadership.
I know you also studied agroecology – was that related to the ag-tech company?
Yes, it was. I got interested in agriculture after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma a long, long time ago. I hit a point in my life where there was a fork in the road. I was either going to go down the path of getting a Master's of Applied Arts or explore my curiosity on the farm—and I decided I wanted to farm.
I did that for a couple of years and then went to UC Santa Cruz for their agroecology program.
On the farm, I learned the ropes. I learned about soil, learned about connection, learned about food systems, learned about community, learned about myself, learned how to cook, learned how amazing fresh produce is, and how wonderful it is to work with the cycles of nature.
Shortly thereafter, someone in my network wanted to start an ag-tech company. The rest is history.
Are you still in the space?
No, I’m in the wellbeing space now. It's much more aligned with my personal philosophy now, but I had a good run. We had that business and it's still going. We had it for six years while I was there, and I was employee number one. I figured it all out from scratch, and it was a harrowing and beautiful and amazing experience.
I want to know more about this agriculture phase of your life...
Prior to farming, I was living in DC. I didn't want to live there anymore, and I wanted to bike across the country. I knew someone who had done it before.
Throughout my career, I've always wanted to add meaning to whatever I was doing. So, a friend and I decided to bike across the country, and we decided to add meaning to it by hosting potlucks on farms where we would ask people questions about local regional food systems. Our goal was to share stories of the local food movement.
We had a camera, we interviewed people, we had a vision of making a documentary. By the time the trip ended, I was exhausted, and that didn't happen. But we had about 22 potlucks over the course of the summer, and our whole route was defined by word of mouth.
So, we're in Chicago and someone says, “Oh, you better go to Minneapolis.” And then we're in Minneapolis, and they say, “Well, you better go to this tiny town in northern Minnesota.” We wiggled our way across the country doing that.
That gave me the conviction to go work on the farm, because I met farmers. They were so down to earth, and I loved being outside. I just knew I wanted to spend more time doing that and cultivating that in myself.
And what were you originally doing in DC?
I was a creative designer on a small tech team in the international development space called Global Giving — they do micro donations to small projects all over the world. I worked with them for a couple of years, my first job after school.
Okay, so then you wanted to bike. What was the inspiration for this farm potluck idea?
When I read Omnivore's Dilemma, that got my wheels turning. I just remember sitting, reading that book, poring over the pages thinking: “Oh my God, I can't believe that our country is stuffed with so much corn and soy.” It was unbelievable to me, and I was just fascinated by it. I wanted to learn more. I eventually did get to meet Michael Pollan, and I said: “You totally shifted the trajectory of my life.”
We had explored several different ideas for our bike trip to do a project with it, to add some spice to it, and also some good to it. Farming and agriculture and food systems had been in the back of my mind, so we picked that one somehow. I think I was having a lot of potlucks in DC at that time, so it made sense.
Can you talk me through some of the biggest learnings that still stay with you from this period of your life?
I definitely learned the value of community during my time on farms, because I tended to work with more people. I felt like I had the most real connection to growing food and then sharing that food with people that bought it. On the farm that I worked on, we had a CSA, where people order farm boxes.
We put so much heart and soul into propagating these little seedlings, growing them in the greenhouse, watering them every day, taking care of the soil, planting them, cultivating them, weeding them, fertilizing—all with good intentions in mind for soil quality and health. We harvested at peak ripeness, and then we delivered it to someone.
You got to see the people who were eating the food that you grew. That community connection was of major value to me. That was one of my biggest takeaways: how it feels to be so connected to the community, not only on our farm, but the broader community.
I think another lesson for me was how in tune we are as people with the natural world, and how natural it can feel and how healing it can feel to just live with the rhythms of the seasons.
In today's world, we have artificial light, we're in the shadows, indoors all day, we're looking at screens and those things are fine. But getting to work outside, I felt like I was in flow often, because I was just in flow with whatever was happening with the weather, the animals, the soil, the food—it all felt very natural to me.
I'm not sure what my exact lesson is from that, but there's something about… we evolved to be in the natural world, and that is in a sense our home. Maybe I could distill it down into the importance of being outside and spending time in nature and how healing and nurturing that can be for the soul.
How did it feel to switch from this flow state, this being in nature, to this ag-tech company, which led to burnout?
I will say that I was scared and excited about the opportunity to build this business. I was fueled by a desire to get it right. I wanted to get it right and do a great job and succeed. I brought in working habits that were modeled for me in my family unit and more broadly in our culture.
It was also a little weird. When I look back at pictures of what I looked like then, walking into an office building, I think everyone there must have been like: “Oh my God, who are these people?” Not that our outer image had anything to do with who we were inside…
I wanted to carry that independent farmer spirit with me for as long as I could. I also identified being a farmer with really hard work, so I brought that into it as well. But, going back to working with nature and the natural rhythms idea—you can only be outside for so long, because we only have so much natural light. With farming, there's a natural end and start to the day, whereas working inside on a computer, the days can be endless. Taking off the cap at the end of the day enabled me to continue to work really long hours.
I remember we were trying to get our mobile app out and I was working on it until 4 AM one night, and I couldn't see what I was doing. My partner at the time felt bad. She said, “What are you doing? Can't you see?” But I just wanted to do a good job, and I wanted our business to succeed.
On one hand I loved it, but on the other hand, it got out of control and I didn't know how to deal with it. That's really what led me to a coach.
I needed help. I needed someone to show me how, how things could be otherwise. Eventually, I learned that it was just pointing back to me.
Was that transition hard? Did you go straight from working on the farm, doing this agroecology program, then straight into fast-paced first employee at a startup?
My identity was the biggest thing that was hard to transition. I was not a stranger to computer work. I did some freelance design while I was farming as well – I'm a very creator type person; I love making and creating things. I got to do that on the farm with plants, and I would do it with sites I was building on the side. Then I got to do that in hyper mode while building the app and the product, so that wasn't too hard.
But it was hard for me to shift my identity from a farmer, someone land-based, to someone who was in tech. I had big concerns: what are they going to think about me if I am no longer this farmer?
Which was also just an identity I had adopted. I always do recognize and want to recognize the privilege that I have by choosing to farm. For some people, it's not a choice they get to make to go play around on a farm for a few years. That's the only thing that they get to do, so I feel lucky that I got to decide that I wanted to farm and try it out and then pivot to something like tech.
By the way, the reason I’m asking so many questions about this is: I think farming is a very common fantasy. People often will say things like “I'm just going to quit my job and move to a farm.”
Yeah… let me demystify that for you!
Yeah, exactly. So I’ve been really curious to know what the reality of that actually is. I’m also curious to know more about your decision to go back to tech – did you ever think, should I keep doing this with my life?
Yeah, I have friends who have been able to have non-farm jobs, but they have farm related businesses. They hire farmers to do the work for them, because the farmers are the real pros. Those friends are not as good as someone who's been farming forever.
I've dabbled with that idea myself. A friend and I had a product that we were making, but we decided to hit the pause button for now. We'll share what that was in the next episode.
I would say one of the reasons I left is that it's really hard on your body. As beautiful of a picture as I painted in terms of working outside on a farm, it's also harsh. It's cold, it's hot, it's dry. You gotta protect your skin. There are a lot of concerns about working outside in the elements all day. Maybe I'll call that a young man's game—for me, it was nice to do that when I was a bit younger. It’s really satisfying.
But I get why people, if they have the capacity to do it, go on a hobby farm, because they can do “farmer lite,” but it's not so high stakes that it's their sole income and what they have to do.
All that said, I have farmer friends and they're in it and they love it and they're super rooted in it. I have a lot of respect for them. For me, it was too hard on my body.
Are those friends people who adopted the identity, kind of like you? Or were they people you met who had been in it for a while?
I met these people while I was farming. Some people who I met while farming don't farm anymore. I would say the majority don't. Some are still doing environmental or ag-related jobs, but they're not farming. Then other folks I met, they were either new or they were already farming and they're still doing it.
What about the decision for you to shift completely even out of ag-tech?
I spent a lot of time there, right? I spent almost 10 years total in that phase, with the bike trip, working on the farms. Then being at this startup for six years, I felt ready for something new.
Maybe it was tied to me feeling burned out, or maybe it was just a calling inside: let's see what else is out there. My life is limited.
This next question shifts gears a little bit: there was something you had said about: when you were in this period of burnout, you couldn't see a path through it and that's why you needed a coach. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What were you seeing?
I was bumping up into limited beliefs I had about what was possible, about what I could do, about my self-worth. I felt really identified with those things at that time. It didn't feel good, but I didn't know how to get around them. I knew something needed to change, but I couldn't put my finger on it. If I knew I would've done it.
I do think it was tied to self-worth and habitual patterned ways of working. I just didn't know any other way of doing it. I would also say, tied to the self-worth piece, I didn’t know how to set boundaries. I was living more from a state of fear, rather than a state of agency creation and autonomy.
When did you realize you were burned out?
It's cliche. I do think it was a frog in the boiling water scenario. I don't know if there was a clear defining moment when I said, “Okay, this is it.”
It could have been the suggestion from someone else. I just remember feeling: This is too much, it's too much. I'm working too hard. It's taking away from my relationships, it just doesn't feel right. That was enough for me to finally book this Esalen in one month.
It crept up on me. I would say it was just a general sense of not feeling good.
How did you convince your team to let you go to Esalen?
It was a borderline statement that I was going to do it. I think it was a “this needs to happen” kind of statement.
Honestly, I was very appreciative and grateful that it flew with the team and with the owner of our business. I appreciated him a lot for that. He must have seen something and gave me the space I needed because he believed in me and trusted me.
When I look back on that from a leadership perspective, I think: “Wow, that was amazing that you did that, thank you.”
I do remember also thinking that: if it's true that I'm taking on too much of the work, this will be a forcing function for the team to level up and figure it out and take on more work as well.
And did they?
Oh yeah. They totally stepped up. The business did not collapse.
I think there's always an opportunity when things shift for people to grow. It just depends on if they want to or not. In our team's case, I remember we did a lot of prep and I came back and I was feeling better. Everything was good. I think they felt more empowered.
That's at least my recollection of it. You'll have to ask them.
Do you remember how the owner of the business responded when you first said, “I'm doing this”?
I think he maybe was a little surprised, but his answer was quick. He's a very decisive person. I think he heard the call.
It's interesting that you said surprise. Do you feel like you were doing a good job of hiding it?
Yes. That was a big part of what I was contending with: not really knowing at that time how much I was hiding and not showing and putting on an outside persona that everything was good under control, everything’s great. Inside I was melting. I was having a meltdown.
That’s where being vulnerable and having boundaries come in. I didn't have those things at that time. I didn't know how to ask for what I needed before I got to a state of burnout.
This is resonant for me because I think it's something I am still working on myself. I'm curious for your perspective on that as a coach... I think I have the same defense mechanism, where it's almost automatic that I don't want to say things are going poorly. That outside persona almost just takes over.
It depends on the company culture. I think that's real. If you're going to reveal or share something to someone, do you feel safe doing that with them? I think that relationship is important, but we have to parse out:
What's our projection of what's safe, versus what's actually safe? Because we might end up over defending ourselves by saying, “No, no, no, it's too risky. I don't wanna do it.”
But I do think if you feel that there is that relationship in place, or you have the possibility for that relationship, there's a way to bring forward the authentic statement: “This is on my mind, or I'm afraid to share, or this is important to me, and I want to have a conversation about it.”
It could even just start with: “Vulnerability is something that I want to bring more of, and this is what it looks like for me, and these are the reasons that I feel a little bit afraid to bring that. Is there space for me to bring more of that?”
That might be a way of contending with it rather than just tearing your shirt open and showing your heart right there.
I’ll say, this happens even in my closest relationships: everything is great, it's fine!
There's also a level of having—and I don't always do this perfectly myself—but, but having agreements about communications with people.
Do you have agreements around what you're up for talking about in a work context? That might be things that feel more vulnerable or it may not be, but by having an agreement in place, it can also enable someone to feel more permission to share something.
I want to bring it back to your story about the things that you were struggling with. How long did it take you to look back at yourself and see these patterns? How long did it take to start training new patterns for yourself?
I'm a late bloomer. I took this slow long road to growth and development. It’s been a process of years.
I've heard people use this phrase: change happens at the pace of biology. You can feel inspired for a day, but oftentimes we might make a micro change and then regress to the state we are in the day before, or the week before. That's all part of the process of learning and seeing that pattern happen over and over again. And then we can learn from that.
I do think, especially for patterns and things that are deeply rooted in us, it takes work and practice and it's called practice for a reason. It's commitment.
In my case, it was seeing myself not change enough. That woke me up to the pattern of me being resistant and seeing: “Oh, maybe I'm not practicing enough here, or being honest with myself or open enough.”
I was able to do all of that with help from great coaches and therapists and peers.
When you say not changing, was that after you, say, went to Esalen and came back and then you found yourself slipping back? What do you mean by not changing here?
There were elements of it for sure. I should say it wasn't not changing completely, but Robert today seems like he can change and shift a little more quickly than Robert of the past. And it's because I'm more willing to be honest and more willing to be vulnerable with myself first, and then with other people.
At that point, I was just learning how to be vulnerable and learning how to be open and learning about not only the mask, but the many masks that I wore. Those things were less familiar to me. I was in parallel discovering them and discovering their limitations and that was all a really long unfolding process.
What other masks are there?
I've definitely had a nice guy mask: doesn't get angry, nice guy, people pleaser.
I think another mask was using humor to hide my emotions and hide who I am.
I even think my hard worker mask was at play, and it was a big part of my burnout mode. I was taking things so seriously. That was also a defense mechanism that allowed me to hide in a different way than being a nice guy allowed me to hide. If I'm looking like I'm working really hard, then no one's gonna know that I don't know all the answers, for example.
Those are a few that come to mind.
I feel all of these in my soul.
I think they're common masks, especially for people who are used to achieving things and being praised and want to be successful. These are things that we're always dealing with, always figuring out how to navigate and learn our ways around.