After scaling the executive ladder to reach that coveted role, many senior leaders arrive unprepared for the isolation and complexity that comes with the job — and even seasoned veterans can question why they bothered.
Enter the executive coach. Part professional mirror, part independent sounding board, coaches have seen a spike in demand for their services in recent times as leaders continue to grapple with the fallout from COVID-19 and the increasing challenges of their role.
Virginia Mansell, founding partner and chair of coaching practice Stephenson Mansell Group, describes the current climate as a “perfect storm of challenges” for senior leaders.
“Not only do they need to focus on performance, they’re also having to adjust to hybrid working arrangements, a significant talent shortage, plus macro issues like a recession,” she says. “Some older CEOs have been through the GFC, so they are used to dealing with the external challenges, but some first-time CEOs are like deer in the headlights. They’re also asking themselves tough questions like, ‘How do I bring my team together and how do I build the relationships?’ We’re seeing a far greater willingness to invest in a coach because leaders can see the advantage of having an independent, trusted adviser.”
Lonely at the top
Recent research into workplace wellbeing by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence shows more than 40 per cent of senior leaders are stressed, 36 per cent are exhausted and almost 70 per cent are considering quitting their job. While high performance earned many leaders their senior role, the skills that helped them climb the ladder may not guarantee success at the top.
Carolyn Dean, director at Hewsons Executive Development, says this can be a “real shock” for new CEOs.
“For CEOs, the challenge is that they’re really quite alone in that they can’t talk to their direct reports about how they may be struggling in their job — and I haven’t met any willing to be authentically open with their board about their struggles,” she says. “If they’ve got a good relationship with their chair, maybe they can, but what they generally want to do is present the face that they’re handling things. As a result, they’re trapped in a vacuum.”
For Taryn Lee MAICD, chair of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, and a director of Parks Victoria, senior leadership roles tend to be loneliest in any organisation. She has sought the support of coaches since first moving into senior executive roles about a decade ago.
“Leadership roles are the most isolating because you lead a team, but you’re not a part of a team,” says Lee, who is also general manager of social impact and policy at Collingwood Football Club, where she works on organisational change following an independent review into systemic racism. “That was the hardest transition for me.”
Lee notes that organisational change requires supporting people through a process while also being the “disrupter” who leads the change.
“That doesn’t always make you the most popular person,” she says. “That’s where a coach can help test a strategy on how you might deal with an issue. My starting position is that I don’t know everything, but for roles like senior executives or board members, there is a presumption that you do.”
Dr Ian Pollard AM FAICD, an executive coach with Foresight’s Global Coaching, says the challenges facing CEOs and directors are getting tougher. High-pressure roles demand greater introspection and self-work, while also attracting greater public scrutiny among stakeholders.
“This is partly because of the rate of change and governance demands,” says Pollard. “But it also comes down to increasing regulation and the increasing involvement of third parties making assessments of how good or bad a job you’re doing and commenting quite liberally about it across the media.”
He adds that coaching gives leaders permission to focus on themselves. “During the monthly cycle, it’s valuable to take time to think about their own personal growth, what they’re learning through the challenges they’re facing and how they can grow through the opportunity in front of them.”
Pollard says coaching is about asking questions rather than providing answers. “In most cases, CEOs know their business, industry, team, board and stakeholders way better than an outsider. They have it within themselves to find the answers to the majority of the issues challenging them, provided they take enough time to reflect.”
Executive coach Sue McDonnell says coaching can help leaders develop self-awareness to adapt to the needs of stakeholders. “One of my clients hosted a town hall [meeting] the other morning for the whole organisation, and the feedback he received was phenomenal, because he showed up as authentic and vulnerable and willing to share his own story,” she says. “That afternoon, he gave a presentation to the board about how to advance the organisation from a growth perspective, and he showed up as professionally competent with a thorough knowledge of the market.
“There are different skills, competencies and capabilities required for who your audience is. Coaching helps someone to be emotionally intelligent enough to pause and think about things like, what am I walking into, what part of me is required in this situation, how do I want people to leave this conversation feeling, and therefore, how do I need to show up?”
Madden agrees that self-awareness is critical to successful leadership. “If leaders can’t take feedback and understand the impact of their behaviour on others, they’re not going to be able to self-reflect and make good judgement and decisions,” she says.
Madden says self-awareness tools include 360-degree feedback sessions where direct reports and stakeholders are asked to rate a leader on a range of attributes. “We collect that data and present it back to the CEO. It’s an effective way to help them see where their blind spots are.”
Renee Miller GAICD, CFO of technology consultancy IE, began seeing a coach last year to help improve her emotional intelligence and to “be a better leader and a better person”. She says the experience has helped her to be “less reactive”.
“If I know I need to have a difficult conversation or attend a meeting that could be difficult, I might have a coaching session with my coach, Dave, beforehand,” she says.
“He helps me understand the difference between responding and reacting. He suggested that I ‘Rubik’s Cube’ everything. If one side of something looks perfect, turn it around to see the other perspectives. That’s helped me to spend the time to understand all the other sides.”
Miller’s employer pays for her coaching sessions and the leadership team shares the same coach. “We have one-on-one coaching, but he also coaches us as a team,” says Miller. “If there are any issues that we need guidance to resolve, he helps to facilitate a solution.”
Dean coaches both individuals and groups and says more boards would benefit from team coaching. “I hear way too many reports of boards not functioning well — and the impact that has on the executives and the business underneath them can be quite damaging,” she says. “But there are far more executives than board directors who have a coach. Maybe there’s an assumption that if you’re a director, you may have had coaching in executive roles. But it would be prudent of more of them to seek coaching, particularly as the environment is so volatile — and the greater the challenge, the more we need to be communicating effectively with each other.”
Choosing a coach
Data from the International Coaching Federation’s 2020 Global Coaching Study shows there were approximately 71,000 coach practitioners globally in 2019, an increase of 33 per cent on the previous estimate in 2015. It puts total revenue from coaching in 2019 at US$2.85b, a 21 per cent increase on 2015 figures.
Despite its growth, coaching remains an unregulated industry. Aaron McEwan, vice- president of research and advisory at Gartner, recommends doing your homework before choosing a coach. “The bottom line is that you want somebody who is well-credentialed, because it will demonstrate that there’s been some rigour to their training and they’re using evidence-based approaches and interventions,” he says.
“One of the problems in executive coaching is that it’s often less related to coaching for skills at that level and much more related to morals and values — and often dealing with complex psychological issues. You want to make sure that the coach is either capable of dealing with those things or understands the limitations of their own practice and can therefore refer you to the right professionals to deal with that.”
Dean recommends setting clear expectations around coaching outcomes at the outset. “Where do you want to be at the end of the coaching? Where do you want to be in terms of your competency or ability to manage people? If you don’t have those outcomes clearly identified at the beginning of the coaching program, focus will be lost and you risk the process desolving into chat sessions.”
For Lee, the best approach is to match the coach with the type of challenge she’s wishing to address. “I’ve always used different coaches for different reasons at different times for different problems,” she says. “When you take on leadership roles, you have to make decisions on the really tough things and that’s just part of the job. But decision-making is like a muscle — the more you do it, the stronger it gets. Working with a coach helps you build that muscle for the future, and it’s also good to have someone independent who’s there to support you.”
Five workforce predictions for 2023
1. Reverse monitoring
A 2022 study of HR technology use by PwC shows that 95 per cent of HR leaders have either implemented remote monitoring tools to track productivity and performance of remote workers or plan to do so. But Aaron McEwan, vice-president of research and advisory at Gartner, predicts workers will soon be monitoring employers. “Employees can measure their stress levels, for instance, and how much sleep they’re getting via their smartphones — and they own their own data,” he says. “This is how employees will start monitoring companies. Imagine the Glassdoor of the future being a site
of aggregated smartwatch data. Which companies have employees with the highest levels of stress?
“We’re already seeing social media-driven collectivism, where employees are sharing stories about how much they’re working or whether they’re being monitored at work,” adds McEwan. “Organisations are heading towards a tricky landscape when it comes to monitoring. If you want to track your remote workers, monitor them for things that degrade performance. For instance, if they’re on eight Zoom calls a day for meetings that don’t deliver any value.”
2. Welcome returns
Boomerang workers — who leave a company and later return — might assist companies with the skills shortage in 2023. However, Mehul Joshi, senior partner and head of leadership practice at Stephenson Mansell Group, says leaders must lay the foundations for a welcome return.
“Many people who moved to a new job for more money or different opportunities have discovered that the grass isn’t necessarily greener,” says Joshi. “The lesson for senior leaders is not to create barriers for people wanting to seek out new opportunities elsewhere, but to create an environment where it’s OK if you decide to leave, because you are more than welcome to come back.”
Joshi recommends pre-empting the boomerang effect with regular one-on-one career conversations with team members as well as regular catch-ups with quality employees who have left the business. “Follow up with key talent to ask them how things are going in their new role. Show you’re still interested in their career and they may be more likely to come back.”
3. Four-day week
The shift toward a shorter working week gained momentum in 2022, with 20 companies in Australia and New Zealand joining a six-month global pilot study to trial a four-day work week, with no less pay for employees. Coordinated by not-for-profit organisation 4 Day Week Global, participating companies operate across a diverse range of industries, from manufacturing to real estate and finance.
Gregory Robinson, managing partner at Blenheim Partners, notes a four-day week may also take off for industries where remote working is not viable. “The move to flexible working and working from home through the pandemic has become embedded far more than before,” he says. “This will become more the norm. However, not all roles are suited to this type of working — for example, hospitality workers. For these types of occupations, while flexible working can occur, working from home is difficult and four-day weeks have more potential to increase leisure time by providing that extra day off
while maintaining hours worked and not compromising on remuneration.”
4. Culture on the decline
Workplace culture is high on the boardroom agenda, but McEwan predicts more employees will reject an overarching culture in favour of individuality and a desire to be understood. The AICD Stakeholder guide says directors should make the most of this trend, as employees can be a conduit to understand the needs of other stakeholder groups such as consumers, suppliers and the broader community.
McEwan cites recent Gartner research showing just a third of office-based workers but more than half of remote/hybrid workers feel they can be their “authentic selves” at work. “People want to feel that their employer understands them and gives them autonomy over where they work, when they work, how they work, rather than creating an overarching cult-like mould that you have to adhere to,” he says.
“Rather than viewing culture as a huge tanker sailing in one direction at one pace, what about a flotilla of microcultures?” he says. “A flotilla can head in the same direction, with the same sense of purpose, and share the same values, but is much more agile and adaptive to changing environmental conditions, and each of those little ships can have its own culture and sense of connection.”
5. The end of ambition
A 2022 study by Deloitte and Swinburne University (Reset, Restore, Reframe: Making Fair Work FlexWork) reveals that 28 per cent of remote employees were not being paid for work done during non-work hours. McEwan predicts a rise in “quiet quitting” in 2023, where workers will stick to the basic requirements of their job.
“Unhealthy, workaholic work cultures have been getting worse for decades and we’re about to see more workers rebelling against it,” he says. “When we look back in 50 years and ask how the pandemic reshaped society, it will have fundamentally changed people’s relationship with work. A whole generation of business leaders have relied on employee discretionary effort as a core part of their growth strategy. This willingness to innovate around the edges is drying up, with more people setting boundaries around their home and their work.”
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