Leadership hacks from six executive coaches

Wednesday, 01 November 2023

Shelley Thomas & Elise Shaw

    These performance tips from six coaching professionals are designed to achieve, nurture and sustain effective leadership. 

    Ongoing transformation is vital for directors, as well as the coaching industry, which is seeking to support them, says a group of leadership experts and advisers. The executive coaching industry now numbers 109,200 practitioners worldwide and generates US$4.56b (up 54 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively, on 2019 estimates), according to the International Coaching Federation’s 2023 Global Coaching Study. Here, six coaches share advice and examples where directors — and their organisations — are disrupting the business-as- usual for more effective leadership. 

    1. Connect with your people

    Certified executive coach Jane Murray GAICD joined MLC Life Insurance as chief operating and people officer in mid-2020, in the wake of a protracted IT systems migration. “The organisation had just done a pulse engagement survey, we had a new CEO and it was in the midst of Melbourne lockdowns,” she says. “The results came back as positive, but with people telling us they didn’t feel connected to the company.”

    Town halls involving all staff were the answer. At the time, MLC held quarterly presentations “didactically delivered via Teams to the top 150 executives”. Today, town halls are central to MLC culture, says Murray. “That town hall changed our business. Our people expect they will get the chance to engage with any member of the executive team at least once a quarter.”

    2. Foster an atmosphere of trust

    Dr Michael Cavanagh, deputy director of the University of Sydney’s Coaching Psychology Unit, advocates creating conditions of trust and honesty “so everything that needs to be valued is valued and the right decisions can be made. The best way to future-proof an organisation is ensuring it has good-quality conversations and a process for talking about what’s happening, so you can make those iterative decisions.”

    Cavanagh says everyone needs holistic development and support. He recommends senior leaders and directors use qualified executive coaches with experience in the dynamics of systems and emergence — and urges the business world to shift its concept of resilience from individual toughness to availability of workplace resources to prevent rising incidence of burnout.

    3. Encourage strategic alignment

    Zora Artis GAICD, CEO of Artis Advisory and co-founder of The Alignment People, believes effective communication is a “leadership superpower” when it comes to driving forward united, strategically aligned organisations. Her role is to help businesses “nail clarity of purpose and alignment with strategy” by coaching C-suite teams and boards on how to elevate communication to the next level through personal storytelling.

    “It’s so important for executives, from the board down, to understand how to sense check, connect the dots for people and have honest conversations without being afraid of the response.”

    She adds that one of the biggest hurdles to effective communication — the enabler of alignment — is that it’s often labelled as a task, rather than a leadership practice. 

    4. Facilitate ongoing career development

     Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association president Karen Booth GAICD says board members regularly attend town halls for development, have access to an annual education allowance, and, as an “absolute minimum” undertake AICD’s Company Directors Course.

    “Our purpose is to step up as positive disruptors, ensuring nurses are seen as science-based health professionals and their voices are heard as ‘leaders’ in the health industry,” says Booth. “Ongoing development is critical in helping us drive innovation, be curious and ask questions that enable us to grow as a professional group. By having a united voice, we can better support our members and bring stakeholders on the journey.”

    5. Work towards peak performance

    In the business of elevating corporate health to extreme levels, endurance athlete RJ Singh, director of Ultra Growth Ventures and founder of executive performance podcast Ultrahabits, coaches fit-for-purpose executives on the power of ultra habits and extreme accountability in achieving “peak vs high performance”.

    “Boards, in particular, need to be really interested and invested in how members of executive teams conduct not only business, but their own lives,” says Singh.

    “Peak performance is all about longevity, so you’re not looking at anything in isolation — you’re looking at energy, you’re looking at priorities, you’re looking at family and work, and then integrating it all into sustainable habits that are personal to each individual.”

    6. Exercise for a healthier brain

    Leadership and transformation specialist Andrew May, a former elite athlete, underscores the significant relationship between physical fitness and cognitive function. Citing Dr John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain, May highlights how consistent physical activity rejuvenates brain cell functions and acts as a defence against neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and age-related brain decline.

    For time-poor directors, May recommends aligning daily schedules with natural circadian rhythms. “This means scheduling demanding tasks and important meetings during their peak energy and cognitive periods, typically in the morning,” he says. “This can result in better decision- making and overall productivity.” 

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Leadership Hacks’ in the November 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.  

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