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Executive Coaching is the Key to Women’s Executive Leadership Success

Business Report, 23 June 2024


My superpower as a Women’s Coach is to support women leaders at senior and executive level to build self-awareness, self-compassion (and compassion for others), and self-leadership as the foundation for being an effective and impactful executive leader. I also see myself as a thinking partner for my clients, which allows them to have support for problem solving and dealing with inner conflict. This experience has made me realise that executive coaching is a very distinct form of coaching that is responsive to the individual and leadership needs of clients at this level.

What is Executive Coaching?

Forbes notes that executive coaching demands coaches with a particular set of experiences, capabilities, and perspectives. Executive coaching is coaching and advisory support for senior managers and executive leaders, whether in the public or private, corporate, or not-for-profit sector. Leading any organisation presents challenging leadership, organisational, political, interpersonal, and strategic challenges. Succeeding—or even surviving—in such situations requires a lot more than simply showing up as a technically competent leader. 

Executive coaching is distinct from other forms of coaching, such as life coaching or career coaching. It focuses specifically on the development of leadership skills, strategic thinking, effective decision-making, and in my opinion, building a strong foundation of wellbeing and self-awareness. An executive coach works closely with the leader to identify areas for improvement, set goals, and develop a personalised plan to achieve them. For women leaders, executive coaching offers a safe and supportive environment to address gender-specific challenges and using tools that have worked in the past. 

Building on this I would add that executive coaching for women leaders requires having a deep understanding of the systemic, political and social barriers and biases that place unrealistic pressure on, and undermine women’s contributions at home, in family, in society and at work. The consequence of this is that women are conditioned to believe they must work harder and give and do more to receive recognition. This shows up as lack of self-confidence (questioning your abilities) and feeling unworthy even when you have worked hard. The executive coaching journey with women must, of necessity, focus extensively on inner work to challenge and break down these internalised beliefs.

The Benefits Of Executive Coaching

The core of executive coaching lies in its personalised approach of working one-on-one to identify and leverage strengths while also addressing areas that need improvement. This individualised focus is crucial for executives who often face unique challenges and responsibilities (Forbes). As noted by Harvard Business Review, executive coaching allows for tailored development, unlike traditional training programmes.

Josep Soares argues that the advantages of this growth strategy transcend mere individual development, initiating a cascading impact across the entire organisation. When leadership abilities are honed, the outcomes are multifaceted: improved strategic decision-making, amplified team dynamics and a consequent elevation in overall organisational efficacy. I would add that this can only happen if the leader is transformed through the coaching process.

How Executive Coaching Supports Women Leaders:

  • Self-awareness: At the executive level women are technically competent but may be challenged with how to lead; engage and bring the best of self and others. Many times leaders are stuck in a way of being fuelled by the ego which leads to blindspots around self-awareness. An executive coach supports clients to know themselves deeply; see themselves holistically and with self-compassion; and be open to the challenge of transforming “this is who I am” to building a level of self-awareness  that opens up possibilities for a whole and meaningful life. In my coaching practice, this is a significant challenge for women leaders.
  • Breaking Biases: Women leaders often face unconscious bias. Executive coaches can help women identify these biases, develop strategies to navigate them, and project confidence in their abilities.
  • Building Confidence: Executive coaching fosters self-awareness, helping women identify their strengths and areas for development. This empowers them to approach challenges with greater confidence and assertiveness.
  • Work-Life Balance: Women often juggle demanding work schedules with personal responsibilities. Executive coaches can help them create strategies for achieving work-life balance and managing stress. This is always a concern for my executive clients. The tendency to overwork in order to prove yourself is one of the biggest challenges women leaders face.
  • Leadership Development: Executive coaches work with women leaders to refine their communication skills, hone their decision-making process, and develop a leadership style that authentically suits them.

 

 

How to Find the Right Executive Coach 

Executive coaching is a costly and intensive process. It therefore requires an investment of time to find the right coach for you. Joseph Soares (Forbes) suggests these 5Cs when looking for an executive coach.

1. Clarity

Start with the end in mind: a clear understanding of what success will look like and what you believe you need help with. In your initial meeting with a coach, work with them to gain better clarity on your goals and how they can help you achieve them. These should include business outcomes as well as enhancements to your leadership (and life) effectiveness.

2. Congruence

By Congruence we mean “chemistry” and the sense that there is a good fit. Once you are clear on your goals and outcomes then you should seek a coach with whom you are willing to be psychologically vulnerable. You should test the potential coach to see if their style resonates with yours. For example, are they direct enough for you? I would add: 

  • Are they compassionate and supportive in their approach?
  • Do they understand your challenges as a woman leader  in its full context?
  • Would they  be able to challenge you compassionately when you get stuck?

3. Challenge

While you should choose a coach with whom you feel compatible, the relationship should not feel too comfortable. A coach should push and challenge you. Leadership struggles often happen when a leader becomes too complacent or comfortable in her skills, the status quo, and the people around her. A good executive coach needs to be able to challenge you effectively to broaden your perspective and stimulate growth. 

4. Credibility

Credentials like degrees and certifications can be useful but they don’t tell the full story. You should be looking for Credibility—that is, relevant knowledge and expertise. You’ll learn the most by asking questions to explore the coach’s experience and track record:

  •  Has the coach worked with other executives at your level? 
  • Do they have a frame of reference for your situation and what you are grappling with? 
  • Have they worked in a similar environment and successfully coached women leaders? 
  • Do they understand the context of your life and work? 
  • Do they have the requisite life experience that allows them to fully understand and engage with what you are experiencing?

5. Context

Coaching cannot happen in a vacuum because leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For your coach to be truly helpful, they must understand your situation and challenges directly, not just through your lens. For women leaders this context not only includes the workplace, but also the broader social and political context as this has an enormous impact on women's lives and experiences.

Additionally, I would recommend women leaders also consider the following:

  • Women-specific experience. Some coaches have experience helping women leaders navigate their unique challenges and environments, so working with a coach who has done this previously can set an engagement up for further success. 
  • Trustworthiness. Finding the right coach for you goes beyond qualifications and knowledge. Trust forms the foundation of any successful relationship. It is important that an executive feels a strong connection with their coach and can cultivate a mutually trusting partnership for the engagement to thrive. A formally trained coach recognises that confidentiality is a cornerstone of this relationship. 
  • Empathetic experiences. Working with a coach who understands the unique challenges women (and women of colour) face in particular can set these professional engagements up for even more success.  Research has shown that coaches who have similar lived experiences as their client can make the coaching engagement even more effective because they’re more likely to be able to navigate nuanced conversations around gender or race and challenge the biases executive women are likely to experience. Amen!

Based on my own coaching journey and my work as a women’s leadership coach, I believe in the value of coaching. However, if you want an impactful coaching experience, you must be willing to fully commit to the process. This includes making the time for sessions and “homework”; thinking deeply about what you want to achieve on this journey; being clear and vulnerable with your coach when you feel something is not working; and continuing the journey beyond the coaching. Progress only happens when we are consistent. While others tend to see executive coaching as supporting executive leaders to be more effective in the workplace: my view is that executive coaching must support women’s whole life because women often struggle to take care of their health and wellbeing;  can be overwhelmed by their multiple roles; and have to navigate bias and stereotypes. 

Ultimately, if it all comes together, executive coaching will be the best investment you (or your company) can make.

Shireen Motara is an African Feminist and Thought Leader on Women’s Leadership and Wellbeing. She is a certified Coach that specialises in working with women leaders. Shireen is the Founder CEO of Tara Transform, a social change coaching and consulting practice; and Founder CEO of The Next Chapter which is a platform and community that supports women’s life transitions and brings visibility to the lived experience of women in midlife.