Leadership Coaching

Leadership Coaching for Changing Conditions

For 25 years I’ve worked with women leaders around the globe to develop and hone their leadership skills. I’ve directed my efforts at helping women articulate their best talents, claim greater visibility in their organizations, enlist and leverage strong allies, build powerful webs of support, hold themselves accountable for change, and cultivate a more powerful and authentic leadership presence. More recently, clients have asked me to offer leadership coaching to men in senior positions who seek to work more skillfully with women-as bosses, customers, clients, board members and partners.

My leadership coaching methods and protocols for men and women often differ, as I will describe below. But both practices are rooted in insights I’ve developed in the course of researching 7 books, all of which examine how social, demographic, economic and technological changes are transforming organizations. As a result, I focus on helping both men and women position themselves to address the big strategic issues their organizations will face in the future. For example, Jeffrey Immelt, Chair and CEO of GE, recently predicted that the ability to “see around the corners” will be the most important leadership capacity in the years ahead. So I work to help clients develop their ability to see around the corners-to read the changing environment with subtlety, skill and discernment.

Leadership coaching - Sally Helgesen
Sally is featured in The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching: 50 Top Coaches Reveal Their Secrets, by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan

Coaching Women

My primary goal when coaching women is to help them be more influential at the strategic level. Organizations exist to efficiently develop and allocate resources-financial resources, natural resources, human resources. Having strategic influence means having a say in the most important decisions about how to produce, leverage, deploy, distribute and deliver these resources. Women now actively participate in the execution of strategic decisions, but they have limited influence when it comes to making those decisions. This limits their capacity both to shape the future and to give their most authentic talents full scope.

What is the source of this limitation and how can women address it? I find three things are essential. First, women must understand, appreciate, articulate and defend the importance of their vision-what they see, what they notice, how they connect the dots. Second, women must skillfully leverage support in order to bring attention to– and yes, get credit for– their best observations. Finally, women must develop a more powerful and authentic leadership presence.

The vision thing

Two major international studies make clear that women have limited impact at the strategic level because they are not seen as “visionary,” particularly by senior leaders. My research indicates that women in fact have significant visionary powers, rooted in their intuitive sense and capacity for empathic notice. Yet women often struggle to articulate the value of what they see because their perceptual style-their way of noticing-is different from the traditional male style.

When researching The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work my co-author, Julie Johnson, and I found that men and women’s attention often operates in contrasting ways. Women tend to notice many things at the same time, picking up signals as they scan the environment broadly. Men, by contrast, tend to notice one thing at a time, focusing deeply and filtering out distractions. The operative metaphor for women’s ways of noticing is radar; the metaphor for male notice is the laser. Not only did our interviews indicate this difference, but functional MRI studies conducted by neuroscientific researchers documented these differences in perceptual patterns by observing how men and women’s brains process information.

Balanced notice

Obviously women’s capacity for broad-spectrum notice should constitute an asset in an environment where organizations need to “see around the corners.” To achieve this, balanced notice is essential. Because focused notice has traditionally been privileged in organizations and viewed as a leadership behavior (not surprising, given its male provenance), women are often discouraged from employing their distinctive style of noticing. Women we interviewed for the book reported being told that they’d “noticed the wrong thing” when they shared an observation; they often had the sense that top leadership wouldn’t listen to “anything that’s not based on quantitative data– even if that data leaves a lot out.”

Recognizing that intuitive or empathic observations hold a low status, women often develop the habit of suppressing their most original and potentially useful insights, thus depriving their organizations of important information while also diminishing their own capacity for authentic contribution. As one of our interviewees noted, “After six years on the job, my ability to notice things just sort of withered up. I got used to my ideas not being heard.”

There are three ways to help women out of this impasse.

  1. 1. First, the client needs to recognize, articulate and defend the value of what she sees, what she notices, how she connects the dots. Helping her understand her own perceptual patterns, and see how these differ from what her organization expects, is a start.
  2. 2. She also needs to develop an understanding of how what she sees connects to how the environment in which her organization must function is evolving– that is, she must frame what she notices in the context of the future.
  3. 3. Finally, she needs to carefully calibrate a way to share what she sees in terms that senior leadership can understand by taking into account how their patterns of perception may differ. This usually requires editing scene-setting details that feel important to her but that colleagues may view as extraneous, gathering supporting data in advance of presenting ideas, and lining up a supporter or two in advance.

Leveraging support

There are four kinds of power in organizations: the power of position, the power of personal authority, the power of expertise, and the power of connections. Of these, the power of connections is most important. Yet women often focus upon building up their content expertise, while men build the connections they need to insure success. I see it all the time: a woman comes into a new position, keeps her head down, and devotes her efforts to mastering the details of her work. A man comes into a new position and immediately begins looking around for people who can help him get the job done.

The paradox

There is a paradox here, because women are often great at building relationships. Yet they are not always so good at leveraging relationships, or using them to achieve an advantage. Leverage implies intentionality, a quid pro quo that women may be uncomfortable in asserting. Even highly placed senior women report fearing that they will be perceived as “using people” if they blur the lines between friendship and let’s-make-a-deal. As a result, their personal webs remain distinct from their operational webs, and neither evolves into the kind of strategic webs that support high-level influence.

How can women break free from this familiar syndrome?

First, women often need help in avoiding the trap of over-valuing expertise. Expertise is a given at the leadership level, but being expert does not secure influence. Strategic power results from having allies who support what you are trying to achieve. Women often need help in identifying potential allies (who may be but are not necessarily friends) and figuring out what will take to cultivate them. This in turn requires knowing what to ask of allies (the quid part of the equation) and being explicit about what those allies can expect in return (the quo). A woman may also need leadership coaching to recognize how her allies can benefit from their association with her. This moves her past the fear of feeling like a user or a beggar and positions her as a player.

Leadership presence

Women often ask me how they can develop a more powerful leadership presence. Should they work on their voices, their clothing, their posture? Is where a woman chooses to sit in a meeting important? These details are important, but my work has convinced me that the real key to establishing a strong leadership presence is the ability to be fully present. The two words are linked for a reason.

Being fully present is a challenge for everyone in our 24/7 environment, where the desire to be efficient tempts us to do several things at once, to respond rather than being intentional in our actions, or to lose our centeredness as we race through our tasks. But the problem is particularly pressing for women, who often pride themselves on their multitasking ability, whose radar-like notice can diminish their capacity to remain grounded, and who routinely manage multiple responsibilities at work and at home.

What’s the solution?

What can help women remain mindful even in high stress situations? I find three things are helpful.

  1. 1. First, women can benefit from leadership coaching that helps them identify and set the boundaries they must maintain in order to be present. This requires establishing policies and procedures around their use of technologies-when they will be available and how they will respond. I call it being your own HR department; only an individual woman knows what she needs to be most effective, so part of her job is ensuring the conditions that best protect her ability to be so.
  2. 2. Creating realistic expectations, setting boundaries in advance of a project, being clear about why these are necessary-all this is essential.
  3. 3. So is developing what I call a “rhythm of renewal,” simple practices that can be incorporated daily to connect a woman to the ground of her being and enable her to be fully present in the moment rather than anticipating or feeling at the mercy of unfolding events.

Coaching Men

My leadership coaching practice with men is relatively new. I began offering it because there are few resources available to help men navigate the new terrain in regard to women. Most of the men I work with have faced some challenges in working with female clients, customers, bosses and colleagues. Yet they recognize that the ability to work well and productively with women has become a career imperative. They want to do a good job of it, but they need some tools. Because most organizations were developed on what might be called the male watch, leaders often presume that male values are the norm. As a result, male behaviors that cause difficulty with women often take place on auto-pilot. Once men recognize what’s happening, they know what to do.

Identifying stumbling blocks

In 2011 I conducted a series of wide-ranging interviews with male executives and coaches in order to identify the problems that inhibit men from working well with women. These are: problems with sexual attraction, the fear of rejection, a concern that women will talk about them with other women, the perception that women have unfair advantages, and issues with trust. These problems are often rooted in strong emotions or past experiences and they present authentic stumbling blocks. Yet we rarely acknowledge or discuss them for fear of being viewed as political incorrect. Leadership coaching can provide a safe haven for addressing these inhibitions in frank and probing ways and devising solutions that address them.

For example, men often have problems trusting women because they attribute their own values to them– this is what social scientists call the “fundamental attribution error”. Whereas women often place a high degree of value on being honest when presenting their views, men may be more likely to value loyalty. When a man asks for feedback during a meeting, a woman might say: “Isn’t this the kind of strategy that got us into trouble before?” By contrast, her male colleague may respond with Homer Simpson: “Great idea, boss!”

A man may interpret her caveat as evidence that she doesn’t have his interests at heart. Or he may decide that, since she’s willing to quibble with him in public, she might do the same with important customers. In either case, he may conclude he cannot trust her. This response is understandable, yet it shows him to be blind to the fact that, from her perspective, what she actually demonstrated in the meeting was a willingness to put his interests first.

Developing a more accurate radar

Fundamental attribution errors often cause men to trust women who are not trustworthy and not trust women who are. I counseled a male entrepreneur who’d gotten into trouble after he went into business with a female marketer whom several women in his former company had warned him not to trust. He said, “I assumed those women just wanted her position so I discounted what they had to say. It didn’t occur to me that they were trying to be helpful-why would they, when I was leaving them behind? I couldn’t read where they where coming from. And I really couldn’t read the woman I hired. She talked a great game, said all the things I wanted to hear.”

This man needed a protocol for identifying and surmounting his tendency to project his own motivations on women. This required that he begin talking to women in a way designed to elicit useful information rather than short-circuiting to what he assumed spurred their behavior. Once he had a script-a template of specific questions that enabled him to develop accurate information– he became adept in talking to people with different values.. This enabled him to develop a more accurate radar when it came to trusting women.

Stepping up

Women’s personal networks are abuzz with information– especially information about relationships. Men know this: they hear their wives discussing personal issues with female friends, often sharing precise and intimate details. Such behaviors form the primary basis of female bonding, the “tend and befriend” response that evolutionary psychologists describe as the chief way women manage stress. But my interviews with male executives suggest that women’s observational powers and zest for discussing details can inhibit men from speaking honestly and directly with them because they want to stay out of range of the female grapevine.

A better approach

View the female grapevine as a potential advantage rather than a liability; a resource a man can use to build support. For just as men can stir discussion among women by exhibiting out-of-touch behaviors, so can they also can generate an almost unreasonable amount of goodwill by taking simple actions that get amplified by female networks.

For example, a male consultant noticed his peers routinely giving short shrift when a female colleague made suggestions during meetings. He wondered why she didn’t push back, then decided to speak up himself. The next time he observed others overlooking her contributions, he made a point of noting that she seemed to be offering the best ideas. Several of his male colleagues seemed startled; they had barely registered that she was in the room. But she noticed. And she and the other women present were quick spread the word. The consultant soon found that women across the organization perceived him as a champion. He benefitted from this halo effect when several years later a woman was appointed to head up his division As he noted, “I had credibility with her from the day she walked into the office.”

The vision thing

Differences in male and female perceptual patterns– such as I outlined earlier– can make it difficult for men to understand and appreciate women’s potential for strategic contribution. Not only does this dynamic have a negative impact on a man’s ability to gain a woman’s trust, it also results in the loss of potentially vital insights. The journalist Tom Friedman likes to quote a senior engineer at Siemens who lamented, “If Siemens only knew what Siemens really knows, we’d be the greatest company on earth.” A prime reason organizations have trouble knowing what they really know is that women’s observations and insights get filtered out.

What to do in this situation?

Three things are effective. First, men need to be aware of the nature of perceptual differences so they can avoid automatically dismissing ideas rooted in a way of seeing the world that differs from their own. It helps if men understand why information arrived at by what seem to be unorthodox methods can be important.

For example, a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, big picture strategic insights occur in those areas of the brain associated with empathy and intuition rather than logical thinking. As a result, observations framed in the language of “I feel” or “It occurred to me”– language that sounds thoroughly subjective– are often highly relevant, especially when it comes to understanding and planning for the future.

Finally, men need to know what questions to ask in order to get a better feel for the context of women’s ideas. “Tell me the steps you went through to arrive at that insight” is a far more effective initial response than “Sounds good, but where’s your data?” Supporting evidence is of course necessary for deciding on whether to act on information, but asking for it prematurely cuts off the kind of discussion required to see the big picture. By taming the desire to “cut to the chase” or to “bottom-line it,” men can dramatically improve their ability to work productively and well with women while also expanding their own ability to see around the corners.