Why Executive Coaching is Important (Especially) for Women
Executive coaching is a powerful tool for developing leaders at all levels, but it is particularly valuable for women leaders, and especially valuable for women of color.
Despite significant progress in recent years, women still face unique challenges in the workplace, including bias, stereotyping, and a lack of representation in leadership positions. These challenges can make it difficult for women to achieve their full potential, convince stakeholders of their value to their organizations, and advance in their careers.
Benefits of Executive Coaching: Improved Leadership Skills
Executive coaching is effective for all leaders, but it can be especially powerful for women leaders who are likely to grow even more in a coaching engagement (compared to men). By working with a coach, women leaders can develop the skills and strategies to help them become more aware of how they position themselves at work.
Coaching can help women leaders identify their strengths and areas for development, set goals, and create actionable plans to achieve those goals. It can also provide a safe space for them to discuss the challenges they face and receive support and guidance from someone who has seen those types of challenges before.
Unfortunately, women live in a reality in which they are oftentimes perceived as “pushy” or “difficult” if they advocate for themselves. For example, Catalyst’s #biascorrect campaign makes this clear.
While individual coaching isn’t necessarily a solution to change systemic problems in the workplace, coaching can give women the support they need and tools and resources to help them feel supported in these contexts. Additionally, when a critical mass of women leaders at the same organization receive coaching and leadership development, they can advocate for each other (in partnership with allies) to create systemic change.
As the covid-19 pandemic has made clear, women leaders are more likely to bear the brunt of balancing work and family responsibilities. Coaching can help women develop the resilience they need to overcome these challenges and stay focused on their goals, in addition to advocating for additional support.
Coaching for women leaders also helps them to develop a leadership style that works for them. There is no one “right” way to lead, and women may face pressure to conform to a particular leadership style or to adopt a more masculine approach – for example, overly focusing on coming across as extremely confident when a more humble approach may be more comfortable. Coaching can help women develop a leadership style that is authentic to them and that leverages their unique strengths and skills.
For women, coaching can also help them to build a supportive network. Women leaders may face challenges in building a supportive network of colleagues and mentors. Coaching can help women identify potential mentors and sponsors and develop the skills to build and maintain these important relationships.
Indeed, research has shown that sponsors significantly help women increase their leadership impact and help them move upward in an organization, yet too few women have these types of opportunities.
Barriers Women Face in Leadership: Gender Bias & Imposter Syndrome
There are several barriers women in particular face. Unfortunately, gender bias and stereotypes still exist in many workplaces. Women are often perceived as less competent, less assertive, and less committed to their careers than men and may oftentimes fall prey to imposter syndrome.
Arguably, “imposter syndrome” can just mean than women “show up” as less confident (and more humble) compared to men, which can actually be a superpower in leadership positions as the pace of change accelerates and as leaders, we have fewer and fewer answers. Furthermore, the fact that women are more likely to be humble leaders, on average, compared to men is linked to greater leadership effectiveness. However, this dilemma can make it difficult for women to be taken seriously and to advance in their careers.
Additionally, women of color face further barriers – racial bias and discrimination. In these cases, working with a coach can be especially fruitful. Executive coaching can help women overcome these biases by developing their confidence in a way that makes them feel comfortable and authentic, increase their communication skills, and become more aware of their presence as leaders.
Finding the Right Coach: Considerations and Recommendations
The market is flooded with individuals offering executive coaching services. However, it’s crucial to locate a coach possessing the necessary qualifications, such as coach-specific training and graduate-level expertise in psychology.
While anyone can label themselves as a coach, only those with substantial experience and credibility can truly impact executives and enhance company ROI.
- Education. Further education at the graduate level often becomes essential because the most effective coaches excel in understanding human behavior and guiding their clients through meaningful changes over time.
- Executive experience. Some coaches have undergone advanced training while also possessing executive experience themselves, enabling them to deeply empathize with the challenges their clients face within their unique contexts.
- Women-specific experience. Some coaches have experience helping women leaders navigate corporate environments specifically, 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. Therefore, it’s paramount 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 recognizes that confidentiality is a cornerstone of this relationship.
- Empathetic experiences. Working with a coach who understands the unique challenges women (and women of color) face in particlar can set these professional engagements up for even more success. Research has shown that coaches who have similar lived experiences (whether it’s gender and/or race) 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.
Success Stories: Women Leaders Benefitting from Executive Coaching
Women leaders in large organizations have increasingly recognized the value of partnering with executive coaches to propel their careers and drive organizational success.
High-profile examples abound, such as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, who famously worked with an executive coach, Kim Scott, to refine her leadership style. Sandberg’s collaboration with Scott, as documented in Scott’s book “Radical Candor,” underscores the transformative impact of executive coaching in shaping not just individual leadership growth but also fostering healthier workplace cultures.
Another noteworthy example is Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors (GM), who is known for her commitment to personal and professional development. By leveraging the expertise and insights she’s gleaned in the leadership development process, Barra has not only navigated challenging leadership transitions but has also spearheaded GM’s transformation into a forward-thinking and sustainable automotive giant.
These success stories underscore the pivotal role that executive coaches play in helping women leaders break through barriers, refine their leadership skills, and effect positive change within large organizations.
Conclusion: Importance of Investing in Women’s Leadership Development
Overall, executive coaching is a valuable tool for women leaders who want to develop their skills, overcome barriers, and achieve their full potential.
By working with a coach, women can gain the support, guidance, and skills they need to succeed in their roles and make a meaningful impact in their organizations.
Dr. Ginevra Drinka is an organizational psychologist, leadership development expert, and executive coach with over a decade of internal and external consulting experience. She completed her PhD research in 2018 at Columbia University. Most recently, she advised a Talent Management team at Nike, Inc. to adopt best-in-class leadership assessment and development practices to enable succession planning for the future. In her Executive Coaching practice, she focuses on building client capacity to become more learning agile which helps leaders increase innovation, navigate change effectively, and build high performing teams who will embody their organization’s mission. She is currently the Head of Leadership Development at GeniusMesh and leverages the lessons from her PhD research and consulting experience to build an executive coaching practice that serves EMBA talent. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband and son.