“You’re always excited to get the job, so it starts there with blind optimism and enthusiasm. Then… when I got into it, I remember at certain moments thinking ‘oh my God, what have I gotten into? This is a lot worse than I ever thought'”. (Jen, promoted to President of speciality foods company)
Executive coaching is a complex activity that incorporates psychology, counselling, learning and consultancy. It has become a highly sought-after service for leaders within many organisations, a demand fuelled by increasing psychological and business research describing the many positive outcomes. As a result of being coached, leaders report heightened self-confidence and belief, resilience and increased goal attainment with reduced feelings of depression and anxiety (Sonesh et al., 2015).
A recent study by Terblanche and colleagues (2017) focused on the significance of executive coaching support for leaders going through transition. The costs of failure for those transitioning into senior roles can be acute, and yet between 30 and 50% of leadership transitions are unsuccessful (Watkins, 2013). Bridges (2009) suggests that the environment and new role title may change quickly, yet psychological transitions occur more slowly, and are characterised by emotional ups and downs, denial, shock, anger, frustration/stress, depression, ambivalence, acceptance, hope and enthusiasm. Leaders are required to demonstrate a range of new skills and may need to relinquish the capabilities that led to their promotion (Neff & Citrin, 2007); this unlearning can be frustrating, challenging and stressful. Working with a coach who understands and can empathise with the psychological experience of change will help accelerate and facilitate the transition.
A recent (2019) study by McGill and Clarke followed 6 leaders who had recently transitioned into C-suite roles. All had been supported by a coach. The key benefits were identified as:
- A safe, dedicated space to reframe and resolve problems. All leaders described the safe, confidential space within coaching, which enabled them to talk openly and gain new perspectives on problems and people.
- Lasting positive change. All leaders perceived that coaching resulted in lasting positive change, in terms of personal, business and team outcomes. They commented on their own development of new capabilities and mind-sets, improvements in wellbeing, confidence and motivation and strengthened leadership identity.
- Improved leadership style. Several participants identified that the reflection associated with coaching improved their leadership style:
“You’re a different kind of leader. You handle things in a different way to you had in the past…more patience and more empathy and more consideration…that lots of people have things to offer” (Dan, Chief Customer Excellence Officer, financial services).
- Reflection discussion enabling learning from past mistakes. The participants reflected on the role of previous failed transitions and learning opportunities from mistakes as being helpful in preparing them for their recent C-suite transitions.
The move into a leadership role at any level can be a challenge. The subjects of the above study reported a stark contrast between underlying feelings of self-doubt, and a need to appear outwardly confident. Transitioning leaders experience cyclical emotions, starting with initial elation, periods of difficulty and self-doubt, finally giving way to satisfaction having succeeded. As well as providing practical support, coaching can help leaders process, rather than avoid, their negative emotions, significantly improving their chances of success and helping them to psychologically transition more quickly.
Bridges, W. (2009) Managing transitions: making the most of change (3rd edn.). Philadelphia, Pa.: Da Capo Press.
McGill, P. & Clarke, P. (2019). From “blind elation” to “oh my goodness, what have I gotten into”… Exploring the experience of executive coaching during leadership transitions into C-suite roles. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 17 (1): 3-18.
Neff, T.J. and Citrin, J.M. (2007). You’re in Charge, Now What? : the 8 Point Plan. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Sonesh, S.C., Coultas, C.W., Lacerenza, C.N., Marlow, S.L., Benishek, L.E. and Salas, E. (2015). The power of coaching: a meta-analytic investigation. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 8(2): 73-95.
Terblanche, N.H.D., Albertyn, R.M. and van Collen-Peter, S. (2017) Designing a coaching intervention to support leaders promoted into senior positions. South African Journal of Human Resources Management, 15: 1-10.
Watkins, M. (2013). Avoiding onboarding and promotion traps. Strategy & Leadership, 41 (6): 43-46.