A Research Paper By Catherine Schwab Wildi, Executive Coach, SWITZERLAND
Empower and Inspire Women Through Executive Coaching
Through executive coaching, I aim to empower and inspire women and their allies to thrive through change and get ahead by gaining courage and confidence and going after their full potential towards a more fulfilling work/life integration.
Embracing change and seeing fresh challenges as opportunities is demanding for everyone. However, for women with fewer role models in leading positions, the hurdles are higher to find their career and life paths to follow their dreams.
Having spent most of my life in various corporate roles, I witnessed the benefits of career and executive coaching.
In 2014 I held a leadership role in a subfunction of the European division of a multinational company. After four different bosses in 2 years, the function had finally found some stability with a great leader. But, unfortunately, that was not to last either, and within two weeks, our leader relocated to another division. I was in my pre-menopause period that drained a lot of my energy while being sandwiched between teenage kids about to leave for college and ailing parents to support. Suffice to say that I was not at my best in my professional and personal life.
And here, I was asked to take on my boss’s role on an interim basis, with the implication that I would become an acting member of the European leadership team and report straight to the European President. While I felt honored to be given that opportunity, my initial reaction was feeling like an imposter, filled with self-doubt, feeling a fraud for taking on this executive role, and that I had no right to be in the spotlight. In a nutshell, the “fear of being exposed as an “imposter”, fear of saying the wrong thing, making the wrong decision or fear of growing responsibilities.” (1)
Importance of Gender Diversity
Fortunately, I worked for an organization that values people development, recognizes the importance of gender diversity, and knows that helping women succeed in senior leadership roles is imperative. A female CEO led the way in implementing policies and practices to help achieve greater gender balance in leadership, with good programs supporting parenthood, a zero-tolerance approach to harassment, and without an apparent gender pay gap. In addition, this organization has a strong coaching culture, which allowed me to work with an executive coach to help me with this leadership transition.
Having worked with an executive coach once before, I was looking forward to this new coaching journey with enthusiasm, knowing it could help me unlock skills and attitudes to succeed in this new role.
The leadership transition program I embarked on was designed to help experienced leaders assimilate and become effective in their new roles as quickly as possible. The first few months in a new position are often challenging. Establishing a positive reputation, building the right relationships, and stepping up the learning curve from the get-go can make a big difference. It was even more critical to get it right from the start since I was one of the few female role models to step into an executive role in the spotlight.
The coaching practice I was offered to partner with provided their services solely through phone conversations, which required some adjustment. But quickly, it allowed us to focus on the content without any other distractions.
The coach was designed as a “critical friend”, a safe and confidential sounding board to help me think through strategies and plans to master this transition. With a first coach, we had no chemistry. The second attempt was the right one, as I realized that to be successful, I needed a solid personal connection with my coach and needed to feel that my coach was genuinely interested in me and my career.
In the first stage of my leadership transition program, we focused on introductions and built a rapport with my coach to help find the best way to work together. Next, we reviewed the coaching process, set objectives, and established a coaching contract with the expectations of my coaching journey to help me get the best of our partnership with my coach.
We also looked at the fundamental shifts required to make the transition to senior leadership a success. We defined my goals for my first 90 days, given the importance of generating momentum, setting the tone, and establishing my reputation from the beginning. I also uncovered my hopes for the role, gained clarity on what is expected to fulfill this role successfully, and started exploring my leadership brand and behaviors, identifying the strengths that I can leverage and my development areas.
Through my coach’s powerful questioning and active listening, I identified goals that matter and developed a plan to achieve the goal. She motivated and supported me to execute the plan and challenged me regularly to “ensure that I left each meeting with a changed mindset and confidence to solve what was ahead of me.” (2)
I was aware that getting ahead and staying ahead professionally is not easy for anyone. Through coaching, I noticed that I had to navigate a competitive, male-dominated environment to position myself for success as a woman. In addition, I also had to deal with my own limiting beliefs, lack of confidence, self-doubt, avoidance of politics, hesitancy to self-promote, which made it even harder to position myself for success. Working with a coach allowed me to gain awareness of the situation and get to a more “objective perspective on how to best position myself” (3). Also, realizing that others were dealing with similar emotions felt liberating and empowering at the same time.
In a second step, I had a three-way conversation with my line manager and coach to align role expectations, key development areas, and goals for my 90-day plan. At that stage, I dared to overcome my limiting beliefs and be bold to ask to demonstrate that I am the right choice to stay permanently in the executive role and expressed this with confidence and conviction to my manager, realizing that the “Greatest disappointment only occurs if you give up. When you are committed to your deepest desire and career vision, there is no giving up.” (1)
My manager challenged me in return about my comfort level and what might be standing in my way of stepping up and demonstrating stronger strategic thought leadership.
While my line manager noticed significant progress, he indicated that I needed to make a further shift from delivering and being the perfect subject matter expert to the leading role, building on my in-depth knowledge and proven expertise in my field.
Although I was comfortable managing complexity, I shared that I had to overcome inner voices warning me about failures. I acknowledged that I needed to get “over perfectionism and learn to learn from failure and disappointment.” (4)
A key aspect I had to work on was the feeling that I needed to “have all the facts and answers to all the questions” (4) and constantly be right before speaking up and influencing important decisions. My manager made me aware that “the higher in an organization one leads, the more impactful their decisions and the more uncertainty surrounds them.” (4) Despite my discomfort, I learned that there is no need to be always right, and there are no threatening consequences of being wrong. Instead, he encouraged me to understand my defensiveness, accept my vulnerability and stretch out of my comfort zone to partner up, invite other views and inspire peers to co-create.
Additionally, he recommended I take on an executive mindset, stretch barriers, progress in strategic areas, and substitute guilt against esteem, telling myself, “I’m on the right way.”
Following the three-way conversation, I continued with the coaching exploration. I initially struggled to understand what was meant by an executive mindset. Coaching helped me explore what was needed to develop it. One aspect consisted of striking the right balance between humility that I had been taught my entire life and promoting my work better. For a long time, I believed that my work would talk for itself. While that was true in the early days of my career, I needed to learn to become more vocal about my successes to be recognized and rewarded in this leadership role.
Regularly, I had experienced having my ideas ignored, only to have them be presented by others as their own a while later. As a result, I questioned the value of my thoughts and unconsciously felt discouraged from speaking up. I also disliked and avoided office politics. Knowing that many of my barriers were common for women helped me become more resourceful and accept that I needed to find ways to navigate the organizational maze to succeed in an executive leadership role. It helped me change perspective and gain confidence to speak up and feel more at ease with office politics.
I also created a personal brand that would define how I show up and come across the organization, determining my reputation and how people respond to me. It included the values I stand for, the strengths I’ll be known for, and the legacy I’d like to leave behind.
Throughout my coaching journey, I discovered powerful tools that would help me respond to challenges or pressurized situations under the label “Leading at my best” to help me bounce back from difficulties and respond to challenges in a relaxed and resourceful way.
Due to my new role, I was stretched outside of my comfort zone the first few months and faced some ups and downs. Keeping my composure was not always easy, which I discovered was normal in certain phases of the change curve.
I also discovered the concepts of being “in the box” or “out of the box”. I explored big or small triggers that would lead me “into the box”, making me feel angry, anxious, frustrated, stressed, etc., and lose my resourcefulness, resilience, sense of humor, and the ability to bounce back from setbacks. I learned to build awareness around those triggers to help me change from being “in the box” to getting “out of the box”, which leads to a sense of possibility, energy, alertness, confidence, clarity, etc. It became a game-changing tool used in team settings, at the coffee corner, in leadership meetings, and at home to express our state of mind and start powerful conversations about the situation and steps forward.
Learning about “mind traps” or the inner critic – those inner voices that distort our interpretation of situations, tending to imagine the worst or jump to conclusions immediately was an additional eyeopener that made a massive difference to me. “The inner critic feels like an inner enemy, always sapping her confidence and weakening her spirit.” (4)
Realizing that most of us have mind traps that push us into old patterns felt somehow liberating. I discovered that I am a Pleaser, worrying about others’ perceptions, which often results in leadership that avoids conflict and a Prover, with energy often focused solely on the next goal, making us quite task-focused as leaders.
It was beneficial to know I can become aware that I am in a mind trap and then use the realist in me to replace the exaggerated and dramatic statements in my head with simple truths. Also, knowing that I can unhook myself from my mind trap by consciously choosing my response to the situation based on my truth made me feel highly resourceful.
As the leadership transition journey went on, I continued to use coaching to help me further develop skills to gain the influence and leadership successes I needed.
Authentic leadership was a hot topic for me, knowing that it was essential in building trust and respect in an organization. I was especially keen to find my “authentic feminine leadership style to leading others” (4) and knew “such authenticity occurs when the leader owns their strengths and their perceived weaknesses.” (4)
Emulating male leadership styles was not me, and leaning into my subject matter expertise alone would not drive the success I needed.
Coaching helped me discover that I needed to “own my strengths and weaknesses, and grow beyond them to deliver meaningful results with confidence.” (4) Although it made me feel vulnerable and uncertain, it was needed to gain the trust and visibility to succeed in the highest roles. Through coaching, I understood the importance of defining my purpose to lean out of my comfort zone, continuously learn and become capable of achieving great things. In addition, learning to say “no” was helpful to manage my and my team’s energy to ruthlessly focus on the essentials and set realistic priorities.
I also realized that I needed to improve my communication skills. The first thing was to “Stop voicing powerless thoughts about myself.” (4) With my inner critics at work, I tended to start sentences with a “pre-apology or a self-deprecating phrase, such as “I know I’m not the expert here…”. (4) I also needed to learn to speak up when I had a point of view and share ideas confidently.
I continued to address my imposter syndrome and the “fear and anxiety of being “found out” for the “fake that I am.” (4) In this role with “greater visibility, greater influence and “more to lose.” (4) my instinct would have been to “shy away from risk, conflict, and competition.” (4) Coaching helped me overcome this phenomenon, accepting that I was in a stretch zone, having to deal with things I’d never done before.
In the last stage of my leadership transition program, I had the opportunity to review my progress and share my success stories with the critical leadership shifts and the 90-day plan I worked on.
I acknowledged how far I had traveled and how much I had learned about myself. I celebrated the progress made and reflected on how I would sustain the impact.
How To Use Executive Coaching
As I embarked on my executive coaching journey, I knew that coaching could be practical support for men and women who want to get ahead in their careers. However, as I immersed myself more into coaching and saw its benefits, I realized that coaching could be particularly game-changing for women, as they often encounter obstacles along their journey to leadership.” Women often need to negotiate around barriers due to politics and subtle gender bias as well as their internal barriers; their fears and self-doubt.” (3)
Through coaching, I learned that I could “help myself by believing in myself, proving my capabilities, recognizing my strengths, owning my successes, establishing myself as equal and sitting at the executive leadership table.” (2)
My coach helped me “nurture my confidence, identify and tap into my inherent strengths and worked with me to overcome my limiting self-beliefs.” (2)
One of my most significant learning from coaching, which still serves me daily, is how I handle self-doubt and grow the courage to push myself through fear and make a significant positive impact. “When clients develop strategies to act despite fear, they become courageous and open to limitless possibilities. As they push through discomfort, they become more resilient on their journey to professional and personal fulfillment.” (1). Facing fear and being able to make the difference between facts and illusion was game-changing. “Recognizing fear takes away some of its power.” (1) Coaching helped me discover “my inner power. The experiences and circumstances that push women through their fears lead them to discover unimagined internal strength.” (1)
The Coaching and My Executive Leadership Role
As a result of the coaching and my executive leadership role, I encapsulated my learnings to become a role model, build a network of women in business to serve as mentors, and inspire other women in the company.
It turned out that this latest coaching experience would be truly transformational for me, helping me professionally and on the personal front. It helped me understand myself, my beliefs, blockers, strengths, values and helped me find the authentic self that helped me gain the confidence needed to unlock my potential.
Ultimately I was promoted full-time into the executive leadership role.
The Power of Coaching in My Professional Journey
This experience showed me the power of coaching in my professional journey for myself, individuals, teams, and groups. It also helped me discover my passion for coaching to help others reach their fullest potential and led me to embrace a future career in the coaching space once I’d leave the corporate world. I’ve chosen to coach women and their allies to empower and inspire them to thrive through change and get ahead by gaining courage and confidence and going after their full potential towards a more fulfilling work/life integration. One-to-one executive coaching or group coaching underpinned by my experience helps talented women become more confident, resilient, and impactful.
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