Case study: Executive coaching for leadership

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Introduction 

LifeForward Singapore city

Following the introduction of a formal partner assessment process, one of the  accounting firms in Singapore invited me in to work with partner candidates, coaching them on a one-to-one basis, focusing on leadership competencies, personal development and presentation & interview preparation.  

At such a critical stage in their career, candidates going through a formal assessment process can feel pressure to deliver to a high level across all aspects of their role. Candidates may not feel able to fully explore areas for personal development within their organisation.  Working with an external coach (as opposed to either an internal coach or a mentor) at this stage can be very valuable, allowing the individual to engage in an open and frank discussion, develop self-awareness and more accurate self-assessment, address perceived areas for development and strengthen their case for leadership. 

Approach

I worked closely with the individual candidates as they progressed through the assessment process.  Initially we scheduled three two-hour face-to-face coaching sessions over an agreed period of time and supplemented this with online follow-up coaching as required.  The sessions were often held at a venue away from the office to allow them to relax and feel able to speak freely. 

The transition from a management position to one in leadership often requires a new set of competencies that potential leaders have not yet tested prior to their move to a leadership position.  Although specific competency frameworks vary from one business to another, there are common areas that occur across leadership, whether in a partnership or a company.    

Qualities of Leadership

LifeForward leadership qualities

By working through the individual candidates’ competencies, I helped them identify their personal strengths, develop their self-awareness, enhance their communication skills and focus on the key areas for development to prepare their cases for leadership.  Towards the end of the process I also spent time with each of them working on their presentation and interview skills to help them portray themselves (and their cases for becoming partners) in the best possible way. 

Below are some examples of the changes in thinking and behaviour that I included in my work with the candidates who are on track for leadership. 

Leadership  requires changes  in thinking  … 

LifeForward breadth of thinking

Breadth of thinking.   It is often necessary to demonstrate deep technical knowledge and expertise in a specific area of an organisation in order to be considered for a leadership position.  Leaders, on the other hand, need to take a more strategic, long-term, future-focused approach to issues and opportunities.  Potential leaders must therefore demonstrate that they can step back from the details and see the bigger picture.  This may require thinking about solutions across several departments or functions, not just their own department/function.  It may require a broader geographic focus, eg regional (across a number of countries) rather than their own jurisdiction alone.  But potential leaders also need to consider the breadth of impact of any decision and assess the relative merits in all areas.  

I work with my clients to help them apply their thinking to these broader frameworks. Through challenging questions and exploration, the coaching helps them understand how to consider problems from a more strategic perspective.   

LifeForward attitude to risk

Attitude to risk.  Alongside the need to think more strategically, leaders must also take a more robust attitude to risk.  After all, the buck stops with the leaders.  Unlike a management position, a leader may not have the luxury of full information regarding an issue or opportunity before a decision needs to be made.  The leader therefore needs to be comfortable with a level of exposure on their decision-making.  This is underpinned by a trust in – and empathy with – key employees who the leader can rely on to provide the accurate and detailed work required.  This transition is often a challenge for potential leaders, particularly those whose personal preference is detail-focused and risk-averse.  It can be difficult to let go of the detail and rely on someone else.  It is also difficult to know when you have enough information to make an informed decision on a timely basis.   

I use personality profiling tools, such as Insights Discovery®, to help my clients improve their self-awareness and understand their own attitude to risk and preferred ways of working.  This self-awareness leads to a better understanding of others, encouraging clients to think about the team around them and how they may need to work differently in order to operate effectively at a leadership level.  

… and changes in behaviour.

LifeForward create vision

Creating a vision.  A leader not only needs to see the bigger picture and look to the future but also share that with his team in an engaging and inspiring way.  Daniel Goleman (The New Leaders) describes inspiration and influence as two key emotionally intelligent leadership capabilities.  Potential leaders need to shift gear and prepare to step into the limelight.  This may require courage and perceived confidence, good communication skills and energy.  It also requires a good understanding of one’s own core values and the ability to align personal and business values in order to communicate a vision in an authentic and inspiring way.   

Confidence-building underpins much of the work of a coach.  I work with my clients to help them step out of their comfort zone, do new and different things and tackle perceived challenges; I encourage them to change their own perception of their abilities.  I work with clients to identify core values and relate them to the business and their role as a leader.   

Through self-awareness, potential leaders understand how their own unique leadership style will add value. Coupled with the building of awareness of others’ styles, the leader can then understand how best to inspire others. 

LifeForward business development

Business development.  In professional services firms, business development responsibilities become more important as one progresses through the firm.  In other organisations, marketing and sales may be more discreet, although leaders in all organisations need to promote the business, network and be an advocate at all times.  Some people embrace business development in all its guises with enthusiasm and passion.  Other potential leaders find this more challenging and lack confidence in their ability to develop business leads and bring in new clients.  

As with many behaviours where clients believe they “can’t”, I work with them to break down business development into its fundamental parts and address each part in turn.  So rather than having one big objective of “business development” that can seem daunting, clients develop a list of clear, manageable actions to complete on a weekly/monthly basis that, when added together, constitute a clear business development plan.  Some of the actions on the list will require practice in order to become a habit; some will require clients to step out of their comfort zone.  However, some of the actions will be easy and obvious and take very little time at all, therefore progress can always be made.  

Outcome/Ongoing

The candidates found their coaching to be very helpful as they progressed from stage to stage in the process.  Coaching provides an opportunity to address personal development on an individual basis and therefore tends to have an immediate positive impact. As candidates’ self-awareness grows, they can continue their own development as they move up to the next level. 

Candidate Testimonials

“It was useful to have someone outside the firm to share thoughts and ideas with, and to gain a fresh perspective on how to approach issues within a safe comfort zone.”

Partner, Singapore

”Sarah is a really great coach – she is approachable, personable and makes one feel at ease.  She is also a great listener.  In my view coaching works best if you are open to sharing honestly your toughest issues or deepest fears – be it work or personal.  Sarah is really good at asking probing questions which set me thinking hard on my current mindset and opened my mind to new perspectives.”

Partner, Singapore 

“The [coaching] sessions were useful in helping me gain a better self-awareness of my leadership style and whether I am on the right track in terms of my approaches to addressing problems and issues.” 

Partner, Singapore

“Sarah has a deep understanding of how things work in our organisation and the demands of a client-facing function.  Hence, she is able to relate better and offer insightful advice on how to manage clients’ expectations as well as the firm’s expectations of a partner.  Sarah discussed my partner key performance indicators at length with me and asked probing questions to encourage me to think deeper about how I could better achieve them.”

Partner, Singapore

“The sessions helped with self-discovery as they force you to answer questions about yourself you may not have thought to ask or you would rather not think about.”

Partner, Singapore

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