Coaching Women Executives: The Onward & Upward Journey Begins within Us

Jul 9 09:28 2008 Mai Vu Print This Article

Coaches share unique insights to help women discover, explore, and define proactive strategies for overcoming barriers to their success.

With few female role models in executive positions of leadership,Guest Posting women in business – and those who coach them – face unique and different challenges presented by significant obstacles that are often invisible. As executive coach Margaret D’Onofrio  points out, “Most organizations have established a set of leadership competencies that are key to success as a leader, and these competencies are possessed by both men and women. But the nature of barriers related to culture and work environments are different – and much more pervasive – for women.”

In her work within organizations D’Onofrio notices that despite efforts to eliminate stereotyping and gender discrimination, the talent and true worth of women is often underestimated and underutilized. That is not only an impediment for women, but it represents an extraordinary loss to the companies who employ them and then fail to recognize their value, reward and encourage it, and reap the benefits of their wide-ranging contributions.

The Impact on the Bottom Line

Catalyst, a leading nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization working to expand opportunities for women, confirms this fact. Research conducted by Catalyst reveals that companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance than companies with the lowest ratio of women’s representation.

·         Return on Equity (ROE) is 35 percent higher, and Total Return to Shareholders (TRS) is 34 percent higher.

·         In each of the five industries analyzed by the study, the companies with the highest women’s representation on their top management teams experienced a higher ROE than the companies with the lowest percentage of women’s representation.

·         In four out of five industries, the companies with the highest women’s representation on their top management teams experienced a higher TRS than the companies with the lowest percentage of women’s representation.

·         The research also found that stronger than average results prevail at companies where at least three women serve on the Board of Directors.

While the goal and process of executive coaching for men and women is not different, D’Onofrio notes that because women are in the minority they often have different experiences. Women have made great strides and inroads, but the majority of decision-makers in positions of power are still men, so the male perspective dominates our modern corporate culture. Men are also provided with more opportunities to showcase their skills and highlight their capabilities.

Breaking through the Glass Ceiling in Holistic Fashion

 “I work with women to explore, discover, and define strategies that will help to provide them with more opportunities to demonstrate their abilities,” D’Onofrio says. “I also help them understand how to navigate the stereotypic beliefs that create barriers for them.”

Some of the problems women report en route to leadership positions include difficulty in identifying the perceived obstacles to success, lack of confidence, a lack of visibility in the workplace, and a strong need – both actual and perceived – to outperform male counterparts. But until they are adequately and effectively addressed, these same issues will continue to surface. Even after women have attained positions of power and influence the insidiously treacherous obstacles may still actively undermine their personal success and job satisfaction.

The impediments may be visible or invisible and levied knowingly or unconsciously. While many are created and placed in the path by others, some are subtly and effectively imposed upon oneself.

To solve the lingering problems of gender bias in the workplace, women first need to clearly identify those issues – and that initial phase of clarification and edification can often be one of the most difficult parts of the entire process.

A client of D’Onofrio’s describes her own experience: "Margaret listens. She reflects. She tells you things you may not want to hear but need to hear. All the while she lets you know that she cares about you and rallies around you. You walk away believing in yourself again."

Executive coaches with insight and experience are adept at employing a variety of skills and resources to tap into the vision, potential, and power of women and help them rise above and beyond whatever limitations they encounter, according to Jeffrey Jones. He is an executive and transcultural leadership coach and an expert on human potential. With nearly two decades of experience in human resources, training and development, and coaching in multinational corporations, Jones has coached women throughout the world.

“Coaching provides an objective framework in which to view the various issues women executives face,” he says. “But even more importantly, it simultaneously provides a purposeful approach to managing those issues in a way that allows the executive to reach and exceed her personal and career goals in a healthy, balanced, and creatively vibrant way.”

Jones, like many of today’s executive coaches, practices a unique style referred to as “integrative coaching” which is gaining immense popularity around the world because of its remarkable effectiveness. The holistic integrative approach draws upon a wide variety of disciplines, resources, and methods, and is especially successful when dealing with cultural and gender differences.

Integrative coaches will, for example, often incorporate personal trainers, dieticians, psychometric assessments, and personality testing into their work with executives. By enhancing the individual’s self-awareness, confidence, and the symbiotic balance of personal and career responsibilities and objectives, they are better able to help women in all facets of their lives – not just in the workplace. The results are not only more sustainable, but the progress made tends to be immensely more fulfilling and rewarding.

As one of his clients – a Senior Marketing Executive on assignment from China to the USA with a large multinational corporation – explains,  “Like many women in senior positions I have faced a lot of challenges. But Jeffrey's coaching has led me to a much clearer insight about where I want to be and how to get there.  I now interact more effectively with people around me, and I’ve achieved amazing win-win solutions in both my professional and my personal life.”

Clients – and those companies that pay for coaching on behalf of their executives – want to be able to quantify performance improvements and see measurable, practical results and actionable strategies. So one of the first things a coach and client do together is goal setting to create useful, tangible benchmarks. By providing executive clients with a variety of metrics (including those related to psychological and physical goals and personal aspirations beyond the workplace) the primary administrative, managerial, and organizational aims and objectives are more easily focused upon, attained, and surpassed. Those who attempt to segregate or compartmentalize career and work from the rest of the events in their lives only create obstacles for themselves within both spheres – and that is a surefire recipe for failure.

Integrative executive coaching does not differentiate between one part or role of the self and another, but rather views the individual – and the life of the individual – as a whole. Women who successfully assimilate their seemingly disparate roles into a harmonious identity experience a renewed resource of energy – and a kind of internalized synergy – that derives from enjoying the benefits of a unified and congruent self.

Promotions Begin with Self-Promotion and Acceptance

Mai Vu, an executive coach who specializes in coaching women from minority communities within the USA, says that this kind of acceptance of self begins with an important internal dialog.

She observes that when people talk, for instance, “At least 90 percent of what they say is because they are looking for validation from the external world.” Vu says that by really listening to someone while asking the question “Why are they talking?” it frequently becomes apparent to her that there is a theme of self-validation running beneath the surface of the chatter.

“Look at me. I did this, and this and this. I suffered through this and I survived that. Underneath it all they are asking you if they are good enough or competent enough,” Vu explains. “They are wondering if you will love them and let them belong, or if they change and do more will you then accept them? The dynamic exists all over the world in one version or another.”

So Vu helps her clients learn to celebrate themselves and recognize and acknowledge at a heartfelt level what qualities and strengths it took them to get to where they are now. She says that as soon as that happens, two positive changes immediately occur.

“First of all their confidence shows up – and goes up – without being boastful or arrogant. Secondly and more importantly, women stop searching for validation of whether they are good enough, valued, or belong – because they have learned to get that validation from themselves. Once a woman learns to be her own best ally and champion, all of those other needs become quieter. These women are freed to do what they really want to do and are supposed to be doing, because meeting those other needs releases so much fresh potential.”

The internal focus shifts to simplify the entire alignment process, Vu explains, and that in turn leads to the creation of a clear vision of possibility.

Leading Oneself to Lead Others

“Once we change our limiting beliefs we reinforce inner wisdom. Then we can execute our own true plans, add value to our organizations, and create positive leadership. Leadership is about growing yourself, growing others around you, and growing your world.”

Vu emphasizes that leadership begins with leading ourselves, taking an inventory of our own gifts, and learning to trust our own wisdom.

“In our coaching work there is not a single stone left unturned,” explains one of her clients. She adds that when they do examine those issues, “I always find a new source of wisdom and power.”

The next critical step is to facilitate a similar process for those we want to lead. Unfortunately, Vu says, most people occupying positions of leadership and influence lack those particular skills.

Vu tells her clients to ask, “Who are they? What do they want? How will you facilitate and help them grow into their full potential?” To lead means to ask these kinds of questions and help others find the answers for themselves, she believes.

“Last but not least,” Vu adds, “a leader must then own their impact on the world. Everything we do creates an impact and it is a leader’s job to own that responsibility to grow our world – or our company or organization – and shape the culture and create a legacy. For women in leadership roles this level of consciousness is crucial for everyday thinking.”

As she begins to work with a new client Vu looks for both strengths and weaknesses and then designs a plan of action for going forward. “I listen for clues to their underlying beliefs to ascertain how in touch they are with their power and limitations. The minute I feel a resonance for either one, I zero in on it with them. If I see, for example, that they are in touch with their power, I immediately want to lock in whatever vision, possibility, and deep wisdom that they may have overlooked or discounted. Teaching them to trust themselves and listen to their own wisdom is a crucial step.”

Similarly, she looks for patterns and concepts that reinforce and empower negative beliefs. “Everything starts with our thoughts, and thoughts become feelings that then translate into a base of action or reaction.” When one’s assumptions are negative and limiting, Vu notices, the cognitive process promotes a negative trajectory and translates into fear and weakness instead of positive strength, courage, and potential. Change the beliefs about yourself and your relationship to the world, she says, and you will change ideas and outcomes.

A woman currently being coached by D'Onofrio has already witnessed that kind of practical transformation within her own executive role.  “Margaret helped me to move beyond habitual actions and interpretations that were stalling my career,” she says.

Monumental Momentum

While insightful coaches like Vu, D’Onofrio, and Jones delve deeper into the lives of their clients in order to help those women become better leaders and more effective executives, progress is also being marked and reinforced on a global level.

At a meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the commission’s Vice-Chairperson, Szilvia Szabo, reported significant achievements. While she acknowledged that persistent barriers to women’s entry into decision-making positions persists and equitable participation remains a challenge, she also noted that within the past few years larger numbers of women have attained executive positions in both publicly held and private companies. That encouraging trend appears to be gaining more momentum.

Catalyst honors exemplary business initiatives that promote women’s leadership with the annual Catalyst Award, and this year’s winners were Japanese auto manufacturer Nissan and ING, a Dutch-based financial institution with more than 75 million clients in more than 50 countries.

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Within the past five years ING has increased women’s representation on the senior management team from 25 percent to 50 percent. Currently, two executive women in profit-and-loss roles manage 80 percent of the company’s core business; two out of three people in the succession pipeline to CEO are women, and the percentage of women in people-manager positions has increased.

Since 2004, the number of women in management positions at Nissan has nearly tripled, and the percentage of women managers in the design, planning, and product planning function has doubled. Nissan is also the first company headquartered in Asia to receive the Catalyst Award.

As Vu points out, the solution is for women to continue to push forward while retaining their individual authenticity. “It is about learning to be your authentic leader self, instead of trying to emulate someone else’s leadership style or pretending to be someone different from who you already are. To succeed takes confidence. Confidence only comes when we start to respect ourselves, recognize our progress, reassure ourselves, and be our own best allies and champions.”

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About Article Author

Mai Vu
Mai Vu

Mai Vu is an Executive and Leadership Coach and an expert in the Human Process, with over 12 years of direct coaching and training new coaches experience. 

 

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