As an executive coach, there was always the theoretical understanding that evolving and moving forward professionally brought ‘happiness and results’. Coaching has always offered warm and fuzzy promises raising the eyebrows of skeptics. Many asked, “Does coaching really work?”.
It wasn’t until I coached two – very tough, verging on cynical VP’s, that just happened to be also married, that I heard for the first time – unprompted – that hiring a leadership and transition executive coach impacted their relationship. The myth was proven!
Bill and Marianne* work in highly volatile billion-dollar media & entertainment environments. In their 40’s, both chose to focus in distinct professional areas. They sought coaching for different reasons. One came to for executive career transition planning and the other was offered an opportunity to participate in a corporate leadership development program through her employer. Outside of sports, it was their first experience with coaching. Married for 15 years with two teenage children and in the ‘pro-sports’ point in their lives. Reality was demanding.
How did coaching happen?
The journey began when Marianne underwent leadership development coaching. Months later, when her husband of 15 years was struggling with whether or not to stay in his decade long position, she spent months encouraging him to hire a coach to explore his career possibilities. Upon meeting us, he realized we spoke the same language and decided to hire our firm.
Neither Bill nor Marianne went into coaching looking for a stronger marriage or better communication skills for their family. Neither party expected to say at the end of the 100 days coaching cycle that coaching had improved their marriage. Coaching improves not only leadership goals and relationships at work but also at home. They were coached for different reasons but the by-product of the experience had a similar effect on each of them in terms of learning how to be more open, honest and direct to achieve the desired results.
What did they learn in their leadership and transition coaching? How did executive coaching unintendedly impact their marriage?
Shifting out of the transactional mindset
For Marianne, coaching initially helped her ask questions to uncover her leadership style and become more conscious of how she interacted with people at work. She discovered that while she had advanced professionally and to a certain degree mastered the ability to get what she wanted at work – her approach was transactional. This interpersonal style limited her ability to grow beyond her current position. She also recognized that when her husband was struggling with his own career transition, many of her questions were also transactional in nature. Marianne realized that “until you reflect on your leadership style, you can’t identify areas of strength and weakness and where you can improve.” Coaching helped her identify the blind spots in her interpersonal style.
How to have difficult conversations
She explains, “My responsibility is to be the best leader I can be.” This internal goal drives her forward to improve her own skills and capacities. In reviewing her relationship with the organization, she began to ask herself, “how do I look at the people that work for me, and how do I look at the people I work for, and then identify deficiencies and areas for improvement.” The willingness to do this type of active inquiry is really critical to any type of transformation. It’s at this point coaching becomes paramount in uncovering weaknesses and learning new strategies to improve one’s performance. It helped Marianne learn how to “start difficult conversations and how to communicate expectations” in a professional environment. A skill couples also need to possess in order to have a successful marriage.
How to lead more effectively
Marianne came away with a “better understanding of my role and position within the organization to ask myself the questions. What is my role? What should the role be? What responsibilities do I have, and what responsibilities should I really have? And then figuring out ways to get there, become the leader of the team and owning my position within the senior management structure.” Through coaching, she further developed clarity in her role to be able to say “this is what I expect, and this what I’m going to do, and this is what’s you’re going to let me do.” In other words, she learned the vital lesson of how to exercise her will to define the outcome. It’s a critical leadership skill.
Confidence and comfort to self-direct
Coaching gave her both the “confidence and comfort” to take bolder actions and move beyond the transactional experience of “how do I get what I need.” The by-product raised the level of honesty of her relationships not just at work but also with her husband. Greater levels of honesty lead to more meaningful relationships. It strengthens trust between parties and creates an atmosphere relationships can thrive in. As a husband and wife team, coaching improved their communication skills and ability to be honest with each other.
Growing Emotional intelligence
By strengthening her self-awareness and therefore her emotional intelligence, Marianne became more conscious of how she approached conversations. She realized the need to taper her style to the nature of the individual she engaged with. Emotional intelligence helped Marianne to better see the other person’s perspective. It made her communication style more effective, powerful and persuasive. Marianne explained to me, “It helped me understand a little bit better about what they’re thinking, and how they view things, and how I should be communicating things to them that are less transactional in nature.”
Marianne started to approach work situations as “How do I get the best work out of you?” By evaluating situations, challenges and tasks from the other person’s perspective, she became a more effective leader. She describes, “I became more aware of the way I approached different situations and more importantly, the reasons why I approach situations in a particular way. Then it gave me things to consider when in different situations, to increase my ability to communicate with my coworkers and my ability to do my job more effectively. It made me more self-aware and taught me to consider others in a different fashion than I had in the past.” She learned how to start a difficult conversation in a non-confrontational way.
Learning to fight like a guy- conflict and confrontation
For many women, conflict and confrontation at work are difficult to manage. Learning how to “act more like a guy”, where you talk something through and then move on, became a really critical lesson not only at work but also at home for Marianne. She describes it as learning how to fight like a guy. She began to approach conflict by asking “How did we get into this situation, and what were your expectations and then finally how can we clarify this for the next time?” It’s the ability to trust all parties, be transparent, solve the problem or conflict and move on. It’s about not dwelling on something or holding on to resentments. The effect frees up any built up emotional energy and creates better relationships moving forward.
The ability to manage conflict in a graceful manner is one of the key skills 21st Century leaders must possess, and it also happens to be a critical skill to having a successful marriage. Coaching strengthened Marianne’s interpersonal skills. Marriage requires more than “love” it requires both partners to be able to come to the table and work through their stuff and develop emotional intelligence. The big realization: strong interpersonal skills are critical to being effective in every area of life and it starts with knowing what you want as an individual and then seeing the other person’s perspective. It’s a lesson for work and marriage.
Trust is the first question that needs to be answered
Referred to me by his wife Marianne, Bill came to me for career transition coaching. Anyone with a partner knows that even when your partner recommends something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to do it.
Coaching still has a lot of baggage associated with it – especially with high achievers who feel they don’t need a coach. What was important for Bill during his interview with me, was whether I understood him, his industry, his challenges and whether I could be trusted to help him ‘evolve’. These questions were not a hurdle to be taken lightly. There has to be a genuine connection between both parties – for the coach to serve confidentially, and for the coachee to feel 100% comfortable to opening up in each area that needed development and growth to reach his career goals.
Coaching as a pivot point
Facing the decision of whether to leave his stable position of 8+ years and what his next move would be, he had developed many deep self-limiting beliefs and professional concerns. He felt stunted professionally but wasn’t sure how to move forward. It’s quite easy staying in a job and afraid of making the wrong move forward and its potential to backfire, which can damage confidence and the ability to take effective action.
Bill went through the coaching process to decide if moving on was really the right decision and how he wanted to refocus his career. The process opened him up to identify more opportunities and directions he could go in. Coaching became a critical tool and a pivot point in his career that also had the unexpected side effect of improving his marriage.
For Bill, the big takeaway was beginning to really think strategically about what he was doing professionally, as well as recognize larger opportunities. Working for a major entertainment company, the decision to move on was overwhelming and stressful, which as we know impacts our ability to process possibilities and solutions. Bill describes his situation, “The organization I was in was going through a series of fairly substantial changes in terms of structure, the activities it was focused on, and the people who were staying or leaving. There were a lot of transitions over the last two or three years, and I think a lot of the reference points that I had used to sort of make decisions about my career for a long time. In 20 years, the industry had shifted so much that those skills were not necessarily as useful as I thought they were in terms of figuring out what I wanted to do next. It was a period of intense transition.”
Coaching taught Bill how to do a deeper self-analysis, especially regarding his own skills and abilities. He says, “You have to learn how to step away from the specifics and understand the underlying capabilities, it takes a little bit of time to step away from the day to day.” Through his coaching experience, he developed the ability to assess the value of his own skills on a deeper level. Once that muscle was developed, he could begin to see how his skill set becomes valuable in different contexts and situations. It opened up his professional opportunities. He describes it as the “ability to actively investigate something or develop something rather than passively contemplate it…and it gave me the ability to properly re-evaluate the things that I’ve done, the things I would like to do and the things I need to do.”
He describes the personal benefit as “it created a conversational outlet where I could express what I was experiencing with my career, and that wasn’t necessarily positive at the time. There was certainly a mixture of positive and negative feelings and experiences. I had to very quickly be able to understand those feelings and the implications or the non-implications that they actually have, on what you can do next.” He started to be more frank and open about how he felt and what he wanted instead of focusing on what he thought his partner wanted to hear. The effect improved his ability to communicate with his partner and deepened their ability to communicate effectively as a partnership.
Doing better vs knowing better
Coaching serves people in developing the necessary skills to make better decisions. It becomes a vital tool for professional development. Today relationship management can make or break your career. Bill describes the difference between ‘knowing better’ and ‘doing better.’ Coaching emphasizes actions and getting past the resistance that prevents people from “doing better.” It’s vital to career development. “A coaches ability to help shift the modality of the conversation is actually a really important part of the process. By hearing things framed in new ways, you can think about problems differently.”
Learning to speak again
On how coaching helped his marriage, Bill says, “It’s the ability to actively investigate something or develop something rather than passively contemplate it. In this particular instance, it provided, I’m speaking personally, but I think it would probably hold true for us both, in that it provided me with the independent support and counsel that gave me the opportunity to be very frank and honest about what my needs were from a career perspective without judgement. It also provided me with the ability to practice and investigate a conversation. I could refine the message and clarify exactly what I wanted to communicate” The ability to speak his truth and state his needs deepened his relationship with his wife.
Often in relationships – both in marriage and professionally, dishonesty begins when partners hold back information in an effort to please the other or out of fear of rejection. The effect creates a rift. Bill discovered that stating his needs was not selfish but actually essential. The net effect of speaking his truth strengthened his relationship with his wife.
Couples in high-powered careers are tasked with juggling a mentally and physically demanding work schedule while still tending to their personal life, family, friends, and marriage. Communication can be the first vital function to deteriorate. Meanwhile, it becomes daunting to tend to both professional and personal life demands. When communication breaks down, high-powered couples can begin to see their marriage collapse.
Coaching develops the critical tools to successfully navigate interpersonal relationships. Bill explains that “the more tools you have to have the most successful interactions and communication with your partner, the better it is. The question is, why assume that you can do it if you’re never going to open your mind to asking, “Can I actually get better at this? So yeah, I’d recommend coaching it because we can all learn new skills.”
The net effect
Marianne and Bill discovered coaching not only helped them professionally but there was the unintentional positive effect to their marriage. Learning how to communicate, strengthen their emotional intelligence and clearly state their needs and wants made them a stronger couple. As Marianne expressed, she learned how to ‘fight like a guy’ which was very powerful in learning how to work through conflict and then drop it like a rock instead of holding onto things. For couples, this powerful tool strengthens relationships as well intimacy deepening the level of honesty.
It was a big ‘aha’ moment for me as a coach is when coachees can see the universal impact of the work they’ve done across professional and personal relationships. Coaching improves every aspect of our interpersonal relationships. The experience teaches people how to hone and rely on their inner compass. People come to coaching with a deep desire to transform their professional lives. For couples struggling with the demands of a high-powered career and family, it doesn’t just help you achieve at work, it also strengthens your marriage too. It’s an added bonus because coaching transforms the whole person.
*Names changed to protect anonymity.
Caroline Stokes (CEC) is an executive head hunter and executive coach for innovation leaders. Caroline Stokes founded FORWARD, the next generation of senior management search to provide a white glove service to clients and candidates. Upon placement of candidates, they receive first 100 days coaching, plus EQi development support to integrate and transition successfully.
Caroline Stokes is also Sponsorship Director of the ICF Vancouver Chapter and looks forward to creating value for ICF sponsors and members in 2017 – 2018.