Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
29 Nov 2013

How can coaching help senior women executives?

29 Nov 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Inequality nothing new for women

It's more than 40 years since the Equal Pay Act was introduced, and women are still paid about 18% less than their male counterparts. We’ve heard about the glass ceiling which prevents women reach top jobs, the glass cliff which describes the unstable top jobs that women can achieve, and the concrete ceiling which tells us that it’s harder for women to get top jobs than it once was. We have notable exceptions of women who made it to the top and promptly left.

Having worked with PepsiCo for 12 years in senior roles, Brenda Barnes became the first female president and CEO in 1996 – a job she left the following year “trading 30,000 staff for 3 kids!” It was 8 years later before she went back into a CEO role with Sara Lee and a year later was ranked 8 among the world’s most powerful women.

So could coaching support women to achieve more at work?

How can coaching support women?

A recent research project examined the impact of a short coaching programme on women in senior roles. This research looked at women at work over the last 30 years. The research focused on women – so it’s not conclusive about whether or not the same outcomes would be true for men.

These were senior women and by all accounts were women who could demonstrate a confident demeanour in their work. A number said there was a gap between their perceived confidence and their self confidence. A number said confidence wasn’t an issue for them.  However, after a short coaching programme, 18 out of the 19 women said their confidence level had risen.

When asked what made the difference in their confidence level, the women said that coaching made them feel supported, listened to, feel more in control, gave a sense of hopefulness, and they valued receiving feedback.  

Building confidence & resilience

Intelligent leaders know the importance of support, and are willing to recognise the value of putting people around them who bring expertise to the team: that provides support for the ‘role’. However, intelligent leaders who want to sustain themselves in their leadership role over the long term will also look to put in place ‘personal’ support which enables them to be energised, focused and confident that they bring their best selves to the position.

The women being coached in the research stated unequivocally that coaching provided appropriate support and highlighted that the particular benefit was that it was also challenging, providing them with stretch and focus whilst still being supportive. This was not some kind of fluffy feminine support – but the kind that gave purpose, direction and nurtured resilience.   

Achieving a balanced life

If you’ve ever watched someone standing on a high wire, you will know that balance is not a stationery position to be achieved, but requires continual adjustment and modification, sometimes leaning more one way, and sometimes leaning more the other. Yet all too often we hear conversations about life balance as though it was a fixed utopia to be achieved for all time.

On our coaching journey, we discovered that improving overall life balance is a long term project – although it's possible to have immediate results in some areas with even some small changes. As a long term project, it requires the person being coached to be clear about purpose and life values, taking account of any conflicting values and beliefs which are resulting in inconsistent or unwanted behaviours. At the micro level, it's possible that a few small changes will have an exponential long term effect. For example, one of the women decided that in order to honour her commitment to herself to finish work at her end of day time she would arrange activities that required her to leave promptly. This simple change gave her the opportunity to form a new habit.

Coaching boosts resilience

The evidence is that women benefit tremendously from coaching both personally and professionally, and it's evidence that coaching can be a serious tool in tackling some of the long established and researched barriers to women achieving and sustaining top jobs. Coaching women increases their confidence and self-belief; it's a great support mechanism for women in tough roles; and it can help them restore balance to their lives enabling them to be resilient in tough jobs.

Women welcome the neutrality and supportive challenge of coaching, and in the words of one woman in an executive role, the transformation coaching made was a shift from “my belief is faltering and my energy levels are almost on empty” to a resolve that she would overcome the barriers... “I have stopped sitting in my puddle of self doubt – it’s cold and uncomfortable and I look silly.”