I believe all senior women should have executive coaches. They have complex lives and are still likely to be so in the minority at the highest levels that a trusted relationship is essential. Yet women take up developmental opportunities less than men – often because of the many demands on their time, sometimes because they don’t shout as loud for what they are entitled to and often because they expect to be able to do it all themselves. In the interviews we conducted for our book, Coaching Women to Lead, many women talked about how a very male model of coaching had proved unhelpful. As one woman said, ‘He walked in and asked me about my 5 year plan. It was so stressful as he obviously didn’t have a clue what I was juggling in my life!’ Women probably need to plan their lives more than they do, but any career plan will have to encompass the many different roles that women want to incorporate. Coaching needs to take in the realities of women’s lives in all their difference and complexity. Your coach doesn’t need to be a woman. He or she does have to have some important characteristics in addition to the more obvious standards we have written about before. So when you decide to find a coach, (and really I think you should take this very seriously and start looking right now as it is one of the things that our respondents said helped them accelerate their careers) here are a few things to consider. Choose someone who:
- Does not assume they know what your personal environment comprises. Many organisations were designed by and for men. As a result, women face very different challenges and experiences.
- Understands that organisations are not gender neutral. Traits and characteristics associated with maleness are more likely to be accepted as the norm. While many allegedly female skills are discussed and endorsed, they aren’t actually rewarded in day to day behaviour.
- Is conscious of their own unconscious bias . . .and the organisation’s. I was gender blind for years, accepting as the norm that senior people were usually male. What beliefs have potential coaches challenged in their own attitude to gender diversity. If they say they treat everyone the same, there may be a lack of insight into the issues.
- Realises that men and women may be differently motivated. Women are more likely to say that they want advancement so that they can make a difference rather than so they can gain status or power. Now, that may just be what the ‘good girl’ in us thinks is more acceptable but it may actually touch on a very real difference. So a coach needs to discover what motivates the individual.
- Questions the veracity of 360 feedback because he or she knows that labels like ‘aggressive’ are used differently for men and women and need careful exploration before setting off to remedy or tone down behaviour.
- Is smart enough to know that none of the above may apply to you rather than making assumptions about what ‘all women’ are like because the wonderful thing about women is that they are themselves so diverse that they will all want to do everything differently!
So, choose well, engage in coaching and become the best, most authentic, all-round version of who you want to be .