Today’s executive has to navigate an increasingly complex environment where change is the norm.

Here we talk to one of Australia’s most respected executive and leadership coaches Nan Dow about how a growing number of companies are using coaching as an essential development tool for their top talent.

You spend a lot of time with senior executives, what is your view of the pressures they face?

The acronym VUCCA is often used to describe the environment in which today’s leaders operate. Coined at the US military college WestPoint, it stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, Complex and Ambiguous.

Today a leader must cope with information overload, the dissolving of traditional boundaries of work, the challenges and opportunities presented by disruptive technologies as well as manage the different values and expectations of a workforce of up to three generations.

They are also expected to deliver more and on a wider front in many cases. Where once an executive at a senior level would have five or six overarching, meaty things they would be measured against, some of the executives I coach have 20 or more.

How should organisations view coaching for their key people?

As an investment in their talent. If you think about elite sports people such as tennis great Rodger Federer, his coach is always there. Coaching is aligned with organisations and people who feel successful, are successful and want to continue to be successful.

Many years ago coaching was often seen as a remedial intervention but today that view is less prevalent. More companies are embracing coaching because they view it as part of the investment they make in their most valued people – their high potentials.

The savvy organisations have a mindset that coaching is an investment, not a cost. And the business return on the investment for both the organization and the individual is measurable and tangible.

How long do you work with an executive in a coaching relationship?

It depends on the coaching purpose. As well as leadership coaching, we work with executives in career transition, and the approaches and tools we use for this work are different.   No one coaching solution will suit every individual, but for behaviour change and impact to be realised I would say the minimum time needed is six months and a year is ideal.

Successful executive coaching is about moving individuals into behaviours that sustain the business in both the short and long term.  If we stopped after only a few months, then what has been discovered and learnt quickly falls away. For someone to achieve a real change in thinking and behaving, they need time for those changes to become embedded, which is why 12 months is ideal.

I apply the 70/20/10 model of learning so my focus is primarily on the day to day issues/challenges the individual is dealing with in their role. We meet every four to five weeks to give the executive time to bring in their real time challenges and issues and try out different approaches.

(Readers should note that Sageco’s executive coaching service is different from its executive outplacement program TurningPointe where meetings with transition specialists are more frequent.)

What do executives need to know to make the most of the coaching process?

That it’s absolutely about them and works best when they are proactive and bring their specific issues to the sessions. My work is all about leveraging their strengths, increasing their self awareness around style, behaviours and impact.

Effective coaching can feel uncomfortable at first and it can take a little time to build rapport with the coach. Everybody is different so as the coach I need to get to know you and how you like to work before we can find our rhythm. We also need to build trust because both of us need to be willing to be vulnerable and open for the coaching partnership to really work.

Coaching is really a partnership. I like to use the phrase that ‘my role is to be your thinking partner’. I am not the expert at what you do. You are the expert at what you do. My role is to create a safe environment for executives to work through the challenges and issues they deal with on a day-to-day basis. It is their thinking we are working with, not mine. My job is to challenge their thinking, to help them unlock and explore perspectives and consequences.

The more senior people are, the more they value my role as their confidante or sounding board in an environment where they can voice their ideas and opinions without consequence.

At what level of an organisation do the leadership coaches at Sageco work? Is coaching just for the up-and-coming executive?

We work with individuals right up to the C-suite including CEOs. It gets pretty lonely up there and everything they do is so visible and can have significant impact. Senior leaders value having someone to bounce ideas off who can also help them to challenge  their thinking – it’s about mentally being able to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony to “see” the potential impact of alternative moves or decisions they are grappling with.

How do you work with C-suite executives?

I’ll give you an example. I coached a chief executive who had some very clear objectives when we kicked off. He was in a new role in a new organisation and was new to our country but in an industry that was familiar.

He had never had coaching before but was very self-aware, and he wanted to make sure he was doing all he could to set himself up to be successful in this role. The board was more than happy to invest in the coaching, as it was all about helping the Chief Executive deliver more success for the company.

The Chief Executive would set the agenda – as I always hope an executive does – and he would bring his issues to the table. And my job was to challenge his thinking and be a confidante and sounding board.

We worked together for a year with some clear goals.Then he requested another year but changed the focus of our work. He said, ‘I really value that you understand how I think and I need that ongoing sounding board and to have someone I trust to hold me accountable as I work through my thinking on issues’. So we continued to work together for another year.

Can you give me an example of how you would work with executives starting the senior journey?

From a career perspective, the shift to a senior level is quite exponential and there are risks attached to moving up, taking on, and letting go.

These executives must let go of some of their habits of doing and thinking. This can be a challenge because what they have done up until now is a big part of what has made them successful but it is not necessarily what will get them to the next level.

We work with one particular organisation that has had a number of people moving from leading a function to their first senior people leadership-type role. The challenges are pretty consistent for them – letting go of the doing, letting go of being very busy doing. In a sense they can experience a feeling of, ‘I haven’t really achieved anything today’ when they let go of doing.

That resonates with them as they change through the time we work together. They start to let go and instead engage with, and feel satisfaction from, coaching their people to be the doers while they take on a different role.

That capacity to think and to be strategic is where their value is now. To be looking forward, looking at the horizon, connecting the dots and then guiding their team drawing on that insight.

In recognition of this challenge, one particular client organisation brings us in to work with a group of high potential executives ahead of any promotion to the next level. As a person is identified as ready to move to the next level, we work with that person to help them make a shift in mindset that will set them up to be successful when they do make that transition.

It helps them understand that they are moving into a different world. They start to understand their current ways of thinking and behaving and work through what is serving them well and what has the potential to get in their way when they make their transition. With self-awareness, they already become better-equipped to adapt their approach and respond effectively to the different situations they will be dealing with at work. We then work with them on techniques and approaches for the “how” of adaptive leadership.

How does Sageco measure the success of its executive coaching work?

We want our coaching work to be measured because we want to know that what we are doing is actually delivering a return. Our focus is on constructive behaviour change, and the business results from that.

We have a range of mechanisms to assess the effectiveness of the coaching both during and at the end of a program.   We set goals at the beginning with the individual to be coached and his or her direct manager, and often also use a 360 feedback process to help identify these. We look at what is to be achieved and at the end of the process we can hold a three-way review to see what has changed and what the impact has been.