How to Be a Future-Ready Leader

Coaching Tips from Two Wise Women

Nancy Smyth and Sharon Eakes are the co-founders of Two Wise Women, globally acclaimed coaches, coach trainers and mentors. In addition to authoring their own books, they are contributors to the Arbinger Institute’s best-seller, The Anatomy of Peace. Between them, they have been coaching for nearly 50 years, supporting influential leaders from 28 countries to flourish, thrive and prosper from the inside out.

We had the pleasure to sit down with them and talk all things coaching.

From your point of view, why has life coaching grown exponentially? Why do you recommend it?

Coaching embodies hope, courage and a quantum shift in consciousness. Life coaching is about how to live, be totally alive, engaged and have relationships that work. Coaching helps clients embrace who they want to be and how they want to contribute to the world.

In the 1990s, Thomas Leonard, a certified financial planner, found his clients needed help with their whole lives, not just their finances. Dubbed the father of modern coaching, Leonard called it “personal coaching.” It is now also referred to as life coaching.

As the power of coaching to accelerate change and leadership development was recognised, coaches were engaged for high-potential employees. Coaching in organisations is now standard as an executive benefit.

Awareness of professional coaching continues to trend upward. A study, as early as 2009, published by the International Coaching Federation, stated that 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence and over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships and more effective communication skills. 86% of companies report that they recouped their investment in coaching and more.

With the relentless speed of life today, leaders feel an urgency to know, to act and react in the face of many uncertainties. Coaching creates a reflective pause: time to clean the lens, clarify situations, reach beneficial solutions and take action.

Coaching has grown exponentially because it is effective. It keeps expanding because clients experience its power. Life coaching allows leaders, teams and organisations to live to their highest potential, to thrive and to prosper.

How does coaching work?

A coach and client meet, often remotely, every week or two. The coach creates a safe, confidential space for clients to explore their concerns and aspirations. The coach operates as a sounding board, a thought partner, asking questions, teasing out the client’s wisdom. The partnership is a laboratory for reflection, continued learning and expansion.

Through asking powerful questions, coaching allows the client to uncover what is cloaked. This dynamic stimulates understanding, change, progress and transformation. The coaching relationship includes:

  • looking at the client’s life, including, but not limited to, work objectives
  • examining thoughts, perceptions, assumptions
  • creating clarity
  • improving relationships
  • testing ideas and
  • gaining the confidence to take bold action

Who needs a coach? Why?

Coaching is markedly effective with aspirational leaders – those who do well and know they can be even more effective.

Leaders promoted to new levels of responsibility, with a broader scope of work, find coaching valuable in expanding their view and thinking in new ways.

Leaders who need clarity to generate momentum or congruity also benefit from coaching. They know change is needed, but they might experience inertia, overwhelm, or confusion. They may have trouble seeing their contribution to the situation.

Sometimes leaders simply need a champion, someone who sees and appreciates them.

From all these ripe places, a leader engages a coach to get the desired results. The following experience recounts our client’s transition into the CEO role:

Rhonda was eager to be at the helm of XYZ corporation, where she’d held a supporting role for years. Under waning and chaotic leadership, a belittling culture had developed. Rife with poor communication, little trust and looming DEI issues, barriers to success faced her on all sides.

Rhonda’s coaching sessions focused on all the challenges she faced to prepare for the cultural turnaround she envisioned. We refined her understanding and clarified her vision.

Fully committed, Rhonda knew she would be walking on the blade’s edge of a sword and had to be aware and awake during the entire process. With the help of coaching, Rhonda created a clear strategic plan. She bolstered her plan with additional insights, energy and fortitude. When the transition took place, she was ready.

In the last 18 months, Rhonda has been able to effect a sea change, no small feat during the pandemic. She used coaching support to stay diligent and persevere, continually inviting alienated employees into the new company culture. She made curiosity and listening the hallmarks of her leadership. And, step by step, a seemingly miraculous turnaround occurred.

What are the most important benefits of coaching?

Leaders report feeling freer, happier and more resilient as key benefits of coaching. Life is more balanced. They experience being more relaxed and confident, even through challenges.

At the heart of all profound personal change is increased self-awareness. Ironically, two opposing realities are often hidden from self-view: 1) what gets in our way and 2) the vast upside of possibility. Coaching uncovers both.

A coach often supports the leader to think through the entire process of a challenge, not just the content. A typical benefit of coaching is a deeper understanding of what lies below the surface of issues. Leaders value having and strengthening this high-level skill.

To be successful as a leader, employee, or parent, seeing and responding to the humanity in others is key. With more awareness of themselves through coaching, a leader develops a nuanced appreciation for others. They are open to others’ perceptions of them.

As a result, leaders often report that their internal shifts change relationships. Creative ways to collaborate arise from a fresh awareness and are unexpected. Leaders communicate better. A leader’s ability to be coach-like with others develops. They become more trustworthy. Their impact grows.

When leaders change, the company culture transforms. When that happens, productivity increases and retention rates go up because people appreciate working in a collaborative environment and want to contribute.

Through the coaching process, clients frequently describe feeling more authentic. They like and enjoy themselves more. Their way of being evolves, as do essential leadership skills. It is a relief when self-management, a new relationship with thoughts and emotions, replaces time management.

A great coach always coaches the whole person. Not surprisingly, then, even when a coach is engaged in workplace issues, the perceptions and changes also affect the leader’s personal life. It is common for clients to report that their spouse and children find them more flexible, connected and fun.

For these reasons, coaching is called the ultimate CEO advantage.

What grants life its beauty and magic is not

the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance

with which we navigate the gauntlet.

                                              -Maria Popova


What characterises great coaching?

Great coaching supports a client’s transformation and evolution. To facilitate such significant change, the coach enters a state of mind some call the learning edge, continually honing coaching skills to lead clients forward.

The coach’s presence is equally crucial. It is an energetic force, alive to whatever is needed for the leader’s best possible life and contribution to the world.

A great coach has an authentic presence, bringing themself — mind and heart — to each session.

Leaders might think: “How could something like the heart be effective in a professional and competitive world?” Don’t be fooled! The powerful energy of the heart is like a laser beam that cuts through everything false to reveal the truth about what has been the cause of complications, disputes, or lack of productivity and revenue.

  1. Otto Scharmer, the influential MIT business professor, supports that notion and so did his colleague, Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance. Scharmer (2015) reported that in an interview, O’Brien said: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” Scharmer continued: “We might say it this way: the success of our actions as change-makers does not depend on What we do or How we do it, but on the Inner Place from which we operate.”

As the coach opens to be fully with the leader – mind and heart – in the deepest possible way, they facilitate progress. Their presence has a continuously adapting rigour – sometimes acknowledging and encouraging, other times firm and fiercely challenging.

When the coach is expertly engaged, they can penetrate below the surface layers of a situation to its roots; the leader arrives at what is authentic and alive. It can be surprising to begin the coaching engagement with a specific goal in mind and discover instead that the leader has made a paradigm shift that encompasses a much broader perspective. This account illustrates such a shift:

Roger sought coaching after he was demoted from being president of the company. Feeling humiliated, frustrated and angry, he wanted to vent. Respectfully, we took time to clear his feelings and face layers of truth. His perspective fundamentally shifted; he graciously accepted a lesser position and astonishingly, became the stellar leader the organisation and he had hoped for.

A coach’s full presence is pivotal for the client. It allows true conversation, meaningful conversation, that invites the client to be most authentic and access their inner wisdom.

A great coach sees who the leader is – grander than they ever dared to imagine. This confident stance invites the leader to actualise extraordinary possibilities, not only in projects but also in relationships integral to the projects.

As top credentialed coaches, what are your tips on finding the right coach?

Before you hire a coach, ask yourself this question: When my partnership with a coach is successful, what will be different?

With the answer to that question in mind, do some research about coaches. Ask friends and colleagues to recommend excellent coaches. Look at the website of the International Coach Federation. Look at coaches’ websites or LinkedIn profiles that seem to match your needs.

Check their professional credentials, but don’t let these alone make your decision. Make appointments to interview coaches (most coaches offer exploratory sessions without charge.) How you feel speaking with the coach is essential….is there good chemistry?

Assess each interview asking yourself questions such as the following:

  • Does the coach listen deeply, probe respectfully?
  • Receive nuances below your words?
  • Do you sense they are 100% invested in you?
  • Can they make it safe to speak about anything, no need to edit yourself?
  • Are they someone who isn’t afraid to challenge you?
  • Do they inspire you to think in new ways?
  • Do they have the capacity to expand your reality?
  • Can they hold your feet to the fire?
  • Do they have experience working with leaders at your level?

You will get a sense of these things in a one-to-one conversation.

Close rapport, respect and radical curiosity help clients navigate current situations. When both client and coach are leaning in completely, the breadth of what is possible in coaching is astounding. As a shift in the client occurs, their responsiveness flows freely to the people in their lives, projects and the world in meaningful ways.

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