From the Mountains to the C (Suite), A Coach’s Perspective
From the pristine peaks to the corporate corridors, the journey of leadership is as varied as the terrain. In this article, Hazel Barlow invites us into executive and leadership coaching, offering a unique vantage point – that of a seasoned coach. With roots in Manchester, England and now a resident of beautiful Christchurch, New Zealand, Hazel’s global perspective and diverse client experiences provide insights into leadership, its challenges, and the transformative power of coaching. We traverse the metaphoric mountain of leadership roles, understanding the distinct perspectives from different altitudes and the crucial need for clarity in these uncertain times. Whether you’re an executive eyeing the summit or a budding leader finding your footing, Hazel’s perspective offers clarity through a fresh lens.
A message from the author
Kia ora koutou katoa, Ko Hazel Barlow tāku ingoa. I whanau ahau I Manchester, Ingarangi. Nō Ōtautahi Aotearoa tōku kāinga ināianei. He kaiwhakaako / Mātanga tāku mahi. Kia ora koutou katoa.
Hi everyone, My name is Hazel Barlow. I was born in Manchester, England. Christchurch, New Zealand is my home now. I work as a coach and consultant. Thank you everyone.
Executive and leadership coaching
Executive and leadership coaching is often about clarity, which enables action. Covid has affected and, in some cases, completely removed people’s clarity and led to a perceived lack of control and dissatisfaction that we continue to hear about in various ways. Yet it’s interesting to note that Gallup’s Global Workplace Report 2023 (pages 6&7) shows 23% of the world’s employees were ‘engaged’ at work in 2022, “the highest level since Gallup began measuring global engagement in 2009”. It’s great to see this improvement, but there is a significant opportunity for leaders with 77% of the world’s employees, 59% of whom were ‘not engaged’ and 18% were ‘actively disengaged’. State of the Global Workplace Report – Gallup
Through my development and coaching work, I have gained interesting insights from the experiences of a wide variety of leaders. I’d like to share my perspective on what I think is going on, what leaders could do, and comment on how coaching might help.
My executive and leadership coaching clients range from the late 20’s through to 60’s. They occupy various positions in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. Many lead teams, others lead with their specialist knowledge. They are all focused on their development and growth to add more value to their team, organisation, stakeholders, and customers.
What I’ve noticed is:
- Brains and schedules are full or overflowing; space and time to pause for thought and review are either limited or completely absent.
- Sense-making is now required continually and also holistically – relating the environmental context to work/home/life. These things are now firmly fixed together, like never before.
- There is often a lack of clarity which broadly covers roles, expectations, deliverables, career.
- It is frequently a challenge to obtain or to provide sufficient clarity and focus.
- In this dynamic context, clients are asking more questions about how things in their organisation fit together. It can lead them to consider how they now add value and how they fit – their role, their skills and their purpose.
These points give rise to feelings which range from curiosity or being unsettled, through to frustration. This is often because their personal ability to add value and be productive is being limited. What stands out to me is that where people ‘sit’ in their organisation can make a significant difference to their perspective and opportunity for clarity.
The mountain view
Consider an organisation as a mountain – where you stand determines the view you have and the detail you can see.
The view of the CEO is unique, one that no-one else has; the summit has definition, and your experience of climbing mountains provides you with insights to manage through storms and clouds. When you look down and around, what is the level of detail you have? It’s likely you’ll need to rely on data or others for the detail. Perhaps the majority of your time is spent looking up and out: investors, shareholders, customers/clients, stakeholders, committees, and board meetings.
The C-suite leader has a good oversight as you are close to the summit. You have a fair idea of the view from the top, but not exactly. You are well aware of the external and internal challenges and opportunities. But how much of the necessary detail can you see? What do you know about what’s going on below and the details people are experiencing? How do you get this perspective?
If you’re a specialist leader (e.g., IT, legal, technical, project) you might be near the top of the mountain and have glimpses of the view from the summit. When you look out you can have a broad view, or a more restricted view with considerable detail, depending on how much of the mountain you have access to – the majority or just a section. When you look around what perspective are you missing or perhaps unaware of?
For a leader on the lower slopes of the mountain, the view is very different; there’s lots more detail, but when you look up, you can rarely see the top or a full view/vista. You rely on those with a better view to provide information, to communicate, to explain. What happens when you don’t get that? What happens when you can’t see much? Or you don’t know what the big picture is? What do you say to your team(s)?
The fact is wherever you stand on the mountain, you’re expected to be productive. Everyone working in your organisation needs to be clear about what is expected of them now and know why this is important to your clients/customers. But when change is continuous, this is easier to talk about than to achieve in practice. So, how can leaders go about improving clarity for their teams? And how can leaders achieve clarity for themselves?
Consider your own career
Consider your own career to date – in your various roles, how have you found the clarity which drove your focus and action? How did you learn what you know today? What did you do when clouds drifted in and your view and focus disappeared? How did you establish sufficient clarity to act and deliver results? Your answer probably includes considering the situation, receiving communication and information, talking to others, learning new approaches, applying your knowledge and skill and, drawing on your previous experience.
What’s happening on your mountain today? Time is precious. Perhaps you rely on the reports, data available and on your previous experience. How often do you inadvertently revert back to what’s worked for you in the past without giving it a second thought? When did you last take a long walk around on the lower slopes? How often do you spend time looking around inside your organisation? I don’t mean ‘going back to the floor’ or being ‘customer facing’. I mean getting across the breadth and depth of your business – talking with and understanding a whole range of perspectives. What you see and hear with your own eyes and ears is unique because of your view of your organisation is unique. You could be missing something fundamental or something very simple. Without doing so, are you in danger of assuming what is actually happening? Are you in danger of assuming what others think, feel and need?
People make their own sense of a situation by watching, listening, asking, talking and thinking. This process helps us to find our own clarity. However, this isn’t usually what business meetings are for. How does sense-making happen in your organisation? When are there informal opportunities for people to hear what leaders are thinking, to ask questions, to enter into a conversation? I notice that leaders can underestimate how important it is for them to share what they can see and what they know. When do you share your experienced view and perspective? How are you letting others learn from you? These experiences can help and enable others to find their own clarity.
Experience provides many benefits, but could it also be a blocker? Perhaps you no longer take the opportunity to stop, to review and to reflect on what you know, what you’re doing well and what you might do differently. When did you last receive meaningful feedback? Where is your learning, growth and new insight coming from?
How could Executive/Leadership coaching help? Coaching creates time and space for review and reflection and allows you to consider what’s going on for you. Your coach is a confidential thinking partner. They support you in finding clarity for yourself. The coaching process has a forward focus, which enables you to explore possibilities, develop new approaches and next steps.
Leaders, and perhaps people generally, are searching for clarity. What can you and your leaders do to enable this in your organisation?
About the author
Hazel began her career in the UK as an operational manager before progressing into management development. She held senior corporate roles in leadership development and Human Resources before working on her own as an interim HR director, coach and consultant. Hazel now works in New Zealand as a coach, consultant and facilitator, enabling people and organisations to develop and to achieve their goals.
Hazel is a qualified professional coach, who is certified/credentialed by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She holds an MBA from Henley Business School and is a member of the British New Zealand Business Association (BNZBA).
In her work as a coach, she has:
- Supported clients to identify their personal barriers and skill gaps and empowered them to identify the resources and motivation required to make the progress they wanted.
- Enabled leaders to develop their self-awareness, to decide actions and find approaches which improved their effectiveness at work.
- Provided the reflective space and tools to help people review their careers to date, consider options and to decide how they would now achieve their revised career goals.
Why might you work with a coach?
- To create time and space to think through your chosen focus areas with a confidential thinking partner.
- To uncover new perspectives, to learn, to discover and explore new possibilities.
- To review how you are operating as a CEO/leader and consider your own impact.
- To achieve your own clarity and focus to decide your next steps.
- To hear an objective viewpoint if your coach is external to your organisation. An external coach typically works in a number of organisations and is exposed to multiple leadership styles