Independent ThinkerThis year, I decided to make a big career change. After spending nearly 30 years in marketing, advertising, digital media and technology, I made the move to join a consulting firm to become an executive and leadership “coach.” After two years of writing Grace Meets Grit, and talking to so many women, I felt it was time to give back and do something really meaningful that could make a significant difference to individuals.

The whole idea of becoming a “coach” felt a little weird at first. But, you see, women are more often mentored, not sponsored. This is a big problem. In order to achieve the most senior leadership positions, women need sponsorship. Part of the executive coaching process is gaining alignment and sponsorship from the executive’s manager. It is a form of sponsorship.

Why do we call it coaching? It’s not that I think coaching is a negative concept. In fact, a coach is, after all, an advocate, someone who provides honest feedback, and helps you to improve over time. The negative for me is that coach seems to perpetuate the male language that I hear so often in the office environment. And, any of you who know me well know that language matters to me, and frankly, I’m tired of it.

Regardless, whether its “coaching” or not, leadership development is really important, because leadership effectiveness is so critical for leaders and their organizations. Sadly, recent studies have shown that less than one percent of employees believe their leaders are inspiring. Less than one percent! Coaching can help leaders to be more inspiring – as well as effective.

First, what is it? Leadership development is, more than anything, a partnership – the coach and the executive, manager, or individual who has agreed to be coached, work together in an effort to bring about sustained behavior change with the goal of transforming the quality of the leader’s working and personal life. The integration between profession and personal life is also critical, for both women and men leaders today. Fueled by technology, life is integrated, more than ever before.

According to the Executive Coaching Handbook executive coaching is defined as:

“…an experiential and individualized leader development process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short- and long-term organizational goals. It is conducted through one-on-one and/or group interactions, driven by data from multiple perspectives, and based on mutual trust and respect. The organization, an executive, and the executive coach work in partnership to achieve maximum impact.”

The impact of executive coaching goes far beyond benefiting the leader. By improving leaders, the entire organization will benefit and enhance the performance of the leaders’ followers thus driving organizational performance.

Leadership effectiveness matters today when the pace of business has reached almost extreme levels. Early in my career, we completed five-year or 10-year strategic plans. Can you even imagine doing a 10-year plan today? When I worked at Twitter, or helped clients to develop marketing plans while I was the CEO at Performics, we were lucky to develop even a three-year plan with 12-month tactical plans. In reality, even the 12-month plan was in constant flux based on changing competitive or market situations.

Early in my career, the transactional-style of leadership was more of the norm, but I didn’t work for just any company. Transactional leadership is command and control based and there is more of a focus on hierarchy. I grew up in Hewlett-Packard where the HP Way led the charge in setting the stage for popularity around transformational leadership. Without realizing it, I became a transformational leader and this has positively effected my leadership skills for my entire career.

Today, the transactional style of leadership is gradually giving way to the transformational approach because organizations are seeking leaner, flatter structures that require leaders and followers to be good at networking, improved communications and even virtual organizations. These all mean that leaders must have excellent interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Being in tune with followers is key because fast changes mean the entire organizations need to shift on the fly.

A metaphor that works best for me when thinking about how organizations must behave in today’s fast-paced world, is a murmuration. Though you may not have heard of it, you probably have seen it. A murmuration is when thousands of birds gather in a flock and create a dazzling cloud, swirling, pulsating movement where the birds stay amazingly close to one another in each and every movement.

Murmurations are a good likeness for todays’ flatter organization because rarely does a single individual lead a murmuration. Perhaps even more interesting, is that the flock cannot be divided into independent subparts. When one bird changes direction or speed, each of the other birds in the flock responds to the change, and they do so nearly simultaneously regardless of the size of the flock. Researchers describe this behavior as a high signal-to-noise ratio. The scale-free correlation allows them to greatly enhance what scientists call “effective perceptive range,” which is another way of saying that a bird on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock. This is a huge benefit, obviously, for predator situations. Imagine what organizations could accomplish if they could adopt this approach to communications.

A 2013 study conducted by George Young at Princeton determined that starlings, a bird that consistently performs murmurations in large flocks, regularly coordinate their movements with the seven nearest neighbors. Translated into organizational dynamics, it’s easy to understand how difficult this is to actually pull off. Remember playing the game of telephone? The message loses information very quickly – well before reaching seven individuals. Organizations seeking to move quickly and seamlessly in today’s fast-moving environment, must be able to transmit communication seamlessly and effortlessly. Being in tune with the “flock” is vital. Leadership development can help leaders to become better communicators, and this can help their organization to be more adaptable and responsive.

As a CEO, I found the role often to be especially lonely at the top. I had close relationships to my direct reports and even individuals throughout the organization, but I also recognized the importance of being careful about where to draw the line. Despite the fact that I had a transparent, authentic leadership style, I was very aware that I needed to be careful about what and when to share. Having someone to confide in was more important than ever before. “Coaching” can be really valuable for leaders who are constantly seeking to maintain this balance.

A number of studies are beginning to prove the financial impact of leadership coaching as well. In 2011, Bersin and Associates found that businesses that invest in leadership development enjoy improved business growth, bench strength and employee retention.

Since 2005, the publication Chief Executive has been releasing it’s “Best Companies for Leaders,” a list of corporations considered to be the best when it comes to leadership development. Through the ongoing performance tracking associated with this list, it found that the best companies for leaders generate dramatically greater market value over time than the weakest companies for leadership development. It also found that leading public company’s CEO’s commit a higher priority to leadership development in spite of the added burden of more complex and distracting environments with added pressures for short-term financial results. Finally, smaller and private company CEO’s spend more of their personal time (25% versus 15%) on both development others as well as developing themselves.

Companies were scored on four criteria, including:

  1. Having a formal leadership process in place;
  2. The commitment level of the CEO, measured by the time and quality of involvement with the leadership process and development program;
  3. The depth of the leadership funnel as measured by the percentage of senior management positions filled by internal candidates as well as the percentage of middle management positions filled by internal candidates; and
  4. The number of other companies that report recruiting from the company being evaluated.

The important take-away is that, in order to be effective and achieve results, leaders must coordinate the efforts of others. Leaders can craft the vision, set the strategy and even direct efforts, but getting the work done effectively and sustainably through others requires relationship-building, communication, and people leadership skills. Leadership development through executive coaching can help leaders increase productivity, build organizational capabilities, stay focused, meet objectives, and improve working relationships – leading to enhanced job satisfaction, less conflict and increased organizational commitment for themselves and their teams.

Perhaps one of the most compelling indicators is the time, effort and money that private equity firms invest into leadership development for their portfolio companies. We all know that the private equity business is as much about driving efficiency and ROI, and if they understand the incremental performance difference that effective leadership provides, then all companies should all take notice.

The compelling argument for me to become a leadership development expert was also about how important this is to closing the leadership gap for women. While men and women are fairly equally represented at the entry level and first-line manager roles, the gap widens at the career progresses. The gap is fairly consistent around the world, and despite all of the bias training, is not improving. I believe it can make a difference, yet sadly I have the opportunity to coach very few women today because they simply are not sitting at the executive level within organizations.

I feel now, more than ever, is a time to focus on women in leadership and “coaching” can play a big part in this. I also feel that as a woman who has climbed the corporate ladder to the top, I can provide unique insight and support that others who are only experts in organizational development might not be able to. So, I set out in search of someone who might be able to provide me with guidance and support in learning the OD trade. This is when I met Dell Larcen the CEO of Larcen Consulting.

Dell has operated her own organizational development firm and successfully coached leaders in private and public companies for over 20 years. More importantly, she ran her own company, as CEO, for 25 years before that. Perhaps, it is because of this personal, hands-on business experience, she demands each of the consultants in her firm to have real-world experience. Dell is my own leadership “guide” in my journey to provide it to others. Women need leadership guides, now more than ever.

Leadership “guiding” is a great tool that helps women learn how to activate their own leadership super powers, but at the same time, helps them to understand how to do so in the environment where the male standard of leadership reins. We are now working with a number of women at various levels to guide them through critical leadership behaviors, such as drive and ambition, confidence, power, resilience, inspiration and motivation and staying centered in life.

A number of companies are beginning to understand that proactively identifying women in entry to mid-level management roles can help to accelerate them as leaders through the structured support offered by executive guidance. Guiding women sooner rather than later in their careers can help retain these valuable resources and optimize their unique talents and obtain valuable sponsorship. They also recognize that women more naturally apply transformational leadership behaviors and so they get the added benefit of having this progressive leadership style employed in their organization. Finally, working with women on how to create a centered life, assert themselves, and build on successes adds dimension to decision-making and can help companies to realize the competitive advantages offered by women in senior roles.

Developing women leaders is a smart investment that will pay off for years to come.