April 26th, 2011 | 6:00 am

Inside Executive Coaching: Why It Matters for Women

filed under Industry Leaders

iStock_000007040467XSmallBy Kelly Tanner (New York City)

Executive coaching can be an effective tool for women looking to advance their careers, one that businesses can leverage as an investment in developing leaders.

Dale Kurow, an executive coach based in New York City, says clients seek her services for a variety of reasons. Some are looking to develop stronger skills politically due to a recent promotion, or to quickly strategize for a new, “stretch” assignment. Others are looking for fresh ways to resolve a problem, such as behavior patterns that hinder promotion or recognition, managerial difficulties, or a communication “style” that needs development, which Kurow says is often code for “a need to increase sensitivity towards others, or improve emotional intelligence.”

Still others seek coaching with a longer view, to achieve goals within their career path and reach the next level in their journey. Employers may refer an employee to an executive coach for these same reasons, or clients may find a coach independently. In each case, the coach partners with the client to objectively identify strengths and challenges, and becomes a strategic resource towards achieving the set objectives.

Kurow states that women may especially benefit from this partnership:

“Many of my female clients hire me to help them get to the next level. They lack the skill sets and mind sets that men seem to have been born with. Some feel that working as hard as you can should set them up for promotion, without realizing that managing up, across and down effectively is crucial. Just as important is building political skills and developing champions/mentors across their organizations. In our coaching sessions, we work on what they can do, specifically, to build those relationships and raise their profile.”

Choosing a Coach

Many women may initially approach the idea of executive coaching with suspicion or concern. They may mistakenly assume that coaching is synonymous with therapy, or see a referral to coaching as a form of punishment. Asking good questions will allow someone seeking a coach to get a better idea of what to expect. They can and should get a clear idea of how to begin the process, and discuss what they would like to get from their coaching experience.

Kurow recommends speaking to at least three coaches to get a sense of different approaches and styles, until there is a connection, a sense that the coach “gets” the client. The coach’s personal background and experience is also a consideration. Kurow’s own background working her way up the ladder in the corporate world has allowed her to identify challenges facing those looking to do the same:

“My background in HR and recruiting play an important role in my approach to coaching. In my case, when a client talks about wanting to get promoted and why they feel that hasn’t happened, I listen intently for what I call ‘victimhood.’ Current and future employers are interested in success stories and how you overcame the odds. They are interested in what you can do for them. Any vestiges of blaming or offering excuses are not going to get the client the job or promotion. I apply that filter when I coach as a direct result of my hiring and HR experience.”

It is not necessary, however, for the coach to have an identical background to those he or she is coaching, since coaching is more goal-focused than centered around specific technical expertise.

What Women Can Get from Coaching

Developing a career plan for achievement with an executive coach may be the catalyst in navigating within a business world in which the cards are seemingly stacked against female talent. Says Kurow:

“Discrimination against women in the workplace exists. Men work and play together in environments (cigar bars, golf courses, private clubs, etc.) with an implicit understanding that women are not welcomed. Even if women do join a men’s club, they are marginalized or viewed less seriously than men. Off color jokes and sexual innuendo are still rife especially in male dominated cultures (finance and politics, for example). Men are compensated more generously than women in similar positions, and women move up the ladder more slowly. These factors are real and make a women’s climb to the next level steep and less hospitable.”

A skilled executive coach can act as a Sherpa on this climb, by working with the client to arm them with communication skills, developing strategies for dealing with office politics, and leveraging networking ability and workplace relationships for advancement.

Businesses seeking to develop their female talent to maximize potential future leaders can see a great return on investment when referring women to executive coaching. Kurow suggests that many corporations could do more internally to groom and retain promising female staff:

“Corporations could foster mentoring programs in profit making departments (sales, marketing, etc.) and provide training and support at crucial points throughout the experience. Support, via a committed training/mentoring partner, would provide a roadmap should questions and/or overwhelm occur. Rather than shuttling women off to staff support positions in HR or finance, providing exposure to line jobs would give women the opportunity to prove themselves ready for C-level positions.”

The cost of executive coaching for skilled managerial staff can be easily justified as a strategic investment when it results in lower turnover costs and higher retention of top employees. Facilitating skills that allow women to advance contributes to an inclusive and diverse workplace, strengthening the overall organization by developing a multifaceted set of ideas and perspectives.

3 comments

  1. Henna Inam

    I agree with many of Dale Kurow’s comments about the importance of Executive Coaching for women who are climbing the corporate ladder.

    In my Exec Coaching practice (my focus is 100% on women leaders) I find that while women may have similar goals as men to succeed, how they choose to get there is different. Their gender roles (primary caregivers to kids and parents) require more of a “corporate lattice” than a corporate ladder (to quote the book The Corporate Lattice). In addition the ranking of motivators are different for women vs. men. Women also bring unique advantages in their leadership styles that can and must be fully leveraged in their workplaces.

    It’s working with those advantages that my clients and I find really fun!

  2. Rania Anderson

    I also find that many women entrepreneurs seek executive business coaching to help them expand the leadership and business knowledge they need to grow their business. Most business owners (male and female) benefit from having a business coach as a thought partner, sounding board and coach. This person serves a different role than mentors, networks or friends.

  3. Bonnie Mincu

    Very insightful of Dale to point out how presenting a picture of “victimhood” can hurt a woman (or anyone!) in the workplace. It often takes a good coach to help a business person hear themselves the way others may hear them, so they can present their employment history in a positive light and not sound like whiners.

    A highly experienced executive coach can make all the difference in helping to nail a job interview or promotion.