Executive Coaching Is Not Just About What Happens In The Office

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I’ve been working with C-suite executives for over 10 years as an Executive Coach, and find our conversations to be incredibly rewarding and intellectually stimulating. I describe my coaching style as a hybrid approach – combining the richness of inquiry-based traditional coaching with the sharing of technical knowledge in brain-based tools and techniques that my clients can use to accelerate their success in key leadership areas like leading change, managing conflict, influencing and motivating others, and inspiring innovation.

While many of my clients are highly successful in developing their leadership style and using new brain-based tools and approaches, I find some of the leaders most in need of change struggle with adopting new habits that will lead to better outcomes. Recently, I reflected on why this is and what I could do differently to help those who struggle the most with personal change.

I came to realize that the answer to my question lies in removing a personal bias about discussing the physical health and personal habits of my Executive clients. Let me explain through a client story:

“John” is a Senior Vice President of a Fortune 100 company. His primary goal for executive coaching is to adapt his communication style and to increase his influence and ability to motivate and inspire others, so they can increase their performance. His role is extremely demanding, and the pressure to produce business results drives him to focus heavily on task performance.

His strength of being able to focus and drive results creates a blind spot for him in terms of the much needed focus on relationships and the emotional state of his team. Prior coaching strategies focused on reframing John’s vision of himself as a leader and internalizing the importance of balancing his focus on both the task and the people aspects of his role, as well as intentionally practicing new communication techniques and behaviors that enhance positive emotion and trust with others.

In the first two months of coaching, John made considerable progress in being mindful of the need to balance task and people concerns, and started using different communication techniques to improve relationships and morale.

As long as John was working in a stable state of business operations, he was able to practice the new leadership focus and motivational communication style. But as soon as an unexpected high stress event disrupted the normal state, he reverted back to his excessive focus on task results and abrasive communication.

Up to this point, I shied away from discussing physical health with my clients – partly because I felt it may seem demeaning to discuss “common sense” knowledge around the importance of diet, exercise and sleep with highly educated professionals, and partly because I felt it may be inappropriate to discuss their personal habits outside of work. My desire to provide holistic brain-based coaching, as well as reflecting on my own biases, helped me realize I was missing a key ingredient for some clients who were struggling with change.

I decided to suggest adding a focus on brain health to the existing strategies John was employing. We discussed the BrainFirst® seven habits of brain health and performance - consistently getting high quality sleep, regular movement and physical activity, consuming high quality nutritious food, and ensuring we get enough social time, down time, focus time, and challenge time - and we realized that John had several habits that were not optimizing his brain’s performance:

  • He generally slept only four to five hours per night
  • He rarely ate lunch, instead, opting for a quick snack from a vending machine
  • His heavy focus on work meant that he worked most weekends, and as a result, his focus time and challenge time were overly emphasized and he was barely getting any down time or social time - much to the detriment of his marriage and his ability to separate from work and gain perspective and new insights for the challenges he faced
  • He also spent most of his day at his office desk, as many of his meetings occurred in his executive suite

To structure our coaching around a ‘Brain First’ protocol, we first discussed the biggest energy drains he was experiencing. He decided to take the first step of eliminating vending machine food from his diet, and instead, asked his assistant to order a healthy lunch for him every day.

Structuring our coaching around a ‘Brain First’ protocol meant eliminating the biggest energy drains first

He also realized that by having people regularly come to his office for meetings, he was not only establishing a ‘power model’ that did not support his goal of adopting a relationship-centered leadership style, but it also kept him from moving around during the day. He started scheduling meetings at the office locations of his team, and since his team were spread across various buildings on their campus, this change meant that he would have to walk to get to meetings.

It also meant that he would have a 3-5 minute transition time in between meetings while walking. He agreed to use that time to reflect on his physical well-being and priorities in between meetings.

Lastly, he committed to himself and to his wife to schedule one social event every other weekend with either family or friends, or a date night with just his wife.

As a result of these three changes he felt an immediate reduction in stress, and found his patience and ability to intentionally use the more relational communication techniques he wanted to adopt much easier. He felt better physically, and reported feeling an increase in positive emotion and felt more attuned to his mental focus. He also reported an increased ability to think strategically and facilitate innovative solutions with his team, and a much happier home life!

I learned two powerful lessons through this experience:

1. Reflecting on our work and identifying the biases we bring to coaching can have a momentous effect on our success as coaches. For example, by acknowledging my own bias toward not discussing the physical health and personal habits of my clients led me to rejecting this bias entirely and therefore change my approach, which brought a huge benefit to my client.

2. Executive coaching isn’t just about what happens in the office. Truly holistic brain-based coaching includes our clients’ personal habits, particularly the ones that may impact their brain health and therefore their overall performance.

I now regularly include discussions on physical health and personal habits to ensure all my clients maximize their brain health for self-directed success and personal development – inside and outside of their offices!

 About The Author

Jeanne Oliver, MBA, PCC is a Certified Leadership Coach and Performance Consultant, and founder of Leadership & Life Strategies, Inc. Jeanne has an MBA in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management and Certification in Applied Neuroscience from BrainFirst® Training Institute, and is a Certified Professional Coach through the International Coaching Federation. Her expertise is in designing and conducting brain-based programs for improved leadership, personal effectiveness and team performance. She has over 27 years of experience in leadership roles and brings in-depth knowledge of what makes an effective leader and how to build high-performing teams.