Where there is life, there has to be room for improvement - Sadhana Somasekhar on CXO coaching

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 12, 2018 12:25 hrs
Sadhana Somasekhar, CXO and Executive Coach

Even leaders need coaching. Being assigned a CXO coach is fast becoming a de facto and an indication of the value of the leader, as Sadhana Somasekhar puts it, in the US and other developed economies. 

Sadhana would know. She herself is a busy CXO/Executive coach.

"Coaching is not a profession for me in the limited definition of the word; it's a passion. I was told there was no winning for the coach. But there is! I win each time my leader/'coachee' wins. We team to win. It's wonderful. And, there's a double whammy - for when the win happens, it's something that multiplies, benefits everybody. A tangible impact!" she tells R Rajesh Kumar in an interview, where she also shares her views on the essential traits every good leader must have, leadership in the age of technology, the state of women in corporate boardrooms and much more.


You have a rather interesting designation - that of a CXO coach. How did you step into this role?

My first exposure to executive coaching was initially at a NASSCOM conference. As part of the National Council for NASSCOM's Diversity and Inclusion initiative, and as its chairperson (in Tamil Nadu) at that juncture, I met senior executive coaches on occasion. Coaching was still an unfamiliar/uncommon concept to corporate India then.

I was fascinated with the intent, process, and conscious of how powerfully transformative such an engagement would be! Especially to the larger picture of corporate excellence - one that could be achieved through coaching.

It was after I went through Executive/Leadership Coaching myself, and the tremendous impact and change it brought about in me, that I became a 'believer'. I also realised this was what I wanted to do going forward. I wanted to Coach!

I went on pursue the interest with singular focus and affirmatively, going through the rigorous training and study that qualified/certified and equipped me to become a professional coach. I deliberately use the term 'affirmatively', as it involved stepping out of my then corporate role and career, which was at its zenith, with great returns etc., etc.

I stepped out of my 'comfort zone', transitioning completely over the past eight years, from a highly successful albeit, stereotypical corporate leader to a Leadership/Executive Coach.

Did the prospect of being relegated to the role of back-stage player ever worry you? What drove you in spite of this?

As one of my early coaching mentors had to say, to be a good coach, one has to step out of the direct limelight and move away from the awards and recognition for oneself. When victories come, they will always be hidden ones for the coach, with the leaders who have been coached in the limelight and centre-stage!

I was ready for this, despite there being those who expressed their doubts on my decision to 'exit', considering most people take up coaching when nearing, often after, retirement.

I have almost 28 years in frontline business and strategy - primarily P&L (Profit and Loss) responsibilities at the core. Although I have never been formally responsible for HR/L&D (Learning and Development) or other such 'people functions', I've always been proactively involved in, and been a fan of personal and people development in the workplace and beyond.

As someone who has only ever worked in and been accountable within environments where performance is critical and absolute, I was, and continue to be, convinced that skills such as emotional intelligence, managing/changing (our own) behaviour, resilience and the ability to sustain performance are essential constituents of the package of skills that everybody needs. If you ask me, it should be on the curriculum for everyone, especially those with high potential.

The idea that you can develop yourself and your career by leveraging your strengths, developing or improving emotional intelligence, and modifying behaviour to ones that gain you more leverage, is a potent one. So, it's regrettable that people are not assisted/coached in this area earlier in life, and that such skills are often overlooked until the need for them becomes critical and 'needed'.

This was what drove me.

What about the skills that you believed you brought to this challenging job? Also, how is it being a woman in this role?

Looking inward, I realised I had the basic ingredients to becoming a "skilled helper", namely

1. The attitude and passion to help leaders move forward.

2. The experience from almost three decades in top management & leadership, & frontline business - building and running  them and functioning in boardrooms

3. Formal training in executive coaching.

As a practising coach, with engagements across geographies, gender has not been a factor nor a consideration, both as a coach and with respect to the leaders whom I coach. There have been exceptions to the norm, and primarily from a point of personal preference and engagement comfort, where the 'coachees' were women and requested for a woman as the coach.

What I do know/have realised today is that it's not even just about the technique or your gender or your history - it's the ability of the coach to inspire and engage, which becomes the crux of the relationship and it's success...

The rest then just falls in place. That's when the passion for progress, improvement (self and others) and transformation becomes innate in the coachee and the pull-factor to the relationship!

Going by your experience, what would you list as the essential support an executive coach should have? Any traits you insist on in the leaders whom you coach?

The coaching journey is about moving from the "Good to Great". I'm selective and rather discerning about where and who I engage with in my client relationships. In that, it cannot be for the sake of "process" or just a check-list action item at the level of the Organization.

The system has to support the 'coachee' in the aftermath of the change. There has to be a roadmap when application and progress are possible and clear. Else, however successful the engagement, an unclear future will only result in frustration, disengagement and probably even relapse to old, unproductive behaviours.

By the same token, even if the intent and plans are clear at the level of the Organisation, coaching cannot/will not work if we are dealing with non-believers.

The three basic tenets expected of the leader being coached are "courage, humility and discipline". I ascertain acceptance and commitment to these tenets before proceeding.

What about the organisations? How do businesses approach Executive Coaching?

Businesses largely seem to think of Executive Coaching as a perquisite only for leaders, and even then, something significant has to happen before the decision is made to invest in leadership and personal development, for example, coaching for business transformation. But today, business transformation is not a project - it's an ongoing reality.

The more senior you are, the lonelier you and your job can get. The purpose of Executive Coaching is to facilitate the continual development (transformation) of a person, both as an individual and a leader. When it comes to qualities in the coach, it can be invaluable for the subject to have someone with whom he/she can share ideas and fears, but who is independent and able to listen to thoughts and feelings with objectivity, without prejudice and most importantly, with "empathy".

I strongly subscribe to the fact that coaching is domain agnostic but not role/position agnostic. If the coach has not been-there-done-that, in relevance to the person who is being coached, there cannot be empathy. This is akin to a trainer who can teach but has not applied. Then it becomes sympathy. That is a big and important difference.

Like I mentioned earlier, coaches are "skilled helpers". 

I feel there is always a clear need for skilled helpers and leaders who have "been there, done that", to share their knowledge and experience in a scientific yet uniquely human manner of engagement. 

CXO coaching is just taking hold in India. How do leaders here approach it as opposed to those in the West?

In countries like ours where executive/leadership coaching is still a relatively new concept, there is considerable confusion and a lot of misconception.

When coaching is proposed, it's often perceived by the incumbent (and often even by those externally) as some sort of warning signal, or negative message alluding to poor performance, etc. This is diametrically opposite to how it is viewed, and exercised in countries like the US and UK, where CXOs are afforded/aligned to a coach almost as automatically as the other very exclusive leadership "perks" provide to them - it's viewed as a message that says "you have arrived"!

Having said this, it's also true that these misconceptions/fears are not without background. Years ago, companies hired executive coaches to come in and fix broken executives. Nowadays, most companies hire executive coaches as a strategy to invest in their top executives and those with high potential, for enhanced growth and development.

To reiterate, there is no longer a stigma attached to being proposed for coaching, or to have a coach; to the the contrary, it is viewed as a status symbol.

While executives can hire their own coach (usually CEOs or business owners), it's more common for companies (often HR/L&D) to recommend a coach to an executive as a part of an executive development program. The leader/coachee could be newly promoted (transition coaching), be facing a number of challenges (usually involving people relationships), or may be being groomed for larger roles.

And yes, coaches are still hired to correct behavioral problems and help leaders resolve interpersonal conflicts.

What about the arrival of technology - of Big Data and AI? Has it impacted leadership and also the executive coach's role?

In an uncertain, fast-changing and demanding VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, we're all just human. Ironically that is one aspect that has barely changed (externally) over centuries, ever since the first Homo Sapiens took a 'stand', so to speak (!)

If coaching can improve the behaviour, performance and adaptability of individuals at the top of an organisation, it can improve the performance and adaptability of the whole organisation. At an even broader level, it impacts society/the human species through the eco-system within which the individual and the organisation functions. Today, the planet is our workplace, thus the implication and possibilities that positive change can evoke, are limitless. The process however is not one time. It has to be ongoing/continual. With realisation, the 'coachee' then becomes a 'self-coach', and organisations they lead, develop a coaching culture.

That said, there is much to say about the value of coaching/working with a coach, especially in a highly transformational era when almost everything that can be automated or put into an algorithm is fast replacing the human. It's the age of Big Data and AI, in that specific order. No data, there's no AI.

Likewise, if there is no human, there is really no scope for any of this. We're on a trajectory path to where the single most defining attribute of success and differentiation will come from the leverage of all those aspects of us that are intrinsically, undeniably, 'uncode-ably' human, like emotions, creativity, empathy,  etc. - the affirmative and high development of the limbic brain vs. the reptilian.

There are some truths we need to understand:

1. People are complex. Seniors entering into a new organisation are expected to have a certain level of capability from day one, yet few candidates embark on a new role with 100% capability to do the job in today's world.

2. The leadership challenges faced by most businesses today require such a broad range of technical skills, experience and emotional awareness that few candidates tick all of the boxes anyway.

3. Human factors such as self-belief and/or resilience, EQ/EI (Emotional Quotient/Emotional Intelligence), have a big part to play and can account for a large percentage of the all-important cultural and emotional fit between candidate and role.

As an alumni of Marshall Goldsmith Coaching, and in the age of exploding and imploding tech advancements, there are five non-negotiable requirements for me for any 'Global Leader of the future'. These are all focus areas in my engagements, apart from behaviour.

These Big 5 are namely, being technologically savvy, have/develop the ability to share leadership, capability to build partnerships, an attitude that embraces diversity and a global outlook/mindset. Research has confirmed the criticality of these five focus areas, not just for the here-and-now but to succeed and thrive in the hi-tech future of man and machine!

Turning the focus specifically to CEOs, some come from business families while others are trained leaders. What are the advantages in each instance? Any insights you would like to share?

CEOs/leaders that come from family-owned or entrepreneurial or originally proprietary businesses, according to me, and very simply put, are more subjects of inheritance. The 'heir apparent' is groomed, tutored, conditioned and equipped to take on the mantle at some point. In recent times, and more uniquely to India, family-business coaching has garnered a lot of interest and positive acclaim.

However, the approach, skills and even the attitude of such coaches are quite distinct and different from coaches in the 'corporate' environment. The exceptions to this being family businesses that have evolved into large/listed corporations with a 21st century model of leadership, hierarchy, operational model, etc., and where bloodline/lineage may not be the deciding factor in succession planning.

A very strange but pertinent observation that I have to offer is the conspicuous/striking vacuum in the leadership pipeline emerging from within the families of 'trained' or rather 'established/recognised' corporate leaders. By the very definition, 'leaders' are expected to be inspirational by default; they are expected to be 'change agents', and motivators. If this is the expectation and even the experience at the level of the Organization and externally, why has it not created potential future leaders from within the ambit of home and hearth? Food for thought and action, in my opinion. And, maybe an action item for addressing the current woes with respect to the quality of our dwindling leadership pool and dearth of potential. Also, an opportunity to 'revisit' home and personal life!

We haven't had a perfect leader yet. But if you could build the ideal, what are the qualities you would insist on?

The description of 'leadership' cannot bracketed within a closed group of adjectives. Leadership is a 'composite' of several attributes and it's not possible for any one human being to have all attributes, at the same time and at the same level of effectiveness/efficiency. I believe that the 'ideal' kind of leadership is one that is primarily and consistently inspirational, situational in other ways, and most definitely,  one that's essentially and powerfully human.

Having said that, there are many non-traditional qualities from a behavioural aspect that are now being called for and leveraged with tremendous impact - qualities like vulnerability, humility, the ability to 'ask' versus 'tell', to show-how versus know-how, empathy, emotional intelligence... are some examples. With the five 'corporate' skills mentioned earlier thrown into the mix, one could safely say that this is one recipe for an 'ideal' leader!

I'd like to conclude with a personal belief. Where there is 'life', there is always room for improvement. If it's perfect, there is no scope for improvement. If there is no improvement, there is NO evolution.

Not to sound morbid, but then, I might as well be not alive!

Finally, you are part of the NASSCOM National Council for Diversity and Inclusion. How has the progress been? Are women getting a better deal at work in India in a year when the number of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies in the world has shrunk by 25% - to just 24?

We have gone a long way with respect to the inclusion of women in the general workforce, entry and mid-level. But we are still 'stuck' in the very nascent stages of  inclusion in leadership and empowerment.

The first level 'inclusion' consciousness is what's primarily the focus in India. Having women in leadership here is still in the "discussion" and aspiration phase. In contrast, the US and other developed economies have gone past the discussion stage. They have women in the board room now, even if the percentages are still skewed. They are now at a stage when the 'next' step is the challenge. I strongly believe we don't have to reinvent the wheel but replicate, albeit smartly and thereby accelerate the application of change.

Although there are more women in leadership positions and on boards now, in India and elsewhere compared to 10 years ago, very few have been promoted to a post that would give them influence beyond their "seat at the table".

It's an evolutionary process, literally, when it comes to women in leadership. A lot of the stages apply to men as well, but the loops are fewer and transitions faster/quick.

For organisations and even for aspiring women individually, the first stage or challenge is the breaking-in part - of getting into management roles and boards. This is a long-term process needing preparation and involving upbringing, ambition, aspiration, capability, advocacy and personality, etc., to name a few of the contributing factors and essentials. Then, there is the critical mass part of getting more than one woman on each board. Finally, there is the influence part of getting women into leadership positions where the real power resides.

In my opinion, D&I should transition to Diversity & Influence. 'Inclusion' has to become the default status! For real, lasting change that wins companies the full benefits of gender-diverse decision-making, boards need to look beyond inclusion and towards influence.

By leadership positions, I do not mean just the position of the chair and lead independent director roles. The real work of boards gets done in committees, and not all committees are created equal. As someone most aptly put it, there is "an unwritten, unstated hierarchy of power". Beyond the board chair and the lead independent director, those chairing Nomination, Audit, C&B (Compensation and Benefits), and Governance committees, hold the real power positions. After these power committees, comes everything else!

Leaders of such positions and committees set the agenda for decision-making, recommend nominations, etc.,  and therefore wield more power than other directors. In the positions generally acknowledged to involve heavier lifting, their power can meaningfully change the course of events.

The story of women on boards is, thus, a mixed one. Yes, the raw numbers have changed substantially over the past decade. But the plateauing and lack of ascension to key leadership board positions once women have taken a seat on the board is limiting their influence and impact. This, in turn, has a negative effect on the prospects for continued growth in female leadership & board participation.

In India, as mentioned earlier, we have gained considerable mileage at the level of 'inclusion' (ground zero). The rest, about when will there be noteworthy change in inclusion in positions of influence and power, is still anyone's guess!

In my opinion, increase in female leadership representation has a direct correlation to having women at the level of the board and power roles; this happens because of exposure to women in different power roles and the example it drives home realistically to the rest - to excel in their own domains and carry the ball!

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