In my career as a coach and leadership assessment specialist, I’ve encountered many under-valued women leaders. People with high potential who just needed a bit of feedback, self-awareness and encouragement to radically transform their satisfaction and effectiveness at work. When I started my coaching practice, I decided to seek out and work with such women as a special area of interest. As a male coach I often got asked why I thought that I could coach women. Why would women work with me rather than a female coach? I needed more than “my intuitive and feeling style resonates more with women” pitch. I decided to research the topic; initially out of curiosity but also in the hope finding useful information to improve my coaching techniques and coaching training.

So, after much talk I started collecting concrete evidence about women’s coaching and development needs in 2015. I wanted to collect qualitative information, personal experiences, views and stories rather than mere ratings on a questionnaire. I also initially only invited people I personally know or met. This slowed the process but ensured the quality of the responses I received. I’ve now reached the 20th participant mark. A relatively small sample in absolute terms, but since the data is mostly qualitative the results are more like 20 interviews than 20 surveys.  The insights were so profound that I decided to start sharing some of the initial themes from the data in a series of blogs. I’ll start with women’s preferences when selecting a coach and then move on to challenges at work, what women see as their biggest development areas and lastly what women most want coaching on.

Regarding coach selection, participants answered three questions: 1) If you had a choice, would you prefer male or female coach?  2) Tell us more about your preference regarding gender. 3) What would be the most important characteristics that you would look for in coach?

The vast majority of women in the survey did not have a gender preference for their coach. Only 1 indicated a preference for a female coach and only one preferred a male coach. The reasons for considering a male coach were that they are perceived to be “more empathetic” towards women and because there will less likely be “professional or gender competitiveness”. The reasons for choosing a female coach included the need to “learn from another women role model”, and the belief that “a women will be more likely to understand my challenges”. There is still too little data on the reasons for choosing male or female coaches but one thing was clear, gender was not an important consideration when choosing coaches. Ok, male coaches are safe!

So, what were the considerations when selecting a coach? Here the focus was not on the coach per se, but the alternatives to gender in the selection of a coach. The number one consideration was the coach’s reputation – his/her knowledge, skill and experience. This included professional knowledge, knowledge of the coachee’s industry and context. Next it was chemistry – that “spark” between two people”, “someone who resonates with me”, or “the ability to build a strong relationship”. More about this later. So, when meeting coaches or when short-listing them, people focus on the obvious thing, their cv and reputation. However once short-listed, rapport is the most important factor when selecting a potential coach.

The next question dealt with what women are looking for in an ideal coach.  Here we get information on what the coach must ideally do in the actual coaching relationship after they’ve been selected.  By far the most important characteristic of a good coach was related to “unconditional acceptance of me as a person”. There was quite a lot tied up in this theme ranging from being able to “put yourself in my shoes”, “focusing on my agenda”, “really understanding me”, “accepting me as a person” and “empathy”.  A very close second place went to active listening skills. As can be expected, this was all about active listening – coachees want to feel heard. This links to the previous requirement of being understood and accepted; how will you understand me if you talk all the time or don’t listen? Only then did knowledge and experience appear on the list of requirements for a coach.  This cluster of requirements included “coaching skills”, “industry experience”, “global experience”, and the ability to “share tips and give advice”. After the first three requirements, the frequency of characteristics drop off significantly – one, perhaps two mentions each. Some worth mentioning included “intuition”, “humour”, “cultural understanding”, “patience” and “being authentic”.

So what does this mean? The initial findings indicate that to be successful coaches should spend less time on super smart answers, models and theories and goals. Instead, they should focus on the coachee and her needs and creating a safe space for self-exploration, discovery and growth. In short, if you’re not able to empathise, identify with people, build rapport and accept them unconditionally, you may find it difficult to build a successful practice in the long term. A good coach will know that this is about more than mere skills. Genuine interest is hard to fake and good listening skills require self-awareness and a well-developed level of emotional intelligence. As coach, your certifications and experience will get you on the short list, but it will be your interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence that will get you hired.

The survey only included women. From the results is not possible to say if men are different from women on these dimensions or if these are requirements of coachees in general. All we can say is that if you want to coach women, the characteristics above will increase your chances of success.

I hope that you found this blog interesting. This is just the beginning of the journey but the results so far are very promising. I need lots more data to truly speak with confidence on the coaching and development needs of women. If you are a woman and if you are willing to contribute to my research, please follow this link (Coaching Survey) to take the survey. The survey takes between 20-30 minutes to complete.

Next time: Am I different? What are the biggest challenges that women face at work?

What Women Want…At Least When It Comes To Their Coaches
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