How Executive Coaching Responded to COVID-19

How Executive Coaching Responded to COVID-19

By | July 9, 2021

A Panel of Industry Experts Took Time to Reflect at the Annual Society of Consulting Psychology Conference

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to stand still, but that doesn’t mean rapid changes weren’t happening at the same time. Leaders and their employees have been tasked with unforeseen challenges during these times. From extreme changes in workflow, communicating in new ways with varying employee and client needs in mind, and adapting to constantly uncertain, unstable economies, leaders have had their work cut out for them.

With no figurative book that tells you how to manage a business during a global pandemic, AIIR has spearheaded the evolution of executive coaching as we transition into whatever the “new normal” will be. Dr. Jonathan Kirschner led a panel earlier this year taking a retrospective look at Executive Coaching’s response to COVID-19. In that panel, he was joined with Dropbox’s Senior Manager of Executive Development, Reese Haydon, MS, Cisco’s Senior Leadership Consultant Hannah Murphy, Ph.D., and AIIR Consulting Executive Coach and Managing Director and Principal at Meridian Consulting, Xavier Hernandez, Ph.D.

The invigorating discussion brought light to the realities of what leadership needs in a world healing from a pandemic and how coaching lends itself to that growth, progression, and innovation.

While AIIR Consulting has the trademark on Coaching in the Cloud®, the company prides itself on its people-centric, in-person culture. “It was a pretty drastic shock to our system when we had to all go home,” Kirschner says in the opening moments of the panel. “We’d never experienced an economy that freezes before. It was quite scary as a business owner,” he added. It’s scary for everyone. It’s in scary times like these that leaders have to show what they’re made of.

It’s always important to be making meaning. In some ways, you could argue, that’s what leaders do. They’re meaning makers.

Hernandez attested to that. After the initial blow, he said, what we started to see was this kind of loss of security from leaders. “How do I meet with my team? How do I get my work done?” 

Some teams couldn’t meet and get work done. Some were forced to lay off their employees because the industry stopped. Haydon was grateful, “One of our company values is to make work human, and I think that value got the spotlight in 2020 more than any other value.”

Dropbox’s business could function in this environment. Their product is “designed for working across time and space, but we made a commitment to our employees that we wouldn’t [lay them off]—we’d protect them and their jobs,” said Haydon.

Coaching and executive development can no longer be separate. They have to be together. DEI and executive development need to be the same thing or else we’re not doing our jobs.

But, not every company or organization can adapt as soundly to a global pandemic. What adjustments needed to be made had to happen fast. And while they were drastic, that didn’t give leaders leeway to make these adjustments post haste and abandon human values. “I remember getting goosebumps at how our leadership team went from being on board meetings and focusing on the business strategy to carving out this new piece of time weekly to provide a safe space for the entire company,” Murphy said. Inviting medical and health experts to their space, the company got to talk about more than just the business. It was the perfect opportunity to, as Murphy put it, “stop and pause and say we’re all humans here navigating a global pandemic. How can we support you?”

Leadership is not just a thing that just exists within the hierarchy. It hasn’t been for awhile, but now I see that more than ever where based on those strengths and pointing to strengths, team members are all of a sudden stepping into a leadership position.

This is the key shift in Executive Coaching during COVID-19. For AIIR, Kirschner noted it was about protecting the balance sheet by getting lean and conservative but also being mindful of what employees’ needs were to better manage polarity. “We identified three specific crisis competencies: be real, be strong, and be kind.” This involved allowing space for leaders to reveal their true authentic selves and showing vulnerability as a strength, communicating with higher frequency with employees, integrating empathy and compassion into short-term and long-term business strategies, and introducing health and wellness as vital pieces to coaching philosophies and practices.

Hernandez encourages leaders to look inward as a means to stay grounded in such unstable, unpredictable times. “How do I support myself and what does this mean for me?” This kind of thought can be fundamental in seeding resilience in leadership.

What is the future that we want to create? The future of work we want to create for our people? I do believe that the world is getting a little bit flatter and I do believe that this is going to be a lot of the new normal.

Resilience is necessary when it comes to tackling unknowns—it’s more than just working from a distance because of COVID-19. In many places around the world, the pandemic elevated social justice issues in a major way. Murphy emphasized “the need for a conscious culture, the need for looking at the whole person, and getting back to the fundamentals of leadership so that our leaders are able to navigate.”

This includes understanding the mental health of yourself as a leader but also the health of employees. Leaders must be aware of how social justice issues impact employees on emotional levels, navigating conversations around potential polarizing human and political issues, and maintaining accountable, inclusive, and safe spaces. “There’s a new expectation of how you’re going to lead them effectively that has a lot of empathy and grace with it as well as courage,” Murphy added. “The courage to speak up when the inclusive environment is there because inclusivity is actually part of our technology: connecting the world through the internet.”

Leadership has to change in these times, but perhaps leadership has long needed a change. The pandemic has accelerated that by slowing us down, and now is the opportunity for leaders to step up and launch a new wave of philosophies and practices that enable flexibility, adaptability, inclusivity, and empathy in the workspace.

There’s so much more in the on-demand recording. This panel had a deep, thoughtful discussion that included audience participation and reflection on an unprecedented time in talent development. Watch the complete on-demand version now.

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