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  • Richard Spilg

Executive leadership coaching themes for 2020

My unspoken New Year’s resolution was to use the holiday break to either get through the pile of reading I’ve been putting aside all year, or to just bin everything and start all over again. Happily this year’s decision was made a lot easier as a few publications emailed their ‘Best of 2019’ – and some of the themes are consistent with what I experience in my coaching practice.

Freeing up time to become more productive. The first McKinsey article ( deals with how senior executives spend their time and the need for them to free up time to focus on higher level, value-adding tasks. In a recent McKinsey survey, 61 percent of executives said that at least half the time they spent making decisions, much of it surely spent in meetings, was ineffective. So, removing superfluous meetings could be key to an executive’s productivity.

I always encourage clients to use the time in the day when their energy levels are highest to tackle the most mentally challenging tasks. Whether we are a ‘morning bird’ or ‘night owl’, it makes no sense to use our most productive time to do menial administrative tasks.

Managing energy and being an authentic leader. A senior leadership role can be all-consuming, lonely, stressful and exhausting. In its article on mindsets and practices of excellent CEO’s ( McKinsey includes thoughts about managing time and energy and choosing authenticity as a leadership model.

Per McKinsey – “The best leaders teach their office staffs to help manage their energy as thoughtfully as their time, sequencing activities to prevent ‘energy troughs’ and scheduling intervals for recovery practices (for example, time with family and friends, exercise, reading, and spirituality). Doing so ensures that leaders set a pace they can sustain for a marathon-length effort, rather than burn out by sprinting over and over.”

There are well documented styles of leadership and the fact that effective leaders are able to bring most of those styles to bear at the appropriate time. However, if their behaviour comes across as less than authentic, they will fail to get the desired response – “…exemplary leaders combine the reality of what they ought to do in the role with who they are as human beings.”

The challenges of agile. A few of the organisations I work with have embraced agile and, where those organisations have previously operated in a very traditional way, the change to agile is not easy. One of the issues I come across is the need for senior leaders to adapt their mind-sets and behaviours – being part of a ‘tribe’ and having to move between ‘agile cells’ is a very different experience from exercising authority by virtue of seniority. Another is making sure that trust is developed and values agreed by team members where there is a high level of inter-dependency – especially when those teams can comprise members from four different generations!

The McKinsey article ( provides a guide to the ‘journey to agile’ and, in the context of ‘people’ and ‘processes’, includes the following high-level pointers:

Leadership: train managers to provide vision, inspire, model, and coach rather than direct

Culture: challenge existing culture and mind-sets

Team processes: free up a team’s time to work on value-creating activities

Performance management: structure performance management based on outcomes

Think about the longer term. Per the Harvard Business Review (‘HBR’) one of the big themes for 2020 is Flexibility – wanting to keep working but just not in a full-time, all-consuming kind of job; and wanting to know how to plan your career post retirement. One of the consequences of ‘hollowing out’ (and, in a lot of cases, of moving to agile) is that senior executives are having to look for career alternatives sooner than planned.

When I work with clients in that situation, I always challenge them to see if they can find something that they are truly passionate about that can form the foundation for their next career. A passion, interest or hobby that could become income producing and that can keep them actively engaged well past ‘normal’ retirement age. That, as opposed to moving to another similar role, where they may well end up in the same unenviable situation.

One of the big issues for society as we (hopefully!) live longer is how we can remain intellectually, socially and physically active post our full-time careers, and how we can supplement our incomes given the increased cost of retirement.

Defining purpose. As set out in the HBR article ( ‘purpose’ has become a management watchword over the past decade. Since 2010 it has appeared in the titles of more than 400 new business and leadership books and thousands of articles. And no wonder: Many people—not just Millennials—want to work for organisations whose missions and business philosophies resonate with them intellectually and emotionally.

[Simon Sinek’s TED talk (and book) ‘Start with Why’ is also very instructive on the subject]

Another HBR article ( examines the two broad categories of self-awareness. “The first, which we dubbed internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions and impact on others. The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above.”

“When it comes to internal and external self-awareness, it’s tempting to value one over the other. But leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them. The highly self-aware people we interviewed were actively focused on balancing the scale.”

As above, a senior leadership role can be lonely and there are (very current!) examples of leaders who surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear – leading to that age-old warning to leaders to not believe their own bs!

Leveraging impact through team coaching. And finally, one of the hot current topics identified by the team at WBECS (World Business & Executive Coach Summit) is around team coaching. I couldn’t agree more. Effective one-to-one coaching helps leaders and executives develop through self-directed learning – whether the change is at a behavioural or cognitive level, the impact on the people that report to them is always positive.

That positive impact can be massively amplified through team coaching. The success of any leader is always dependent on the effectiveness of their team and organisations cannot be successful without high-performing teams. Building an understanding of what constitutes a high-performing team and helping a team achieve and sustain high-performance are some of the key benefits of team coaching.

Richard Spilg

January 2020

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