I was invited recently to present to a global corporate board on the challenges facing its senior leaders. The date of the meeting marked eleven years since my departure as CEO from the company I co-founded several years earlier. What begun in a London Starbucks blossomed into an award-winning, international legal recruitment organisation.
As I prepared for my presentation, and perhaps due to the serendipity of the date, I reflected on the extent to which the corporate landscape has changed since my time at the helm and the unique set of challenges facing today’s corporate leaders.
Today, we are faced with the threat of a global recession, spiralling inflation, a war in Europe, and an energy crisis. The global pandemic was a game changer. No prizes for naming these.
Every era has its set of challenges. I am old enough to have led teams through the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession between 2007 and 2009. All these shifted the economic tectonic plates.
Those plates might be shifting again. We are arguably in the midst of a workplace transformation, the implications of which will be significant for the next generation of leaders. I believe the fight for corporate survival in 2023 will be won by the companies who embrace employee mental health. The best of them will coach their leaders to do the same. This war for talent is like no other.
Wellbeing is the key issue of the day. Employees today are reporting in alarming numbers they feel disengaged from work. Many are burned out. Work related stress leads to a range of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, loss of self-esteem and eventually burnout. If employees are stressed and/or burned out, that’s a heck of a lot of mental health problems kicking around the office.
It is incumbent of today’s business leaders to recognise what constitutes good mental health. Try getting improved performance from a burned out and/or disengaged member of staff. Perhaps that partly explains the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting trends.
Corporate wellbeing is more than offering gym membership, a yoga class, or incentives to cycle to work. It’s about engaging with a workforce that has one foot out the door before it’s too late. From the largest banks and private equity firms to smaller forward-thinking enterprises, the most alert companies are engaging in wellness for their staff recognising that the cost of losing their people to burnout is greater than engaging with wellness professionals. That includes hiring coaches versed in wellbeing.
I never asked my staff what they wanted from the workplace. When people asked me what we did for our staff, I was tempted to reply, “We pay them.” I was old school. That won’t wash today.
The companies who develop authentic wellbeing strategies stand the best chance of connecting/re-connecting with their staff. The obvious way leaders can start to take the pulse of their employees’ wellbeing is to ask them. Start a dialogue. Do it yesterday. There isn’t time to waste.
Employees also expect more autonomy and flexibility. This is part of what contributes to a company’s culture. It won’t make you an employer of choice to offer flexible working, but it will probably work against you if you don’t.
The implications for coaches
As business leaders increasingly turn to coaches to help them navigate these new frontiers, the debate has re-ignited regarding the overlap between therapy and coaching. The traditional argument runs along the lines that therapy focuses on the past and coaching focuses on the future and never the twain shall they meet.
Executive coaches have a duty to be psychologically minded and equipped to meet the needs of today’s C-suite clients. If the workplace issue of the day is mental health, it follows that coaches must now be cognisant of how to recognise and address mental health issues.
Depression is the most common mental illness worldwide. It has become an important public health problem. It’s in the workplace. Even if a coach is contracted to focus on something else, the chances are their work will touch on wellbeing and mental health. An awareness of these issues is a pre-requisite for coaches.
Being able to understand the internal world of one’s client is essential if as coaches, we are also going to facilitate a change in their external world. As someone who is dual qualified as therapist and coach, I have rarely seen these two disciplines come together with such significance.
Of course, ethics play a role. Of course, the law plays a role. That’s why coaches must have clearly defined and up to date Coaching Agreements that elucidate the scope of their work. Wearing my coach hat, it is my ethical responsibility to refer a client who is displaying signs of serious mental health issues such as an addiction to an independent therapist.
The future for leaders and coaches
CEOs face a mountain of unprecedented obstacles prompted by today’s global unrest. DEI wasn’t a major issue in my day. Employees want now want meaning at work, sometimes ahead of salary. There are depleted supply chains. Workforces may never again be centralised.
Mental health is arguably the central issue. As the corporate landscape continues to evolve, so must the skillset of coaches. In my opinion, all coaches would benefit from being trained to recognise mental health disorders and be skilled at dealing with them, at least up to a certain level. I don’t require my general practitioner doctor to be a heart surgeon, but I do hope he knows when to refer me to one, and preferably a good one.
I wish I had focused on my own mental health when I was CEO. I became restless with the endless pursuit of profit. I sold my stake to our remaining shareholders, moved to Monte Carlo and forged a new career in coaching, therapy and consulting.
The icebergs looming in today’s corporate waters have been building for some time. Those of us in the executive coaching and consulting space need to up our game and help write the new corporate playbook, the biggest chapter of which is on mental health.
Our immense thanks to Gavin for sharing his insights with us. Gavin Sharpe is a qualified psychotherapist and executive coach and is founder of Riviera Wellbeing.
Photo by Long Ma on Unsplash