Coaching and the psychological cost of COVID-19

By Philippe Riboton, Managing Director at HR Partners International Executive Search.

Facing the future in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis has provoked widespread uncertainty and insecurity. It is affecting all levels of professionals, employees and business leaders alike. Some of them turn to executive coaches in order to deal with their anxiety, strengthen their resilience and navigate through this critical period. But how do you pick a coach? What are the different types of coaches? What can you expect from a coach? I have asked a panel of international executive coaches including Annette Reissfelder, Sophie André, Petr Zidek and Olivier Bauduin.

There is no doubt there is a psychological cost to the crisis we are going through – although it is not currently widely covered in the media. Uncertainty, isolation, insecurity, stress, anxiety: these feelings are invading the brain of senior business leaders too. But it’s often pretty difficult for them to admit it. “Top leaders are very lonely”, says Petr Zidek, a Prague based executive and psychology coach. “They feel the insecurity but they can’t share it with anybody because it is assumed they have to lead by example”, he says. “They can’t show it in front of their employees, in front of the market or in front of the competition. And quite often they can’t show it in front of their life partner either. But it’s only a question of time before they get to the edge – and sometimes simply break down.” This burden on the shoulders of leaders contributes to numerous cases of burn-out or severe depression.

Olivier Bauduin, another Prague based executive coach concurs: “the current level of uncertainty is so high that lot’s of senior executives are getting totally disoriented. They ask themselves: can I still trust the system? They are being questioned by their global headquarters, by their local executive committee or by their own employees – but they don’t know where to look for answers.” In such cases coaching can help senior managers reinvest in themselves, exploring what is fundamental to them, revisit their true values and restore their vision. “This can only happen», Olivier says, «if they accept their own vulnerability». 

Paris-based executive coach and psychotherapist Sophie André points to another difficulty leaders face: “the COVID-19 crisis has had the effect of putting leaders in front of a kind of conflict of loyalty. During the first wave, leaders have put their entire energy at protecting and motivating their employees, making them feel in a way that “everybody was on the same boat”. But since recently we see many companies being forced to optimize their costs and getting on preparing new plans for reorganization and restructuring. It is quite obvious some of these companies will terminate some of their employees, even those who proved their motivation during the first wave.”

Turning to an executive coach can help face this type of situation and try to find the strength to face the questions inside ourselves. But how shall we choose a coach in the ocean of professionals who have flooded this market in the past few years? Retired CEOs, former athletes, experts from universities or think tanks, former HR professionals or former consultants: there are dozens of different types of coaches out there. Welcome to the (very) unregulated and fragmented world of coaching!

As a matter of fact thousands of executives have reinvented themselves as professional coaches as a result of a transition in their career. One could call them “coaches by opportunity”. These are often business networkers trying to take advantage of their connections while looking for their own next professional move. Coaching often serves for them as a period “in between”: they are often coaches under transition. There is another type of coaches to be careful with: those are the “mentors”, professionals whose approach is rather to share their own experience, pretending their own life learnings will help other people find their way by following suit. Therefore one should not confuse coaching and mentoring. Another frequent category of professionals in this environment is made of coaches coming from the psychological field (former psychologists and psychotherapists alike). 

So how should we choose a coach then? According to Annette Reissfelder, an accredited certified professional coach working in Hamburg and Prague, “the basic question you need to ask yourself: is this person somebody I could trust and at the same time would accept to be challenged by?” Annette’s personal experience is the following: “people don’t come to me looking for coaching”, she says. “They come to me when they are looking for solutions, and ready to break out of thought or action patterns that no longer serve them. My objective is to help people think “dramatically differently” about their role going forward. I support them in making sense of complex input and challenging situations.” 

Olivier Bauduin stresses the key parameter when choosing a coach is to feel safe with him or her. There should be a real chemistry in order to develop a successful coaching relationship. “The feeling of security is essential in order for the real things to be said”, Olivier stresses. “The person to be coached needs to feel he or she will be safe and listened to – but absolutely not judged.”

Sophie André concurs: “I think that the most important thing for the person to be coached is to feel truly listened and understood, beyond the pure professional need. It is essential that the coach should be able to adjust to the person to be coached in order to follow him or her and push him or her beyond his or her comfort zone.”

As a matter of fact coaching these days is no longer restricted to people’s professional lives, in order for example to develop high potential or to facilitate transitions. It’s also about supporting people in their work/life balance since for most of them work and life issues can not be kept entirely separate: as a matter of fact most of them can feel the cost of their professional engagement on their personal lives. Petr Zidek illustrates: “people don’t have the energy to solve their personal situations nowadays. Therefore many of them are facing difficulties in their relationships and partnerships. They are looking for something different but they don’t know what.”

And this is where the coach’s help can be critical to guide people through the next period of their life. Unfortunately it seems that companies don’t have this item too high on their list at the moment. “There is almost no coaching paid by companies at the moment”’, Petr Zidek says. “Companies are saving on everything. It’s mostly about individuals paying coaching for themselves.”

This may serve as a serious wake-up call for CEO’s and for their human resources leaders: better that they support their key managers now, for example through executive coaching, than pay the psychological cost of COVID-19 several months down the road.