Sue Stockdale is an executive coach, author, and motivational speaker, working with senior leaders in some of the world’s top companies. In 1996 she was the first British woman to ski to the Magnetic North Pole and has participated in many expeditions around the world.
What got you into learning and development?
I began my career just after my sixteenth birthday working in an energy company within the Finance function. At that age I was not sure what my strengths were, and it took me a few years to discover that I was more interested in understanding people, than numbers. During my time in that company, I was able to participate in a charity expedition spending three months carrying out scientific, community and adventure projects in Kenya. It was this first-hand experience of living and working in a remote environment, and gaining valuable personal development that made me realise that I wanted to work in learning and development to help others experience the value of exploring your potential.
Luckily, an opportunity came up for a job in that department where I initially taught people how to use email, spreadsheet, and word processing applications, which were just being introduced in the workplace in the early 1990s. A year later, I moved into management and leadership development and have been part of the learning and development industry ever since!
How did exploring become a crucial element of your work?
A few years later, I took a leap into the unknown, left the corporate environment and worked for a year with the United Nations in a war zone, which taught me all about stepping out of your comfort zone and risk-taking. It gave me greater confidence to follow my passions, do more exploring and challenge my assumptions.
After spotting an advert in the newspaper, I applied to join a team of novices on an expedition to the North Pole, and after being selected, we undertook a 30-day journey to reach the Pole, and I became the first British woman to get there, something I never imagined was possible. After embarking on more expeditions to Patagonia, Greenland, and Antarctica I observed that the challenges on expedition, are very similar to the challenges leaders face in the workplace, such as team building, being resilient, and having a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Today I use the expedition metaphor when introducing clients to the coaching journey they will undertake. I explain that both of us need to trust one another, as we head into the unknown and that I will be alongside them to support, encourage and guide when needed. It then becomes much more of a collaborative partnership, and they become curious, instead of fearful about changing their behaviour.
What are the most common topics that leaders bring to coaching?
Many leaders today find they are managing, not leading. They are aware of this, but don’t know how to change. Often their sense of self-worth is tied up with delivering results themselves or being seen as the expert. They assume that if the become a true leader it will mean ‘letting go and enabling others to deliver the results. But if they do that, what will their job become? I find that coaching conversations are focused around helping leaders to reframe their role, whereby they realise that setting direction, inspiring, and holding others accountable is just as important as ‘doing’, and that they need to develop their influencing skills more. They also become aware that asking a question may be more effective than always giving an answer.
Another common topic is how to avoid overwhelm. Many leaders face back-to-back meetings, competing priorities, and not enough time to think. Recent research conducted by Microsoft1 shows that taking time to reset the brain between meetings makes for a more productive environment, and through having a coaching conversation it can a leader to set better boundaries and change their behaviour seeing themselves as a role model for others.
Looking to the future, how do you think coaching will change?
Coaching is becoming more democratised and available to people at all levels in an organisation through the growth of online coaching platforms, and it’s likely that this will continue. Coaching can drive greater engagement and help people feel valued. Equipping managers with coaching skills they can use daily with their teams, has also shown to improve business performance by up to 130% according to a study by Bersin & Associates2. There is also a greater interest in team coaching, and that appears likely to continue because working with an entire team can have more impact in the wider system or organisation.
The important factor not to lose sight of is that fundamentally coaching is about developing awareness and encouraging responsibility. And as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more integrated into how we all work awareness will be even more critical, to ensure we use AI responsibly. The age-old skills of asking questions, listening and avoiding assumptions aren’t going away any time soon
Sue Stockdale is an executive coach and polar explorer