Expert Interview with Dr. David Brendel on Executive Coaching

Dr. David Brendel started his career by earning both his PhD and MD in psychology, and ever since, he’s been focused on helping all of us get the most out of the workplace, whether as an author, a speaker or as the head of Leading Minds, an executive coaching service. He shared some insights with us on executive coaching and workplace wellness.

What are some emotional challenges executives might not be expecting?

Executive leaders may be blindsided by a crisis in their personal lives (such as divorce or death of a loved one) or in their careers (such as a major change in their leadership responsibilities). These unforeseen experiences can result in anger, irritability, confusion, guilt, despair and other challenging emotions. These experiences can be all-consuming and, if managed poorly, can degrade people’s performance at work and derail their careers. In emotionally overwhelming situations, executives need to manage stress effectively, engage in self-care, express their vulnerability to supportive people in their lives and possibly seek professional counseling or executive coaching.

How common is burnout? How do you spot the signs?

Burnout among executive leaders is rampant but poorly recognized, as it tends to develop gradually and insidiously. Overworked executive leaders who do not have adequate downtime from stressful work tasks or who lack strong social supports are particularly at risk. Common behavioral signs are irritability, anger, insomnia, substance abuse, weight gain or loss, general health problems and even suicidal thinking or suicide attempts.

What goes into professional coaching? How does it work?

A professional coach forms a powerful bond with the client in regular sessions focused on assessing the client’s challenges, developing a strategy to manage those challenges and implementing an action plan in the service of personal and professional growth. The assessment phase involves structured discussions with the client, a 360-degree assessment with individuals who interact regularly with the client and possibly formal style assessments (such as Myers-Briggs). The coach and client then collaboratively develop goals for the coaching process. The coach serves as an accountability partner who helps the client to make essential behavioral changes over time. Examples of behavior changes that can result from coaching are better stress management, delegation of tasks to others, and development of leadership skills and effective communication strategies.

What lessons from how executives handle stress can we apply to our professional lives?

We can all learn the following lessons about stress management:

Research shows that mental downtime boosts attention and productivity at work. Downtime should not depend exclusively on taking vacations. Brief periods of distraction with a crossword puzzle or Sudoko can actually enhance performance at work. Brief naps or periods of meditation have similar benefits.

Research also shows that how we interpret stress is key to how well we will manage it. It is generally best not to interpret work-related stress as pathological, but rather as a signal that some kind of positive change may be needed. For example, episodes of stress may signal that we need to change our whole approach to how we work in order to reduce the risk of burnout.

Research also has shown that expressing vulnerability when under stress can allow us to receive empathy and support from others. One study showed that customer service workers who express emotional vulnerability when serving customers actually display enhanced attention and productivity. Being less robotic and more human in many work situations can reduce the risk of burnout and enhance performance.

What are some signs we need a coach?

A professional coach may be helpful when one’s own coping strategies and efforts are not bringing the desired results at work and/or at home. Burnout is one situation where coaching can have profound benefits. But coaching is also useful for executive leaders when things are going well in their careers, but circumstances in the workplace are changing. Executives often need to develop critical new skills when confronting life transitions and new challenges, even if those challenges are positive and desirable (such as a promotion into a new leadership role at work). A professional coach can help the client to identify problematic thought and behavior patterns that may interfere with success, and also to implement new behavioral strategies that can lead to fulfillment and peak performance.

What trends in workplace well-being should we be keeping an eye on?

Many companies are now recognizing that executive coaching doesn’t only serve remedial purposes for low performers, but that it is most powerful and effective for high performers who seek to enhance their leadership capacity, strategic thinking, interpersonal communication and general self-management in the workplace and in their personal lives. We should keep an eye on lots of new research that is providing scientific validation for the effectiveness of professional coaching for successful executives who are striving for optimal work performance and for a fulfilling integration of their personal and professional lives.

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