Coaching Asia's Post-Crisis Executives

“If you want something badly enough,” says Liz Luya, “you’ll find ways to achieve it.” She knows this from experience. Last year, after giving birth to her third child, leaving her long-time post as human resources director and launching executive coaching and consulting firm Luya Associates, she signed up for the seven-day Gobi March China, a 250- kilometre race across Asia’s largest desert.

“The race itself was brutal, but brilliant,” recalls Luya. “The Gobi terrain is mountainous and rocky, maybe 5% sand in the location of the actual race. Very tough on your feet and also takes place partly at altitude.” The 130 participants carried everything in their packs, except full water rations (you get 1.5 litres every ten kilometres and a tent at night).
By the end of the race, Luya was in severe trouble with infections starting in her blistered feet, but she completed the course in 68 hours (around 25 people dropped out). “Walking those distances on blisters makes you realise what you are made of and this was the unexpected and amazing outcome of what I did,” she says. “The race was not about physical endurance so much as mental endurance and strength.”
It’s a point she makes to her clients, who are CEOs and other senior executives. “Balance your life with things you are passionate about, love to do or want to achieve and you’ll have a more fulfilled life,” Luya tells them. One executive has been inspired to train and join the next Gobi March.
‘Sounding Board’
Not everyone needs or wants external coaching. For many executives, it is a matter of teaching and learning by on-the-job osmosis or being part of the company’s talent development program, where they mentor others and may be mentored in their turn. Who has the time anyway? An executive coach can be akin to the tutor or cram school lecturer who may or may not have helped you get admitted to university, but who ate up a lot of your after-school free time.
But even in today’s post-crisis business environment, it seems quite a few are turning to executive coaches like Luya, whose client roster currently includes several CEOs and women entrepreneurs. To help them discern and achieve their career objectives, she draws on her 20 years of experience in HR, a decade of which she spent as regional human resources director, Asia Pacific, of The Economist Group, which publishes the Economist magazine. She likes to think that her clients’ real-life journeys also enrich what she brings to the table.  
“I basically function as a sounding board,” Luya says. That’s something, of course, that a friend or family member can do for free (and by someone else at work, though there is a risk that the workplace issues will filter to the rest of the organisation). But an executive coach – yes, there is such a practitioner, who is typically a member of the International Association of Coaching, International Coaches Federation or similar professional organisation – is supposed to be discreet, professional and trained in the theory and practice of getting ahead while balancing career and personal life.
Rethinking a Career
How exactly can an executive coach help? The experience of Alistair McGregor is instructive. Until October last year, the Hong Kong permanent resident had been director for operations of the waste management division of Abu Dhabi contracting firm ETA Ascon. “Liz worked with me when I was rethinking my career, and looking if [it was] necessary to move countries to find the right position,” McGregor wrote in a testimonial on Luya’s LinkedIn page. “We used a combination of Skype, email, phone and face to face meetings, which worked well due to my hectic travel schedule at the time.”
In April this year, he transitioned to the non-profit world when he became CEO of Community Business, a Hong Kong-based organisation that provides training, facilitation and advice to companies in corporate social responsibility strategy, corporate community investment, diversity and inclusion, and work-life balance. Just this month, he resumed his for-profit career by joining the Environmental Solutions Group in China as regional manager for Asia Pacific. The newly formed enterprise is the result of a merger of three companies into an integrated equipment concern serving the solid waste management industry.
“Liz brought clarity to my thinking, challenged me to push beyond my comfort zone, supported me when things got tough and remains a trusted and reliable source of insight for me,” says McGregor.
After the Crisis
Demand for executive coaching had been understandably strong during the crisis, but Luya says interest in it remains steady even though the recession is abating. Corporate stress and ambition, after all, are constants in every business environment, including – or especially -- one where business expansion has resumed, as it has in Asia.
She identifies the rise of social networks and the use of e-mail as a new factor that executives have to come to grips with. “I’ll be meeting with a client now who’s having a bad day because of an e-mail that he received from his boss,” she says. The executive has drafted a reply, but he is following her advice and has not sent it yet. Writing in the heat of the moment can be cathartic, says Luya, but e-mail is such a blunt way of communicating that it is easy to be misunderstood.
In her experience, it is possible that the executive had misread the tone of the e-mail in the first place and ascribed meaning and emotions to it that the boss may not have intended. That’s why she counsels clients to use face to face or phone communications instead of email whenever possible, especially when making important decisions or embarking on a course of action.
Don’t send an e-mail message you’ve written when your emotions were high, she counsels. Wait for a bit, re-read the message when you’ve calmed down, rewrite it to strip away the angry tone and emotional content that may have snuck in, and then send. Better yet, call the person or arrange a face to face meeting to hash things out. The executive coach can help prepare a client for this conversation through role-playing.    
Digital Coaching
While e-mail may not be the ideal way for executives to communicate, it can be a useful complement to delivering coaching services. Luya will soon be launching, a “career transition/e-outplacement services” website that has 13 modules of content distilling her experience and insights in professional development.
For an additional fee, executives can sign up for online coaching for three to 12 months (an executive coach will respond to the client’s answers to the online questionnaire for each module) or for face-to-face coaching with unlimited email and phone support. The website, says Luya, is an alternative to the physical outplacement services that companies typically make available to employees made redundant or otherwise let go, which she says can cost HK$60,000 (US$7,690) per person; the same services delivered online starts at HK$3,300 (US$423) per person for 12 months.
Perhaps because of the years she spent sitting on various interview panels, the site’s module on what executives need to know about being interviewed is particularly strong. Some of the questions HR interviewers typically ask and suggested answers:

What do you know about our company?

  • Research the company before you attend an interview. Know what they do, who their clients are, and dependant on the role, know something about the specific part of the business you would be working for. A quick Google search should give you most of the answers. Use your LinkedIn connections to see if you know anyone working in the company, or who knows someone in the company.


What are your main weaknesses?

  • No one is good at everything. This question will be asked in some way. Interviewers will listen to what you choose to say, and whether you have done anything in the past to develop/overcome your weakness. You could think of examples like these:


  • “My main weakness is my desire to be in total control of the details. I have worked on my self-development to ensure that I have techniques in place to check on progress, without being seen to interfere.”


  • “My main weakness is being perceived as quiet and therefore not contributing at meetings. I have completed two self development programmes and now ensure before I go to meetings I spend a few minutes preparing myself to ensure I make a full contribution.”


Why did you leave your job?

  • The answer depends on the reason, but you need to be able to answer it for each job you’ve had. For example, if you were fired:


  • “I was terminated from my last job because I allowed my co-worker to become a friend more than a co-worker. I have learned a very hard lesson, which is to be professional with your co-workers and don’t get involved in their lives. Go to work, do what you are hired to do, get along with your fellow co-workers but keep it professional.”


  • “My current job doesn’t allow room for me to develop my career and so I'm ready to move on to a new challenge.”


  • “I lost my job as part of an overall restructuring of the company, which operated a 'last-in first-out’ policy’”


  • “I realised that I’d reached the highest level in the company, under that particular structure and was ready to move on and try something new.”


How do you handle stressful situations?

  • You may find this question comes up and you should think about how you might apply it to your situation. Here are a couple of example answers:


  • “During a challenging financial period, when clients were delaying payments, I set up a system to allow payment in installments, provided they made the first payment upfront. This meant that we were not chasing such large amounts of revenue and it met cash-flow needs of our clients.”


  • “One of my key team members became very sick and needed to be off work for three months. Knowing that he wanted to keep his job, I quickly got the team together and we agreed a way together to cover the work. I kept the employee informed once a week of progress. The employee made a full recovery and returned to work.”


Describe your management style.

  • You can answer in the first or third person. For example:


  • “I would describe myself as someone who manages using a coaching style. I like to empower my staff to think through their own solutions to challenges. I am there to encourage and motivate them when they need it. There are times however, when I need to be more directive. I’m equally comfortable in these situations.”


  • “It may be easier to describe how others see me. I’ve been through a 360 feedback in which one of the questions was around this area. I was described as a tough, but fair manager. Some of the comments included things like, we know what he wants and we know we must deliver to a high standard. He’s fair and has high expectations.”
About the Author
Cesar Bacani is senior consulting editor at CFO Innovation.

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