Looking at the Universe as a Systemic Whole: Women in Global Leadership

Interview with Magdalena Mook 
CEO, International Coach Federation

The International Coach Federation (ICF) is a rapidly growing organisation, encompassing 26,000 professional coaches globally. The European Business Review caught up with the CEO, Magdalena Mook, who has been at the helm since 2011. We talked about the future of coaching, the difficulties of leading a global organisation and how being a woman has affected her career.

I want to first ask you about the global aspect of your leadership role, does it make leadership difficult?

ICF is indeed a global organisation: We have 26,000 members now, but I don’t think about it as a difficulty. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn. In a global organisation one has to be aware that people see the world a little bit differently, depending on where they come from, and one has to be very respectful as well as curious. You must keep an open ear and a sense of humour!

Yes that’s very important. One of the things ICF stresses about leadership is the “value of silence”. Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean by that in leadership.

Many cultures, and the US culture as one certain, are quite uncomfortable with silence, Sseing it as a vacuum that needs to be filled with talk. For me silence is the place where reflection happens, where some of the best ideas are born. Silence is a beautiful space to experience things together in an amazing way and it does not always have to be filled with talk. Often it is just a reflective space where I think we may really come to the best decisions.

So you think that added reflection is important in leadership?

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Oh, absolutely. Reflection is immensely important. When you think about leadership, often people will say it’s action-oriented, and it may be. But at the same time you have to be mindful of what actions you take. You have to be mindful and think about the consequences of what you’re going to do. Try and predict a little bit, and then of course evaluate, evaluate, evaluate, and modify if needed. So quiet time for thinking, for reflection, for deeper thought, is definitely very important.

As a woman in such a powerful leadership position do you think the climate has changed significantly for women in business in the last few years? It’s a subject that’s come up more and more but do you think that’s actually translated into real change?

You know I do — I really do. I realise that the numbers perhaps are still not there; I was quite surprised myself when I learned that the global average for employing female CEOs is only 8% globally. The US, where I am based, lags behind – it’s closer to 5% and the European Union is closer to 9%, which is good. I also sense that there is now much more conversation about women in leadership, and research that points to women being more mindful leaders, and very well prepared and ready for leadership positions.

There was a recent study published which talked about large corporations observing a certain level of pressure from stakeholders to pay more attention to female leadership. So I think that there is a change of mindset happening which, in turn, is leading to more and more significant and visible changes as regards women in leadership positions. I think that we are also observing some great role models in politics, business, art, research and academia. I think that these success stories really help to pave the way for younger women, and prepare the entire population for women in leadership.

Recently I listened to the Davos interview with Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, and he was speaking with passion about how important it is to have women in leadership positions because — and I would agree wholeheartedly — women tend to look at the universe as a systemic whole. They see so many angles, they think about multiple stakeholders, that’s just the way we’re wired. And that is just one of the innate traits that prepare women for leadership in a very interesting and natural way, a way that seems to work very well.

You mentioned role models, are there any women right now that you would want to particularly mention as doing things that you admire?

Yes, just look at some of the leaders of the large organisations and corporations, such as Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Mary Barra of General Motors, Oprah Winfrey and, of course, my hero, Madeleine Albright. I also look at women in politics, like Angela Merkel, and more and more countries are actually electing women into their top leadership positions. So I think the change is here; it’s not just coming, the change is here.

And in your own organisation are you seeing more women gaining top-level positions?

Yes, absolutely. The ICF is one of ten organisations in partnership in our association management company and, out of the ten, six are led by female CEOs. One may say that women are quite attracted to this career, so that may have something to do with that, but of our three largest associations, ICF being one of them, two are led by female CEOs.

When I look into my own staff, women are definitely getting their share of the positions within the organisation. Just recently we created a leadership programme for high potentials. Most of the people that we selected for this programme are women — not because I am lucky to have more females on my staff, but because the high potentials happened to be very talented young women. We need to do whatever is possible and offer them opportunities because they are tremendous leaders in training and a lot of good is waiting for them. It’s very rewarding to see it happen.

Looking back to when you first started, have you faced any major obstacles in your career that you feel have been either partly or fully because you were a woman?

I have to say no, I don’t, and I have two reflections on that. First, I grew up in Warsaw, Poland. I had very strong role models: my grandmother, my mother, my aunties and people surrounding me. So I think that there was a certain level of expectation I created for myself based on that. And then the second reflection is that sometimes maybe we jump a little bit too quickly to a conclusion that something happened or didn’t happen because of a specific aspect.

I do recall very specifically one such incident, a long time ago: I stepped into a position vacated by a male colleague who left the organisation and I remember that I wasn’t offered the same level of compensation as the departed male colleague. My very first reaction was “oh, of course,” because there is this disparity between female and male compensation. It was only several years later when I was making hiring decisions that I realised it was not because I was a woman; it was because I was much less experienced at that time, so my compensation level was commensurate to my experience. But, you know, when it’s up to me to make hiring decisions, I definitely look to the best candidate. It never, ever crosses my mind not to hire somebody because she happens to be a woman. As Albright famously said, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Speaking of which do you employ quotas as an organisation? To make sure a certain number of women are promoted to a certain level, or do you disagree with that?

We do not have a quota system, and I think the reason might be because we seem to be quite balanced already. As I said before, the Association management profession seems to be attracting a lot of women, so there doesn’t seem to be a need for quotas. In fact, I would venture that women hold possibly more than 50% of all our leadership positions.

Why do you think that is, do you think that’s because of the global aspect of your organisation or the nature of the job?

Our system constantly evolves and it truly represents the gold standard in the recognition of coaching skills and preparedness.

Coaching in general is a predominantly female profession at this moment — our own membership globally is predominantly women, as much as close to 70% in average, so that alone influences our structures. There are countries where we see more men than women in coaching but, as with many professions that are nurturing, it’s not unusual to see more females than males. The diversity in the organisation definitely helps because we tend to reflect the nature of our membership on the board of directors and with our chapter leaders.

You have said that you want ICF members to be the “best of the best,” What’s your definition of the best?

The best is the person that is in a position to partner with and support the client in the way that truly allows the client to reach the highest potential, and what it translates to is an individual who is very well trained and capable of offering the service of coaching; somebody who follows the code of ethics because they are working with human beings. Somebody who pays attention to what we call “fit for purpose”; in other words, constantly growing and developing and making sure that their skills are evolving along with the evolution of the science, marketplace and their clients’ needs.

People are always there with their knowledge and their skills, but we do know, based on a global consumer awareness study conducted for the ICF, that clients are more satisfied working with coaches who belong to professional organisations. For ICF, this means we need to make sure that we as an organisation remain relevant because we are providing this cutting edge research, and are making sure that our members are well informed and well trained, that they know their options and know what’s available out there. Our system constantly evolves and it truly represents the gold standard in the recognition of coaching skills and preparedness.

You’ve been with ICF since 2005 and you’ve been Chief Executive since 2011, what do you see as your biggest achievement in your time there?


It’s been almost ten years, and it’s just amazing how different an organisation ICF was when I first joined it. In 2005 there were about 8000 members; now there are 26,000. We had less than 2000 credentialed coaches then; right now we are reaching 16,000 ICF Credential-holders. There were five staff members and we now have 30. And possibly one of the greatest differences is that, in 2005, there was not much of a dialogue happening within the organisation. Right now I feel and I sense that we are a much more connected organisation: the network of our chapters, the network of our volunteer leaders, the board and the staff.

The other major difference and, I think, accomplishment is that we turned into what we call a knowledge based organisation, which means that we make a lot of decisions, predominantly strategic, based on research, input from our members and thorough deliberation. The decisions are not influenced by the loudest voice: We devote time to deep conversations and evaluation of different scenarios, trying to predict the consequences of every action. That’s not easy when you’re talking about making decisions for a global organisation but that discipline serves us really well.

I think it’s also a great accomplishment that we don’t treat all of our countries and members as one size fits all. We have very significant differences culturally, economically and in many other ways, which lead to taking different approaches. Although operationally difficult, it is necessary for us to remain relevant for our members, and for our members to remain relevant to their clients. We are headquartered in North America, but have five talented staff members situated outside of North America just to be closer to our members around the globe. In the near future I can imagine we will continue to extend our physical presence outside North America.

For me, growth means not being complacent, but being more vigilant and being more responsible and accountable to the members and to the general public so that everybody can see the benefits of the profession of coaching and so our members will continue representing excellence in professional coaching.

You asked for my greatest accomplishment, and I would say it’s the accomplishment of my team. I have a very solid, stable, capable, enthusiastic, super-talented team. No one person can do it all, so I’m extremely proud of having this group working with me and on behalf of the ICF, for the coaching profession and all of our members. We also know from our global awareness study that the awareness of coaching in the general population jumped from 51% to 58% in only three years, so I guess we’re doing something right.

It sounds like it, and how do you see ICF growing and changing in the future, you mentioned perhaps extending your physical presence outside North America, but are there any other ways?

Yes, at the moment we are still predicting growth of about 500 members per month. What is changing is that we are seeing quite an explosive growth in coaching, and therefore our membership in Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. So I think the diversity of our membership will only continue to grow along with the numbers. Because of this, and because of where coaching is making inroads, we will also see a deeper appreciation of coaching and what it can offer. We will also see possibly a greater application, and new applications, for coaching. I think that’s going to allow organisations like ICF to be a partner in larger conversations around general societal change, and how coaching and its applications can facilitate or support those changes.

So, for me, growth means not being complacent, but being more vigilant and being more responsible and accountable to the members and to the general public so that everybody can see the benefits of the profession of coaching and so our members will continue representing excellence in professional coaching.

Do you think there is still a considerable lack of information out there about coaching?

I think there is a little bit, and the reason for it partly is that coaching is an unregulated profession and therefore just about anybody can call himself or herself a coach. We tend to stress the term professional coach, which points to a person who is trained as a coach rather than perhaps utilising some of the coaching skills in their management style. And still I think there is a little bit of a misunderstanding about coaching versus mentoring, consulting, counselling or therapy.

So I think it would serve everybody well if they knew the distinction and therefore knew what to expect from coaching. I am a trained coach myself; I also work with a coach and I cannot stress enough how important coach training and adopting some of the coaching skills in my leadership style have been. Coaching, systemic approach and coach-specific training have helped me continuously and really supported me in playing my role in this organisation.

To find out more about Magdalena Mook and the ICF visit: www.coachfederation.org





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