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  • Jane Porter

Midlife Leadership

Sept 2018

I often find an “elephant in the room” when coaching senior women leaders approaching (or in) midlife. It’s an interesting beast; it wanders around quietly, and can powerfully trample on many years of achievements and successes. When I'm in coaching three-way conversations, to start a new engagement, or undertaking coaching stakeholder interviews, this topic remains mysteriously absent. In case you hadn't guessed, this blog is really about menopause and leadership, would you have clicked on the link if that was the title?

This elephant has demanded my attention both as an executive, board and team coach, as well as in my own personal life. I continue to be saddened and stunned as I observe how organisations deal with (or do not deal with) this disruptive, and yet very natural, life transition. If I share more about my own personal experience, will you tell me, “That’s too much information” or is that exactly the point? We don't talk about menopause - it's rarely named, and we usually feel we have to pretend it's not happening.

I am happy to go on record and say that navigating this natural life transition while working full time, flying often and keeping some very odd hours, has been up there with some of the most difficult periods of my career. The reasons have nothing to do with my ability to undertake my role. I love what I do, I love the industry I am fortunate enough to work in. Despite this, at times, my ability to bring my best has been seriously challenged.

Alongside my own experience, I now often (not always) notice what is happening with some of the senior women I coach. You could say I now have heightened awareness. During a recent three-way meeting with a new coaching client and her leader, this really hit home. The leader described the main goal of the coaching as enabling my client to “get a grip on her emotions”, yes those were the exact words that were used. Now, up to this point my client had worked for the organisation for many years, she had attained a position on the executive leadership team and now reported directly to the CEO. After the CEO had left the room the tears came, and the words burst out as if locked in a pressure-cooker for some time. “I'm going through ‘the change’” she said, and after a brief pause, she continued. “Some days it's just not clear how I am supposed to ‘get a grip on my emotions’. I'm one of only two women on the Executive team and he just doesn't get it. I've worked for him a number of times throughout my career, we've always had a great working relationship, but this has changed everything, I don't know what to do about it. Some days I feel like I'm losing my mind.”

In another coaching engagement my coaching client cried at every session. Earlier in my career I spent some time in the field of counselling, so I am normally good at spotting a mental health consideration when it shows up in coaching. I'm well equipped to have a conversation about it when it does.  This was different. Each time, in between many emotional releases, the coaching work was able to continue, progress was made and acknowledged by both the client and the organisation. During the coaching my client was able to identify, and explore how the mid - life transition she was experiencing, was impacting her ability to function as a director of the organisation. Part of the work was helping her deal with the fact that she felt very alone in this. There was fear that disclosure would impact her successful career, along with the brand that she had spent many years establishing in her field. There was also an imperative that she was driving herself, that she just had to cope, deal with it alone, and get on with things.

To understand what’s going on philosophically, let’s turn to a blog by Dr Brené Brown, appropriately called ‘Midlife Unravelling’. Brené invites us to consider that:

“Midlife is not a crisis. Midlife is an unravelling. By definition, you can’t control or manage an unravelling. The truth is that the midlife unravelling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.”

What does the science say?

Neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay, takes a closer look at the topic in her publication, ‘The Women’s Brain Book’. Sarah shares that she has learnt that, “about 20% of women will have symptoms so severe that they significantly interfere with daily life; another 20% will sail through with no symptoms at all”. The rest fall somewhere in between meaning 80% of women will be impacted in one way, or another. She goes on to state that neuro-knowledge shows that at this time there is, “increased vulnerability to neurological shifts” affecting social and stress responses. Your body thermostat literally narrows due to changes in the hypothalamus, impacting “wellbeing, energy, mood and temperament”, and critically, sleep is impacted in 40-60% of women.

The more I explore the topic the more I wonder how we function at all. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Dr McKay finishes her exploration on neuroscience and menopause with the following statement:

“Midlife is a unique window of opportunity in which to invest in future proofing your brain. It’s time to stop, take stock and invest in a healthy future.”

Coaching is a one way to approach this. If your coaching practice does include senior women in, or close to mid-life, perhaps explore whether there is any value in this topic being part of the conversation. Embrace the elephant in the room and work with it as part of your coaching agendas. If we look at what the science tells us is happening, then we can embrace a natural life transition with compassion for the individual, whilst holding an awareness of the organisational needs.  An approach that will lead to a more effective outcome for all and sure beats senior women being given developmental objective that include ‘getting a grip on your emotions’.


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