Define Potential Blog

Surprising conversations with senior leaders

21 October 2020

I have coached senior leaders across the public sector for over ten years now.  Over the years, these conversations have covered many, many subjects.  There are three stand out topics for me.  They stand out because whenever I say that they are quite common conversations, the reaction is always one of surprise.  In each case, the senior leader seeking coaching assumes that they are the only ones with this experience.

The three recurring themes are establishing a network, managing a diary effectively and dealing with imposter syndrome.

1. Establishing and Maintaining a Network

I work as a coach on many leadership programs for cohorts of senior leaders at the senior manager and senior executive levels.  One of the recurring pieces of feedback about the benefits of such a program is the chance to network with colleagues at level.  When I provide one-on-one coaching as part of these programs, participants very often express a desire to stay in touch with other participants with whom they do not have day-to-day contact.  Sometimes someone from the cohort will take the initiative and try to establish a regular catch up of participants.  Other times, participants just express the desire to continue these connections, but lament ‘why would they have time for me?’, ‘I wouldn’t want to be a burden’ or ‘I’d feel awkward calling them just to have a coffee – I would need a purpose for the call’. 

I completely understand these concerns.  It can be difficult to be the one to be vulnerable, and risk a negative response.  Yet as significant number of senior leaders that I coach, wish to reach out and stay in contact with fellow participants.  I find it frustrating that so many people see the benefit of maintaining these connections, but don’t want to be the one to establish the connection in the first place.

There are many benefits of maintaining connections with colleagues at level.  It can be useful to

  • share common challenges with people from outside your direct work area
  • have someone who can be a sounding board to brainstorm solutions to problems
  • have connections who may know of job opportunities that would suit you
  • have access to different skills or knowledge that may be useful sometime in the future.

As you get promoted, you will find these connections more and more valuable, as it becomes more important to work across the agency and government.

So next time you feel awkward about reaching out to establish a connection, consider that there are many others who feel the same way, and would welcome your call.  Even if it doesn’t work out with the first person you try to connect with, don’t assume that it wont work with anyone.  Try it.  The long-term benefits are worth it.

2. Managing a Diary Effectively  

When you get promoted to the next level of leadership, there inevitably comes more demand for your time.  There are more people to meet, more stakeholders to consider, a wider bandwidth of influence.  A common lament is “I spend my whole day in back-to-back meetings, and only get to my ‘real’ job after 5pm”. 

This is a tricky one to manage, especially to begin with.  It can be difficult to determine which meetings are essential, which ones are worthy of your time.  Initially, it may be important to establish networks and meet stakeholders.  Other people are keen to get your input and expertise.  Breaks for lunch become a thing of the past. 

Usually when I suggest possibly saying ‘no’ to some of these meetings, my suggestion is met with horror – “I couldn’t possibly do that”.  Invariably after some time in the job however, this has shifted.  More experienced leaders have worked out:

  • which meetings are critical;
  • which can be declined or delegated;
  • which ones can be handled by a phone call rather than a more time-consuming meeting; or
  • which stakeholders are critical.

So instead of suggesting that meetings be declined, I recommend two things:

  1. Work out a set of criteria for yourself.  After a day of meetings, take five minutes to reflect – which meetings were worthwhile?  Were there any that could have been handled differently?  If you can develop a set of criteria for which meetings are essential and which can be handled by alternative methods then when meeting invitations come in, you will have some way of deciding whether to accept, decline, delegate or handle it some other way therefore saving you time and energy.
  2. Use these criteria to develop a set of guidelines for someone else who can manage your diary (your EO, EA or other team members).  These guidelines should include putting in buffer time – for urgent issues which may crop up, as well as other chunks of time which you want to remain meeting-free.  These chunks allow you to manage email, have a lunch break, check in with team members or do some strategic thinking.  Block these times out, so that they appear as ‘busy’ if someone is searching for a meeting time.  Let your EO/EA know which ones are sacrosanct and in what circumstances they can be moved.

3. Imposter syndrome

The third conversation, where I get the most surprise is rooted in a lack of confidence, and a feeling that at any moment they are going to ‘found out’ as not really knowing what they are doing.  These senior leaders attribute their success to luck or to their teams, rather than owning their own achievements.  This is sometimes referred to as ‘Imposter Syndrome’.  I think people often assume that by the time someone has reached the ranks of the senior executive, they have conquered this internal challenge.  In my experience, this is far from the truth.  In fact, I think it is a very common issue at senior levels. 

New senior executives are thrown into situations where they may have little detailed knowledge or experience.  They are expected to speak with high level stakeholders and are expected to be able to think on their feet.  They often don’t have time to settle into a job, or may have little support in the form of time from their supervisors. 

It can be useful to consider that you are not alone in feeling this way.  Others experience this too.  I was once given ‘homework’ by a coach to write down my achievements at the end of each day, including writing down when someone gave me positive feedback.  I quickly realised that I was much harder on myself than others, and that I was achieving much more than my ‘imposter syndrome’ was allowing me to recognise.  Doing a similar exercise, or actively seeking feedback from trusted others may help to bring some objectivity into your thinking.

You are not alone

If some of these challenges sound familiar, be assured that you are not alone.  Perhaps talk to your supervisor or other colleagues who have no doubt faced these challenges in the past.  Not only may it be comforting to realise others have felt the same way, but you may hear some handy tips for dealing with it. 

If you would like to work with an executive coach on similar topics, please contact us at [email protected].

Kate Neser, Executive Coach – Define Potential, Director – Kate Neser Executive Coaching and Consulting


Kate is a Professional Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and holds a Level 3 accreditation with the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership, and has a Graduate Diploma in Ontological Coaching with the Newfield Institute. Kate has worked as an executive coach since 2010, after managing a successful career in the public sector for nearly twenty years. Kate specialises in executive coaching, interpersonal communication and leadership and management development.

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