DESS: Geraldine Gallacher coaches moms back to their executive roles

By Sarah Shields, Executive director, direct and channel sales, Dell

Meet Geraldine Gallacher, managing director and founder of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, a company set up to help executives short on time but keen to learn. Formally the head of management development at major multinational retailer the Arcadia Group, Gallacher specializes in personalised training for senior managers, especially women returning to work following maternity leave. Having spotted an unmet need in the market, she decided the time was right to start a company to support these two groups that needed one-to-one training and support.

I caught up with Gallacher to learn more about how she’s grown the Executive Coaching Consultancy and her work to support women returning to work after maternity leave. 

What gave you the idea to start the Executive Coaching Consultancy?

When I was head of management development at the Burton Group (now Arcadia Group Ltd.) I noticed that very few of the directors attended any of the training courses we laid on for them, primarily because they couldn’t afford to spend three or four days out of the office. It occurred to me then that it would be great if the trainers could go to the directors and provide short personal sessions of around two hours.

It was very hard to find executive coaches back in 1994. I saw this was a gap in the market and decided to set up in business providing a one-to-one coaching service. Before I took the plunge, I had “practiced” on 50 senior executives already and that provided an excellent basis for setting out on my own.

How did you fund the business when you first started, and how has that changed over time?

I was lucky because the group was going through a redundancy programme and my job was going to change. I suggested to my then boss that I would prefer a redundancy package as I wanted to set up my own company. That gave me the cushion I needed for year one. As it happened, by the end of year one I was making as much as I had been earning, and the business has always been self-financed since.

What was the biggest challenge for you in the first few years of the company?

Having worked in two large companies, the Ford Motor Co. and the Burton Group, I was used to being contacted incessantly, and it was extremely weird to realise that the only phone calls I received at first when I set up the company were in response to ones that I had made. The big shift was in being proactive rather than reactive and recognizing that business wouldn’t come and find me, I had to go and find it.

Another challenge very early on was that I had always had secretarial support and couldn’t type! I remember my first proposal took me about 10 minutes to conceive and an entire weekend to create! But my typing skills came on a treat. Getting *** and being a sole trader was a challenge, but I solved that by inviting my friend and partner Kate (Buller) to come and join me.

We used to have meetings where Kate, who already had two children, would give me tips on breast-feeding while I was helping her pick up my coaching assignments.

You’re passionate about helping women get back into the workplace following maternity leave. What’s led you to make that a specific focus?

Funnily enough, it wasn’t my own experience that triggered this passion but rather that of my partner Emma (Spitz), who had been working in investment banking and joined us after her second maternity leave. Her own experience convinced her that women needed extra support around the maternity transition to help them stay in banking.

She was a very good example of a high flier that felt “mummy tracked” by the bank despite her being seen as high potential. A number of elementary mistakes were made principally around lack of contact, which led her to feel estranged from the bank. On her part, she experienced a big drop in confidence that took her by surprise and could see really clearly that coaching would have been enormously helpful to her around this time.

She joined us after her second child and came up with the idea of Maternity Coaching. Since then we have grown from three coaches to 30 coaches internationally and coach women at all stages of their careers.

“I think employers need to look long term at the benefits of being more flexible with new parents. … Obviously, I also believe they should hire excellent maternity and paternity coaches.”

— Geraldine Gallacher, the Executive Coaching Consultancy

The VAST model sounds like a great way to coach women back into these senior positions, can you explain how it works?

The VAST model describes the psychological journey that a woman goes through when transitioning to and from the workplace to have a baby.

The first phase is the Vigilance phase where women become more aware of how they are being treated and how other mothers are treated in the company because they are trying to envisage how they are going to continue with their career once they become a mother. There is no single right way to treat a *** mother because every woman has a very individual reaction to becoming ***. The most important tip for managers is to always ask and never assume.

The Appreciation stage is when the baby comes and irrespective of how you might try to prepare a mother, the reality is that she needs to go through the experience to fully appreciate the change it makes to her life.  It’s also about appreciating how much they love the baby. Women are usually blown away by the depth of feeling that their baby stirs in them. All of our coaches are mothers as well as coaches and so we can empathise with the depth of feeling that our clients are experiencing but we also like to encourage them to look further ahead and gently point out that now is not the best time to make big life changes.

S stands for Separation and this is about the feelings a new mother has about returning to work and the natural anxiety that comes with the impending separation from [her] baby. It’s also about how she plans to merge or separate her roles at work and at home. Gaining work-life balance is always a big challenge for new mothers and increasingly new fathers.

Finally, T stands for Time to get used to a new way of working and a new balance.

What do you think employers can do to support women who want to return to work, and how can both parties benefit?

I think employers need to look long term at the benefits of being more flexible with new parents. In the early years there is no doubt that people want to be with their children as much as possible and extreme long hours are anathema to successful parenting. If employers trusted people more to work flexibly on a results basis rather than judging them by desk time, this would make an enormous difference to engendering long-term loyalty to the company.

Obviously, I also believe they should hire excellent maternity and paternity coaches not just for the new mothers and fathers but also for their managers. We can help support the parents and their managers who are often in the dark as to how best to support their staff who become parents.

What does the future hold for the Executive Coaching Consultancy?

We see ourselves continuing to grow and change in line with our clients’ needs. Our coaching offer has changed dramatically in the last 21 years and now entails an online element with the increasing popularity of webinars to support the face-to-face coaching we provide.

Another development we are experiencing is interest in our Silver Coaching. This is aimed at baby boomers who are looking to straddle the next phase of their working lives and don’t see retirement as attractive for quite some time to come but do want to work in a different way. I’m currently enjoying helping a few clients to navigate this next stage and I find it very inspiring both personally and professionally.

Follow @ECCGeraldine on Twitter.

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