Growing wings isn’t enough

Leadership coach Kerrin Miller shares a case study showing how traditional leadership coaching is not a sufficient solution.

Largely in response to these challenges and the view that women can learn and build antidotes to the organisational walls they face, a pan-African investment bank, headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, launched an accelerated development programme for women in middle management levels in 2015. Over the last four years the programme has been effective across a variety of measures.

Many senior women leaders in the organisation describe themselves as programme alumni and a significant number of women receive promotions after completing the programme. Viewed as an aspirational programme across the organisation, line manager nominations and talent team confirmations are sought after. Running over twelve weeks, the programme design integrates weekly in-person workshops across a variety of topics (including self-insight, branding, communication, networking, stakeholder management and navigating politics) and a one-day immersion with a learning project.

In 2019, 54 women in middle management were nominated and attended the programme. For the first time, individual, in-person coaching was included to accelerate and embed behaviour change. Coaches adopted a narrative, strengths-based approach in a partnership designed to inspire growth, explore risks and obstacles, promote reflection and encourage action.

In addition, participants and coaches had a half-hour in-person session with the participant’s line manager, focused on setting coaching goals aligned to wider development objectives. This brought an organisational voice into the coaching process and intentionally enabled coaches to provide both individual and organisational value.

Participants, without exception, rated their coaching experience as having impact: 100% would recommend coaching to a colleague based on individual value and the change experienced (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1 Coaching status update at a glance

Many participants’ stories highlighted South Africa’s patriarchal past, reflected in the financial services sector and investment banking in particular, which is seen as the

bulwark of white, male privilege – and the lived experience of the ‘triple oppression’ of race, gender and class. Most participants’ narratives were characterised by overcoming obstacles, determination, grit and ambition to move beyond their technical proficiency and grow their careers.

However, two interrelated organisational obstacles emerged in response to this coaching programme:

1. Line manager support: Over 90% of line managers indicated engagement in the programme and attended the three-way objective setting process in the first coaching session. However, as coaching progressed, 50% of the participants described their line leaders, regardless of gender, as ranging from being disengaged to obstructive to their advancement.

2. Cultural receptiveness: Many participants articulated that their shift in trajectory and career progress was being affected by ‘a wall of hierarchy’ and ‘white,
male privilege’, rank and status. They described the organisational system as being ‘rigid’ and not aligned or receptive to personal changes and professional aspirations – creating friction and the possibility of disengagement and flight risks.

The impact of this lack of systemic readiness was most poignantly voiced by one participant in their comment that: ‘I have grown wings but I am being kept captive in a cage’. It seems that, with walls all around, working with individual women to ‘grow wings’ is not a sufficient response.


Kerrin is an industrial psychologist and credentialled coach (PCC, ICF) with over 25 years’ experience. Starting her career as an HR business partner within South Africa and the UK, on completing her MA she spent ten years consulting in the areas of learning and leadership. Since 2014 Kerrin has led a team of psychologists and coaches that has worked with over 500 pan-African leaders and leadership teams. She is passionate about using a blend of digitisation and psychology to develop strengths-focused, resilient, change-agile, inclusive and purpose driven leaders.


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