Center for Executive Coaching Alumni Interviews – an inspiring diversity and inclusion coach gives great advice



The above interview features Executive Coaching Certification graduate Sarah Drijfhout, who discusses her diversity and inclusion coaching work. Sarah represents the caliber of professionals that we serve in the Center for Executive Coaching. We welcome seasoned professionals to join us via our online/distance certification or seminar options. Yes, we are accredited with the ICF for those interested in the ACC or PCC designations.


Brief Bio for Sarah:

Netherlands based, British born, Sarah Drijfhout coaches executive leaders and organizations on business growth, leadership and inclusivity. She runs the Gender Dimensions to Leadership course for global senior executives, having authored a book of the same name, (available Amazon July 2020). Sarah was formerly a top national and international business developer in medical/biotech/tech companies, including top performer at Johnson & Johnson, and top performer at eResearch Technology, ranked 2nd Fortune Small Business at the time.


Andrew: Welcome. I’m here with Sarah Drijfhout, another executive coaching certification graduate of the Center for Executive Coaching, who I’ve enjoyed working with for some time. Sarah, welcome.

Sarah: Thank you. Hi. Good to be here.

Andrew: So, let’s just jump in. Tell everybody about where your coaching practice is at right now?

Sarah: Okay. Well, I joined the Center for Executive Coaching, I think pretty much almost two years to the day. And since then, my expertise and background was in tech and international business development. I guess my area of interest was really in the inclusivity space. I think they are actually quite closely linked. Because when you look after people and you’re thinking about grow, and you are utilizing your talent well, it impacts all areas of the business, and this is fundamental for executives and leaders to understand.

I have a little spread of clients. I mostly work with big corporate, actually. So, what does that mean? I work with individuals and organizations. I’m lucky enough to be coaching a Fortune 300 CEO, which I feel particular excited about if you could imagine.

I’m working with a couple of senior VPs from Fortune 200 companies. And some senior executives and senior managers across, really a diverse client base. Some tech, the clothing industry, medical and pharma, and bio-tech. And because my work is about inclusivity a lot of time I’m also focusing on male-dominated industries. So, I work with engineering and law as well.

So, my market is quite big but my niche is very small. Offering my sales expertise right now is taking something of a back foot, even though that was really my original expertise. And I focus very much on this thing that I’ve developed called Gender Dimensions in Leadership, which really talks completely to this topic about equality because what is it that we are all talking about? Women needing to be in leadership. There is an awful lot of stuff that gets forgotten. So, that is really my niche. And through that, I work with men, which is also missed in this topic, and groups of men and women. So, yes, I’m also a women’s leadership coach. While I work with women, I love doing that, I’m very much at the school of thought that it’s not about fixing women. Women are pretty okay. It’s about fixing systems and how we get in a better place in terms of equality for everyone.

My business is manageable. It’s small right now. It’s definitely scalable. It’s incredibly stimulating. I’m based in the Netherlands but most of my clients…I’ve worked pretty much always with U.S. throughout my corporate career. A lot of my clients are U.S. based. But I have European ones as well.

And right now, what I specifically work on apart from the individual coaching, I do these bi-weekly courses, online courses with smaller groups on gender dimensions in leadership. Specifically for men and women.

And then the next goal for my business, is probably to scale that. So, that’s really my practice in a nutshell at this point.

Andrew: A lot of people are very interested in the diversity exclusion space. How did you get traction? How did you get your start?

Sarah: It comes from passion, which you can probably hear in my voice. I wanted to dig deeper. What I saw was, that there’s an awful lot of this idea of “fixing” women. But still to this day, there’s not that much else going on.

What I initially did having stopped work for a while, so I was out of industry, out of the field, I’d gone and had my family and experienced what that means in terms of gender bias and all of the rest of it. I came back and was very much focused on rebuilding a network, and doing research into this area. So, I read a lot, and nd I reached out to people. Having a sales background, of course, that’s what I naturally do. So, I made a lot of contacts. And I interviewed a lot of people, a lot of global leaders, and got a picture. And what the picture really was, which I was able to then build research papers on, was that men and women have very different ideas about what is going on in this whole equality, gender bias discussion.

Men predominately think there are a lot of myths that still proliferate about women’s confidence, about wanting to go off and have babies, and about not being that interested about being in the pipeline for leadership roles that women can fill and are capable of filling. That was the male side of things. This is all pretty generic. But it’s really what we could extrapolate from the research.

And on the other side, for women, it’s a whole other story. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on.

So, these conversations were really fascinating. They got me to the point where I was actually coaching which we will talk about a little more when I think we talk about specific client work. So I wrote articles, I kept reading, I kept having conversations, indirectly I was doing coaching, and then I wrote a book. And I just ended up coaching people. People realized, yeah, this is a new angle. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s still quite niche to think, “Oh, we need to talk to men about this if men are in power.” Yeah, men we really need to be talking to, not only women.

So, that is how I got traction. And amazingly, not perhaps amazingly, men and women love it. They love the research. They listen, “Yeah, this is what we need. This sounds right to us.” So, it created a lot of interest. Yeah, from that, it is like a little snowball that just grows and grows and grows. I’m just trying to keep it manageable. At the same time, I’m always focusing on that niche which is what I like to do. If the crowd is going the other way, then go the opposite way, and you will probably be okay in terms of finding your niche. I think those elements got the traction.

Andrew: You know, it’s worth noting too, as part of your participation at The Center for Executive Coaching, you used your research to get the specialty certification, Diversity and Inclusivity Leadership Coach. I loved reading your report. It was really brilliant.

Sarah: Well, thank you.

Andrew: Let’s move to a specific. Give one example of a client that you’ve helped to move forward so that people listening have a sense of the kind of work that we do as executive coaches?

Sarah: Sure. Well, again, it’s the snowball effect, right? So, from all of this initial work, clients kind of naturally came. And of course, when you are interviewing people, building that rapport, building that trust, and having these kind of fairly deep conversations, you create sort of a coaching situation. It’s a nature progression that some of those people that I initially interviewed became coaching clients, subsequently.

So, there is kind of a merged story, of course, in terms of some of the male executives that I have coached. But I can think of one male CEO.

You know, initially it was about him representing, talking in a very CEO corporate way of all these wonderful things. But you know, there are just no women in key roles. But going from that, to being brave enough to challenge him, being curious about him, not blaming him, and moving him to a point where this conversation so easily developed. And the coaching developed over a period of time. I kept sending him research and useful snip bits of information that he would see value in as a busy CEO.

And, you know, we got to the point there he was prepared for me to pilot what I spend most of time on now, which is this Genders Dimensions in Leadership Course. Which is targeted, very specific, with a small numbers of senior executives who get together. I group coach them. I give them pieces of information, articles to read, bits of research in bite sizable chunks over a period of weeks. Then we do group coaching to discuss. And then I do individual coaching.

And so, that is what we rolled out in this company. And obviously it’s early days, this has been going on now for just under a year. But obviously the feedback is that people love this. It is not about blaming men. It’s not about forcing men into this conversation. It gives everybody a chance to be heard, which is also what’s needed in this conversation because there is tons of bias against everybody. It’s not just female, not just black. There are lots bias going on, lots of privileges going on. Everybody is human. And rather than creating these barriers and these identify barriers, which are really important, significant, need to be addressed, recognized, and talked about. People need to feel unique.

But people also need to feel like they belong. And how we all belong, is through our human, right? We all want the same things. We all want to be loved. We all want to feel enough. We all want to feel included. And these are the things that bind everybody so that everybody is interested in these stories. And we just get much further in the conversation around equality.

It’s been extremely positive as far as it’s gone. And obviously, I want to do a lot more with it. But I’m extremely proud of what we have achieved in just over a year and a half with that.

So, that is an example. And there are more versions of that example.

Andrew: That’s fantastic. Let’s get to the final question, which is what advise you might have for people how are listening to this and saying, “I want to become an executive coach. But would love some pointers on what it takes to succeed?”

Now, I can say, knowing you, first of all as you mentioned, the passion is there. And you do not give up. If there is one thing about you Sarah, it is that you will not give up. If you set your mind on a goal, you will make it. I think that’s a really important component. But what do you see as the most important factors for anyone considering getting into the executive and leadership coaching space?

Sarah: Thank you for that. I think, Andrew, there are so many things. But, you know, I think we also need to bear in mind, not everybody approaches coaching for the same way. You and me are very specific. We quite like working alone. We like to do our own thing. We like to build a creative kind of Intellectual Property and all that good stuff.

Other people, they just want to coach. And they want to work in groups. So, I think the first thing is…be clear of what you want to get from the profession of coaching in terms of your income stream, your personal goals, how you see yourself in terms of your work, and what you want to get from your work fulfillment? Decide what that is. Because as I was going through this, I saw that a lot of people fell at certain points. When it came to the business development and building your own business, yeah, that’s of course a big issue for a lot of people. It doesn’t mean that you can’t coach. But if you want to be really niche, you need to think about that. Of course, you can coach because we need good coaches. And your course, absolutely, creates very good coaches. But there are different coaches. There are coaches that will coach en masse at corporations that need groups of people, and there are other coaches that do very specific work.

First of all, define what you want to do in terms of your coaching practice. And secondly, I think, what are your passions? If you are looking for a niche angle, what are your passions? Where is your expertise? They may not necessarily align together. My passion was the inclusivity area because I’ve seen it so much in my career, and my expertise has become that as well. But my expertise has always been business development. So, that expertise is my lovely backup, the core of business growth and business strategy for me.

If you align my other passion, I think a lot of people coming into your program have that. They have a background. Some of them want to stick to that. Some of them want to move away from that. Decide what it is, and I think it can be both. But we have to be careful not to dabble. We have to be clear at a certain point. Make a decision, go in that direction, see where it gets you, and are you making that traction?

When it comes to the actually coaching part, you have to remember that it is just not about you. And when we are kind of the Type A types and high flyers, we are very full of ourselves and all the wonderful things that we achieve. We have to remember that a client might even hire you for that for what they see and the expertise that they see you have. But actually, what they really need from you, is to talk about themselves. It is to talk about their problems. So, fundamentally, you have to remember it’s not about you. Yeah, you need to have a strong self-belief and you need to have an ability and desire to differentiate yourself potentially. But you need to stay humble. And you need to listen to them.

And that is another point that you always made, Andrew. I have seen that through at my career, and obviously again, this equality work. It’s so important. We have to feel on equal footing. I don’t care if it’s a CEO or the junior millennial that just walked in. We are all of the same human value. We all have the same self-worth. We may not have the same social worth in terms of CEOs, they accomplish great things, and the junior millennials might be just starting out. But approach people on equal footing. They feel that. They get your respect. You get their respect. And it builds trust. And you see often when we do get to these higher companies, there is that elitist stuff going on. You have to let that go and just be humble and create that equal footing. I think it gets you a long way in terms of… people don’t reject you. People will be open to you.

And it’s really valuable because that’s another place that I think some coaches conform. And they don’t need to because we all have things to offer and everybody has a specific purpose and things that they can bring to this coaching practice. And on that point, it is a saturated market, I feel. We do have poor coaches. But we have some really great ones. And the difference is that ability to listen, you know? Be prepared to ask challenging questions that might feel a little uncomfortable but you know what your client needs to be asked, when you got that position of trust with them. And be prepared to listen. Shut up. And listen. And mostly, listen. They are telling you so much and you have to listen really well to hear what they are really telling you. Especially in this day in day, when we are all so distracted, we are all so not focusing. That is worth gold to people and it’s the respect that I think coaching is and what coaching can bring to people. And that accountability piece.

So, there are a few things there, you know, the business side and what traits do you have? I think anybody can do coaching if they really think about those things and feel like they have them. I think you have to inherently have to have them in you to begin with. And not be all about yourself. Each needs to make their own decision on that.

I think it is a fantastic place to be. Especially as you further on your career. It’s incredibly flexible. You can do so much with it. And yeah, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I can’t recommend your course highly enough either, Andrew. Because it is phenomenal. Any people listening out there who are wondering about, “Should I do this?” I did a lot of research on the courses. The reason I picked it is because Andrew’s course is so comprehensive. There is so much stuff there. You will never get through it all. You won’t be wanting for knowledge and the resources if you need them. And you couldn’t hope for a better try. That was the other thing that I got from it. It was such a joy to meet so many intelligent people….and to be coached. I think that is the other thing about coaching. If you want to get into coaching, be prepared to be coached. That is definitely a lesson that I learned. It’s hard to be vulnerable. But it’s incredibly valuable.

So, yeah, I hope there is a view pieces or gems in there for people who are considering it. I think it’s a highly valuable profession at a time that we really need it.

Andrew: Sarah, thanks. I think there is a lot of gems in there. As always, you are totally inspiring, you are a pioneer, and my goodness, what a great time and an important time for you to be doing the work you are doing. So, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your advice.

Sarah: Thank you. It was a pleasure, Andrew. And good luck to you with the work you do.

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