For 14 years, Jean-François Cousin has been a professional coach, accompanying more than 1,000 leaders from various sectors along the coaching process. He has accumulated more than 12,000 hours of coaching and is a Master Certified Coach by the ICF, the organisation’s highest distinction. This former international executive specialises in unleashing the leadership and potential of senior leaders and executive committees. Having held several senior positions in Europe and Asia himself along his career with the Lafarge group, he has a practical understanding of the challenges and doubts that senior executives may have within their companies. Also an author and an international speaker, Jean-François is active in ICF Global on a voluntary basis and was elected Chairman of ICF Global Board in 2019. His role as president included helping define the strategy of the organisation, supporting the development of training and access to content for coaches as well as promoting coaching to the general public around the world. He shares here with us his vision of coaching and his experience as a coach.
CoachHub: Could you tell us a little bit more about your background?
Jean-François Cousin: I am an executive coach since 2006 and became an ICF Master Certified Coach in 2012. My first career was with the Lafarge group, in Europe and Asia where I served in several management positions, after graduating as an engineer from the Ecole Centrale Paris. I learned how to lead teams and was confronted with multiple challenges, failures and successes like any manager. I am grateful that my experience as a leader helps me understand the challenges and needs of my clients. I have been a member of ICF Global Board of Directors for the past three years, and was its Chairman in 2019. Our mission is to serve our community of coaches from around the world, to bring the profession to the next level and to facilitate access to coaching.
CoachHub: Why and how did you become a coach?
Jean-François Cousin: I made the decision to become a coach a little more than 14 years ago when I was an executive in the Lafarge group. Along my corporate career, it had always been important for me to support my teams and help them develop and blossom. I also wanted to contribute to making our world a better place. So I undertook a training course in coaching. Fourteen years ago, coaching was in vogue in the United States, well established in Europe, but not yet in Asia where I had a lot of contacts after more than 8 years of career in that continent. So I came back to Thailand, where I had been a Country Managing Director for more than 5 years, and launched my coaching business there.
CoachHub: Can you describe a coaching session with you in crisis time?
Jean-François Cousin: Before each session, I need to center myself in order to adopt my most supportive coaching posture. Many of my clients come to coaching with mountains of topics to discuss, especially in times of crisis. Very often, they are still in their managerial role, talk fast and have difficulty settling down. They often don’t know what they’re really need to focus on. So I help them to focus, become mindful, breathe and take their time to express themselves. Then we attempt to “extract the gold from the ore”, in other words, to understand what is most important in the client’s challenging situation. Then we dive into the client’s inner wisdom, experience and knowledge and confront her or his fears, doubts and questions-marks, and then surface solutions to the challenges at hands. The coach is humbly at the client’s side to support them in this work of exploration and to challenge them, even in the most delicate situations. This is what we are supposed to do as a coach: to challenge our client with the conviction that they are creative and resourceful enough to face all their challenges and overcome them on their own. Of course, we offer all our benevolence. It is often in those moments of challenge that the true potential of the coachee appears. The client becomes aware of all the resources he has deep inside him, of his maturity, of his greatness, which he did not even imagine he had before then. I find that extremely rewarding for both the client and the coach.
CoachHub: Could you tell us about the ICF? What is its role?
Jean-François Cousin: The mission of the International Coaching Federation is to develop the coaching profession worldwide so that coaching becomes an integral part of society and helps it thrive. We do this, as the largest association of coaches world-wide, by setting high professional standards for coach training, providing independent certification and creating a global network of coaching professionals. Our mission is also to support our community of coaches through various means such as communities of practices, chapter events at local level, research, congresses and awards. Our ICF Foundation provides access to coaching for people who could not otherwise afford it. The primary goal of the ICF is to contribute to a better world by awakening everyone to their own potential and consciousness. And I believe that this is also the motivation of every coach and the very essence of the profession. To be a coach, you have to be humble and dearly aspire to help your coachees become aware of their assets and potential. It is these values of humility, mutual aid and sharing that we promote within the ICF. We have a fabulous, very active community of exceptional coaches of all nationalities.
CoachHub: What types of profiles do you coach?
Jean-François Cousin: Today, I mainly coach senior executives, managing directors, leaders, chair persons of executive committees, company founders and CEOs of start-ups. More and more start-up creators are calling on my services, and they inspire me enormously. My clients often have issues related to decision making in their organisations. To be able to make valuable decisions, you need to know how to calm yourself down first, assess the situation and determine several possible scenarios. My role is to help these leaders take a break from their stressful environment and accompany them and challenge them in their decision-making process. As you know, coaches never give their opinion or solutions, because only the coachee can find the best solutions for their situation. Today, we live in a complex world which evolves very quickly, sometimes even brutally. Companies are confronted with loss of income, redundancies, closures, late payments – the future is increasingly uncertain. Senior executives are often required to make decisions just as quickly as the situation evolves. Helping them consider all possible scenarios and decision-outcomes is part of my job. Recently, one of my clients had to restructure his company. None of the scenarios he was considering was ideal. Being able to accompany him in this touch situation and then seeing solid progress afterward in the company’s health was a particularly rewarding experience.
CoachHub: You recently published an article sharing your advice about how to become a good leader in times of crisis. Can you summarize for us here?
Jean-François Cousin: Absolutely, it is an article I published on my Linkedin profile. To reduce the harmful effects of the crisis, I recommend giving autonomy to the employees -within reason- in order to see how far they are able to go on their own without becoming exhausted. This allows employees to take responsibility. It is also important to nurture a winning mindset, to sideline personal issues so as to take the best care of the greater good and to ensure that teams feel united and ready to take up and overcome challenges together. Fostering and leveraging diversity is also essential because it helps to find innovative solutions to the problems created by the crisis. Dealing with a new obstacle with old processes does not usually succeed. Diversity bolsters creativity, which is a critical element for rebounding from the crisis. I also advocate valuing courage and initiative. Failure is part of corporate life and you learn a lot about yourself and others when you fail and take the lessons. Building a culture that values courage and initiative-taking helps employees to take risks. Another tip: allow productive conflicts! Consensus does not always make it possible to move fast enough in times of crisis. Employees must discuss all of their ideas without pressure or judgment within their team, so that collective intelligence emerges from the team’s discussion.
CoachHub: You have written a book in a fable form, entitled ‘Game Changers at the Circus: how leaders can unleash Greatness in their organisations‘, which addresses the problems of team managers at companies. What will the reader find in this book?
Jean-François Cousin: This book invites the reader to delve deep within herself or himself, to discover the leader that lies dormant within them. The fable at a circus presents animals which – at the beginning – have many toxic behaviours. We find for example an aggressive and territorial lion, a very protective elephant, a rational and solitary eagle… Those animals represent archetypal managers profiles. Then the fable shows how companies can practically evolve leadership styles to unleash their full potential for value creation. In order to achieve success together, teams must be able to rely on authentic leadership. Some harmful behaviours have a very detrimental impact on different levels of the company. The book aims to help managers find their innate potential and develop it to positively transform their relationships, their work environment and reach great heights with their teams. A ‘leadership workbook’ completes the fable, with very practical insights and steps to take for leaders to unleash greatness within themselves, their co-workers, their teams and their organization.
CoachHub: According to you, what are the essential skills to be a good manager nowadays?
Jean-François Cousin: First quality: being able to help your employees develop a healthy self-esteem at work. If subordinates believe that they are not good enough, they will tend to adopt toxic behaviours such as denigrating the company, their colleagues, spreading rumors, or confronting their hierarchy in a non-constructive way… Second quality: to develop one’s skills as a manager-coach. A manager who will be able to adopt a coach posture will find it easier to get the best from co-workers vs. employing a directive management style. A manager-coach will also know how to federate and motivate their subordinates. Finally, a good manager must be authentic and humble. When leaders allow themselves to be authentic and humble in front of employees, they give employees the permission to be authentic and humble as well. This gives team members the opportunity to talk openly, to help each other, to apologise, to fail… It creates a fertile ground for collaboration and agility.
CoachHub: What are the challenges facing beginning coaches today?
Jean-François Cousin: It seems to me that there are two main pitfalls to avoid when one starts a coaching career: a lack of humility and the impostor syndrome. A coach must be humble in their posture, so that the client is humble too, and then holds nothing back from the coaching conversation. A coach who suffers from the impostor syndrome will not be able to be fully authentic. The principle of coaching is to release the potential of the coachee, by uncovering his talents, challenging him supportively, allowing them to think at their best and then make decisions and take actions. The main actor is always the client. To create a fertile alliance with the coachee, the coach must show her or himself as they are, without trying to impress the client. The ICF recommends employing a mentor to overcome doubts, especially when you are just starting out. I strongly encourage budding coaches – and more experienced ones as well – to choose an inspiring mentor who will help them to reveal themselves as a coach in all of their authenticity. I benefit tremendously from being continuously mentored or coached or supervised myself.
CoachHub: What is your opinion about the trend of digital coaching?
Jean-François Cousin: Two things come to mind. An essential goal of coaching is to awaken individuals to the immensity of their potential. The ICF makes this its main mission. We believe that if every individual has access to quality coaching, our world will be a far better and more sustainable place. Therefore, the democratisation of coaching is important. However, and this is my second point, in order for coaching to be really effective, it is absolutely necessary that coaches access to excellent training courses and continuously further their education. If coaches are not sufficiently trained, if they are not supervised or mentored throughout their career, if they do not have access to the best content, then the standards of the profession will gradually deteriorate. Being a coach is not an amateur activity. The profession is subject to robustly defined standards and benefits from strict ICF certification processes. We wish the democratization of coaching-that-works. To do this, the coaches, which start-ups like CoachHub recruit, must prove their professional credentials, then they will offer real added value. Amateur coaching can be detrimental, for the company, for the coachee and risk weakening -over time- the excellent image of our profession. Companies must have access to a pool of excellent coaches, gathered on the basis of professional certification and performance, so that the client can benefit from excellent coaching and engage in the process with complete confidence.
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