So what does the BREXIT vote mean for executive coaches?

"UK voting to leave and finding out there may be some regret the day after" by Mhairi Montgomery

"UK voting to leave and finding out there may be some regret the day after" by Mhairi Montgomery

I was inspired by a question raised by the good coach about the impact of coaching following the Brexit vote.  And I've been doing quite a few hours of coaching with a number of different clients following Brexit who have raised their concerns and I generalise below.

Quick update of the situation

The EU referendum result has created a considerable uncertainty across the country, in the markets, for businesses considering investments, for exchange rates, and for EU citizens working in the UK and UK citizens working in EU countries.   

  • What did the Leave campaign actually mean when they encouraged us to take control of our borders?

  • What will our access to the Single Market cost?

Some Banks have already declared that they will move UK jobs into Europe.  There are mixed messages about what the economy is doing.  Sterling exchange rates have shifted significantly, favouring exporters and disadvantageous for importers.   David Cameron has resigned as PM and replaced by Theresa May, Nigel Farage has stepped down as UKIP leader (again), Boris is Foreign Secretary, Michael Gove is sacked, and Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure from the Parliamentary Labour Party and in a leadership election with Owen Smith.  The Scots are unhappy with exiting the EU and making independence noises again. Who knows what the future hold for the UK?

What is our role as coaches amidst this uncertainty?

My coaching style sits at the non-directive end of the coaching spectrum. That means, I do not see it as my job to tell my clients what they should be thinking, or how to interpret their personal and business circumstances, or even what decisions they should be making. What I do is bring lots of support, empathy and encouragement, questions and observations, and an ability to create a space in the uncertainty in which they can pause and think.  This may seem like a luxury in the busy-ness, pressure and current urgency (perhaps this is even our new normal).   As an old boss of mine once said – when you face a major challenge, I want to see you thinking before you act!  

I have noticed that in corporations today, it is easy to be operating like a “human doing” consumed by the task list and too many emails rather than as Human Beings.   One way to reconnect with ourselves as “human beings” is to find space to pause and to think.  As coaches we can model, through our presence, pace and calmness, that thinking space in which there is no one driving the agenda other than our client. This maybe the only meeting in which they are not being advised or told what to do.

What are the implications for executive coaches working with leaders in the UK and how we work with our clients? 

As a coach we may work with professionals who sit on both sides of the Referendum vote.  Regardless of the result, though, there is a parallel playing out with some of our clients and the desire of both Remain and Leave campaigns to create apparent certainty; a sense of certainty of the future that tends to:

  • Create a partial world view that is certain – either black or white, and encourages the gathering of the evidence to support that view and dismissal of contrary evidence. Unfortunately, this can limit the options and possibilities that are really available to us.

  • Seek that sense of control. When we experience a loss of control we can feel threatened and that triggers our limbic flight, fight or freeze response which shuts down our thinking capacity.

I have spoken with clients and sponsors since the vote, who are worried about losing EU employees and fearing a skill shortage; who are holding off making investments and are seeing their sector freeze in the face of the uncertainty. 

In reflecting on what my clients have shared, and the work we have done in coaching, three things come to mind:

  1. Goals and Their Importance

  2. Circles of Control and Influence

  3. Possibilities and Options

Goals and Their Importance

The first thing that I am reminded of is the importance of clear goals and desired outcomes.  We have re-established the clarity of what my client wants from their coaching.  Often in times of great change and uncertainty, as we face now both professionally and personally following Brexit, it is difficult to remain clear about what we want and why it is important. It is easy to be distracted by the unknowns and trying to make sense of what has just happened.   It was necessary to spend time on re-creating a clear and specific vision of what outcome my client wanted to create.  This re-establishes the platform on which the coaching session and the assignment is built. 

Key learning: Enquiring about what makes this outcome important starts to uncover the motivation and commitment to it. This well-formed outcome, should be positively stated and within their control, and give them an outcome that when it is achieved, is actually what they want. By reconnecting with what the client really wants, times of uncertainty and chaos can reveal opportunities thrown up by the new circumstances.

Circles of Control and Influence and Concern

One of my clients came into the session clearly agitated and upset, and proceeded to vent his anger and frustration with both Remain and Leave side’s ineptitude, lying, incompetence, cowardice, ignorance, etc. etc. He then bemoaned the uncertainty and how powerless he felt in the face of not knowing what the immediate and long term future holds. 

Once he had run out of steam, and regained his cool, we started to explore what he did know and what is in his control and influence.   This idea, first introduced by Stephen Covey in “7 Habits of Effective Leaders” and adapted since, helped me to help my client separate the things that concern him into three categories;

  • the things we have control over,

  • the things we can influence, and

  • the things that concern us yet are outside of our control and influence.

I have used this analysis to help clients recognise where they are currently placing their attention, and decide where it is most useful for their energy and attention to be focussed instead.  I have noticed that this allows them to let go of the desire to control everything, especially those things that are outside our control, and begin to to accept that things happen even if they don’t want them to.  It allowed them to start making contingency plans, and to spend their time and energy more productively.   This helps them to step out of the potential roles of Victim (feeling and acting helpless) or Persecutor (blaming others) within the Drama Triangle (Karpman), and instead to step into Choy’s Winner’s triangle by choosing an appropriate response and regaining their own power within the situation.  This was re-empowering, and re-focussing for my Brexit client. 

Key learning no 1: What is in our control? We can control our choices of response to the new circumstances, to the emotions that they are evoking in us. We can control our thinking and importantly our mind set. Being able to access an “I’m OK, You’re OK” mind set (from transactional analysis Life Positions) can help us to be at our best in any given situation, and invites others to join us in that mind set.

Key learning no 2: What can we influence? We can influence more that we may imagine. How our team responds to the referendum outcomes through the example we set in our behaviour and words and body language. How our business prepares for the various scenarios that may play out. The way we share our perspectives with colleagues and friends.

Key learning no 3: What is concerning us yet not in our control or influence? These are the things that can consume a lot of energy and attention, in a very unhelpful way if we let them. It is easy to create a feeling of helplessness (“I’m not OK, You’re not OK”) when our attention is focussed on these items rather than on the things we can control and influence. It may be more useful to keep an eye on these areas of concern to monitor how they are changing and evolving so that we can adapt those things in our control and influence to respond to the changing circumstances.

Possibilities and Options

The third approach I’ve applied, arose from a need for certainty and the potential dilemma that that created for another client.  This client asked for my support in making a choice between two unattractive options.  She could go ahead, at great risk, with a planned project which had already had considerable time and effort invested in it or cancel the project in the light of the uncertainty and risk losing the potential benefits.   It was important to her to choose one of these unattractive options.   

Dilemmas are interesting beasts, they appear as clear choices between two clear options. However often the simplicity of the dilemma duality is hiding other possible options.  

So, when I heard my client describing the situation in such black or white terms and struggling to choose, I invited her to pause, and take a few moments to explore what other possibilities exist.    Starting with re checking the overall outcome purpose and expected benefits from the project we then brainstormed possible ways forward.  Early on we included the craziest idea she could think of, which I find often unleashes creativity, and puts judgement to one side while ideas come forth.  After a short time, she had several viable options to choose from and made a plan to slow the project overall and to press ahead where she had sufficient data and confidence to generate enough benefit for the investment. She also came up with how she would communicate this to her stakeholders.

Key learning no 1: Recognise the limiting duality of a dilemma.

Key learning no 2: Invite exploration of other possible options that lie in between the extremes being described.

Key learning no 3: What limiting assumptions are being made that is reducing the situation to black or white – what is hiding the shades of grey? (Nancy Kline offers a way to challenge limiting assumptions in her book “More Time to Think”.)

As coaches, I believe that one of our roles is to create a calm space for our clients to pause from the busy-ness of business and to think clearly, to shift gear from Human Doing back to Human Being.  

In all three reflections I have shared above, what strikes me most is that the opportunity to stop and spend some quality thinking time with someone who is really present, and supportive, and challenging without judgement is common to them all.   The short oasis of time to step out of the hustle and bustle of the task focussed business, full of distractions and demands on attention, is missing for most executives today.  It is not surprising that mindfulness is a popular buzzword in the workplace.  I could see my clients visibly slow down, and pause for thought during our sessions, reconnecting to themselves and disconnecting from the Human Doing they spend so much time as.

So what does the BREXIT vote mean for us executive coaches?  

I suspect, that like our clients, it means facing not knowing how things will work out, and not having the answers and experiencing all the feeling of vulnerability that not knowing evokes in us.  What will we do in the face of those feelings of uncertainty and perhaps even fear?  We could try to create a sense of apparent knowing and certainty.  Or we can walk beside our clients sharing the journey into the unknown together, sharing the not knowing the answer, and trusting that the client will with our support, listening and questions find a way forward.  With respect to what we do as coaches, is BREXIT really any different from any other fast changing moving, challenging, new situation our executive clients face?   

I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the coach’s role in the present Brexit Britain.



A. Choy (1990) The winner’s triangle. Transactional Analysis Journal, 20 (1), 40.
M.D.S. Karpman (1968) Fairytales and script drama analysis, Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 26 (7) 39-43.
Nancy Kline (2015) More Time to Think, the power of independent thinking, Cassell, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.
Stephen Covey (2004) Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Published by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd.
Thomas A. Harris (2012) I’m OK, You’re OK, published by Arrow Books