AC Chief Executive & Co-Founder, Katherine Tulpa, interviews Abi Comber, Head of Brands and Marketing at British Airways, and her executive coach, Adrienne Candy, to find out their recipe for success
I met Abi Comber through the Marketing Academy, a UK charity supported by, amongst others, the Association for Coaching, McKinsey, and Wisdom8 – with a mission to take the best in Marketing, from Generation Y through to board-level, and develop them ‘to become the leaders of tomorrow’. After a rigorous selection process, Abi was selected into the Academy alongside 14 other high achieving marketing leaders to equip them with the skills and capability to become future CEOs. As part of the programme, she was gifted Executive Coach, Adrienne Candy, who is part of Wisdom8's coaching team supporting the academy.
Abi is responsible for BA’s global strategic development and marketing activities – in short, anything that touches or impacts the brand. She also leads the corporate community investment programme, worldwide. Adrienne has worked for the past 20 years as an organizational development consultant and Executive Coach, internationally, and is a founding member of the AC in Ireland.
Privileged to know them both, I took the opportunity to talk with both Abi and Adrienne - two very successful and inspiring women – about their partnership, coaching journey and creating success as a woman leader:
KT: What do you attribute your success to?
Abi: My commitment, insight, and loyalty; being a fluent communicator, who makes building brands an area of strategic importance. A great deal of my initial success was showing proven capability in my area - you need to be good at what you do.
KT: As a global leader of a global brand, what qualities do you see as the most important for a leader to be, and feel, successful, today?
Abi: Having the resilience, determination, and passion to make whatever you do mean something! Having emotional connections with employees, the brand (organization), and consumers of the brand – this creates desire. Also, setting a clear direction and purpose for all employees, and increasing their confidence to get out there. Finally, to enjoy it!
KT: And how do you successfully lead a global team? I know you have people spread across many continents, which some leaders find difficult to manage. What is essential?
Abi: You need clear direction and purpose, to connect to meaning. It’s about professional and personal purpose, so that everyone sees the part that they play; and sees themselves as part of the whole.
KT: Can you tell me a little more about the worldwide community investment programme you're leading and the airlines reputation in the community?
Abi: It’s a global corporate partnership with Comic relief which has raised over £6.5 m in the last three years through the efforts of our colleagues and customers to help change children's lives.
Our other partnerships cover over 40 projects involved in Community and Conservation work, such as Haller, who assist in building sustainable communities through building water projects and the Sheldrake Foundation that supports orphaned Elephants to save the species and also educate the community about conservation.
KT) It sounds like a programme that really is making a difference. How do you, or others, describe how you lead?
Abi: Someone who is not afraid to challenge! Someone who embraces the richness of a global role, who surrounds herself with ‘betters’, made up of different skills and capabilities......Also, that I lead through my values, in particular around being authentic, open and honest.
KT: What motivates you to be your best?
Abi: One of my motivators is recognition of achievement. Whether it comes from receiving an award, such as the recent No.1 Superbrand, or positive feedback from a team member. Also, through working with my coach. Recognition makes me want to do more and give more.
KT: What about working with your colleagues. What is important in creating strong peer relationships?
Abi: We need to stay connected – no matter what form that takes when leading a global company – especially around our vision. To have common objectives, and communicate well.
KT: What about being a woman in a global leadership role?
Abi: I believe it’s all about who you are as a whole. Your leadership style, not your gender, is what should define you. Also to be authentic and true to what really drives you and your beliefs because that is when you will perform at your best and become a great role model.
KT: What advice would you be giving 'you' at this stage in your career?
Abi: Listen to hear, not to respond!
KT: The Marketing Academy has recognised you as being one of the best leaders in marketing, giving you a year-long programme to develop further as a C-Suite executive. What does being a Fellow on the Marketing Academy mean to you?
Abi: This is a tremendous learning opportunity, as the programme prepares us for CEO readiness. It’s also hugely valuable to be amongst a community of peers, who are all asking themselves about their next steps as a leader. It’s a really safe learning environment.
KT: What drove you to apply, for it’s certainly a big commitment in addition to your demanding ‘day job’?
Abi: When I took up the Fellowship opportunity, I was coming up
towards 2 years in my current role. Others were asking, as I was asking myself: “What next, Abi?” I love this job; it is the job I had in my sights – my ‘mark on the wall’! I realised it was now time to look forward and decide what my next “mark on the wall” might be.
KT: Tell me about your experiences of working with your Coach, Adrienne.
Abi: Firstly, the opportunity to work with both Academy Mentors (e.g. non-execs, CEOs) and a Coach has really made it work so well for me. Adrienne as my coach, was an excellent match. While I’ve worked with coaches before, Adrienne, in particular is able to understand the ‘whole you’. I came into coaching expecting answers, but working with Adrienne has led to me asking myself even more questions! As a result, I’m thinking more clearly and making better decisions, as I see more when I slow down. I’m responding to challenges more effectively and getting even better outcomes.
KT: Could you say a bit more about Adrienne’s approach or style as a coach?
Abi: Adrienne helps me to be ‘my best self’. She helps me think about my goals and what barriers I may be facing. She then works with me to see how I go about being my ‘best self’ in this job, today, as well as moving towards an ever bigger picture. And it is so enjoyable to have these conversations; we have a real laugh as well as covering the challenging work.
KT: In what ways has working with your Coach on this programme helped you stretch further as a leader?
Abi: Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know, so having the benefit of working with a coach’s insight, experience and feedback is enormously helpful. What’s great is that this coaching has helped me de-construct my thinking, and to see totally different, and broader possibilities.
On a day-to-day level, even under huge pressure, I am now more able to respond rather than react. To balance everyones needs, while remaining focussed on getting the job done. Coaching is opening my mind to see a broader world of ideas and future success. For a business, this is true investment.
KT: Adrienne, I’d now like to ask you to provide a lens from the Coach’s perspective: What background and experience do you bring to your Coaching?
Adrienne: In addition to coaching and psychotherapy qualifications (Psychosynthesis and Group Analysis) I have a background in international marketing. Experience-wise, I have been fortunate to work with CEO's, Boards and Senior Executives in a wide range of companies, internationally. This has enabled me to learn a great deal about how successful organisations change and develop. But for me the core is about being authentic with the client - realising and bringing the whole of who you are, so the client can encounter the whole of who they are....It's a bit like going to a 3D movie without the glasses; having a good coach should be like putting on the glasses and seeing everything in 3D and more.
KT: With regard to your coaching with Abi, what has contributed to your success?
Adrienne: Well, Abi is certainly up for the challenge. As Warren Bennis said ‘the process of becoming an effective leader is no different than the process of becoming a fully integrated human being’. This is the journey that we’re on together. We look at both the transactional (doing) side of leadership, as well as the transformational (being) side, as she explores what it takes to be a successful CEO.
KT: Please share with us how you do that as a Coach?
Adrienne: It’s mostly about the ‘being’. I do whatever it takes to be really present with the client - to be so focussed in our conversations that I truly hear what is and is not being said. I endeavor to pick up the personal, professional, business and systemic issues, as well as the head-heart-body-mind dimensions; and then finding the right language to mirror this back to the client.
KT: Your words are great reminders of the importance of presence, and the fundamental skills for coaches to truly ‘be’ and attune to their client’s 'whole’system. The quality of the coaching relationship, too, is an essential component for a successful outcome – and this is beautifully apparent here... thank you, Abi and Adrienne for sharing your leadership and coaching success. Keep inspiring others, and making a difference.
Katherine Tulpa is the Global CEO of the Association for Coaching, and Co-founder of Wisdom8, an international coaching practice, specializing in working with global leaders and their teams. She also sits on the International Editorial Board for the AC Global Bulletin.