Ann-Mari Freebairn, executive coach

Ann-Mari Freebairn, executive coach

Ann-Mari Freebairn is an executive coach and a career coach. She first worked with Louise in the late 90s when Louise freelanced for an agency Ann-Mari worked for. After that, Louise set up Amazon PR. Ann-Mari moved into charity communications, rising rapidly through the ranks and occasionally appointing us on PR campaigns. She’s a certified executive coach and licensed career coach and has been coaching professionally for three years.


Coaching from home


Louise: Although lockdown has been eased, the majority of office workers are still based at home. Presumably that is the case for most of your clients. Have you (and they) been able to adapt easily to working remotely rather than meeting face-to-face?


Ann-Mari: I consider myself quite fortunate as I was already conducting about 80% of my individual coaching sessions online when lockdown started. The remaining 20% were more than happy to move online. Since then, those who had a preference for working face-to-face have told me that they find coaching equally powerful online, so nobody seems to be in any hurry to go back to meeting face-to-face.


Personally, I’m a great believer in coaching online and find the connection is equally deep. Often people feel less inhibited than they would in a face-to-face session, which can be very helpful in a coaching context.


Several of our contacts are discovering the upsides to running events and holding meetings online. Some have told us that although something is lost, the advantages (greater reach, time saved not travelling, lower costs, reduced environmental impact) outweigh the disadvantages – and they plan to continue to deliver some of their work online, long-term. Do you feel the same, or are you desperate to get back to operating as we did before?


Because part of my offering is facilitation and workshop delivery, I’ve been taking a number of training courses to learn about delivering workshops online and one thing I’ve been surprised to discover is that the digital format is not a lesser version of the in-person workshop; it’s simply a different environment.


Of course, you can’t replicate online all of the wonderful advantages of in-person workshops, but there are many new opportunities and potentials in the digital sphere to be explored and capitalised on, on top of all the practical benefits you mentioned.


So for example, I was supposed to launch a year-long programme of coaching workshops for disadvantaged young women in April, and it had to be put on hold due to lockdown so I’m about to launch it in a digital format. I’m now actually excited about what we can do with the extended reach and the new opportunities and tools we have at our disposal.


I know that in your previous roles, you have navigated significant organisational change. I imagine you are guiding many people now through quite fundamental shifts, not all of which will be positive. What is your advice for people who are struggling to focus and to plan while so much is in flux?


Well of course, the natural reaction is to begin by focussing on all the problems which need to be fixed. But first, I believe it’s important to step back and take a bigger view. As the saying goes ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste’ so we also need to acknowledge the positive changes, the opportunities and the innovations, that this crisis has led to.


For example, a number of my clients have told me that some of the solutions which they had been calling for in their organisations prior to Covid – solutions which were considered too difficult, too expensive or too impractical – were suddenly implemented in a matter of weeks once the lockdown kicked in. Remote working is just one example of this.


“So my advice would be for people to ask themselves some of the questions my clients have been exploring in their coaching sessions: what are the positives that have come out of the last six months? What do we want to hold onto and build on? And, conversely, what isn’t working and isn’t fit for the new post-Covid world we’re preparing for?”


Some of the decisions that need to be made will be very painful. We’re already seeing huge casualties in the form of mass redundancies both in the commercial world and in the charity sector. So I’m not saying this is going to be easy. But it’s clear our world is changing, and organisations will need to adapt and change to play their part in the new post-Covid world.

What difference does it make?


I reckon one of the reasons I got my business off the ground was my willingness to recognise not what I was good at, but what I was rubbish at. And to ask for help from anyone willing to give it to me! I was extremely fortunate to have had the support of a coach, so I know the difference coaching can make – especially for people who are in fairly solitary positions (which many leaders are). Is coaching just for senior executives and leaders though, or can it have a significant role in the development of more junior staff (beyond, for example, the impact a line manager can have)?


Like you, I was lucky enough to work with an executive coach in my first director-level role. The shift from “head of” to “director” is such a challenging step to take, and it can feel very lonely, as you say. I don’t think I would have been able to make that transition successfully without the support of a coach. It’s so vital to have someone who can be both your sounding board and your champion.


I believe that all professionals can benefit from coaching, whatever stage of their career they’re at. Although the majority of my clients are senior executives and leaders, a proportion are young professionals who are relatively junior. A young client in her late twenties recently said that she’d found the coaching ‘career-changing’ and her boss remarked that she was ‘actually surprised by how valuable her team had found it’. So both the client and the organisation are receiving the benefits.


You mostly work with women. Is that because there are fewer formal structures to support women’s career development and fewer women in leadership positions to act as role models and mentors?


You’re right, most of my clients tend to be women, though I do work with a number of male clients as well. One of the key issues for women leaders is that senior management tends to be a male-dominated environment and the leadership models we’re presented with often rely on a more authoritarian approach which many women don’t feel comfortable with. When we try to replicate that model and adopt behaviours which don’t come naturally to us, we can end up feeling like an imposter and fall victim to ‘Imposter Syndrome’.


Working with a coach helped me understand the importance of finding and developing my own style of leadership, which is what I’d now describe as a coaching leadership style, although I wasn’t aware of that term back then. So I guess one of my roles as a coach is helping professionals discover their own, authentic leadership style rather than conforming to the prevailing models they see around them.


My guess would be that leaders and senior comms professionals in charities face entirely different challenges to those in commercial organisations. You work across the different sectors – is that your experience?


Working across a range of commercial and not-for-profit organisations, I’ve discovered that at the end of the day, whether it’s a global corporation producing widgets or a homelessness charity, leadership issues and communications challenges are fundamentally the same. Now more than ever, senior professionals are being pulled in multiple directions at once and they often end up feeling overwhelmed which impacts on their decision-making. My job is often simply to help them regain a more objective perspective and refocus on what’s really important.


“The key is to ask the right questions. It’s not about giving advice; it’s about helping clients tap into the knowledge, wisdom and experience that they already have.”


I wonder if people feel that coaching is a luxury. Is it accessible for all?


One thing I’ve never felt completely comfortable with is that coaching appears out of reach for many people. It can seem like it’s only something for senior professionals or the privileged few. In response, I’m launching a programme called Young Women for Change at the end of September. It’s a year-long programme of confidence-building workshops for disadvantaged young women. The course will be subsidised, and we’ll have a sliding scale to make it affordable for people who are unemployed or on a low income. According to research from the Young Women’s Trust, women of this age group have been particularly hard hit by Covid, so it feels timely to be launching this programme right now.

Forces for change


Before you became a coach, you spent 15 years working in senior comms roles in several military charities. Has that had an impact on your coaching style? How challenging are you, and how do you make sure your clients are accountable?


Yes, it’s funny that I ended up working in military charities for so long! The sector was going through a lot of change and I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time when interesting new roles came up. The Armed Forces were at the top of the news agenda throughout that period, which made it a particularly interesting time to be involved.


However, I don’t believe that being in the sector for so long has impacted my coaching style in any way. I have never found the values and behaviours we traditionally associate with the military particularly helpful in a work or coaching environment. Military culture is designed to support servicepeople who are training for physical combat. It’s a completely different context.


Also, given that most of my clients tend to be professional women who are driven but lack confidence, I find a challenging style can be counter-productive. Clients are often so busy beating themselves up that it’s more helpful to bring an attitude of empathy and curiosity to the situation.


For example, I have a client who’s the CEO of a small charity. She had a habit of avoiding difficult conversations with her staff which was clearly very detrimental to the organisation. So I invited her to explore what’s behind her avoidance and once she became clearer about her motivations, she stopped shying away from those conversations. She’s already feeling the positive impact on both herself and the wider organisation. That’s the type of approach I prefer to take.


We have worked together many times over the past couple of decades. I have always thought that (in all your roles) one of your strongest skills is recognising what other people can offer and putting teams together to deliver outstanding results. Perhaps you have always been a coach at heart?


Thanks, that’s kind of you! Looking back, I think it’s true that I’ve always had good instincts about people. Whenever I was in a position to set up or restructure a team, I ended up recruiting a great bunch of hard-working, talented people. The same goes for the agencies I chose to work with, including Amazon PR of course!


Some of the best moments of my comms career were when I brought in-house teams together with external agencies to create stand-out campaigns, projects or events. You and I worked on several projects like that. It was so gratifying when it all came together, we achieved what we set out to do and even won some awards too!


In terms of ‘always being a coach at heart’, coaching seems to bring together all of the skills and competencies I’ve developed in my 20 years as a communications professional and my teaching roles prior to that. So I feel very fortunate to have found work that brings together all the elements of those jobs that I loved the best and found the most rewarding.


If you could go back in time, to when you started out in comms, what advice would you give your younger self? If that Ann-Mari had had a coach, would your career have developed differently?


“First and foremost, I would have said believe in yourself! I spent so much of my career driven by a deep belief that I wasn’t good enough, particularly as I took on more senior roles. I wish I’d known that Imposter Syndrome is a common issue for many female professionals and that it has no real bearing on our actual performance or achievements.”


Secondly, I would tell myself to get really clear about my values and stay true to those, even when it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Decisions, which I’ve later regretted, have come about because I overrode my own convictions in an attempt to fit in or win approval. So one of the first things I ask clients to do is to clarify their values. These become a kind of compass we can use to navigate through life while staying true to ourselves. And in the end, I believe that’s the best way to achieve the happiness and fulfilment we’re all looking for!


Interview originally published in August 2020.