Elizabeth Coffey, Founder and CEO
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” —Socrates.
Socrates believed in challenging a person’s thinking in a constructive way to surface new insights previously outside of their awareness. This approach is the foundation for Elizabeth Coffey in the universe of leadership development. An internationally recognised consultant, author and speaker, Elizabeth is the founder of Spark Leadership, focused on helping CEOs and their successors think, plan, and lead change in their organisations.
Elizabeth was inspired by her parents, who imparted in her a strong sense of leadership from her early childhood. Her father, a Professor of Philosophy and the History of Science, taught his children the subjects he was teaching undergraduate and graduate students. As a girl of eight or nine, Elizabeth learned the Socratic Method of Questioning, and she practised it when her friends or acquaintances came to her with problems. “Socratic Method became part of my DNA,” she recalls.
Her mother, who was unwell, gave the responsibility of managing the household as well as taking care of younger siblings to Elizabeth and her brother, who were six and nine years old. These experiences engendered in her a sense of responsibility and leadership. Her passion was such that even on a family holiday, if she were missing, her family would assume she would be questioning the most senior leader available at the holiday destination.
From helping people solve their problems for free during her formative years, Elizabeth started her professional journey to coaching executives at board director level. As early as 1995, Elizabeth was coaching senior leaders professionally, which evolved her practice beyond Socratic Method towards a fusion with Mentoring.
Her first professional work was with an organisation focusing on one-to-one leadership coaching and top team development mostly in the UK marketplace. She translated her learnings in a book called 10 Things That Keep CEOs Awake - And How to Put Them to Bed, published by McGraw-Hill. This catapulted her reputation in the rare space of chief executive development, and soon she was approached by CEOs of large organisations for their coaching needs.
Soon, she was headhunted by Mercer Delta – a renowned New York-based Organisation Development Consulting firm working with Global 500 CEOs. Her work involved developing CEO Successors of large organisations to take up the Chief Executive roles in their companies. Mercer Delta appointed Elizabeth as Head of the Leadership Division of their new venture at London. “I learnt a great deal about developing individuals and top teams in my first company and about developing organisations in the second company,” says Elizabeth.
By 2005, she was sought after in the market and had two job offers from prestigious organisations. However, her friends had long been suggesting that Elizabeth start her own firm. During her tenure at both development companies, she had met other consultants who had similar working styles and also ones who had different expertise. She formed a team, and Spark Leadership was born with the motto: ‘changing leaders, leading change’.
It is all about opening the minds of senior leaders regarding how leadership can feel and sound different to what they’re used to
Spark Leadership does two kinds of primary work: “We’re developing leaders and helping them to plan and execute change in their enterprise,” says Elizabeth. With more than 150 clients across industry verticals, the company provides coaching and mentoring to CEOs and Board level leaders of large multi-nationals. Elizabeth has an excellent reputation for developing CEOs from Successors. This work is tailored to the organisation, to the strategic situation and to the strengths and development areas of the individual.
The second strand is top team development: Spark Leadership develops the capability of Executive Boards to optimize their performance as teams. The company designs and delivers a host of leadership workshops on topics like “Strategic Influencing, Managing Conflict, and Leading Change” to educate CEOs and board-level executives about specific topics.
Third, Spark Leadership advises CEOs and Board Executives about how best to change their companies. They provide in-depth guidance on vision and strategy, then facilitate high level planning to operationalize the agreed direction.
Cultivating Diverse Leadership Styles
Spark Leadership imparts knowledge to senior leaders about diverse leadership styles. “It is all about opening the minds of senior leaders regarding how leadership can feel and sound different to what they’re used to,” says Elizabeth. This becomes extremely important when diverse leaders take up prominent roles and need the support of the majority. If the leadership culture is not welcoming, these rare talents often leave the organisation.
Elizabeth has co-authored a couple of books on innovative approaches to diversity and inclusion at leader level. Her consulting in this sphere to the UK government and to big corporates in the UK, North America, India and the UAE have been high impact, creating lasting improvements at Board level and in leadership cultures.
In 2016, ADNOC’s CEO committed publically to advancing women into senior roles by 2020, including appointing at least one woman as CEO. Spark Leadership designed a tailored three strand program of Accelerated Leadership Development for senior women and men. A few high potential women received intensive leadership coaching. Elizabeth delivered six leadership workshops to the top 75 female leaders covering topics like Strategic Influencing, Leading Change and Managing Conflict.
She taught the group’s most senior men and women mutual mentoring and gender culture to sensitise leaders to assumptions and cultural barriers across gender differences. Result? Within 6 months, two women were elevated to CEO roles for the first time in history for the oil and gas sector in the Middle East region. The top 75 female leaders reported learning a lot, getting a boost to their confidence and progressing faster than before. Both senior men and women described a more inclusive leadership culture.