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Coaching and training international leaders under pressure

Critical times put leaders and their teams under pressure, and working across cultures further complicates matters. “Annual performance reviews are approaching, and discussions are not going to be pleasant,” the Asia HR Director of a global automotive company told me recently about their multinational management team. “Everything is changing,” the Vice President of a European machinery firm told me. “This is not what our managers signed up for. How can they guide and motivate when they are under immense personal pressure?” These firms are the rule, not the exception these days. Slowing economies face managers with uncertain bonuses and promotions. Digitalisation and competition from emerging markets challenge their remaining sense of security. Planners try to make predictions, but most supply chains cross countries and continents that understand and trust each other less than five years ago, complicating everything from information collection to business trips, conferences and even honesty at video meetings. Then, managers and executives must sell uncertainty, hard work (often for less money) and changing performance expectations to their teams.

Pressure undermines cognitive and emotional abilities, exactly at the time when decision-makers urgently need those capacities. This is true in any environment, but when people work across cultures, the result can be uglier than in their familiar domains. Stress makes people nostalgic for a more comfortable (and imaginary) past ‘golden age’ when life was simpler: for instance when they could stick to technical issues instead of today’s fearful mess. That leads to avoidance of higher-level leadership responsibilities like strategic planning and people management. Escapism is often paired with a sense of guilt and impostor syndrome further undermining self-confidence. The ugly side of stress in intercultural environments is that people tend to blame cultural diversity for confusion and conflict. Human brains are trained to decide fast based on limited information, and personal differences are the simplest explanations when people clash. It is more comforting to believe that colleagues or clients rejected an idea because of their different nationality, religion, gender, generation or profession than because the suggestion was weak. Most of such bias remains unspoken, but influences people’s attitudes, communication and decisions. When teams, departments or firms reach that point, people need help. Most companies I know have used training and coaching as effective tools to prepare managers for such situations, but until now prioritised them far behind hard business skills. The time to lead under pressure has come, but now managers feel too busy and stressed to start learning new skills, and daily firefighting erases newly learned methods from their memories in days. Human resources and people development managers notice that their ‘peacetime’ learning methods fail, but have no upgraded ones for emergencies. Fortunately, adjusting people development to critical times is easier than most planners believe. Pressure shortens attention spans and makes people feel alone with their anxieties. Consequently, the solution must be focused, immediately applicable skills and more individual support in applying them. In other words, learning programmes must be simplified and trimmed rather than completely redesigned, which is a much more pleasant task in times when resources are leaner anyway. Here are three practical tips with examples I took from my work across several crises in two decades (SARS, financial crises, COVID and more) with multinational firms across Asia and Europe. Training must be short, simple and instantly applicable Remember these two things about crisis-time training participants. One: they hope someone will help them, immediately! Two: they are in a rush to get back to work. Learning programmes must be short, intensive, interactive and focus on skills and tools that can be applied the next day, better still the same day. Mindfulness exercises and complex methodologies like ‘7 Habits’ won’t resonate, because few people have the mental calm, patience and free time for consistent long-term application. Two formulas that have made real impact at my workshops are:

  • A 3-step tool for communication or problem-solving, then discussion, application and feedback.

  • Reframing that leads to “Aha! moment” and mindset change, then discussion, application and feedback.

Does it sound too simple? It is. That’s as much as a pressured brain can digest and apply. Coaching must encourage self-help The main difference between the two methods is that while training delivers solutions and encourages participants to apply them, coaching uses stimulating questions to inspire self-made solutions. Coaching is preferred when the facilitator knows little about the firm, industry or profession, when high-level proactiveness is demanded from participants at work, or both. Coaching in critical times is as difficult, but as important, as keeping calm in emergency: ask firefighters, doctors or SCUBA-divers. But if it is done well, it enables participating managers to return to work with concrete solutions, a high level of motivation and the ability to encourage the same attitude in others. My tips for coaching leaders under pressure:

  • Start by guiding laser-sharp focus on a key issue that can reduce pressure, lead to results and improve morale in days. Resist the temptation to digress or go too deep.

  • Although many managers now hold coaching degrees, carefully choose ones to coach others who can separate their management and coaching functions and remain supportive. There are situations when only and external coach can do that.

Combinations often work best Training and coaching are often handled by different learning professionals at large organisations, which discourages the impactful solution of combining the two. Workshops deliver fast and applicable skills, coaching helps managers, often a selected few that have the higher impact on others, with application. Participants can apply tools learned at a training as soon as they rush back to their computers. Coaching can help them handle the inevitable challenges of applying any newly learned skill, especially in stressful times. Two recent examples from my practice illustrate different approached depending on a firm’s goals and available resources.

  • I am working with a financial consultancy whose teams are small, virtual and scattered all over the world. The programme we designed for their managers consists of lecture-style online training sessions with occasional breakout-room discussions, then personal coaching online.

  • An Asian branch of a European automotive firm decided to bring managers together for a workshop in their most important location, because a recent lack of internal networking had undermined their effectiveness. We then arranged personal online coaching for each manager, before we brought them together again for another workshop at their second most important location.

What I know about your business is that one way or another, key decision-makers are under pressure and wish someone helped them gain clarity. What I don’t know is which approach suits you best, but of course I’d love to discuss that.

Reach out for a free 15-minute consultation call or contact me with your questions at

Who comes to mind? Forward this article to a colleague, client or friend who could benefit from it.

Gabor Holch Dragon Suit intercultural coaching


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