Transition Experiences of Executive Women and Implications for Coaching

Transition Experiences of Executive Women and Implications for Coaching

Article and Author Information

Jeanne Ebersole (MSLOC 2012) wrote this article in December 2012 for the Capstone 3 Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary assignment is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. After graduating from the MSLOC program, Jeanne started her own executive coaching practice where she partners with her clients in achieving both individual and organizational goals. She is a seasoned senior executive with over twenty-five years of experience in all facets of the human capital leadership discipline including organizational design, talent management, compensation, employee relations, recruitment, employee communications and learning and development. Throughout her career, she has worked closely with CEOs, CFOs and other C-suite senior leaders on strategic issues impacting their organizations. She is particularly interested in the development of emerging leaders and in how executives learn, grow and develop from both an organizational and personal context. She is Hogan and Dannemiller Tyson Whole Scale Change certified.

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Few women hold roles at the top levels of organizations and of those who do, many have reported their intent to leave within five years (Galinsky et al., 2003). There is limited literature exploring this phenomenon of transition (Anderson, Vinnicombe, & Singh, (2010) and therefore, not much is known about the women's motivations to opt-out and their experiences throughout the process. This study investigates the transition experiences of executive women who have opted out. Specifically, the research explores the genesis of their desire to opt-out, the support they received and would have liked to receive as well as the role of coaching in the process. In addition, the research looks at whether or not an individual's approach to career transition is from a "crystallization of desire" versus a "crystallization of discontent" with their overall well-being (Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005). Participants reported experiencing a distinct transition process with identifiable phases and that coaching would be useful in the transition.


Figure 1

In a recent survey, as many as one-third of executive women1 reported their intention to leave their companies within five years (Galinsky et al., 2003). Unfortunately, little specific work has been completed in this area for coaches to use in supporting individuals considering or in the process of opting out of their role. This is true, despite a recent study on high-achieving women at this life stage that indicated that a more proactive planning approach with sensitive career guidance could be helpful in navigating this timeframe (Gersick, & Kram, 2002). Moreover, career planning is "distinctly more complicated for women of this generation" (Gersick & Kram, 2002, p.120) because they have had a unique work experience, having come of age during the implementation of Title IX in 1972 and having faced common challenges in the workplace including mid-life stress, changing career attitudes and increasing workplace demands.

The foci of this study, therefore, were twofold. First, to explore the opt-out decision process of the participants in order to categorize their main reason for leaving as either an approach (crystallization of desire) or avoidance (crystallization of discontent) orientation and determine any correlation of this approach with their reported well-being. Research has shown that a future, or approach-oriented focus has greater positive impact on an individual's prospective well-being than when one simply opts out due to a desire to leave (Bauer, McAdams & Sakaeda, 2005).

The second focus was to understand the support the women received, if any. If they did receive support, to understand whether or not this support had impact on their process and if they would see a benefit to coaching as a part of the transition process. Answers to both of these questions will help guide coaches in effectively supporting women executives in career planning during this major life transition.

1Women in this late-career age cohort currently represent the tail end of the baby boomers (born between 1956-1964) and the beginning of Gen X (born between 1964-1966).


Semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with eight late-career women between the ages of 45 and 55 who deemed themselves at the executive level and had made the decision to opt out of their full-time employment in the last 24 months. Participants were recruited using the researcher's personal, academic and professional networks utilizing a cascading or snowball technique. Individuals who expressed interest upon solicitation were then selected based on the study parameters.

The interview protocol was designed to measure four variables (see Appendix A for detailed variable definitions). Well-being was the sole dependent variable and was measured in relation to two independent variables, crystallization of desire (approach orientation) and crystallization of discontent (avoidance orientation). Well-being was defined using the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS), a subjective instrument whereby well-being is measured as the participant's satisfaction with life as a whole. The fourth variable, coaching, measured who, if anyone, provided support to the participants during their transition and whether the support received was deemed effective.

The benefit of an interview approach was that it captured the participants' individual thought process, both personal and professional, as they had arrived at their decision to opt-out. Although this study is not fully generalizable from an academic standpoint due to the limited time frame and small number of participants, what follows are thoughtful, thematic insights that coaches may use with clients in the future.


Although each woman in the study is a unique, complex individual, themes did emerge which will be discussed in two parts. First, the transition experience itself and second, the perceived efficacy of support and coaching in the process from the participant's perspective.

Methodologically, following completion of the interviews, verbatim transcripts were compiled and de-identified to protect participant's confidentiality. In order to avoid potential bias in theme identification, the review of the transcripts, coding and inductive thematic analysis was completed prior to the calculation of the SWLS responses and correlation with the categorized reasons for leaving. During the thematic analysis and coding, participant quotes were captured for use in highlighting important concepts and themes. In addition to coding for the variables included in the study, an additional inductive narrative themes analysis was completed to identify further commonalities in the participant experience. Essentially, the data collected was looked at from both a top-down and bottom-up approach in order to fully understand participant's respective thoughts, feelings and meanings.

The Transition Experience

Similar to the transition experience described in the Bauer, McAdams & Sakeada study of life-changing decisions and their subsequent impact on well-being, the personal change experience of the majority of the study participants, seven out of the eight, included both a crystallization of discontent and a crystallization of desire in their opt-out process (2005). Although no correlation was shown between the participant's well-being and their crystallization of desire, their movement through this process resulted in a mean well-being score at the top of the instrument's group mean as reported by Deiner for the SWLS (1993, p. 165). An emergent theme will also be discussed in that participants consistently reported lengthy timelines for their respective transition processes.

Crystallization of Discontent. All eight of the women in the study reported their opt-out transition experience began with a crystallization of discontent (see Figure 1) within their current work situation. These concerns fell into three main areas: 1) the direction of the organization and the impact on their role, 2) their specific responsibilities, and 3) impact on their health from the pressure, stress and exhaustion stemming from their work-life. Although balance, in terms of time available for other life priorities, was a concern reported by two participants, it was not an overall theme within their crystallization of discontent.

Figure 2

First, at an executive level, being in alignment with the organization is critical and these executive women felt the impact of not being in alignment with the ongoing direction of their organizations. Participants reported concerns about "growing philosophical differences" and "feeling like the heart and soul" of their organizations was being lost which lead them to question if staying in their current capacity was "really worth it". Second, in many cases, the participants reported anticipated or actual changes within the work environment impacting their role. The expected changes left them feeling 'disconnected from the organization" or "compromising the way that they liked to work'. One participant described working in a compromised work role as "a daily battle" which, after a while, she "began to take personally". Finally, the majority of the women reported concerns based on the stress of their work-life and the physical impacts on their health:

"I am exhausted from working so hard and leading and building something."

"And it was just causing me stress, because I knew at work they needed me to put in more hours that I could not do."

"The company is fine, but just a tremendous amount of pressure, really basically no personal life and that's probably been going on the entire time I've been in the industry."

"I just knew I was in a circumstance that was unsustainable. I was worried about my health."

The women had reached a point in their lives and careers when they were no longer willing to compromise their health and well-being.

Crystallization of Desire. Although all of the women in the study reported beginning from a position of avoidance or moving away, 7 of the 8 also reported moving to a future-oriented perspective in terms of their desires for moving forward (See Figure 1). Moving into this stage was described as a process often requiring the subject to "stop to listen" or to heed "this little germ of an idea" about what her next step might be. Participants reported a process of reflection with regard to their priorities and desires. This part of the process was helpful for discerning their future-oriented plans in terms of the participant's sense of self, their health, happiness, creativity, dreams and overall contributions:

"I had to figure out a way to create more balance and decide if I was going to redirect my practice to my new hometown or just choose a different path altogether, meaning perhaps leave the business world completely and do other things."

"It seemed more and more important to say, you know, I have a limited amount of time and I want to be able to do things that really use the talents I have."

"I never thought I would be a job role, but I just kept getting promoted so I stayed in that field. What I really wanted to do, a long time ago, when I was younger was to major in psychology. How could I go back and do what I had originally wanted to do at this age?"

It should be noted that all of the study participants pursued a different career trajectory than the one they had previously been on. For some this was beginning to work in consulting within their same field of expertise, for others it meant changing their career path altogether by pursuing education or another field. Others moved to part-time work within their field or left full-time work altogether for their version of retirement.

Figure 3

Timeline. Interestingly, whether the women in the study drove their decision to opt-out before making a job change or entered the process as a result of being laid-off, a similar reflection process was followed, as illustrated above. The process also took many months to complete. Of the 8 participants, 7 (88 percent) reported specific timelines greater than 12 months, and more than half of these (63 percent) with timelines greater than 24 months (See Figure 2). Both practical and emotional factors impacted these timelines. Practical considerations included some participants holding officer roles within organizations which required carefully planned transitions and others experienced career shifts which required careful review of their financial position for budgeting purposes. Others experienced a need to overcome their fears or the fears of their partners in shifting their work focus, grieve for the loss of prior work identities or colleagues and to decompress and take some time off.

Figure 4

Well-being. Well-being was measured in the study using the SWLS (See Appendix B). Participants were not aware that the closed ended questions posed were part of a specific instrument in order not to bias their responses. Comprised of five questions on a 7 point Likert scale, the results were in a range of 23-34 on the scale of 35 with a mean of 27.88 and standard deviation of 4.291. Due to the small sample size, the scores could not be correlated with the crystallization of desire or discontent variables, however, only 2 of the 40 recorded responses were reported as a 3, "slightly disagree". Overall, the participant's well-being mean is at the high-end of that reported for most groups and, in the researcher's view, would indicate that they are satisfied with their overall well-being. As in Bauer's study (Bauer, J. J. et al., 2005), these findings, although limited, suggest that approach-oriented decisions are more likely to foster well-being.

The Role of the Coach

Questions were posed in the study to determine what, if any, support was a factor in the women's opt-out processes. All of the study participants reported being well-supported during their transitions:

Figure 5

"It kind of validated what I was thinking. I can always trust the two of them to give me honest feedback."

"The support that I have gotten from my husband and my children has been absolutely incredible. Absolutely incredible."

"They gave me confidence in my decision. They also gave ideas about some of the skills that I had and also how I might fit working with different types of organizations and individuals."

"My sister was really a cheerleader, she knows me well and she understands my strengths."

Further, 3 of the 8 participants had an executive coach and, when asked, 6 of 8 felt a coach or a coaching process would be useful in this type of transition. The remaining 2, felt that a coach may be useful if vetted properly and the right fit for the individual being coached. Although this may seem contrary to the high support levels reported received from family, friends and colleagues in the process by all participants, the women in this study felt that a coach would be more systematic and thorough providing them with focused time to help determine their life priorities and make hard decisions. Some thoughts:

"It is an impartial third party that didn't know me before, doesn't know my family, does not know anything about me. What was incredibly helpful was her facilitating a thought process. Basically, she was holding the mirror up and you have to take a good, hard look. It helped me through some tough decisions."

"I think the executive coach I worked with was probably most helpful. She had my best interests in mind as opposed to others who had their own agendas and I had to take what they said with a grain of salt."

"She was helpful in getting me unstuck, because I was stuck in a bit of grief."

"Not everyone knows the questions to ask and looking back on it, I would recommend to anybody else that they use a coach. In fact, I am telling my sister to use a coach in her job transition."

Interpretations & Recommendations

Although this is a small study, the aligned experiences of these eight women would point to a distinct transition process with clear phases similar to Bauer's findings (2005). Three clear phases were noted which require moving through a) sensing a crystallization of discontent followed by b) envisioning a way forward through exploring and determining what one desires and finally, c) coming out on the other side with a satisfied sense of well-being. The participant's transition experiences also call to mind the Kaleidoscope Career Model (Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005) in which late career women shift their career parameters to focus more on authenticity or being true to oneself rather than challenge or balance. It should be noted that all of the women in the study expressed an interest in continuing to contribute and participate fully in a "work" life, even for the participant who considered herself retired. Upon reflection in the transition process, the women desired a more values-driven and self-directed career orientation that resulted in the participant's reframing of what success in their career would look like and the path it would take. Understanding that there are distinct process phases can be helpful as guideposts for executive women who find themselves struggling within a transition process.

Figure 6

As noted previously, career planning for women of this generation is distinctly more complicated and the women in this study overwhelmingly saw the impact that a coach could have in making this process more effective for them--in addition to the support that is required from other significant people in the executive's life. For coaching practitioners to be most effective, they would need to bring to the coaching relationship a strong, integrated process grounded in cognitive, behavioral, motivation and reflection theories. These women each experienced complex, nuanced journeys over a significant period of time which included elements of reflection, the exploration of schema and developing an understanding of their motivation. They also crystallized what they were moving toward which was followed by the formulation of goals and change plans to achieve their desires. The coach in this transition can be most effective as the facilitator of the client's growth process, bringing structure, discipline and momentum to their transition.

Further, the lengthy process time frames reported by the women in the study have implications for talent management practitioners endeavoring to support organizational objectives to retain late-career top tier women executives. Unless very pro-active,consistent and diligent in their career and development planning with these women, by the time an organization becomes aware of a female executive's opt-out desires, it may be too late to meaningfully counter and retain them. This can result in a loss of important tacit knowledge and experienced human capital that the organization would otherwise wish to retain.

Because there is limited research in this area and a significant number of women approaching this late-career time frame, further phenomenological studies like this are recommended to explore their overall experiences. In particular, it would be helpful to know what changes might be made to the structure or types of roles women currently hold as a means to retain them and stem the loss of key executive talent. In addition, a longitudinal study measuring well-being at the beginning and end of the transition process would help to fully validate the importance of the movement from discontent to a desirable future in order to improve well-being. Finally, more specific research is also recommended to determine the efficacy of the coaching relationship in transition and to fully identify the specific stages and themes encountered during the process.


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Appendix A - Variable Definitions

Appendix 1

Appendix B - Satisfaction With Life Scale Data & Analysis

Appendix 2

Participant Data

Scale Questions

Respondents provide ratings on a scale of 1-7, strongly disagree to strongly agree to five questions reflecting their subjective, cognitive view of their overall well-being.

1. In most ways my life is close to ideal.

2. The conditions in my life are excellent.

3. I am satisfied with my life.

4. So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life.

5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Appendix 3

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