Current position: Executive & Team Coach, President of ICF Belgium
Education: DEA (M.Sc.) in Astrophysics, University of Liège, Belgium; License (M.Sc.) in Physics, University of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

Discover inspiring career paths from women in engineering! From astrophysics to coaching: the intersection of rational and emotional approaches

Gaëtane, you are graduated as a physicist. What precisely covers this particular discipline?

Physics is the science of nature, properties and interactions between matter and energy. From elemental particles, the tiniest building blocks of everything, to the stars and the Universe. My specialty was theoretical astrophysics: predicting the behaviour of stars thanks to physics and computer models then confronting the models with real observations (data analysis). Physics requires mastering the most advanced mathematics techniques and an excellent knowledge of computer programming.

You started your career as a Scientific Researcher for a space mission to study asteroseismology. Which key lessons did you learn from this first job, and how do they still impact professional life today?

Research developed my capacity of finding reliable sources to learn about a new topic and to cross-check the accuracy of the content. Working in science equipped me with the skills necessary to understand the basics of neuroscience. The recent findings in neuroscience help us understand human emotions, habits and reactions and to identify the best ways to change a behaviour. Changing behaviours, creating new habits, making new conscious choices to achieve goals is exactly what coaching is about. Finally my original field of studies taught me to work methodically and autonomously. Of course this can be said for all scientific and engineering studies. Yet these skills/competencies are key to be a successful entrepreneur, leader or team player nowadays.

For a couple of years, you gave a completely new direction to your career by becoming an Executive & Team Coach. What has been the trigger for this quite unusual move for a scientist or an engineer?

When I experienced coaching for the first time, both as a coachee and as a manager with employees who themselves followed a coaching program, I realized that such a profession was perfectly aligned with my most important values and natural strength (generosity & listening). I decided to pursue coaching as a career and got trained in career management coaching, leadership coaching and then team coaching. In my entire career, this has been the most fulfilling role for me. I care very much about my clients and I am genuinely energized by their own personal growth and professional achievements.

How does your engineering background help you in your daily role as an executive coach? Does your rational background help you better understand how emotional behaviors work?

My background and practical approach to coaching help me connect with pragmatic personalities. As a researcher you need to be able to swiftly switch between long-term vision and attention to details. Many people have a strong preference for one of the two. If my clients are great with details and with identifying the next step but struggle when they need to establish long-term goals or strategy, I can help them develop this competency… and vice versa. So yes, a rational background helps a lot with emotional behaviour! Referring to neuroscience: emotions are part of us all. They always occur before reflection or rationalisation and they are important. Only strong emotions might prevent you from behaving as your best self.

Using emotional intelligence means that you recognize and acknowledge your emotions. You then combine the message that they bring with other important data (facts, the emotions of others…) to be able to choose the most appropriate reaction. Based on this, you can make a better informed decisions instead of reacting impulsively – which could lead to regrets. So my clients with a rational background and the willingness to learn about emotions and practice can increase their emotional intelligence and become great leaders.

Do you believe there’s some kind of scientific approach to coaching? Could you give 1 or 2 concrete examples?

Neuroscience supports coaching. We learn from neuroscience what happens in our brains when we are faced with a threat and why we don’t always choose the best answer to this threat. Coaching helps practising reflection on a regular basis, rewiring our brains if necessary and taking a step back to consider all the information before making a decision. I would say that coaching is the science of making conscious choices. Let’s take the example of visualisation which is a common practice in coaching. Have you heard the story of Jim Carrey who visualized receiving a 10M$ check? Seven years later he did receive a 10M$ for a role in a blockbuster movie. The most sceptical about us just don’t believe in this story.

it’s not a matter of believing in Karma, magic or any divine intervention. Neuroscience teaches us that by visualising regularly your objectives with a positive mindset, you create new connections in your brain regarding this objective. You become more aware of elements related to this objective which are present in your environment (a potential partner, an opportunity, products or services that are complementary to your original idea…). From there you are able to grasp these opportunities, to move into action or to use those elements in order to achieve your objective. Obviously, visualization needs to be combined with actions toward this goal in order to yield results. These results will be closer to your target than without practising visualization.

Engineers are often seen as introvert, rigid and cartesian profiles, due to the specificity of the university studies. What’s your view on this?

By definition a stereotype does not represent anyone accurately. These characteristics are often present in engineers or indeed favoured and further developed by the rigour necessary to succeed in the engineering studies. We all have complex personalities combining many qualities and skills in an unique way. In real life the most successful engineers are the ones who manage to balance reason and facts with intuition and emotions, especially if they grow into leadership positions.

What could coaching specifically bring to engineers to advance their career?

For example, coaching can help engineers develop their emotional intelligence and adapt their leadership or collaboration style to any person. Engineers can count on their specialty, their technical expertise and their hard skills. Coaching can help them develop their soft skills. Coaching helps to develop the discipline of making conscious choices, better informed decisions or selecting more effective behaviour in any situation. If we talk in stereotypes, coaching can help you balance between reason and emotions, and find solutions that are both project- and people-oriented.

By Alain Vande Kerkhove

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