There are plenty of executive coaches out there, but it’s unlikely that many of them arrived at their position in the same way as Professor Justin James Kennedy.
Today, Prof Kennedy is a globally recognized professor of neuroscience, executive coaching psychologist and keynote speaker. He’s also the co-founder of N3 Executive Coaching, which applies neuroscience to executive coaching in the corporate space. All that, however, seemed very unlikely when he was lying in a coma after he was smashed off his motor-bike by a taxi driver.
In a recent interview, Engage Me got the chance to go a little deeper into Prof Kennedy’s story, his passion for neuroscience, and the need for scientific measurement in executive coaching.
Coming back from the brink
Prof Kennedy’s accident could easily have ended his career before it even had a real chance to start. At the time, he was studying psychology, but that was immediately put on hold. After all, how could he study when he was battling paralysis and recovering from a coma?
And, according to Kennedy, the recovery was incredibly slow.
“My thinking and emotions were all over the place and I couldn’t focus,” he told us. “I became severely depressed”.
“My neuro-surgeon then found out I was a vegetarian and said he would fire me unless I started eating meat,” Kennedy added. “He explained I needed much more protein and fat to build mass and re-build my brain-damaged areas”.
For most people, it would’ve been an innocuous piece of advice, but for Kennedy it was the kind of thing that eventually coalesced into the inspiration for a new career path.
“In my recovery process, I became intrigued at which things made a real difference in my cognitive and physical improvements,” the executive coach told us. “My ability to speak and to walk-again were clearly linked to being coached by speech and occupational therapists”.
Another moment of inspiration came when one of Kennedy’s therapists explained how his emotions were key to him being able to walk again. “I thought, ‘What about coaching thoughts and emotion?'”
“Over time,” he told us, “the Limbic-lobe in my brain (the area responsible for emotion) became less rigid and the executive functions of my pre-frontal cortex improved. I could think more clearly again as I learned to skills in emotional wellbeing”.
Coaching and measurement
That understanding of the connection between action and result led Kennedy into the field of neuroscience. Several years after his accident, he presented a PhD thesis based on his research in Switzerland.
If the story had ended there, it would’ve still been remarkable, but Kennedy decided to take his experiences and research into the executive coaching space.
It’s a field that probably sounds faddy to some, but according to Kennedy, it’s incredibly necessary.
The decisions executives make, he says, “need to be agile and relevant to the complex problems they get on a daily basis. As a result, they need to have fit brains that are not lost in emotions but able to make lucid decisions and solve complex problems”.
Executive coaching, he points out, gives them “a forum to think about their thinking, choices and behaviours”.
But according to Kennedy, many executives don’t get the coaching they need. As a result, he says, “many of them are not ‘fit’ for task”.
That’s not to say they aren’t experts, he explains, “but their brains go offline in the chaos and stress”.
According to Kennedy, executives need to think more like athletes. “Athletes spend over 90% preparing to perform,” he told us. “Executives have almost zero preparation time. They need an executive coach to help them perform at peak, just like Lionel Messi needs a coach to give him feedback about his skillset”.
Making it measurable
But all the coaching in the world means little if the results aren’t measurable. And when it comes to measurability, Kennedy and the rest of the team at N3 use the same smartphone technology that FC Barcelona applied to measure neuro-cardiac readiness for peak performance.
“The measurements we use, include real-time brain scanning biotechnology, psychometric tests, 360 feedback, business and financial measurements,” Kennedy told us.
He added that the company’s coaching is also heavily dependent on the academic research into neuroeconomics, which is the science of economic decision making.
This, he explained, “This is a new approach to understanding the neurobiology of decision making and how it affects cognitive and social interactions between humans/business and societies/economies”.
This approach, he says, is one that should also be adopted by corporate wellness programmes.
“Many corporate wellness programs measure steps or fitness, which is fine,” he told us. “In order to see a direct ROI you’ll need to include brain-fitness”. It’s something Kennedy has done successfully with the likes of Toyota and Mediclinic.
Despite everything that Kennedy has gone through, he lists the changes that occur in others thanks to coaching as the successes he’s most proud of.
“People often think my own recovery and now being a professor in organizational behaviour and neuroscience would be my biggest success,” he told us. But, he says “coaching executives to recover from stroke, heart attacks, diabetes or burnout is actually much more amazing”.
The executive coach and neuroscience expert particularly enjoys it “when a client finds their own way to flourish, and sustain their peak mental performance for themselves and their teams in a manner that shows direct financial impact”.
One client however, encompasses what the work Kennedy does is all about:
One CEO had four heart attacks before he was referred to me. He was known as “The Jack Hammer” due to his style of drilling and destroying anything and anyone in his way. A big success was when his was re-branded as “The Aqua Ballerina” by his SVP’s. He changed his stressful behaviour and became an elegant, caring leader after his coaching program.
“It’s truly humbling when my clients take coaching ‘to heart’, Kennedy told us. “That’s when others notice. And business benefits”.