These days, many business leaders have trusted coaches who help them to stay on track in dealing with challenges. Why do business leaders place such value on the advice of executive coaches?
A few decades ago, coaches were often engaged to help combat toxic behaviour at the top, facilitate desired or required development of top managers or provide proper support. Today, more and more coaches are brought in to focus on the development of capabilities of high potentials and budding entrepreneurs. Increasingly, according to Ram Charan, coaches are becoming an essential part of a leader’s learning process by providing knowledge, expertise, opinions, and insight in critical areas.
Running a company in times of growth is one thing, but crisis management requires a different skill set entirely. The outside perspective of an experienced executive coach can be especially useful while many companies are restructuring and rethinking their long-term plans.
Why hire a coach?
The Harvard Business Review conducted a survey on what coaches do. The results of this survey are somewhat outdated but continue to be valid in my view. The main reasons for hiring coaches are to:
1) develop high potentials
2) facilitate transition
3) act as a sounding board on organisational dynamics or strategic matters, and
4) address potentially derailing behaviour.
In my experience, personal issues often come up in coaching sessions, even though dealing with executives’ personal issues is (often) not part of the coaches’ mandate.
The coachee, the HR department or the manager of the coachee typically initiates the coaching relationship. In each case, confidentiality is critical to success. However, depending on who initiated the relationship, coaches sometimes provide updates on coachees’ progress to stakeholders in the organisation. To manage expectations and obligations, I recommend putting clear (formal) coaching agreements in place.
The typical duration of a coaching process is seven to 12 months. Obviously, it takes time to build a trusting relationship and (for the coach) to get up to speed in understanding the context of the coachee and the organisation.
Factors in successful coaching
Typical ingredients for a successful coaching relationship include an executive’s desire to change, learn, and grow. Coaches engaged to “fix” behavioural issues are usually not successful, especially if an executive doesn’t see why it needs to be fixed. Blamers, narcissists, and executives who see themselves as victims are difficult to change and probably require specialized therapy rather than coaching.
The right personal match and chemistry is another key factor in the coaching relationship. When there is no chemistry, it is more difficult to establish trust. It does not make sense to hire a coach based on experience or reputation if there is no "fit".
Furthermore, there should be a genuine desire and commitment by top management or the board of directors to retain and develop the executive being coached. If the real agenda is to push out the executive or to fix a systemic issue beyond the control of the individual for whom coaching is being considered, the likelihood of a disappointing outcome is high. A good sponsor, whether this be the CEO, an HR leader, or another senior executive in the organisation, can play a vital role.
In his article Five ways organizations can get the most out of an executive coach, John Behr highlights the importance of giving a coach access to the organisation, whether this be through formal (360 degrees) interviews or a series of ad hoc meetings. It is important that a coach have an in-depth understanding of the organisation, its history, values, challenges, and strategic direction. As well, only by interviewing stakeholders can a coach get a true picture of what is happening, help the coachee build relevant networks and clarify potential miscommunications.
When access to the organisation is provided, clear expectations for the coach as well as the coachee should be set. In some cases, stakeholders may be informed about the expectations of the coaching assignment, but not be allowed to interfere with the process or affect the outcome. The introduction of a coach should not lead to renewed power struggles between internal stakeholders. Taking some time to lay a solid foundation for a coaching engagement is worth the effort for everyone involved.
Coaching versus consulting versus therapy
During a coaching assignment, the focus often shifts from what the coach was originally hired to do. If the assignment is outlined properly, the business focus is usually clear at the start. Almost inevitably, this can migrate to “big topics” such as life’s purpose, work-life balance or just becoming a better leader. Sometimes, coaching assignments can develop into consulting or more therapeutic sessions, as coaches often “borrow” from consulting and therapy. From a consulting perspective, a coach will typically advise on actual business matters, involve management in goal setting or consult on organisational ethics, being paid for by the company. On the therapeutic side, a coach is paid to ask the right questions, tackle difficult issues at work and at home, focus on changing individual behaviours or explore subjective experiences. From a coaching perspective, you may at least expect the coach to focus on the future, foster individual performance, and help the executive find their own path.
How to avoid dependency
There is always a risk that the coached individual becomes overly dependent on the coach and turns to the coach for conversations they should be having with other executives or their teams. Michael Maccobystated that, even though it is natural for coaches to want to expand their business, the best coaches put their clients’ interest first. A good coach is aware of the dependency dynamic and you (the initiator of the coaching relationship) should always ask coaches how they handle dependency in coaching relationships.
How to select the right coach
As stated earlier, willingness to be coached and good chemistry are important ingredients of successful coaching. So, allowing the executive to choose whom they want to work with, regardless of who initiated the coaching assignment, seems key.
In my view, certification or accreditation is hardly of any use, given the immense number of certifications and the confusion this generates.
While experience in similar settings and methodology is a better predictor, the best credential is probably a satisfied customer. So, ask for some personal references before you enter the coaching relationship and make sure you talk to a few individuals who have been coached by this person.
Coaching and mental health
When it comes to serious mental health problems like anxiety or depression, coaching is not the right instrument. Nevertheless, studies conducted by the University of Sydney have found that between 25 and 50 percent of those seeking coaching have clinically significant levels of anxiety, stress, or depression. Anthony M. Grant, a pioneer in coaching psychology, argues that unrecognized mental health problems can be counterproductive and even dangerous in coaching relationships. Recognizing depression or anxiety can be difficult without proper training, as an executive is far more likely to complain of issues related to time management, interpersonal communication, and workplace disengagement than of anxiety.
Key in staying mentally healthy is staying properly grounded. We all have moments—some more often than others—when we need to keep ourselves in check. We get caught up in work, deadlines, and making time for family and friends while trying to squeeze in our hobbies, workouts, dates, and more. At these moments, you tend to become chaotic, forgetful, clumsy, and over-excited. When you are well-grounded,
your focus is on the “here and now” and you are self-aware. This means that you are less distracted by outside influences, such as tensions and emotions from others. Being grounded, in terms of being balanced and sensible, among many other advantages, increases your level of influence. Increasing your level of influence means that you can get more done and be more creative. So, though not critical in many situations, it may be useful for a coach to have basic knowledge of mental health issues (and grounding).
In my next blog, I will discuss coaching, mental health, and the importance of being grounded in more detail. I very much look forward to introducing you to the inspiring work of Professor Dr Roger Walsh, psychologist Joel aan ‘t Goor and other experts. Stay tuned!
In case you want to know more or have a discussion on one of the topics mentioned, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on coaching and the topics mentioned in this blog can be found on:
 Ram Charan has coached CEO’s and other top executives of Fortune 500 companies. He is the author of 14 books, including Leadership in an era of Uncertainty.  Harvard Business Review, 2009, What Can Coaches Do For You?  John Behr is an executive coach who has worked with Fortune 500 companies globally and completed over 3,000 executive assessments.  Michael Maccoby is the author of Narcissistic leaders: Who succeeds and Who Fails, ISBN 1422104141.  Anthony M. Grant is the founder and director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney in Australia.  Diane Coutu is a former senior editor of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) and author of the article “How resilience works”  Carol Kauffman PhD PCC is an assistant Professor at the Harvard Medical School, a visiting Professor at Henley Business School and a founder of the Institute of Coaching.