I’m sure you already know that Management Consulting is somewhat of a fashion business. Every now and then a new term (business process re-engineering, emotional intelligence, cloud computing) comes into general usage and everyone wants a slice of the action. Arguably, coaching has now entered this noeveau space.
While coaching has been around in the sports world forever, it was virtually unheard of in the business world until about 15 years ago. Since then it’s taken off like a Roman Candle firework. In growth terms, there has been an explosion of executive coaching, a growth segment in a stagnant marketplace. Why? 4 key reasons underpin the growth in coaching, customization, accuracy, realism and support. See if you agree.
1. Customization: In recent times, the world has become much more ‘customized’. You go to Burger King and have it your way– rather than eat the standard fare. You download the 2 Michael Bublé songs that your mother likes from the Apple Store, rather than purchase the 327 recordings he has released in the past 2 years (are you picking up on the envy factor here?). It’s all about customization. Coaching appeals to executives along the lines of that old Martini ad – any time, any place, anywhere. You decide what to talk about when and where it suits you. The mountain is brought to Mohammad.
2. Accuracy: In today’s organizations, senior executives have typically been through the 3rd level system. They understand Porters’ 5 Forces, the 4 P’s of Marketing and the concepts underpinning the 1-Minute Manager. They (normally) don’t lack the theory – but often become stuck around some gritty implementation detail or difficult interpersonal issue. Coaching provides support with pinpoint accuracy – aimed exactly at the issue which an executive is struggling with. It’s less ‘you need a better diet’ and more ‘you have a vitamin B12 deficiency’.
3. Realism: An occupational hazard for senior managers is getting an overinflated opinion of themselves. It is the nature of organization life that respect is afforded to the role along with the person. When people laugh at all of your jokes or allow you to interrupt the flow of conversation, you are probably being love bombed with deference (an irreversible social condition which can lead to senior executives becoming incredibly boring). Executive coaches introduce realism, helping executives see where they are strong (appreciative inquiry) and where they have development needs (unflinching feedback). The best coaches do this by supporting and challenging – encouraging skills development while confronting contradictory or inappropriate behaviors. They help executives understand thought patterns, set realistic goals and give accurate assessments of performance. Done well, coaching is a tough process for executives; there is no-where to hide. The upside is that it can be incredibly developmental.
4. Support: Being in a senior executive role is typically stressful. There are moments of self-doubt. External events can conspire to overturn wonderfully conceived plans; internal politicking can be akin to working in the Kremlin. The best coaches provide an underpinning of support, reminiscent of the Bill Withers lyrics in Lean on Me:
‘‘Sometimes, in our lives
We all have pain, we all have sorrow
But if we are wise, we know that there’s
Coaches can salve the wounds following major skirmishes. In short, they help executives to continue to perform at the highest levels, avoiding burnout and keeping a sense of perspective, stopping the role becoming joyless.
Coached & Proud: In the pursuit of that perfect swing, most people have no problem owning up to using a golf coach. But when it comes to business, executives are much more reluctant to tell the world that someone is ‘working with me’ – as if this communicates managerial weakness. In my view accepting coaching is actually a sign of strength (on the assumptions that you work with someone who can really add value). No one has ‘all the bits’. While you don’t want to become dependant on an external person, periodic coaching can help to strengthen your game. Returning to the sports world, the very best golfers in the world continually hone their skills through coaching. Think about it. They are already brilliant golfers but recognize that no matter how good they are, the game can always be improved. As executives, shouldn’t we set the same ideal of continuous improvement for ourselves?
Choose Carefully: In recruitment decisions, selection is more art than science. My personal experience suggests that executives work best with coaches who:
a. Are successful in their own lives. It’s hard to take advice seriously from someone who seems to struggle with their own life (recognizing that no-one is ever in a perfect space). Note to Readers: If there is a guru coach who comes with all the answers pre-loaded, will someone immediately mail me the contact details!
b. People who are coaching minded. You don’t want someone who is so prescriptive that they continually tell you what to do. At the other extreme you don’t want to work with someone who would allow you to do anything, without any form of pushback or challenge. It’s a balancing act which combines insight, empathy and assertiveness in the correct proportions.
c. Coaches who understand the game. It’s difficult for someone to guide you through managing a difficult relationship with your Chairman or the Board, if they have spent all their life working on a North Sea oil rig (unlikely scenario, but you get the picture).
Executive coaching provides a form of brief therapy, which can be enormously valuable to senior managers, both professionally and personally. When the chemistry and skill mix is right, the coaching relationship is hugely beneficial. Having been on both sides of the table on this one, I believe that coaching has moved well beyond a managerial fashion. It’s part of the armory for executives and is here to stay.