Coach me! Executives today are begging for it
Aristotle advised us that happiness depends on our capacity to self-actualize, to develop and exercise our abilities to their fullest potential. I don’t know many successful executives who would argue with this, but once they are in a top leadership spot, do they feel they have “arrived” at the very pinnacle of professional self-actualization? Is the C suite a kind of Shangri-La for the corporate sojourner? Or is there more of the development journey ahead?
A changing landscape for L&D
From the T-groups of the 70s, to ropes courses and Outward Bound, management training has been two-pronged: skill development as well as behavioral development, i.e., from helping people get along with their team, or thrive in chaos, to simply learning to navigate the corporate yellow brick road.
Some companies have built a reputation on their innovative programs. Perhaps the most famous and successful examples of institutionalized management development is GE’s “Crotonville,” where new managers once spent as long as 12 weeks at a time becoming immersed in the cultural values of their employer and learning how to lead, how to sell and how to be GE’s future.
Internal learning and development was the standard until the digital world made online and self-paced learning such an attractive alternative. Along with MOOCs (massive open online courses) replacing much of the outside learning, we have seen the emergence of executive coaches: Not mentors, not educators, not therapists – but coaches, doing what coaches do best – providing feedback, working on game plans, honing skills and supporting improved performance.
And executives are saying, “Bring it on!”
Coaching as the new path to enlightenment
A Stanford Business School study of 203 CEOs, senior executives and directors revealed that nearly every one of them said they valued the process of receiving coaching and leadership advice. Given my experiences working with top-rung leaders, this is no surprise. What is surprising is that only about 44 percent reported receiving any coaching. Of the ones who did, a full 78 percent of them said it was their own idea, dispelling the myth that top leaders have too much ego to ask for help.
Why would you seek coaching?
1. Feedback on style and perceptions
Alan Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management led a study of what happens to the brain with increased power, and the results underscore how much executives benefit from having a coach give them personal feedback. The research demonstrated that “as power increases, power-holders are more likely to assume that others’ insights match their own,” and that the brain tends to fall prey to a mirror effect that limits the processing of others’ perspectives.
Even without psychological research, however, most of us get that we really and truly can’t see ourselves as others see us. An experienced coach with a well-tuned antenna can provide the reality check we all need.
An East Coast executive who transferred to the Midwest, a Southerner working in Los Angeles, a meticulous divisional financial executive who finds herself thrust into a corporate leadership role, a HiPo in a rotational role leading a significant product launch – there are endless scenarios where soliciting and utilizing feedback can prove invaluable in providing insight and improving performance.
2. Help with transitions
We are ALWAYS in transition in some form or another, and we are never satisfied with falling short of being on top of our game. To navigate a transition and perform at a high level, we need a second set of eyes to anticipate the unexpected, and help us visualize what is ahead. Even the best pro golfer relies on his caddy, who will have studied each course intensively, to help him choose the right club and shape the right shot.
A good Epsen Fuller example comes to mind. Last year we placed a highly attractive candidate as COO at a client’s company. The CEO had expressed the desire to hand over the operational reins, but he and I both knew that letting go would be a struggle for him. When I first suggested that he include executive coaching as part of the new COO’s onboarding process, he asked me why such a well-paid, seasoned executive should need coaching! The reality was that the new COO was going to need to wrest control from the CEO while building trust in their relationship, and that’s a tough challenge for anyone, especially without ongoing guidance.
The process was made significantly smoother because of the CEO’s decision to engage the right coach to help with the transition.
3. Feedback on effectiveness
Style aside, an executive coach can be your own personal Jiminy Cricket – sans the morality lectures, one would presume! While many executives work with their coaches only privately, many bring the coach with them to both formal and informal meetings. A leader who is respected to begin with can only rise in the eyes of others if he or she acknowledges that no one is ever done learning.
Today’s work environment, with greater gender and other diversity, embraces this “journey” philosophy, often making a leader with a coach a symbol of humble strength. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, loves to talk about his coach, Bill Campbell, the value he brought to Schmidt and, therefore, to Google. He points out that every famous athlete, every accomplished performer, has a coach. Why should it be any different for a talented leader?
Companies most often enlist a coach when someone is new to an organization, new to a situation, when there is a skills gap to be filled or when there is trouble in the ranks. Interestingly, the CEOs in the Stanford survey listed “how to manage effectively through conflict” as a top need coaching can address. By the time a problem reaches their desks, it has probably already confounded a number of managers down the ranks. Employing the right tools to effectively sort through and address turf wars, hurt egos and failing pet projects is the toughest challenge most leaders must tackle.
Conflicts within the C suite, between business partners and even with customers are also fair game for improvement through quality coaching.
4. Help in people development
Board directors surveyed in the Stanford study identified “mentoring skills, developing internal talent and sharing leadership and delegation skills” as the top areas they feel their CEOs need to work on. Too often, these are the things that take a backseat to putting out fires. Coaches can play an important role in helping you keep “important” matters at least on the par with “urgent” ones. The coaching process, by definition, has a reflective component that drives better alignment with actual priorities, including time pursuing long-range goals the board deems important, like succession planning and mentoring.
It hasn’t been long since we began to fully acknowledge the role subordinates’ opinions play in organizational effectiveness. But today, 360-degree feedback is a part of nearly every coaching partnership. A manager and his or her coach who reckon with this feedback thoughtfully gain perhaps the most valuable perspective for preparing their people to rise in the organization.
Match.com for coaches?
Finding the right coach for you, of course, makes all the difference between a fruitful marriage of minds and a frustrating waste of time and money. Credentials such as an International Coaching Federation (ICF) certification and experience coaching executives at the same level, with the same scope of accountability and control, help assure the highest value from the coaching experience. You want someone who has been around the block and has worked with others like you. Depth of knowledge of your industry or specific functional background are generally considered nice qualities to have, but not absolutely necessary.
Most people seek that elusive chemistry that can only be gleaned from an in-depth interview. Beware, though, of the voice that says “She just gets me!” You may be hiring your clone, which can be very limiting. A coach needs to be likeable enough for you to trust him or her, but look objectively at skills, experience and track record.
A coach is not a therapist. You are looking to gain perspective, to leave your cocoon of perception. Oftentimes, the best person to help you do that is not your soul mate, but is the yin to your yang. So when picking a coach, keep an open mind. After all, isn’t that what this quest is all about?