The last decade has seen a major shift in attitude towards executive coaching. Ten years ago the most likely engagement would have been with a client who was having serious problems. Organizations tended to hire executive coaches when one or more of their people was either having or causing serious problems. Many would wait until things had progressed to such a state that damage control was the only option. In those days, executive coaches were, more often than not, crisis managers. But things have really changed.
The New Coaching Engagement
Now organizations see executive coaching as a way to increase the performance, and therefore value, of key employees. Executive coaches have become facilitators of growth and improvement. Many coaching engagement involve support for people in the ‘fast track’ programs. Companies have come to realize that coaching is one of the ways to help their rising stars navigate the shoals and reefs that are encountered while climbing the corporate ladder. They make this investment for three reasons. First, they want to help their people grow; develop into the future leaders that the company will need. Second, they want to help them avoid the mistakes that will harm both their career and the company. And third, they want to recognize their rising stars. Having a coach is like getting the key to the executive wash room.
Because coaching engagements are focused less on crisis management and more on personal and professional development, they tend to be longer. Coaches have to be able to help their clients grow through a number of stages. The range of techniques, knowledge and abilities that a coach has to bring to the table is much broader. The one-size-fits-all approaches based on particular techniques are less desirable. More and more the experience of the coach becomes the issue. Companies want to hire coaches who have successfully made the journeys that their people are embarking on. They have an increasing aversion to the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ coaches and tend to avoid the ‘they that cannot do, teach’ crowd. The new coaches have to have the real life experiences that make them effective mentors as well as coaches.
Who Gets a Coach?
In the old days, the squeaky wheel got the coach. The team member or employee who has having or causing the biggest problem was the one who got the support. Now the approach to selecting people for coaching more closely resembles preventive medicine. Rather than waiting until the patient gets really sick, the treatment is designed to keep them healthy and improve their well-being. But that does not mean that coaching will work in all situations or with all people. Here are some suggestions for selecting who gets coached:
- Are they coachable? Some years back I had a sheep farm in eastern Maryland. I trained border collies for use in working the sheep. Dogs are like people in some ways. They come in all sorts of dispositions and abilities. One thing I learned early on is that some dogs are ‘biddable’ while others are so hard headed or inept that they are almost useless. The same is true for people. An individual who is open to coaching will relish the chance to work with an experienced mentor. They will see it as an opportunity to grow and accelerate their career development. One who is not open to coaching will prove argumentative and resistant to coaching. They will see the offer of a coach as an indication that they are a ‘problem’ even when they are not. The best are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses. They have an ability to learn from others even if they end up doing it their own way. The best candidate for coaching will take responsibility for the results and leverage the coach. A final comment; coaching a client who has been pressured into being coach almost never works. If the collie is eager to get to work, they are likely biddable. If they are diffident or resistant to the idea, they are not likely to benefit from the training. The same is true for coaching clients. The best are eager to learn all they can from the coach.
- Are they worth the investment? Coaching represents an investment by the company. As such, it should generate a return. Each candidate for coaching should be assessed in this light. If we give them the support of a coach, how much more valuable will they become? How much more solidly integrated into the core team will they become? Is this person critical to the success of the company? This last question is a very important one. Coaching should be used where it will generate the best return. Any number of people might fit the definition of ‘critical to the success of the company’. But they should be on this list before being considered for coaching. Remember, the company is going to offer coaching support over an extended period; probably at least six to twelve months. Most coaching engagements start off with weekly meetings that may become bi-monthly later on. There are always lots of e-mails, phone calls, reading assignments and ‘homework’. This means that the investment is not limited to the cost of the coach. To make it worth the cost you need the right coach working with the right team member on the right agenda.
- Who needs help? Sometimes team members face much larger challenges. Maybe they have been asked to take over an ailing division or manage the start-up of a new program. Perhaps they have been promoted and now have responsibilities that new require skills and stronger leadership. All of these and more represent situations that can be eased with the presence of a coach. Such a step sends a clear set of messages. “We recognize that you are under a lot of pressure to perform and are willing to support you and invest in your success?” All of us get into these situations. We struggle to learn new skills and to cope with new situations. An enlightened organization recognizes that fact and helps key people work through them. If a friend was drowning, would you throw them a life preserver? Think of a coach as a career preserver. One word of caution here, a coach should not be a consultant who compensates for the client’s lack of skills and knowledge. A good coach will help the client develop those skills and knowledge and, thus, put himself out of a job.
- Will the organizational culture support coaching? This is one that is often overlooked. Coaching can focus a lot of attention on the client. If the organizational culture is adverse to that kind of attention, there can be significant problems. Resentment, hazing, abusive behavior and outright aggression are some of the responses that assigning a coach to a rising star can bring. Coaching is most effective within a culture that sees its value and supports the people who are being coached. Coaching does not work when the people above, beside or below the client are indifferent, skeptical or hostile to very idea of coaching. They will oppose the changes that the client and organization is trying to make. Coaching works best when the organizations leadership stands solidly behind the process; if they provide a lift rather than a drag. Coaching relationships without a constructive and supportive cultural context fall apart. That is why the corporate leadership needs to cultivate a culture that is supportive of coaching before any coaching engagement begins.
Executive coaching can be one of the best people investments a company will make. If the coaching program is well organized, the entire company will benefit. With care and attention, key team members will be able to contribute far beyond their expectations. The company will realize benefits from a highly focused and motivated team and workforce. The road to a good program begins with planning it out and preparing the company. Once a supportive culture is in place, the magic can begin.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II