Nov 082014

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

During a recent discussion with CEOs, the question of coaching came up. Most of the people participating had employed coaches at one time or another. In the majority of cases, they had sought out and engaged their coaches on their own. Only in two cases had stakeholders insisted on the engagement. One CEO admitted that he had hired his coach after his significant other had insisted that he needed one.

For a while we shared experiences and war stories. One particular CEO had been addicted to having the coach de jure. He had gone from one coach to another. The engagements seldom lasted more than five or six months. One the other side of the spectrum, one person had had the same coach for over five years.

The conversation eventually focused on the question of the goal of coaching. We decided that it was really two questions. The first, what is the goal of being coached from the perspective of the executive. The second being, what is the goal of being a coach from the perspective of a coach. None of the others in the group had ever acted as a coach, so I was left to try to tackle the second question. But their thoughts on the first one were illuminating.

The Goal of Being Coached

Everyone agreed that an overarching goal was to improve. It didn’t make any difference whether the engagement focused on leadership, management style, decision making, teaming and team building, resourcing or any of the range of areas that coaches regularly work on. The base question was ‘am I getting better at this because of the coaching?’ But that standard did not stand up well as the conversation advanced. Most of the people in the room knew each other fairly well so they were able to cut through the ‘propaganda’. Here are a few examples:

  • I’m building a business. I’ve never done that before. My team relies on me to know what to do and when. My coach gives me somebody to talk to. I can share my fears, vet new ideas and seek counsel.
  • There is something comforting about having a coach that has been where I am trying to go.
  • I can get help in understanding my options.
  • My coach keeps me from drinking the Kool Aide. I’m always afraid that I will get swept away by what looks like a good idea only to find it isn’t.
  • I remember the lineout of Wall Street – ‘if you want a friend, get a dog.’ My coach is loyal and supportive. And that feels good. But he is also a pit bull when I screw up or lose focus. He’s a friend, mentor and disciplinarian.

The consensus that developed was that the decision to engage a coach had as much to do with personal as professional needs. Then one of the group brought up a study that she had just read. It correlated personal discipline with success. The long and short of it was that people who were able to delay satisfaction in order to achieve greater benefits were more successful than those who were not. Apparently the correlation was stronger than educational level, economic status, family or race. Her reason for having a coach was ‘this guy keeps me disciplined and focused’.

The Goal of Coaching

When I turned the conversation to the second question, the first responses were cynical.

  • Coaches coach in order to earn a living
  • They that can’t do, teach
  • They start with the experience and I have the money – then they have the money and I have the experience

But, after the initial frothing, I reminded them that they all had or had employed coaches. Surely their experience couldn’t be that negative. Unless they were masochists. That focused the question on the experience, range of contacts and approach of the coach. One person put it this way, ‘I go to a dentist to have a problem taken care of. I have to trust that person to do what is both right and needed. Part of what they do is going to cause me discomfort. There is no way around it. But, in the end, I expect to have healthier teeth and a brighter smile.”

What was interesting about the direction that the conversation took was that each person had a different definition of their needs from a coach. It was more complex than the dentist example. But, at its core, were similarities. ‘I lack this and here is a coach that can help me overcome and learn.’

Mating the Two Goals

The question of which coach to hire and why lead the group to a core issue. How do you mate the two goals – that of the CEO and of the coach – in a way that both benefit? By the time we broke up, a consensus had developed. First, the CEO has to understand clearly what they want from a coach. (we allowed that that understanding might evolve during the coaching) Second, the coach had to have successfully traveled the road that the CEO is set upon. No academics, no experts by osmosis – pure, raw, successful experience. Third, the range of contacts and access to resources that the coach brings to the engagement is nearly as important as their experiences. And finally, a coach should be a mentor as well as an advisor. A good coaching relationship is inherently personal.

© Dr Earl R Smith II

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