Most great athletes wouldn’t think of stepping into competition without a coach, both in practice running skill drills and on the sidelines during an event for strategy and encouragement. Where you find a great business leader, there is often a similar proxy — a mentor helping guide them, either a current boss, a past boss, or a colleague who just cares enough to help. When you want a coach and aren’t lucky enough to have a mentor, where can you turn? Some have tried executive coaches, paid professionals hired to fill the role, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Because I find the role of being a mentor the most satisfying aspect of my career, I have taken up an interest in coaching over the past few years and learned through experience some stuff worth sharing.
John Vercelli, with whom I teach the Executive Coaching Workshop at Coaches Training Institute, recently sent me an article from Human Resources Executive that largely captures why we created our new program. The article, by Andrew R. McIlvaine, pretty much says everything I was intending to write in a post here, not the least of which is:
Too many executive coaches lack the business experience necessary to help clients. But others say such experience isn’t necessary to effect real change — and in some cases, it may even be a hindrance.
John and I are somewhere in the middle (surprised, huh?). We believe it is virtually impossible to be an executive coach if someone hasn’t developed empathy for the job of the executive. Yet we also believe that just because someone has significant executive experience, that may not qualify them to be a world-class executive coach.
That’s why we decided to lead the Executive Coaching Workshop together, and are having a blast doing so. John is a longtime member of the faculty at CTI and now serves as Director of Corporate Programs. I have taken courses at CTI, but I am not a certified coach. I have immense respect for the work of the coach, but that’s really John’s expertise as one of the senior curriculum designers for CTI. My role in this program is to help prepare a new wave of coaches to step into the corporate arena by placing them in real world simulations that illustrate the weight of walking in an executive’s shoes.
We can no more substitute a lifetime of making business decisions in a few intense days of training than we can alter the personality of someone who doesn’t appreciate empathy to exhibit it. What we can do is paint a picture of what high level business decision-making is like day-to-day as well as year to year, and how a good coach can add value to that decision-making by helping frame the context of situations as a resource and sounding board rather than an “answer machine.” The combination of John’s co-active creativity and my goal oriented pragmatism — both tempered by true commitment to human potential and respect for the individual as well as the team — seems to be working. Here are a few things we have learned in the initial trials:
1. Role-Playing Creates Memorable Models: When we take prospective executive coaches and load them up in exercises with the burdens of time bound goals, intense competition, market forces, unforgiving shareholders, management hierarchies, and corporate politics, they start to understand the client by becoming the client. Of course this is no substitute for the reality of the client’s struggles, but it’s a good start down a path toward empathy. If you have a little high-octane improv you want to try out, there’s nothing quite like giving your material a no-fault test run.
2. Intellectual Curiosity Can’t Be Faked: If you want to cheer people on, you need to be interested in what they do. As obvious as it may sound, an expressed interest in business is prerequisite to being a recommended executive coach. Reading the Wall Street Journal regularly, digging into corporate annual reports, subscribing to industry email newsletters, participating in webinars — all of these help to build a shared vocabulary around profit and loss, return on investment, and growth opportunities. Where prospective executive coaches don’t find the subject matter naturally interesting, easy flowing dialogue is not easy.
3. It Takes a Toolkit: There is no single path to success for the executive, and there is surely no single connect-the-dots methodology for successful executive coaching. The dynamics of today’s business environment are fierce and opaque, creating a landscape of ambiguity that has to be constantly reevaluated and balanced. There is no reward without risk, and helping the executive to consider risk requires an establishment of trust and credibility that constantly has to be reinforced. We believe empathy is possible through extrapolation of life experience, but thin analogies will only get you so far. Experience and knowledge compound over time to broaden the context of dialogue, convincing us that process is your friend to the extent you have the personal resources to chart new paths under immense pressure.
How deep can organizations go with coaching? A recent post in Psychology Today suggests that even a CEO can benefit strong from an executive coach, although building that level of trust and empathy is no small task. The point is that everyone can benefit from a sounding board, and in a perfect world everyone would have one that embodies a level playing field of shared knowledge. Since that business utopia is unlikely to emerge anytime soon, we think great executive coaches will be increasingly in demand, but like anything worth the money, the difference between good and great can be considerable.
The science of coaching is most likely to be revealed through improved business results, the scoreboard of performance upon which the client’s metrics will be formally evaluated. The art of coaching may seem more abstract, as each coach will undoubtedly develop his or her own style for working with the client to achieve the anticipated metrics, but without concrete improvements in financials, style won’t much matter. John and I believe you can’t have one without the other, and it is the integration of this vision that motivates us to help fill that toolkit.