Surviving the Limelight

When is an Executive Coach most valued by a client?  Not surprisingly, often when a client is most surprised!  Getting blindsided by the unexpected is part of the job for executives, but how they handle an awakened dragon is what really matters.  As an Executive Coach, your role in this rebound cannot be underestimated.

Consider as an example Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently attracted more visibility than usual when she set a reasonably straightforward human resources policy for her company to limit telecommuting.  Regardless of whether you agree with her on the necessity of employees being present at an office every day, it is hard not to be surprised by the public outcry in response to her internal company announcement.  She is the company’s Chief Executive Officer, she is in the midst of a tough turnaround, and she has the board assigned authority to run the company day-to-day.  The fact that her decision attracted so much public attention – headline news around the world – likely surprised even her.

Was the reaction of non-Yahoos likely to cause her to change her mind?  Pretty unlikely.  Was the media sensation that found reason to demonize her an easy punch to deflect?  That seems equally unlikely.  Had you been her Executive Coach, what would you have said to her?  More importantly, would you have been ready to say anything at all?

I would presume that Ms. Mayer has a well-established support system including personal and professional mentors to help dust her off after a fall, but what about those executives a notch or two down from the top job at companies like hers?  Surely the loud reaction to her memo represents an extreme, but as a former CEO myself, I assure you the spotlight can shine unfavorably without warning.  Senior executives are almost always operating at a high level of visibility, both within their companies and to the outside world.  Say the wrong thing or implement an otherwise innocuous tactic in any compromising manner and the wallop that follows can be bone crushing.

There are unlimited roles an Executive Coach can play in serving a client, but perhaps none is more vital than the quiet sanctuary of crisis management.  Wherever the Executive Coach might be weighing in on the spectrum of support – from consultant to mentor – the sounding board an Executive Coach provides to an executive under fire can ensure continuity over severance.  A seasoned Executive Coach might be the only individual qualified, prepared, and able to help an executive repel hyperbole and steady the ship.  How much the executive can depend on a coach in times of unwanted celebrity may mean the difference between getting through the interrupt or falling prey to demoralization.

To be clear, it may not be the surprise act causing an unusual uproar that delivers material damage to the executive’s business agenda.  It may be the executive’s immediate and unformed response.  There is an extraordinary distance to navigate between thoughtful, timely reaction and analysis paralysis.  An Executive Coach remains in the executive’s corner with 100% objectivity, without conflict of interest, and without intellectual or emotional compromise to help the executive sort through all available options in near real-time.

Remember, an executive is a champion, just like a star athlete.  The executive has signed onto the team roster to win.  All executives know they will be surprised by the response to one of their decisions sooner or later, but that does not mean they want to dig themselves out of the muck alone, especially when they never saw the sinkhole coming.  Where an executive has a trusted Executive Coach accessible for counsel, that Executive Coach can guide the executive toward accessing empowered resilience to any potentially catastrophic attack.  Responding to attack will always be part of an executive’s job, but incorporating the focused perspective of an Executive Coach to respond with inspiration can make for a brilliant recovery.

When John Vercelli and I run our simulations and role-plays for Coaches Training Institute to help ready a CTI Executive Coach for the highest levels of client service, we are not just thinking about how to help an Executive Coach win a client.  We are deeply concerned how an Executive Coach retains a client, adds tremendous value to the critical work of a client, and is always available to help that client keep winning no matter the obstacles they encounter.  Because an executive must be nimble and responsive in today’s 24 x 7 x 365 competitive environment, an Executive Coach must be equally if not more nimble and responsive.  Anticipating the unexpected is of course impossible in the specific, but necessary in the abstract.  You never get an extra beat when the spotlight shines.  You sing when the light comes on.  Being ready is what makes you great, and being present is what makes you forever dependable.

No one can ever tell you when a fire is going to ignite.  The only thing you know for sure is there will be a fire.  Being an Executive Coach means you are a vital part of your client’s response team, often where the team is just you and the executive.  Are you ready for that level of responsibility?  Are you ready to help your executive win when the odds are at their lowest?  If so, the difference you make can mean everything.  For that you will always be cherished.

CTI Global

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The Art and Science of Coaching

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.