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WHAT THE HELL IS AN EXECUTIVE COACH?

Hey, I am one of those and I couldn’t give you a clear definition! It seems that anyone can call themselves a coach these days…retired executives, out of work whatevers, “entrepreneurs”. And don’t even get me started on “life coach”!! The other day I learned that there is such a thing as a “business strategy coach”. Really?

In spite of all this confusion there is plenty of demand for executive coaches. I would never bite the hand that feeds me but I thought it would be helpful to try to bring some sanity to this whole topic. If your company engages coaches for the top leaders or you are thinking that you need one…here is my guidance.

What the hell is an executive coach?

Best case scenario….a coach is someone who facilitates your professional growth and increased effectiveness. Most of the time this person is not an employee of your company. The reason for this is that executives need someone objective who is not swept up in the politics and can offer extremely confidential privacy. Tough things get discussed and you need a safe place where you know your business will not filter back into the system.

Routine meetings are scheduled over the course of 6-12 months. As much as possible these are face to face but phones and Skype work just fine too. (Technology allows you to find the best coach for you no matter where you each live.) At the beginning you agree to some goals and aspirations you want to achieve and the coach tries to maintain that focus.

Again, best case scenario….you raise questions and pressing concerns that your coach helps tease out with you. S/he pulls out your best thinking and strategies before offering additional insights. Time is spent rehearsing or preparing for upcoming encounters so that you can try new behaviors. It is the coach’s job to help you expand your perceptions and leadership repertoire so you can increase your impact. Over time you will discover that these new actions work well so you incorporate them and then move on to learn new ones.

So a coach is someone you can trust who is smart enough to provide meaningful guidance and understands the challenges of leadership and focuses on the most important issues. A coach is NOT a friend or a mentor or a therapist. A coach wants to help you be a fantastic leader and has the skills to get you there. Period.

When is it a good idea to hire a coach?

At the executive level coaching is used as the professional development vehicle; it’s all about upping your game. In most companies there are many talent development initiatives for managers and directors but the services and resources drop off once you arrive in the board room. So coaching is the CEO’s way of saying, “I’m still invested in your growth.” It’s a positive thing. It’s a reward.

Nearly all my coaching engagements begin from this premise and it is a rich and productive activity. The executive feels valued, is highly motivated, is starting from a position of strength and is ready to get to the next level. All good.

But there are times when a leader has stalled out or is in need of significant corrective action. These are not the most fun assignments and they produce uneven results.

If you have been in your role for some time, done good work but don’t seem to have the capacity or motivation to prepare yourself for a new assignment your company isn’t putting you on the succession lists. This does not bode well for senior leaders. You are past the phase in your career where being an “individual contributor” is considered a good thing. If you are an expert (a good thing) but don’t provide leadership value beyond your function (the collective strategic responsibility that the exec team shares) then the CEO may want you to get a coach to see if there is still a chance that you can grow. You are expensive. They want their money’s worth.

Coaching in that situation can be tough. It all comes down to your motivation. If you are happy where you are and reluctant to spread your wings that signals a dead end. No amount of supportive or kick ass coaching will change you. So even defining your goals and aspirations for the coaching may be lackluster. In my experience, the coaching has limited value but does lead to a good discussion between the leader and the CEO. There is an open conversation about the leader’s future and what is best. The solutions can range from keeping the person in the role for a specific amount of time to creating a “special adviser to the CEO” role to planning a phased retirement. Honestly, you could save the coaching fees and just have that discussion. It’s not like this situation is hidden or tough to figure out.

The corrective action coaching assignments present a whole different set of challenges but the motivation factor is still at the core. When a CEO gives a bad annual review and says, “I’m going to give you every chance to succeed but know that it is all on you” and then engages the help of a coach….we are talking a “do or die” moment. It is like court ordered therapy. It rarely works because the mindset for the leader is “my boss thinks I need help” rather than “I’d love to improve”. It’s the old adage…you can’t really change because someone else wants you to. You have to want for yourself.

When I have started those assignments (these days I usually refuse to do them) my efforts to steer the person to talk about how they see their issues fails. Instead I hear about how screwed up the boss and their colleagues are and that s/he is the victim of others’ warped perceptions. The defensiveness, anger and arrogance are huge. I go into my “ninja consulting” stance: very tough, cut through the crap, bust down the barriers. Sometimes I have been able to help the person gain an ounce of insight but not enough to make a difference. More commonly I am able to get the leader to understand that s/he will get fired if they don’t shape up. In all but one case some form of exit did occur…usually the leader saying “F#@% you”. The CEO is happy at that point because s/he got the desired outcome and s/he didn’t have to pull the trigger. In the one case where the leader did shape up it was because she had too much to lose. She still felt she was a victim and was put in an individual contributor role but she still has an income.Even though that was a technical successful outcome I’m not sure anyone was happy in the end…including me.

Background, credentials, qualifications

Oy vey! Where to start? This is not a field where you have to be licensed or certified to say that you are a coach. That said, there are big businesses out there that train and certify folks to operate as coaches. I can’t vouch for any of them. I’ve never attended them nor spoken with folks who have received services from one of their graduates.

I’m not sure there is a one size fits all when it comes to background and qualifications. At a minimum a valuable coach has 1) some education/training in human behavior, 2) some education/experience in leadership, 3) understands how organizations and businesses operate and 4) has a good track record of successful coaching assignments. Some leaders prefer to speak with coaches who have expertise in their function (ie. a CFO wants to speak with someone with a finance background). Others want industry knowledge. And others really want to speak with someone who has been an executive at some point.

In the end most coaching connections happen through word of mouth. Some coach has helped one of your colleagues or a good friend. Your company has a short list of vetted coaches they use repeatedly. A consultant you’ve worked with knows someone who would be perfect for you. A consulting firm you use regularly has a coaching division. It’s like finding a good doctor…you ask around rather than using Google.

Buyer beware

If you take the word of mouth path you’ll probably get a few names of coaches you can interview and one of those will work for you. Unfortunately there are too many people out there who bill themselves as coaches who really aren’t going to help you much.¬† So here is my consumer guide for you.

  1. Do gather recommendations from people in your circle who have been helped by a coach. Get several names.
  2. Do interview each one and ask probing questions. What is your measure of success? What can I expect during our conversations? Tell me how you helped someone else. What if this doesn’t work? Are you going to talk with my boss? How would you address my specific issue?
  3. Do your due diligence if you are exploring a sole practitioner or a small firm. Make sure that his/her background is substantial enough.
  4. Do be wary of consulting firms selling additional services as part of their contract extensions with you. Executive development is not necessarily their core competence….but it is a money maker. Be careful.
  5. Do go with your gut in the end. Can you open up to this person? Do you feel comfortable talking with him/her? Did you feel helped in the initial interview? Do you like the approach or point of view? Do you think this person can offer the help you want?

Here’s the bottom line on executive coaches. If it is the right person at the right time in your career it can have a big positive impact on your leadership impact. And if the coach isn’t very good the worst that will happen is nothing. You will be out some money but you probably won’t receive career ending advice.

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