The many faces of executive coaching

Everyone needs personal and executive development — not everyone recognizes that need.

The complex, dynamic, and unpredictable nature of the business world has led companies to invest in human capital to remain competitive. Unfortunately, these investments have often resulted in frustration with the lack of results from the multitude of workshops, training seminars, and company programs. What is delivered during training is not being implemented in the field.

The challenge is not just gaining the necessary knowledge, but turning that knowledge into action. Part of helping employees to resolve this “knowing/doing gap” is the providence of effective leadership.

Leadership skills have not kept up with what is necessary in today’s business world where trust in employees and collaboration is of the essence — not hierarchical control. What worked in the past may no longer work, or even worse, become a liability.

Organizations often fail because of issues such as inadequate leadership styles, dysfunctional top teams, ineffective communication and co-ordination, conflicting priorities, and inadequate leadership development throughout the organization.

Many executives have not learned the new skills that are necessary, such as how to adequately communicate visions, develop teams effectively, and manage conflict productively.

In addition, leaders have few opportunities for continuing development and often the mistaken assumption reigns that those who reach the executive level no longer need personal development.

The goal of executive coaching is to fill this void. In general, executive coaches focus on helping executives become better leaders, increasing their competence, effectiveness, commitment, and confidence, and solidifying new behaviours. Since leaders develop through leading, successful coaching requires going beyond workshops to embed effective leadership in on-the-job learning.

Similar to a sports coach, an executive coach is at hand through an extended period of time to guide executives through the process of achieving and sustaining the required behaviour change and leveraging her strengths.

For those embarking on executive coaching, individually or as an organization, it is often hard to choose among the multitude of offerings. A large variety of methods are being used by a large variety of consultants who offer their services in this field. As a result of being an unregulated field with no licencing or professional designation, the quality of the coaching process and outcome differs greatly. Given the costly nature and high profile of executive coaching work, corporate decision-makers must be well informed about the various issues that surround effective coaching.

Executive coaches may work with the organization or individual executives. They may be internal or external to the organization and may be engaged for a large variety of issues. An executive may be functioning well but may want to gain a higher level of effectiveness. Alternatively, management may decide that an executive is in danger of derailing and needs coaching.

For example, she may be highly effective technically, but lack the adequate people skills to sufficiently motivate subordinates. She may be seen as abrasive, territorial, over-controlling, lacking in personal insight or social, organizational, or political awareness, and need to address these problems.

Alternatively, coaching may be sought for the development of “high potentials” in the organization. In addition, executives may engage in coaching to help them become more effective quickly during career changes or when in need of “career renewal.” Coaching may be needed for learning a specific skill or for more general performance requirements.

The desired outcome of executive coaching is sustained behaviour change on the part of the executive, and is mostly focused on the interpersonal sphere such as relating more effectively to people. The complexity of the psychological processes involved in such behaviour change requires that executive coaching be based on sound psychological principles. These requirements make, in particular, psychologists — those who also have an understanding how to align the coaching with business realities — uniquely qualified for this work.

Once an organization or an executive has decided to embark on executive coaching and has selected an executive coach several sensitivities need to be managed. Successful behaviour change requires becoming aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses.

The process of gaining such self-awareness is often accompanied with resistance and fear that may be conscious or unconscious. It is, therefore, essential that the coach earns a sufficient level of trust so that the executive is open to change and willing to be influenced. For this to happen, the client must feel comfortable with the coach. In addition, sufficient time must be allocated to the coaching process to develop this trust.

Furthermore, the organization and the client need to recognize the value and be willing to make this development a priority.

Executives often show a fair amount of distrust or disdain for the “soft” side of leadership, and under stress, most executives habitually focus on what they know best — the hard side: numbers and bottom line focus — and rely on a formula that worked in the past. Recognition of the importance of effectively using both the “hard” and the “soft” side of leadership is important for a successful coaching outcome.

When executive coaching becomes part of a larger initiative of organizational development, some executives may actively resist the process at the outset, others will have no opinion and adopt a “wait and see” attitude, and some will embrace the opportunity.

It is important to select a coach who has the necessary savvy to identify and deal with resistance in an individual and enlist the organization and its management in how to effectively incorporate and align the coaching process with the goals of the organization. An executive exists in a complex organizational system where one element impacts another.

Once the executive has enlisted in the program, effective executive coaching generally consists of taking stock of the executive’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of competencies and skills relative to a profile of competencies necessary for success in her present and future role in the organization.

This assessment can take the form of an in-depth assessment interview with the executive, additional pencil and paper measures, personality assessment and data-collection about the executive from relevant constituencies inside and outside the organization. Depending on the executive’s role in the organization, the assessment is generally followed by:

•feedback to the executive about the data gathered;

•working with the client to consolidate the information;

•targetting areas for development,

•leveraging identified strengths,

•guidance through the skill consolidation process; and

•enlisting the relevant support from the organization or supervisor.

The consultant coaches, counsels and supports the executive on an ongoing basis at regular scheduled meetings. This helps the executive remain focused on the goals of acquiring specific leadership, conflict management, team development or other skills identified as necessary.

Sustained behaviour change does not happen overnight. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to venture outside one’s “comfort zone.”

Angelika Mellema is president of Toronto-based Mellema Behavioural Science Group Inc. and specializes in leadership development and executive coaching. She can be reached at (416) 777-6725 or [email protected]

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