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Executive Coaching

What Is Executive Coaching?

Executive coaching, at its core, focuses on increasing a business professional’s self-awareness, to ultimately improve organizational effectiveness and performance. More commonly offered to high-ranking executives, hence the “executive coaching” label, the service has gained popularity and spread to professionals at all levels of an organization. Thus, executive coaching is also referred to as business, corporate, professional, leadership or management coaching.

The coaching work typically happens one-on-one between the professional –the client — and an independent, outside third-party — the coach. The executive coach’s role is to help the client understand their impact — whether negative, positive or neutral — on the organization they work for–  and to support them in changing — tweaking, replacing or adding to– actions and behaviors that match their actual intentions. The role of a coach is not to take on the client’s inner burdens, but rather, to provide them with of a mirror where the client can see their reflection, thereby exposing their blind spots.  The coach and client develop and design relationships with teams, co-workers, supervisors, and ultimately achieve higher performance.

As Stratford Sherman and Alyssa Freas write in their HBR article of 2004, The Wild West of Executive Coaching, “At the most basic level, executive coaches serve as outsourced suppliers of candor, providing individual leaders with the objective feedback needed to nourish their growth.”

Mary Beth O’Neill, author of Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart brings a more organizational view of executive coaching, “The essence of executive coaching is helping leaders get unstuck from their dilemmas and assisting them to transfer their learning into results for the organization.”

What Can an Executive Coach Do for You?

The benefits of executive coaching are immense. Can anyone really claim to exactly know how they might be perceived by others, and how that might hinder their own ability to get what they want done within the organization? Does anyone have a true ally within their organization that can tell them the hard, cold truth? Think about it: would you go out of your way to provide feedback to a co-worker, manager, direct reports and put your relationship with them at risk ? Were you ever taught how to be a great boss, a great colleague, a great direct report or told the basic ingredient or/and recipe for corporate happiness?

That’s what an executive coach is for. While a therapist or psychology counselor might help resolve private life and general social issues, an executive coach looks exclusively at how his client operates in the context of the workplace, helps him hone the soft skills necessary to navigate the web of organizational relationships and spheres of influence successfully. EQ (Emotional Quotient) being a better predictor of success in the workplace than IQ (Intellectual Quotient) has made executive coaching all the more popular and relevant.

A good executive coach will commonly gather feedback about their client from peers, managers, direct reports —  conduct what is often referred to as a 360 degree assessment — to get a picture of where the client may be challenged, and come up with a short-term action plan on how fix or improve problematic behaviors.

Coaching, in the business context, is typically action-oriented and result-driven, which makes it attractive. For example, an executive might express their struggle to get people to listen to ideas. An executive coach might give the executive some actionable tips on how to increase his sphere of influence tailored to his specific work context. Additionally, executive coaches will build an accountability feedback loop in their relationship with the client: following up on whether they acted on the suggestion, assessing how the suggestion worked, and adjusting the approach accordingly.

The topics covered through coaching will of course vary from client to client according to their needs, but typical problematic areas often revolve around:

  • Managing up, down and across
    • Managing a difficult employee
    • Managing the team
    • Managing your boss
    • Managing colleagues
  • Increasing one's sphere of influence
  • Communicating effectively
  • Getting your team to buy in your vision
  • Learning how to coach staff
  • Time management
  • Leading effective team meetings
  • Networking within the organization

“There are 10,080 minutes in a 7-day week. Coaching is occurring all during your week, not just during your coaching session — such is the power of coaching and the coaching relationship. What you and your coach talk about during your sessions will resonate with you during your week, and some of the seeds or ideas that have been discussed will grow between sessions. All you have to do is to fully live your life between coaching sessions and be open to seeing what you and your coach talked about.” Thomas Leonard (Coachville)

Do You Need an Executive Coach? Do Your Managers?

You can be the best at your craft — whether engineering, finance, operations, accounting, taxes, sales marketing, law etc.–, be promoted and get a raise every year and still benefit from an Executive Coach. Even Lebron James needs a coach to win championships. Yet as obvious as the need for coaching may be in the world of sports, many businesses are still run by management teams who receive no executive coaching at all. Bill Gates is adamant on the topic. In a 2010 TED talk, he states “Everybody needs a coach”.  Likewise, Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, in an interview on Fortune, says the best advice he ever received was to get an executive coach and credit his Executive Coach Bill Campbell for his success at Google.

The importance of training employees for soft skills is well understood by CEOs as these numerous surveys point out. Other studies show that learning people skills through traditional training, such as reading leadership material or classroom training,  is ineffective. Why? Popular wisdom indicates we only remember 10% of what we read or hear. In addition, this 10% might not be at all, what you personally need to focus on in terms of development because we are generally poor evaluators of our own skills and performance. In psychological terms, it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect — a cognitive bias whereby we evaluate or rate our skills higher than they really are. So bottom line, unless someone assesses you, and prescribes an improvement plan and accompanies you through that behavior change journey, you’re unlikely to change your old ways. Change is hard. So here you have it. Yes, unless you’re perfect, you probably need coaching to perform at your best at work.

Now do your managers need coaching? Probably. According to Gallup, almost half of American employees consider their relationship with their boss to be the most stressful part of their job. This stress has huge consequences.  In a separate poll, Gallup found that half of employees will leave a job they would like to keep in order to get away from a bad manager. Researchers reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that employees who dislike their boss are 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who don’t.  Forbes reported that two thirds of workers would rather get a new boss than a raise. And again, what’s the culprit? Interpersonal skills. What’s the best approach known to improve on these? Executive Coaching.

The effectiveness of executive coaching is directly correlated to what the industry calls a client’s “coachability” — that is, the client is open to receiving feedback, open to the idea that everyone, including themselves, has room for improvement, open to discover deeply ingrained behaviors or beliefs that they held for decades might not be serving them, and finally open to change. To be coachable, August Turak writes in Forbes, “Someone must have the humility to take criticism and enough faith that the coaching process can work to actually make the effort. And equally certain, no amount of executive coaching is going to help someone who actually needs a professional psychologist. Helping such people is beyond the skill of even the best executive coaches.”

For those open to coaching, however, we believe that most coaching failures occur when the match between an executive coach and a client isn’t right. In an upcoming paragraph we will give you some pointers as to how to choose the right coach.

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