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Executive coaching


Disciplines > Coaching > Articles > Executive coaching

The problem | The dilemma | The paradoxical solution | Four situations | The trap | See also


Executive coaching is one of the significant advances of the modern workplace.

The problem

It once was that successful engineers, accountants, marketers and more were suddenly dropped into a management position, where their functional skills were now less important as they had to deal with people. Unsurprisingly, many foundered on these new rocks. Many still do.

The watchword was 'managers must manage', a strange assumption that managers will magically know how to manage people and situations without any training. Management and leadership are very different to designing cars or selling insurance, yet managers got very little help in making the transition.

As a result, many good people either left or, perhaps worse, 'managed' in a way that was more like coping than building real value and enjoying doing a good job.

The dilemma

The question, then, was how to support struggling managers and leaders. And let's face it, there are few managers even today who are brilliant at their jobs. 'Success' easily means looking good or covering up failures.

And the higher in the company a manager goes, the more are critical his or her decisions and actions. A poor decision can cost millions, whilst annoying employees can lead to them leaving or giving of less than their best.

But who is in charge? Who can decide what must be done? The managers, of course. And are they going to put their hands up and admit weaknesses? Unlikely.

The response of organizations to this dilemma has been sheep-dip management training, where all managers go on similar courses, in the hope that some useful skills will rub of. And of course some does, but the return on investment is seldom high.

The paradoxical solution

A much better solution that has appeared over recent years is executive coaching. Borrowing a term from sports, executive coaches are, to some extent, therapists in disguise. Their goal is to help executives become more functional by holding up a mirror and otherwise first helping the manager see their limitations and then helping them to address them. Like sports coaches, they coax, cajole and sometimes coerce their clients into becoming fit for the purpose before them.

Of course, one-to-one coaching is more expensive per person than training courses, both because of the ratio and because coaches generally have to be significantly more skilled than corporate trainers.

Four common situations

Here are four common situations where executive coaching may be used:

1. Skill development

The coach and executive may work on developing the executive's general skills, including boosting strengths and coping with weaknesses. For example the executive may lack empathy with peers and the coach thus helps them better understand body language.

2. Career development

The executive may want to plot their careers into the future. The coach can help them think through possibilities, choose from options, network effectively and develop skills required for future jobs.

3. Organizational change

When a significant organizational change is faced, the executive may not have appropriate historical experience in such things. The coach can work with them to help think through strategy and tactics and also to develop their leadership skills in navigating the change.

4. Specific problem resolution

Sometimes the executive has a particular problem, such as an employee who is effective in many ways, but is disrespectful towards the executive. The coach can work with the manager in working through the issues, both personal and external, to help get to a successful resolution.

The trap

A big trap of successful executive coaching is that the manager becomes dependent on the coach. Like a latter-day Svengali, the coach holds sway over the manager, who cannot make independent decisions and must consult the coach on every consideration.

A good coach, of course, will know this trap full well, and will guard against it. When asked for advice on what to do, they will not give an answer but will neutrally help the executive discover choices and identify decision criteria. In the end, the executive makes the choice and must know that this is their responsibility alone.

See also


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