When it comes to making long-term behavioral/management changes, experts say leadership classes aren't enough; they're too short and don't tailor well to individual needs. While it may sound unnerving to open up your personality flaws for examination by a Ph.D. in organizational development, having an executive coach can be therapeutic for stressed-out managers with big problems on their plates. As retired technology executive Dan Woodward said, "Sometimes you just don't want to talk to your boss."
According to one expert, coaching is a booming industry for several reasons. First, it addresses specific needs that mass-market training cannot, and second, it provides clients with a “pay for results” opportunity, said Marshall Goldsmith, one of the founders of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership. Goldsmith grooms aspiring CEOs in Fortune 500 companies and has written four leadership books.
"Executives would rather pay more for results than pay less for nothing," said Goldsmith, who is one of the highest-paid coaches. Executive coaches charge from $5,000 to $150,000 per client for a six- to 18-month engagement, and like Goldsmith, they get paid only when they deliver on their promises.
Coaches are not consultants or therapists
"Coaching is all about you," explained Bette Price, an executive coach and CEO of the Price Leadership Group in Dallas. The work involves asking tough questions and getting the individual to come up with the answers, she added.
According to Price, people hire a coach for one of two reasons: to achieve a deeper learning in some area or to get unstuck from a career quagmire. "Executive coaching is all about helping people understand and improve their own leadership styles in order to succeed,” she said.
Some coaches have advanced degrees in organizational development or psychology, while others, like Price, have unconventional backgrounds. Price is a former television reporter and journalist who founded her training company in 1982 to help entrepreneurs. Today, she works with companies as large as IBM and Sony, often helping engineer-types figure out how to relate well with others. In her view, coaching has a bad connotation in the business world because people think it's therapy. "If you have underlying emotional issues, you really need a psychotherapist," Price quipped.
The expected benefits
What exactly do CEOs or other executives have in mind when they recommend a CIO or VP of IS to an executive coach? "They’re really looking to see if they can broaden the person’s relationship skills—their ability to influence in the organization, build coalitions, listen carefully, and develop the people that work with them," explained Monica McGrath, a leadership professor at The Wharton School and an executive coach for 14 years.
Coaching should not be used as a way to get rid of someone, McGrath warned. "Coaching has a negative perception because it has been used as a way to fix problems and not develop leaders."
If you think you need a coach, but don't know how to justify it to your boss, McGrath suggests looking at your performance reviews from the last several years. Highlight those problem areas that have not changed over time and show them to your boss. Then, explain how your improvement in those areas will benefit the company in terms of increased productivity or profits.
What makes a good coach
To find the right coach, experts recommend turning to colleagues and other executives for references and referrals. When you meet with a coach candidate, be prepared with questions and a good idea of your goals for the relationship, McGrath said. Beyond making sure you and your prospective coach have good chemistry, make sure that the coach has a significant background in human development, she added.
Keep in mind that when it comes to coaching, there are no standards yet for the various types of coaches, and credentialing organizations receive mixed reviews. Therefore, a human development expert does not have to hold an advanced degree in the field or a coaching certificate. Some coaches come directly from the corporate world, bringing valuable experience as former executives who have mentored others.
McGrath also suggests getting a clear look at the style of the executive coach you’re considering hiring. A Ph.D. in clinical psychology will have a different orientation than an organizational psychologist, while a former executive will provide an approach more geared to business strategy, she said.
Most important is finding a coach who is an expert at solving your issues, said Goldsmith, leadership book author. Because of the current glut of executive coaches, "you have a bunch of people who really don't know what they're doing," he warned.
Ask the prospective coach to describe his or her top areas of expertise (no more than three should be the answer) before divulging your problems, he suggested. Goldsmith is helping to produce a forthcoming book on the topic. The book identifies top-end coaches as people who have been published, hold an advanced degree in the field, and have 15 years of experience as a coach.
Find a coach
Web sites that offer insight on various coaching organizations and professionals include International Coach Federation, The Coaches Training Institute, and Linkage, Inc., which offers conferences, education, and resources for organizational development/training.
Another good resource is Choosing an Executive Coach by Karen Kirkland Miller and Wayne Hart. It’s one of several books available at the Center for Creative Leadership bookstore.
Working with your coach
The number-one rule for working with a coach is getting rid of any thin skin or sensitivity to constructive criticism. A good coach won't sugarcoat your problem areas or progress. "I've had to be very direct with people," McGrath said, “to the point of being extremely uncomfortable."
Also, don't forget that coaches usually have a relationship with your boss—particularly since your company is typically footing the bill. McGrath suggests setting clear boundaries dictating what your coach will share with the boss and what will remain between the two of you.
When Price, CEO of Price Leadership Group, works with clients, she first makes sure that the individual's intentions are true. "The individual has to want to be coached…because you develop a very trusting relationship." Next, she spends some preliminary time with the person so that both parties can be sure of the chemistry. She recommends looking for a coach who is a good listener and who can challenge the status quo.
You must also set up rules for the relationship. These rules should cover scheduling, keeping appointments, confidentiality, and how to work with the boss. Before any meetings take place, develop an agenda. Price typically meets with clients three to four times a month, for 60 to 90 minutes.
A good coach also uses behavioral or personality assessments, such as Myers-Briggs, to better understand the client's personality and leadership style.
While a coach may work with a client sporadically over a decade, each engagement has to have definite goals and a definitive end. You’ll know it's time to part ways with your coach when you start seeing results, according to the experts. If you’ve selected a competent coach, there should be signs of improvement after six to eight months. The coach should not be a crutch for the long haul. As Price said, "I need to work myself out of a job."