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Leadership: Executive Coaching — Fuel or Folly?

So which is it? There seems to be a wide variety of opinions concerning the value of executive coaching. Some say it is the professional that people choose who gets tired of working and so becomes a consultant and that this person’s input is a waste of time. Others swear by executive coaching as a way that changed their lives and careers. As an executive coach myself, I engage in both sides of this conversation with sincere interest. So is it fuel for the leader to improve or folly?

So which is it? There seems to be a wide variety of opinions concerning the value of executive coaching. Some say it is the professional that people choose who gets tired of working and so becomes a consultant and that this person’s input is a waste of time. Others swear by executive coaching as a way that changed their lives and careers. As an executive coach myself, I engage in both sides of this conversation with sincere interest. So is it fuel for the leader to improve or folly?

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I believe that the answer to this question comes down to who is selected as the coach and how the selection process is structured. Just like most things you search for, like a good doctor, dentist, hair stylist or mechanic, it generally comes down to how well you know what you want and how good you are at researching who is the real deal versus who is a quack. The first point of context that will help you successfully navigate the executive coaching course is understanding how it can serve an organization.

What is the value of outside coaching?

Paul Michelman wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review the following, when assessing what coaching is: “The belief is that, under the right circumstances, one-on-one interaction with an objective third party can provide a focus that other forms of organizational support simply cannot.”

Whereas coaching was once viewed by many as a tool to help correct underperformance, today it is becoming much more widely used in supporting top producers. In fact, in a 2004 survey by Right Management Consultants (Philadelphia), 86 percent of companies said they used coaching to sharpen skills.

At an even more basic level, many executives simply benefit from receiving any feedback at all. “As individuals advance to the executive level, development feedback becomes increasingly important, more infrequent, and more unreliable,” notes Anna Maravelas, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based executive coach and founder of TheraRising. As a result, she says, “Many executives plateau in critical interpersonal and leadership skills.”

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If what Maravelas is saying is true, then why do some people believe executive coaching is hogwash? The answer: because there are a lot of bad coaches out there and they give the profession a bad name. This is why how you structure your selection process and whom you ultimately choose are so important. If you are thinking of heading down this road and want to get the most benefit from your selection process, here are a few tips to get you started.

How do you get started?

First things first:
Know that, without question, executive coaching is not therapy. If it is therapy you want, go find a therapist. This is business coaching and if it turns into therapy and the person is not a qualified therapist, he/she can do more harm than good.

Know what your goal is:
Have an idea of what you want to get out of this coaching engagement. You may not know exactly what your goals are, but you have to think, at least generally, about what you are striving for, so you can appropriately select a coach who can get you there.

Know what type of coach you want:
I categorize coaches into three general categories:
1) Coaching primarily for relationship skills. This type of coaching engagement will require a coach with a kinder, gentler approach and will include talking through many communication and relationship scenarios.
2) Coaching primarily for goal-achievement and growth. This type of coaching engagement will require a coach with a more directive and assertive style (i.e., someone who isn’t about the coachee’s comfort). Typically the coachee will be given assignments, reading and a specific process to follow.
3) Coaching that is psychological in nature. This approach utilizes testing, theories and proven models and focuses on “a what makes you tick” kind of process to get to the goal.

I am confident there are combinations of these three approaches, but you need to identify what type of coach will work best for you. All have value, if they match your goals and disposition.

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Ask good questions:
I have found that most executives are poor at interviewing potential coaches and that they do not know what to ask. Here are a few sample questions that every reputable coach should be able to answer:
1. Tell me about your coaching process and philosophy? (Here, you are looking for a feel of what type of coach the person is and the length of the process, time commitment, and frequency of meetings. Also probe for some of the tools and resources the coach might use.)

2. Give me an example of a previous coaching experience that you would consider a success and what made it so?

3. How would you describe your coaching style?

4. How do you help identify what your coachee’s needs are? (Here you are looking to see if they utilize a 360 feedback process or another method to ascertain needs that the coachee may not see in him/herself)

5. How do you measure success?

I am sure many who are reading this can give us more examples of good questions to ask a coach. If you have some, please let me know.

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The coaching process can be a fabulous and engaging experience for leaders to partake in, which ultimately leads to growth and enhancement. Following the basics that I’ve outlined here will ensure that you find a coach who is both reputable and skilled at aiding you in this executive coaching journey. Lastly, if in the selection process a particular coach has all the right answers, but you are uncomfortable with his/her style, don’t choose that coach – it simply won’t work.

One last thought:
As the coachee, be prepared for some hard work and be open to hearing a lot of feedback that might feel painful. You must work on limiting your defensiveness and focus on being curious about the learning that can take place. Remember, this coaching process is for you; it may align around company goals, but it is for your growth and you will choose what to share, what to change and what to keep the same. Being dismissive or defensive about the feedback will greatly limit your growth and the value this process can bring. After all, you are hiring this person to be your “truth teller”…..embrace that gift.

Grace Andrews • Executive Coach/Corporate Healer • President, Training By Design • Boston, MA • gandrews@training-by-design.com • www.training-by-design.com