A Better Person Makes a Better Exec

Invited to do some executive coaching, I gave myself a crash course in this expanding field. My decision: Just call me Coach MacRae

By Don MacRae

What is it about your life you want to change? More and more, corporate leaders seem to be asking themselves that question -- and hiring a relatively new kind of consultant, the executive coach, to help them find the answer. It's the latest fad sweeping Corporate America, one that might ultimately produce companies that are more competently managed by executives with a little more soul.

Over the past two months, I've been invited by successful leaders of two S&P 500 companies to be their executive coach. Both have business experience that dwarfs my own, and both lead exemplary family lives, so I was surprised and flattered. However, knowing that these captains of business don't need a mentor or a counselor, I decided to thoroughly check out what's expected of an executive coach before giving my answer.


  I read a number of leading books, including Executive Coaching by Peter Stephenson (Prentice Hall, 2000); Coaching At Work by Perry Zeus and Suzanne Skiffington (McGraw-Hill, 2000); and Co-Active Coaching by Laura Whitmore and others (Davies-Black Publishing, 1998). I also interviewed several successful executive coaches and their clients, and attended a coaching workshop held by a leader in the profession.

Here's what I learned: A lot of executives apparently need a few more finishing touches than you would expect for people who already have achieved so much. Coaches help executives become better leaders and managers, plus interact more effectively (meaning, get what they want with less friction) with peers, senior colleagues, shareholders, and others outside the company. Coaching, it seems, is about relationships -- and the behavior required to establish and nurture them.

Who needs coaching? Perhaps the better question is, who doesn't? We all know technical and functional wizards whose determination to succeed has pushed them rapidly up the ladder but whose leadership, team-building, change management, collaborative, or interpersonal skills are, to put it politely, lacking. These are the people who are reaching out -- not to a Svengali, but rather to someone who uses a few logical steps to help execs examine themselves, then come up with their own solutions for doing better. While the process has its roots in psychology, it shouldn't be confused with therapy or counseling, since it deals with functional, not dysfunctional, people and emphasizes strengths and achievements rather than weaknesses and problems. (These clients do have egos, after all).


  Confidentiality is key, of course, as the coach leads the client through a three-step process. The first is a review of the executive's career, strengths, and shortcomings -- the goal being to pinpoint skills that could use some honing. This fact-finding depends some on introspection, but also needs to include objective input -- previous performance evaluations and feedback, and even interviews with people who have worked with the exec.

Step two involves creating a comprehensive action plan: Taking into account the findings gathered in step one, the exec reaches his or her own conclusions about what skills or tendencies merit more focus -- and what the nature of that attention should be. Could the exec benefit from some specialized training, for example, or will simple awareness suffice? Though the coach may guide the exercise, it's up to the exec to make those decisions.

In the final stage, executive and coach test and implement the exec's action plan. Ultimately, that means exposing the new, more effective boss to the unforgiving worlds of the market and the workplace, monitoring the results, and making adjustments as needed.


  For all of this to work, you need an open-minded executive -- presumably the case, when I'm getting unsolicited inquiries. That's crucial because self-examination can be sobering, if not painful. It also helps if the coach is closer to Joe Torre (of New York Yankees fame) than to your child's Little League mentor.

The coach's primary role sounds simple -- ask the right questions and provide accurate feedback. But remember that the customers usually are complex people. That means good executive coaching can require a therapist's tools for changing behavior, the evaluation tools of a human-resources professional, the organizational skills and project-management acumen of a consultant, a professor's knowledge of adult learning and development principles, and a sports psychologist's knowledge of the multiple connections between mind and body. Additionally, the coach must be comfortable dealing with top executives and understand how they think -- and must quickly grasp the organizational culture, philosophy, and measures of success at the client's company.

Not every executive wants to open up enough to make hiring a coach worthwhile. Still, coaching is becoming a popular way of helping executives not only to close the gap between the requirements of a job and their performance, but also to manage stress and interpersonal relationships.


  In 1996, you could count the number of bona fide coaches in the hundreds. These days, the International Coach Federation claims there are about 15,000 coaches in North America -- and 200 new ones each month. Companies such as Motorola and IBM offer coaching as part of their executive development programs, paying as much as $750 an hour. This, no doubt, is one of the reasons for the tremendous growth of executive coaching as a profession.

So how should I respond to the two execs who have asked me to suit up? Aldous Huxley once said: "Experience is not what happens to a man -- it is what a man does with what happens to him." I agree with that philosophy, and thus have decided to accept their invitations. My approach will borrow from the medical dictum: "Do no harm." And also from Tennyson's Ulysses, in that I promise to strive, to seek, to find -- not necessarily perfection in the people under my charge, but continuous improvement.

Don MacRae is president of the Lachlan Group, a management consultancy in Toronto. He has taught and worked with corporate leaders for the past 25 years. You can reach him at don@lachlangroup.com, or visit his Web site at www.lachlangroup.com

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