Executive Coaching – not required for every Executive
I was having dinner with three college friends I hadn’t seen in a long time and one decided to tell a story about his therapist. Another chimed in with something about her therapist. Both these two were always very “touchy feely” and it didn’t surprise me that they had therapists. The third, a very practical scientific type, had something to add about his therapist too. They all turned and looked at me, probably because I had been uncharacteristically silent.
“Don’t look at me,” I quipped, “I’m not crazy!”
A couple months later in an airline lounge I overheard a similar conversation between three presumably up and coming young executives. One was pontificating on how helpful his executive coach was. The second added a couple of comments on his executive coach and their relationship. The third was silent until asked about his executive coach. “Oh I don’t have an executive coach,” he stated. The other two looked at him strangely as if something was seriously wrong; as if he was obviously not reaching his full potential as an executive and shortchanging his company and himself in the process. As fascinating as the conversation was, I decided to get a cup of coffee and talk to my 2 year old on the phone instead.
There is nothing wrong with having a therapist. Many people do and derive great benefits. The vast majority probably are not mentally ill either. But some of us neither have nor need a therapist. I know I don’t want a therapist, don’t feel I need one, and probably wouldn’t listen to one if pushed into therapy. I know of no study that says that everyone can benefit from having a therapist. I also know of no study that says that every executive can benefit from having an executive coach.
Therapists have been a around a long time, but what are executive coaches? And why do so many consultants seem to be calling themselves coaches today? Coaching is consulting which focuses on individuals, as opposed to organizations and their associated needs. Just like therapy focuses on an individual. And just like therapists need to be (oftentimes brutally) honest with their clients, so do coaches. Coaching is trendy, and trends sell; hence many consultants have added “coaching” to their stable of services. In many cases they have been “coaching” for a long time, although not referring to their advice to individuals as coaching before. Today we have many types of diverse coaches: executive coaches, speech coaches, communication coaches, life coaches, career coaches, etc.
When most people think coach, they initially think “athletics.” Athletics have a long and successful history of coaching, and executive (and other) coaching borrows a lot from the legacy of athletic coaching. A coach is not necessarily any “better” than the person they are coaching, but they can observe that person from a neutral standpoint and offer unbiased advice. For example, I do a lot of public speaking, and at a recent keynote I asked another speaker what he thought of my speech. He gave me three surprisingly candid pieces of advice, two of which were extremely useful, even though I consider myself a far better and more experienced speaker. He could give me unbiased feedback and it was very useful. Especially at the executive level, it can be very difficult to get unbiased feedback and advice. A successful executive is often surrounded by very well intentioned “yes people.” Also, the higher in an organization one rises, the fewer peers one has. But some executives, as well as other professionals, don’t want a coach, don’t feel they need a coach, and probably wouldn’t listen to a coach if pushed into coaching.
Many coaches will counter that those who resist coaching often need it most. Perhaps that is true, but so what? Advice is only useful to people who will consider it.
My very overweight, heavy smoking, junk food eating friend John has a horrible family history of heart disease. He doesn’t take advice well; he gets angry if friends or family ever make any gentle health related suggestions, and hasn’t seen a doctor in years. If he did I’m sure he would refuse to take their professional medical advice as well. A person’s doctor could be considered in part a “Medical Coach.” Having regular medical checkups probably wouldn’t be overly helpful for John.
I once worked with someone known to his direct reports as “The Fuhrer.” He practiced “Management by Yelling.” He was widely considered to be an “unethical bastard.” He had some good points as well: he had good intuition, he could be very persuasive when/if he stopped yelling, etc. Perhaps he is a prime example of someone who could benefit from coaching? No, because he refuses to ever take advice from anyone. He would “submit” to coaching if forced, but I’m sure there would be zero long term benefit.
The majority of executives are executives for a reason – and they are very good at what they do. They have regularly adapted on their upward movement through the ranks. To adapt to less feedback, fewer peers, more responsibility, delegating effectively, etc. I certainly suggest trying executive coaching to any executive. And I even suggest trying it multiple times if necessary until hopefully a coach is found that they can develop a good dynamic and effective relationship with.
There is a trend towards increased coaching, executive and otherwise. There is a good reason for this trend: coaches can and often do significantly help those they are coaching. Notice I call coaching a trend, NOT a fad. But not every executive needs, nor can benefit from an executive coach. Could Alexander the Great have used an executive coach? How about Attila the Hun? Pontius Pilate? Caesar? Oh, there was this guy named Brutus . . . .
Ted Demopoulos is not an executive, although he has both held executive positions and played executive in front of venture capitalists. He sometimes advises executives, and they sometimes listen. In retrospect, they seem to pay the most attention to Ted when his advice is good – they ARE smart people. Ted does not describe himself as a coach.
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