Executive coaching has become the norm for many senior executives in the United States, particularly those being groomed for leadership roles. Often sponsored by employers, these personal coaches have become a badge of honour in some companies, a positive sign that Upper Management has decided that you’re someone worth developing and investing in.
This is in stark contrast to a decade ago, when having a personal executive coach foisted on you meant that you were having problems coping with your work or that there were issues with your behaviour. In fact, an article on Harvard Business Review that examines the nature of executive coaching has observed that coaching is now seen as “a popular and potent solution for ensuring top performance from an organization’s most critical talent”, with almost half of all coaches now being hired to coach talents with high potential and facilitate a transition into the company or up the leadership hierarchy.
Here in Asia, executive coaching is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among MNCs. With more and more global and regional headquarters now being based in Asia, what was initially much more common among American executives and managers is now increasingly common among some of the biggest and fastest growing companies in the region.
What is Executive Coaching?
Executive coaching can be defined as a form of organisational learning through one-on-one sessions, which mostly consists of in-depth conversations that help to facilitate development for an executive, usually someone in a leadership role. The best executive coaching are highly-tailored processes that aim to benefit individuals as well as the organization that the individuals belong to through specific improvements to the individuals’ working styles and work outcomes.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the methods involved in coaching are often a combination of those used in consulting and therapy. Like a consultant, coaches often get involved in the management of individual, team, and organisational goal-setting, advise individual leaders on business matters, and base their principles on organisational ethics. Like a therapist, coaches are paid to find and ask the right questions, explore subjective experiences, tackle difficult personal issues at the workplace (and often at home as well), and to focus on individual, behavioural change.
Unlike consultants and therapists, however, executive coaches also keep their eyes on both the immediate and long-term futures of the individuals they coach, often keeping tabs on their performance within a business context using business metrics. They often end up helping executives chart their own paths, both professional and personal.
Of course, since most executive coaches are brought in and paid for by the company, the scope of their work is often determined and bounded by their agreement with the company. Companies will often ask coaches to address specific issues related to individuals; currently however, the majority of coaches will be asked to prepare key talents for the demands and challenges of a higher position, which often calls for a more holistic approach.
Elements of Coaching: Methodology
Each executive coach will bring something different to the process; there are likely as many executive coaching approaches as there are executive coaches. However, the methods of the best executive coaches tend to share the following elements:
1. Clearly Defined Goals and Boundaries
Professional executive coaches will be open and frank about what is it they can or cannot do for their clients, depending on their background, corporate expertise. Generally, while executive coaches may borrow techniques from fields such as psychology or therapy, they are generally not qualified to provide psychological treatments or provide therapy. Even if they do have the necessary accreditations and certifications, as some coaches do, there is a difference between engaging someone as an executive coach or engaging them as a mental healthcare provider.
Executive coaches will also set clear achievable goals that their clients want and are willing to work towards; goals that are suitable for the individuals being coached and that are aligned to the organisational aims of the company.
It is also generally a good idea for clients and coaches to prepare a partnership agreement that protects confidentiality, defines commitment, and establishes professional boundaries.
2. In-Depth Assessment
A majority of coaches will also carry out their own forms of assessment, whether it be in the form of an interview, a period of observation, or even a fusion of a few assessment methods. This is one of the most critical aspects of executive coaching because this is when coaches determine the starting point of the coaching relationship, which they use as a basis for future interventions, solutions, and recommendations. This is also where coaches and clients will start to define what ‘success’ would look like at the end of the engagement.
Experienced coaches will also take into consideration the performance indicators of the company as well as the context within which their ‘coachees’ operate to determine the needs of their clients.
3. Clear Priorities
After coaches gain the full picture of their client’s context and needs, they will work together with their clients to tailor a set of priorities, areas which they have identified as crucial for the individual’s development.
These priorities may encompass both professional and personal aspects of the client’s life, depending on the boundaries agreed upon by the parties involved.
This is also the point during which coaches may start to recommend actions, changes, and solutions to their clients, often in a gradual, progressive manner, depending on the priorities that have been set.
4. Reflection and Practical Application
When coaches suggest changes, inspire new ideas or recommend certain courses of action, the person being coached might sometimes feel pressured to implement them immediately for quick results. After all, good coaches will often suggest practical actions that their coachees can apply directly.
However, the most permanent changes are often the ones that unfold gradually and organically. As such, more established coaches often give their coachees the time and room to reflect on their progress and development.
5. Measurement of Success
Executive coaches will often work with their coachees and other stakeholders to define what a successful coaching engagement looks like, depending on the main reason why the coach was engaged in the first place.
Defining, measuring, and celebrating ongoing successes is a critical part of the coaching process. One of the hallmarks of a good executive coach is the transparency and clarity with which they define and measure the results of their coaching.
The Benefits of Executive Coaching
According to the International Coaching Federation, there is strong evidence that companies that introduce executive coaching into their organisational development plans post higher than average revenues when compared to similar companies without a coaching culture, particularly when those being coached are those in the C-suite and senior management. This is because the improvements in productivity and decision-making as a result of the successful coaching of these individuals create big ripples across their organizations. When the leadership improves, the entire organization benefits; a much higher returns on investment than the average learning and development initiative targeted at mid-level or junior employees.
The face-to-face nature of coaching is also key to successful executive coaching, particularly in changing the behaviour of individuals. In an article on Self.com, Dr. Oksana Hagerty, an educational and developmental psychologist at Beacon College in Florida, explains that coaches, from the position of an expert third-party observer, help to build “routines artificially so you can touch the positive consequences, taste them, like them, and get used to them”, after which those being coached will persist with those routines to continue enjoying the consequent results. Over time, these routines become habits, which in turn produce results for the company.
Since coaches work in one-on-one sessions, the routines they conceptualize for their clients tend to be closely modelled after their own strengths, working styles, and desired improvements, as opposed to one-size-fits-all solutions that are implemented on a company-wide level. This makes the results of coaching relationships much more enduring.
“What Can Coaches Do For You?”, Harvard Business Review, Link: https://hbr.org/2009/01/what-can-coaches-do-for-you?referral=03759&cm_vc=rr_item_page.bottom
“Hiring a Coach For My ADHD Changed My Life and Productivity”, Self.com, Link: https://www.self.com/story/hiring-adhd-coach-transformed-my-life