A Compelling Case For Coaching

Organizations are caught in a dilemma.

The recent global economic meltdown required many companies to cut back drastically and tighten belts wherever possible — including cutting their commitment and resources dedicated to leadership development.

At the same time, a majority of CEOs across industries and geographies view maximizing the productivity of their current leaders and developing the next generation of leaders as mission critical.  A "Benefits and Talent Survey" by Aon Consulting found that 56 percent of employers in the U.S. are experiencing a leadership shortage that is impeding their organization’s performance. In addition, succession planning is taking on a new urgency in many organizations as baby-boomer managers head toward retirement.

How can companies reconcile their need to retain and develop leaders while still managing costs and ensuring a return on investment? One-on-one executive coaching may be the best answer to that question.

What is coaching?

Simply put, coaching is a process that supports and guides individuals in self-inquiry and self-development.  The process is almost always driven by a formal relationship between two people (coach and client) that exists for the sole purpose of focusing on the client’s development.  Or as James Flaherty put it, “coaching is a way of working with people that leaves them more competent and more fulfilled so that they are more able to contribute to their organizations and find meaning in what they are doing.”

The one thing to know about coaching is that it is about change. Specifically, it can be about acquiring new skills, learning new behaviors, or shifting thoughts and paradigms. In any case, it’s about growth. Growth can be invigorating, it can be motivating, it can be thrilling... and it can be scary, uncomfortable and hard. Growth requires us to step outside of our comfort zones into unfamiliar territory. Ironically, the one constant in growth is that it will always require us to do something different. 

You might be asking, “What kind of change will we focus on in coaching?”   Answering that question usually happens in the early stages of the coaching process.  A good coach will work with you to identify the areas of change.  Most executive coaching processes include some form of external data collection – a 360° assessment, informal interviews with colleagues, perhaps your coach shadowing you for a day – that will help you determine the areas for change.  But the truth is, a coach can only coach you in the areas that you are prepared to focus on.  As Edgar H. Schein said, coaching helps clients “develop a new way of seeing, feeling about, and behaving in situations that are defined by the client as problematic.”  That’s not to say that you’ll never find yourself focusing on something you’d rather ignore.  It means that a good coach can sense the threshold of a client’s self-inquiry and take him right to the very edge.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, “Wait, I’m not so sure about this coaching thing.  What happens if my coach makes me change something that I don’t agree with?”  Well, in all honesty that shouldn’t happen.  The role of the coach is intended to challenge you, to question your status quo, to nudge you into this unfamiliar territory.  It is NOT intended to shame you, judge you or force you to do anything.  Metaphorically speaking, coaches are here to guide you up and down the rugged mountain terrain of “development”, not to push you off the cliff!

The International Coaching Federation (the biggest governing board for coaching) says the coach’s job is to:

  • Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve

  • Encourage client self-discovery

  • Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies

  • Hold the client responsible and accountable

What does one “do” during coaching?

There are many things you may “do” during your coaching engagement – regular meetings or phone calls with your coach, homework or other activities to stimulate your thinking, journaling for self-reflection, taking classes, meditation, physical activity, and reading books or articles are just some of the things you might find yourself “doing” during coaching.  All these things are intended to facilitate learning, which is the first step to growth.  However, by themselves they don’t make up “coaching.” 

What one “does” during coaching is really the blend of three interdependent activities that all serve to stimulate learning and ultimately foster growth.  

The act of coaching consists of:

  1. Engaging in meaningful interactions with your coach

  2. The “work” outside of the coach/client interactions (like journaling, taking classes or reading articles) to pursue learning, deepen awareness and build skills

  3. Practicing utilizing these new insights and skills in the “real world”

As mentioned earlier, the coach’s job is to help clients step outside of their comfort zones.  This is most often accomplished through dialogue and other conversational interactions.  But these interactions mainly address the theoretical.  They help the client to gain insight and awareness, but that doesn’t necessarily equal growth.  Same thing with the “work” – self-reflection and building new skills doesn’t always equate to change.  The real learning occurs when the client applies those insights and skills in his “natural habitat,” so to speak. It is the times he tries something he’s never done before at work.  Or the first time he attempts to addresses a conflict with a colleague, rather than avoiding it.  Or how he tries to manage frustrations better during a stressful meeting.

How do I know I’m doing it right?

One question that always comes up (without fail!) at some point during a coaching relationship is,” Am I doing this right?  Is this what it’s supposed to be like?”  Now, from a coach’s perspective there are actually a couple of different questions being asked here.  The first is simply, “Is this really all that you and I are supposed to be doing?”  The second is the real question and that is, “How can I tell this is working?”

The answer to the first question most often is simply, “Yes.”  The single most important thing you can do for your coaching is show up.  Yes, that’s right.  Commit to the process.  Go “all in.”  If all you do is show up and engage in meaningful conversations, you will without fail get something from the coaching experience.  Put another way, if you don’t show up – if you routinely cancel, reschedule or forget about your coaching “dates” – you are guaranteed to not get anything out of it.  

The answer to the second question is just as simple, but not as easy.  The other most important thing you can do in your coaching is about the “work” – both doing it and applying it.  That means do the homework, do the journaling, talk about the difficult topics.  Challenge yourself to test out new skills.  Push yourself to think differently.  Think critically about how you’re showing up and what choices you’re making.  Consider what triggers you may have and how they influence your interactions with your environment.  Keep in mind, this is up to you – your coach can’t do it for you, your boss can’t do it for you.

What are the expected outcomes?

“Trends in Executive Coaching,” a 2008 joint study by DBM and the Human Capital Institute, found that the business community has embraced executive coaching as a “versatile leadership development tool that can be used to proactively enhance the effectiveness of already high performing and capable executives.” The study found that organizations using coaching got a solid return on their investment. Direct financial impact of coaching included:

• Executive output (33 percent), such as sales revenue and productivity.

• Quality improvements (23 percent), such as increased reliability or decreased defects.

• Cost savings (23 percent).

• Reduced turnover (21 percent).

Qualitative measures of coaching effectiveness included:

• Achievement of agreed-upon development objectives (84 percent).

• Anecdotal evidence of success (83 percent).

• Other people’s perceptions of the coachee (79 percent).

• Coachee’s ability to be promoted or to take on new responsibility (74 percent).

Coaching helps experienced leaders redefine their success metrics, reassess their leadership style, realign their priorities, prepare for an uncertain future and lead their new multigenerational and often global teams to success.  As Fortune magazine noted, “Coaching bridges the growing chasm between what managers are being asked to do and what they have been trained to do.”

A common psychological barrier to coaching is the mis-perception that the individual who is being coached must be an under-performer, or has a leadership defect that requires correction.  While this may be the case at times, the majority of successful coaching relationships involve an already successful leader who is looking to "up their game" and take their leading to the next level, whether it be sharpening their skills as they grow in a new assignment, or preparing themselves to play a larger role in the future.  Thus, when deciding to engage an executive coach, or when investing in a coach for your team, approaching coaching as a gift is often the most accurate perspective.