In the ebb and flow of leadership and organizational development trends, coaching definitely is “in.” This begs the question: Is coaching merely a fad or an indispensable management tool?
Unfortunately, for those of us devoting our careers to executive coaching, the answer is that it’s both – coaching has a faddish side, despite more than 20 years as a mainstay of organizational development, copious affirming efficacy research and annual U.S. coaching fees estimated at $1 billion, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Like good art, the value of coaching seems destined to be defined in the eyes of beholders more than by a professional credentialing organization (even though the International Coach Federation has made significant progress on that front, with 9,500 members from more than 70 countries).
Anyone can call himself or herself a coach, hang out a shingle and charge anywhere from $100 an hour to $20,000 per day.
So it’s “buyer beware” – but don’t underestimate the power of coaching. Instead, understand just what it is you’re buying with a coach and why.
Motivational speakers, business gurus, workshop leaders and evangelists might all call themselves coaches – at least while the term is still hot. And they get hired as coaches by people who also hire those in my trade: professional psychologists who work with clients on a one-to-one basis to help them learn new skills, improve performance and achieve better results.
All of us have our place and can produce good results, if we do our work properly. One key differentiator for effective coaches is making sure they understand the organization’s needs before working with an individual’s development.
Problems and fears of faddishness and waste arise from hiring the wrong kinds of coaches for the wrong reasons and asking the wrong questions.
Wrong Reason No. 1: Mismatch Between Expertise and Need
Don’t hire a charismatic football coach to fire up the sales force if the fundamental problem is that sales and marketing are disconnected because the new marketing chief can’t/won’t hear what “the street” is telling him about why it’s missing sales targets.
The issue there isn’t lack of motivation, and it’s not about inspiring people. It’s more likely a lack of effective communication – because of weak skills or disinterest – resulting in some bad habits that have grown into serious barriers to effectiveness for the whole organization.
Wrong Reason No. 2: Hiring Because of Chemistry
You don’t pick a surgeon because you like his or her politics or personality, or because there’s chemistry between you. Organizations shouldn’t pick coaches that way either, evaluating them on the basis of perceived fit between the leader and their coach. The question should be: Does this coach have the ability and experience to be the catalyst for the type of learning we need?
There are many self-identified coaches in the marketplace who worked as business unit leaders before changing careers because of layoffs or other reasons. They have impressive credentials as subject matter experts, and they tend to have good credibility with their counterparts in client companies. But an HR manager making the decision to hire a coach for developmental purposes might want to put less emphasis on whether he’s “been there” and more emphasis on what kind of experience and background he has in coaching people to facilitate rapid learning.
In many cases the primary issue for executive coaches is not teaching new things – it’s helping people change old habits and put what they already know into practice so that it supports the organization’s strategic objectives. Navigating in-house politics, for example, is one critical skill that might be utterly foreign to a newly appointed manager. A coach should be seasoned in helping others think through the political landscape and avoid landmines. Coaches are most effective when they have a well-designed process to deal with the active ingredients of development: How will they cultivate insight? Foster motivation? What are their techniques for building new skills, for putting them into actual practice in real settings? In what way do they build in accountability so their clients stick with the learning process until results are evident?
I know of two financial companies whose headquarters were virtually across the street from each other in New York.
One had a list of 71 coaches working in its organization, although HR wasn’t entirely sure that was a complete list. Nor did it know much about the coaches or their respective specialty areas. There was no orientation program for new coaches to familiarize them with the organization and no clear goals on how the coaching would fit in with the company’s strategic objectives. Budget numbers were hard to find, but company leaders knew they were spending more than $1million.
The other firm, comparably sized, had a list of only five coaches with whom it contracted to work with executives. Each of those five met quarterly with their HR counterparts to share what they were learning and to get feedback on the company’s evolving strategic needs and circumstances.
There was a systematic process for identifying employees who would be part of the coaching program and for following up their progress.
If you were to bet, which HR manager do you suspect might be more inclined to describe coaching as a fad? Which do you think was getting demonstrable added value from their coaches?
My cards are on the table. I know that well-conceived coaching works exceedingly well, especially to buttress succession-planning efforts from the C-level on down.
It’s extremely beneficial for people making a big shift in role – such as to general manager – where the expectations and the skill set are dramatically different. Expatriate managers working in foreign cultures or repatriating home often benefit from engaging with a coach to help them work through special challenges.
We’ve come a long way from the days when people were sent to a coach strictly to fix an issue, such as an abrasive personality. Twenty years ago, having a coach meant you were in trouble. Coaching doesn’t have that onerous reputation anymore, fortunately – today, having a coach is a competitive advantage for leaders.
About 80 percent of firms using coaches say they plan to spend the same or more than last year. That tells me at least among the most critical audience of all – today’s customers – the consensus view on coaching is that it’s far more of an “indispensable management tool” than it is a fad.
We’ll have to work on converting the rest by working hard to help firms make coaching choices that work.
David Peterson is senior vice president of coaching services at Personnel Decisions International, a Minneapolis-based global human resources consulting firm with distinctive expertise in building leadership talent that provides real competitive advantage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.