The lowdown on Executive Coaches
04 April 2016
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Hello and welcome to another edition of Old Mutual Live Business, my name is Chris Gibbons. Our subject today, whether or not you need an executive coach. It might be you’re rising up the ranks, you want some extra fire power. It could be you’re already at the top, but you’re finding it lonely and you need a sounding board. Perhaps there are other kinds of problems for which you need help, but how do you know which way to turn?
We’re joined now by Alison Reid who is herself a Business Coach as well as being Programme Director and Associate Director of Personal and Applied Learning at GIBS, one of South Africa’s top business schools. Alison, thank you for joining us here on Old Mutual Live Business, first off, what exactly is an Executive Coach?
What is an Executive Coach?
Alison Reid: It depends who you ask Chris, in many ways. But a coach is somebody that facilitates you in your thinking. In being able to work out for yourself what you would like to be doing better, different, more, to make yourself more successful. An Executive Coach is often a term used to describe somebody who is working with somebody at a senior level.
But you get terms like executive drycleaners. I wonder sometimes whether it actually means anything or whether somebody is trying to put a spin on it. What essentially it means is that often people are working at senior levels in an organisation which is a lot more systemically complex than coaching someone on their own. An executive coach is the sounding board, like you said, the person who is there to assist you through that process.
CG: Are there different styles of coaching?
AR: I would say that there are vast differences in styles of coaching, depending on where you’ve come in your training as a coach and what your entry point is. Depending on what your experience is and where your interests are and depending on the kind of clientele that you work with.
Why Coaches do more than just ask questions
CG: I know some coaches say you should never ever offer advice or say things like: well, I wouldn’t have done it like that, I’d have done it like this, but all you should do is ask questions, is that a proper technique?
AR: I think that possibly if you ask questions only and they were thin and didn’t have any substance to them, it’s quite likely that the person sitting in front of you would get rather irritated after a point. But it certainly is a technique that is honed and used specifically in coaching.
In terms of advice, I offer this perspective, if you are advising somebody else, at that moment you are basically driving their attention to considering the piece of advice that you’re giving. You’ve now narrowed their attention to the one option that you’re offering. That is typically based on your own expertise and your own experience.
What you’re currently doing at that moment is getting them to play in your playpen, so to speak. Very valuable for executives, but we have terms to denote that. It’s consulting or tutorship or education, very helpful techniques. What coaching is, is allowing the person to think of different perspectives that relate to themselves.
We do resist giving advice from our own perspective. I would not say ‘never’ give advice because everybody has got their own background. But a coach is trained to offer that only when it’s useful to the other person and to really think about their own cognitive biases in the choice.
CG: And the difference between coaching and mentoring?
AR: Mentoring, both are one on one, or typically one on one, helping mechanisms. Mentoring is using your own experience or expertise to guide the other person. So you would typically look for a mentor who is in your industry or has been in your role before or worked in your company before. Because you’re looking for the kind of experience that might be able to guide you.
The risk there, of course you’re gaining lots of benefits in terms of their experience, but the risks are that that’s from their point of view, their perspective. You’ve got to then filter out and make applicable, customise to your own position.
A coach is not going to be advising on the basis of their expertise and experience, other than the fact that they’re experienced in facilitation, so they’re helping you to think. That means that everything that is done in those sessions is about your own experience and what’s good for you and good for your context.
Is the industry well accredited?
CG: What about accreditation? I wouldn’t go to a doctor who didn’t have proper training and a proper license. But I could set myself up as a coach tomorrow without any problem.
AR: You could and lots of people do. It’s one of the things that the professionalising profession is facing. Yes, there are accreditations, most of the established accreditation bodies are international. There’s about six or seven of them that are good. I would highly recommend that if a company or an individual is looking for coaching, that they do their own homework. Do some research into those established bodies.
We do have a local body called COMENSA, they are fairly young both in age and in terms of maturity, from a perspective of setting up regulatory guidelines. It’s not regulated at government level yet, so really, the onus falls to the individual or the company to do their own research. I rely heavily on international bodies to set those ethics and set the core competencies.
Research is important when choosing someone
CG: And of course, just like going to the doctor, you’ll talk to some friends, you’ll talk to some relatives, you’ll talk to people who have used the service before and say: is it any good.
AR: I think that’s a very good way to do it. I often recommend my clients do a word of mouth thing and check up on people who, at their same level, have really received guidance or help in a coaching sense, that it’s helped them. One word of caution there is that sometimes a relationship feels good because the rapport and the charisma is there. But if you really probe, the substance is not there in terms of experience.
I would certainly use word of mouth, but again, do your research. So that you know what you’re looking for when somebody says: this is a really good coach, I advise you go for Joe Blog. If Joe is apparently known as ‘good’ because he makes you feel good, but no progress is really made, then you might have to question that.
CG: I want to come back in a moment Alison to how we measure success in this field, but let us again start with the question, how do I know if I need an executive coach?
When would you need a coach?
AR: That’s a great question. I thought, in terms of answering that, I’m going to use an analogy here. But bearing in mind that if you extend any analogy too far, they run out of usefulness at some point. It is a bit similar to asking if you need a personal trainer.
It’s very seldom a remedial thing to need a personal trainer unless your doctor has said to you: you’re heading for a heart attack. Most of the time you’re looking at it because you want to do something better or different or more physically. Sometimes because you want to be the best, in other words, you’re competing with yourself or you’re competing with others. You might have a race that you’re training for and it’s very similar with executive coaching.
Sometimes, unfortunately still used in a remedial sense, I would say that belongs better, more appropriately inside the system in which that person is located. But most of the time it’s because you want to be bigger, better, faster. More different, accept something a bit different, balance something a bit different or even appreciate something a bit more.
CG: Again, before we come to the measurement question, I think I’m right in saying, there are certain problems that are beyond the scope of a coach. That’s why some coaching practices and sister coach either work with or at least have access to a psychologist as back up.
The importance of a team
AR: I’m going to tackle that one from both perspectives because it’s a sort of second way of answering the question as well. From the perspective of the individual, I would really encourage people again to take a large level of responsibility in their choice of coach by saying this: if you are working at a significant level of responsibility and significant as dictated by you.
You value what you’re doing, you value how that aligns in a system like a business. You’re very keen that that makes a serious contribution to society. You value yourself, then you really should have a whole committee of people helping you, around you, and one of which should be a coach.
I’m kind of trying to broaden the perspective a little on how you get help and to place some onus and responsibility and power at the individual level. I often use the analogy of a committee or a board of directors. If you value your life and what you’re doing, have people around you who are mentors. I absolutely think everybody should have three to four mentors on an informal and formal level.
You should have people who are looking after you physically, a dietician or personal trainer. You should have a coach who is helping you to integrate all of this into your life in a way that makes sense and just like a board of directors would not necessarily follow each portfolio’s recommendation. You are the one at the centre saying: how is this helping me, given what I’m wanting to do.
CG: I hope I have the income to support that, personal board of directors.
CG: Come to the question now, how do you measure success?
How do you measure success?
AR: It’s a tricky one because this is an intangible progress. If I’m working with a client who is an organisation and they are paying me to coach people inside the organisation, you want to be mindful of two types of measure. One is that the objectives you’re working on may be tangibly measurable. It might be an increase in sales, something as concrete as cutting costs to a certain degree or something like that. That then becomes the objective of the coaching.
Be mindful that a coaching process is not a consulting process. It’s not only the tangible outcomes, it’s also helping the person to be able to run the process themselves. Think through something more clearly, make better decisions, connect to the system a bit differently.
In that respect, you want to design your own outcome, given what the objective of the coaching session is and you want to be mindful that some of it is less tangible. It’s about a learning and a growth and change process inside the individual.
In some ways it’s challenging for the coaching profession because we’re often having to use the individual coachee themselves to give a perspective on whether they feel it’s working. The coach themselves to give a perspective on whether it’s changing and that, of course, is subjective in some sense.
CG: Final question Alison, is it catching on in South Africa, is it widely used here?
AR: Absolutely. I think it’s a growing profession that comes with its growing pains and of course, lots of interesting debates around who controls that from a professional body point of view. Who can be a coach, like you’ve raised the question. I definitely think it’s growing and I suppose that’s one of the reasons why my message today is really, be conscious about what you’re choosing.
This is my final kind of caution to the business world in particular, it’s growing because the market is growing. The primary market for coaching is business, but business does not necessarily understand what coaches are, what they need to be accredited in. We’ve got this growing market with great fees being paid, not necessarily to people who are qualified.
CG: And there we’ll leave it, Alison Reid, Programme Director, Associate Director of Personal and Applied Learning at GIBS and herself an Executive Coach. Alison, thank you for being with me on Old Mutual Live Business.
AR: Thank you very much for the invitation Chris.