Coaching and Mentoring : Executive Coaches Can Help Flex Leadership Muscle

Albert A. Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and president of Vicere Associates, Inc., a leadership consulting firm with clients around the globe. He is one of the country's top leadership coaches, and is the author/editor of several books including Leadership By Design, The Many Facets of Leadership and more than 80 articles on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

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They say that behind every great athlete is a great coach. And behind many leaders today is an executive coach. Can an executive coach help leaders to maximize their potential and reach greater heights ?

Fast Company columnist and leading executive coach Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan, founder of 50 Top Coaches, recently examined the impact of executive coaching in an article they co-authored for strategy + business magazine. They reviewed leadership development programs in eight major corporations, creating a database of 11,000 managers and 86,000 respondents.

One of their observations is that getting executive coaching is, in many ways, like having a personal trainer. The trainer’s role is to “remind” the person being trained to do what he or she knows should be done. Goldsmith and Morgan noted, "For most leaders, the great challenge is not understanding the practice of leadership: It is practicing their understanding of leadership".

That leaders need help practicing their craft is clear. The role of leader has changed dramatically over the past decade. Peter Drucker may have said it best, “The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask.”

The fact is most leaders today manage knowledge workers - people who know more about what they are doing than their boss does. Managing knowledge workers requires interpersonal competence, not just technical expertise.

I asked Goldsmith what it was about executive coaching that has made it one of the preferred methods for leadership development. He felt it was, “because coaching is tailored to the personal needs of the leader as opposed to traditional training which tends to be more generic and may not be what the leader really needs.”

But the current boom in coaching has all the makings of a fad. Goldsmith noted, “No question, executive coaching currently is trendy. Like any fad, the positive elements of executive coaching will remain and the more “fadlike” elements will disappear.”

What are the fadlike elements ? According to Goldsmith, “One is the tendency to generically define an executive coach. Some coaches work on strategy, some work on career development, some work on personal productivity. I only work on helping successful executives achieve a positive, measurable change in behavior. This does not mean that I am a “better” or “worse” coach. It means I have a focus.”

And that has implications for whether a coach can help a leader. Says Goldsmith, “To suggest that anyone can be certified as a “coach” and can then work with any leader who needs help on any topic is insane. The problem is that there is so little effort in matching the needs of the client with the expertise of the coach.”

So how does a leader determine whether an executive coach is worth the investment ? According to Goldsmith, that depends upon the type of coaching being done. “As a behavioral coach, I don’t get paid if my clients don’t get better. Better is not determined by me or by the client. It is determined by increased effectiveness on pre-selected behaviors as judged by pre-selected key stakeholders.

Goldsmith continued, “Other types of coaching require different measures of effectiveness. Coaches who claim to be business coaches should be judged on producing business results. Coaches who help executives get organized should be judged on producing more organized executives.

But for Goldsmith, results are the key, “I think the field of executive coaching should focus more on results. Many coaches get paid simply because they spend time with the client and the client likes them. Coaches in this situation are often little more than highly-paid friends.”

So should you have a coach ? It can help as long as the coaching relationship is based on achieving a pre-determined set of results that are related to the needs of the client and the expertise of the coach. And as long as you’re hiring a coach because you truly want to change and develop as a leader. As Goldsmith pointed out, “the key variable in determining the effectiveness of coaching is often the client not the coach.”

© Copyright Albert Vicere, 2005

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