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07 Jun, 2009

Discovery: A Case for Executive Coaching

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: Executive Coaching Articles

Coaching Blog - Case for Executive Coaching

Jim was the Chief Financial Officer of a growing robotics company. He had six other managers reporting to him and was responsible for two departments, as well as budget and financial information for the company’s operations. It was a stressful job at times but a great company to work for and he seemed happy to be part of the team. His previous jobs had ended either because of mergers or because he was unhappy in the job. Yet he had been referred to an Executive Coach.

From a traditional background, Jim felt that seeking help meant weakness. Capable managers didn’t need executive coaches. He concluded that he was in trouble, or at the very least, a crossroads.

Jim had been referred to coaching by the company CEO and the company was paying the bill. Often the case in executive coaching, this can set up a potentially sticky triangle with the company and the coachee. Technically, the company was the client because they were paying the bill, but Jim was the client being coached. The trick for the coach is to clarify up front the kind of progress reporting the company is looking for, while emphasising the confidential nature of the client relationship – results are built on trust.

Fuelling Jim’s wariness was his own employment history. He had recently moved to his current company from a similar high-level position in another company, and before that, yet another company had terminated him coldly… a casualty of a messy merger. A second position just plain didn’t work out. Jim was scorched and sceptical. Did this company really want him to improve his managerial skills, or was this all a big ruse to dismiss him later? The questions kept coming with no real answers.

The referral to coaching resulted from some company training. It became evident that all the training in the world would not benefit a team whose manager behaved more like a boss than a leader, choosing to micromanage, and effectively prevent the training – and business development – from taking hold and yielding results.

Under the circumstances, Jim reluctantly agreed to coaching. On the surface, he was open to being coached, but wary. My first meeting with Jim was in person: I wanted to spend some time with him and establish trust and buy-in to the coaching process. I explained that coaching is about facilitation in all areas, not just defined by the work role.

It was clear that Jim was prepared for a lecture, an appraisal of his management skills and a bit of psychological shakedown, but not this kind of talk. Jim’s wariness dimmed with the realisation that the company were not paying for coaching in order to fire him, but were rather investing money to keep him. At our initial meeting, Jim told me about both his home and his work. I learned his story, and asked many questions, all targeted at the positive influences and experiences in his work. When the positives are the framework of all coaching objectives, the transitions become much more powerful. The whole coaching process is focused on creating and becoming who you want to be, not on yielding to a diagnosis or presenting a complaint like in therapy. Even in solution-focused therapy, which is less pathologically driven, it is assumed that a problem warrants a solution. I encouraged Jim to provide me with information about what made him happy, goals, unmet dreams, and ideas and to write about himself.

We met later to discuss Jim’s contribution so far. The light bulb was on, and I found I had a very self-aware, willing and fired-up client, excited about bettering himself. I am not always so lucky – some clients come grumbling and complaining they flat-out didn’t want to be there, and made sure I knew it. For these people, the approach is a little different and sometimes a little more challenging, but usually even those with the boulder-on-the-shoulder syndrome come round, perhaps with a different tack.

During our second meeting, Jim and I progressed further. I guided our discussion with questions that were evocative and powerful. I asked powerful questions.

Coaching does not seek to understand problems, overcome a past, or heal unresolved issues, though such understanding can very likely be a side product as the sessions progress. The successful coach does not view the client as a therapy patient. One of the joys of coaching is the truly egalitarian partnership of coach and client, with no hierarchical structure. Patients generally do not consider a medical doctor a partner, and in this way, therapy relationships are the same. Coaching in its ideal state is one of being curious and evocative with clients, in order to bring out their brilliance, or to tap into possibilities that are created and posited because of the nature of the coaching relationship. Therapists trained in solution-focused techniques experience a relationship closer to coaching, but in a search for solutions, you assume problems that need solving.

I feel privileged to be able to co-create with my clients, and help elicit their best skills for their job, and overall greatness for human being and doing. This might sound a bit lofty, but it is a powerful concept, vital to the coaching process. My singular stated goal may be to improve this person’s effectiveness in their workplace, but the whole person will benefit. That is the pure nature of coaching.

Together, Jim and I were working to overcome the age-old stigma that plagues men in high-level positions. He saw that I was genuinely interested in bringing out his best and that he really had nothing ‘wrong’. He really liked that I was willing to listen to him without judgment and help him make the changes that he could, and live with the situations that he could not change. He saw coaching as a positive step, an employee benefit with both corporate and personal objectives… not a sign of weakness or failure. Now we could get on with the business of coaching.

Working With the Company and For the Client

Although Jim’s company was paying the bill for my services, he understood that everything we did together was absolutely and always confidential. He knew I was required to report about certain areas, but the details of coaching sessions are never shared. Knowing this helped Jim share with me openly and honestly, without fear of any corporate repercussions.

The company wanted Jim to improve and to meet their corporate expectations – they weren’t looking for a total overhaul, simply for hidden strengths to emerge. We agreed to six months of coaching – a timescale agreed on as realistic to achieve change against the companies objectives – initially, to be delivered in one-hour weekly sessions. Later, Jim needed more flexibility in his schedule, so we moved to three marginally longer appointments per month, and email/fax spot coaching if he felt the need.

Over the course of the next few months, my work with Jim helped him to identify specific skills he felt needed improvement, such as communication with his team, appearing less aloof to his employees and colleagues, and more delegating while granting authority (less micromanaging). He recognised that he had a tendency to do it all and to do it his way.

I recommended a book to Jim – one of many resources a good coach has in their toolkit designed to stimulate clients thinking and awareness – and asked him to rate himself against the first chapter. His response gave us discussion material for our next session, and his keen sense of self-awareness developed further. Jim excitedly pinpointed several areas he wanted to work on: possibility thinking, brainstorming alternatives, and innovative methods. He recognised himself as an executive in a high-level management position, but one who also happened to be an introvert, with a long-standing negative mind-set. Through coaching Jim learned that he could still be a powerful leader, and that he had powerful things to say, but he needed to give those things powerful thought first. He also learned that he had some powerful listening to do as well.

In our early conversations, Jim tended to defend some of his original management behaviour with classic executive excuses. For example, as an old school manager, he often had the habit of running his department from behind a closed door. After all, he was a busy man; he had lots to do. He couldn’t tolerate all those interruptions. I validated his behaviour and his excuses before suggesting alternatives. Eventually, Jim learned that he could get his work done and still maintain an open door by informing his team – by telling the truth nicely – that although the door was open, he was still working, and they needed to respect that by asking about his availability, not assuming it.

Coaching the Whole Person

We continued working on specific goals within the framework of Jim’s position, but then our focus shifted slightly to illuminate other areas in were causing him stress. Jim was able to take an honest look at other areas of his life that might benefit from his honest evaluation. It soon became obvious to both of us that Jim was dealing with one of the most typical executive problems plaguing today’s leader: work-life balance.

Jim’s workload had increased dramatically, causing strain at work and at home. He was in the middle of a huge merger, completely involved in his role. He was working too many hours at the office, and when he went home, the work went with him. For the most part, his wife and his children were supportive, but his wife wasn’t willing for Jim to be married to the company. We took a long look at this and even had some joint phone sessions with his wife.

The result of this particular area of discussion with Jim had an unexpected result. When I encouraged Jim to have a ‘courageous conversation’ with his boss and explain the undue stress he often experienced, the company realised that Jim was indeed overworked. They had not known the extent of his workload, because he had not bothered to tell them. All this time he had been frantically scrambling to keep up, thinking that was expected of him. He was over-assuming the demands of his work, which is another executive frailty. Coaching opened doors to alternatives. When he was able to clearly delineate his time and expectations, the company actually hired an additional contract employee to assist during this difficult time of the merger. I was able to validate Jim’s needs, both to him and to his company. All this time Jim thought he was in trouble.

Jim was a classic case, typical of those who might be referred for executive coaching, even if self-referred. These high-level leaders tend to be pulled in many different directions, and it is almost guaranteed that their work-life balance is seriously out of alignment. Their management and communication skills are pinched, and their status with their teams is precarious at best. One of the greatest assets of coaching is that the client can learn to become a coach with his or her team. Command and control leadership does not work, but the sincere encouragement of a leader as coach does. During the coaching process, Jim was able to observe how I worked, and the impact on his work and life. He was able to see that we did it together, that he achieved a great deal more than he could have alone, and that he could do the same with his team. Jim learned that he could be a good listener, he could ask powerful questions, he could encourage rather than command others, and that he could be innovative.

After the agreed term of six months, both the company and Jim evaluated the results of our coaching. I had joint meetings with Jim and his supervisor at the end of three months and again after six months. They were both pleased with the noticeable progress and Jim was able to identify specific areas of focus for the next several months. It was jointly determined by them to continue this contract to 11 months. Jim discovered tremendous skills he wasn’t even aware of. He made discoveries he would never have dreamed of. He originally did not have any goals to ‘go to the top’ or even any higher than where he was, but Jim was promoted, and the company saw excellent results. Not only was Jim doing his job better, he was also living his life better. Our coaching relationship lasted for several more months beyond the extended contract on an informal, irregular basis. Jim is happy. The company is happy.

And I am happy. It is a thrilling experience to enable someone to become all that they can be. As a coach, I am privileged to witness greater life achievement in one client than I ever hoped for in a dozen therapy patients. Personally, I feel more valued. I am delighted when I get e-mails and voice mails from clients between sessions. I hear about exciting changes, breakthroughs, and discoveries. I truly care for the people I coach, and I share the joy of their victories and achievements.

Today, my background as a psychologist has married my inborn desire to coach, and I am doing what I love – enabling discovery instead of treating dysfunction. Discovery wins every time.

By Patrick Williams

1 Response to "Discovery: A Case for Executive Coaching"

1 | Kim

June 10th, 2009 at 3:19 pm

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I am just about to embark on my coaching training and I found this article extremely inspiring, thank you!

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