“That’s Not How Executive Coaching Works”

It was a classic case of misunderstanding. But since more than 50% of all messages are loaded with misunderstanding, it wasn’t especially unusual. Here’s how it happened. The other evening I was having dinner with a half dozen colleagues, all of whom are retired university faculty and administrators. Some really smart guys. The conversation veered into questions about my consulting and coaching and one of them asked how I “advise my clients.” “That’s not how it works,” I responded.

I’m certain his question is indicative of what’s done in 80% or more of executive coaching, but it’s also why that 80% or more fails. His question was technically what’s called a “category error.” I was certain he assumed that I was engaged in typical counseling where face-to-face relations involve a therapist listening and responding to the client’s issues and questions.

I hadn’t connected the dots for him or indicated that we were dealing with different assumptions. But, having gone through that questioning before, I’ve gotten to the place where it makes no sense to be lumped into the therapist model. So I just intervened up front, learning quickly that my assumption was correct.

Coaching vs. executive coaching
Since my colleague had retired from an arts position at the university, I was nearly certain he believed coaching is therapy for business executives. And so I intended to dislodge that meaning, pushing executive coaching out of the therapy category. Permanently, if possible. When I finished my short download on executive coaching, he was quite intrigued by the brief and followed up with some questions.

Why did I respond that way? Normally, I would have shrugged, answered with a degree of ambiguity and signaled that the conversation was over. But the group and I have initiated a relationship that’s liable to go on for some time and I wanted to define my professional identity with clarity. Furthermore, I was certain that it would make my contributions to the ongoing conversations more understandable.

Words: just words
With that background, I want to talk about words and about the ongoing necessity for clarifying definitions such as “coaching.” These few central issues can make for intelligent conversation about executive coaching.

–tendency to simplify. Actually, our culture and the popular mind have a compulsive tendency to oversimplify. Too often, the desire to reduce things to their essentials ends up tossing aside the essential as well. So for many, coaching has become just talk—gab that doesn’t even aspire to enlightening small talk. This tendency to oversimplify often shoves complex contexts, nuances and interactions into the garbage and results in merely transactional interactions.  And it concerns me because coaching deals with ambiguities, uncertainties, unknowns, opportunities and strategies for both the individual on the receiving end as well as his or her organization.

–problem orientation. To a high degree, coaching is called into existence to resolve individual business problems. That’s where the notion of coaching as therapy takes charge of the definition. Although a background in psychology may be relevant, a skilled therapist may be too naïve about business to win the client’s trust or support his developmental needs. While conventional wisdom thinks of coaching as dealing with psychological problems, the issues for executives circle around needs for sophisticated people competencies. Furthermore, while therapy tends to deal with the past, executive coaching deals with the future. In sum, most execs have gotten their success because of technological ability. But with numerous promotions their future typically needs to leave hard skills behind and emphasize soft skills. Many soft skills have yet to be chunked into relevant components that can be learned. But thus far, there’s little language for the hundreds of relational chunks. Yet the immense value of such language is that organizations with access to more varied images (vocabulary, words, terms) will engage in making sense that is more adaptive and creative than organizations with more limited vocabularies. The sad fact of the matter is that many people are completely unaware of the power of vocabulary and still think soft skills are natural competencies that you either have or don’t have.

–cultural context. Unlike therapy, which focuses on the individual’s black box, the cultural context of the organization determines much “advice giving.”  Coaching that ignores the organization’s rules, norms, expectations and regulations, is doomed. Furthermore, rules are often the solutions to yesterday’s problems. So making individual change is fraught with organizational issues. Coaching has to understand and manage these nuances while dealing with the present and hoped for future. When my colleague asked how I give advice, I was damned certain the complexities of a cultural context were nowhere to be found in his gray matter.

–strategic context. Although self-awareness is important for coaching success, that is only the beginning. Executive coaching is highly strategic for both the client and the organization. That assumes business knowledge of the organization’s objectives, goals, strategies and measures. Furthermore, effective coaching includes the client’s strategic orientation, its relationships to the organization as well as personal career strategies.

Although the question, “how do you advise your clients,” certainly received no dump of information that would include all the above, my response intrigued the questioner and gave the profession clarity. It’s needed clarity in a world where billions of dollars are spent on executive coaching.


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