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The Two Faces of Executive Coaching

September 23, 2009
One of the things I’ve avoided thinking about too much until recently is the concept of the executive coach and professional business coaching as a stand-alone industry. I’ve stayed away from it because of all the contradictory signals that emerge from the world of professional coaching. One group is basing its business on a Jack Welch model, while the other is a tent revival meeting featuring business-coach versions of Billy Mays, Jimmy Swaggart and Tony Robbins.

And both groups get coaching gigs deep inside corporate America. Scary stuff.

At its best, coaching can boost the performance of talent at all levels. And so I’m a believer in the power of professional coaching—from the right person. Here are a few of the other coaching "truths" I've observed in my own career:

• The need for coaching is real, at all levels.

• There are some great coaching models out there that are steeped in behavioral evidence and to the extent they can be, science. That means the concept is legit.

• I know a few good professional coaches, and I use some of the concepts of professional coaching in my own practice as an HR pro.

• The best managers in the business world are coaching daily. They just don’t identify it as coaching. It’s a part of their job, like budgeting and attending meetings. You don’t have to be an expert or a stand-alone specialist to be a good coach.

That praise should take care of the objections I’m going to get from the legitimate performance coaches serving the corporate world after I say this:

There’s a lot that’s broken in the executive coaching industry. At its worst, executive coaching can seem like you’re ordering the “Get rich quick” DVD set from a pitchman whose infomercial runs on cable access at 3 a.m. Other coaching downsides:

The industry is so unregulated that at times it makes a hedge fund run by Bernie Madoff seem like a governmental agency. What credentials you should look for to show that an executive or performance coach knows what he’s doing? Ask 10 people in the industry, and you’ll get 10 different answers. There are few universally recognized standards.

Some pretty questionable characters pitch themselves as professional coaches. You know the type: individuals whose backgrounds are difficult to identify and who seem to focus on the “new age” edge of the coaching industry. I don't see these characters swimming around HR or anywhere else in the business world where they would have to work for someone else. That has always troubled me, because these are the people who kill the image of the reputable coaches in the industry.

Coaching in corporate America is often reserved for the executive or professional who is struggling in one or more areas. These are often behavioral issues related to interactions with others, but the sponsoring company still wants the executive or professional to succeed. Professional-grade outside support, unfortunately, is still rarely offered to those performing at high levels and who don’t have a trail of dysfunctional working relationships in their pasts.

When the call goes out for a coach, the person selected is usually a referral from—wait for it—someone in the organization who has worked with the coach before. Referrals make the world go around, but when’s the last time you heard the following conversation:

Division head: “Man, we need to get Mike a coach to see if someone can help him work through his issues with developing team-based relationships. Dave, didn’t you tell me you had a coach three or four years back?”

Dave: (Startled that the boss would disclose this in front of the rest of the team) “Umm … yeah, my boss at the time put me in touch with a guy named Dr. Bob.”

Division head: “Who’s he with?”

Dave: “No one. Runs his own coaching shop. Dr. Bob Inc.”

Division head: “How’d that work out for you?”

Dave: “Not so well. We had weekly calls and he tried to coach me up, but I kept being passive-aggressive and berating my direct reports via e-mail. I guess it went about as well as could be expected.”

Division head: “Hmm. Sounds like he did what he could. So let’s get Dr. Bob in to help Mike.”

The point is that coaching engagements get made via referral, but human nature forces those asked for quality checks to be positive. After all, someone paid for a coach to help you, so what are you going to say? That your caveman issues run so deep that a professional couldn’t help you?

I’m thinking about all of this—a topic I don’t usually think about—because I had a meeting a few weeks ago with a practicing, high-level leadership development professional. She alluded to the fact that as part of her role in that company, she was functioning as an executive coach.

I was intrigued by that, since she’s credible and I’ve had an interest in further developing my coaching skills as a part of my role as an HR professional within a company. She recommended a couple of books that she likes from the standpoint of a coaching practice model, which was valuable to me. Those books include Co-Active Coaching, which I’m told has been heavily used at IBM.

I reciprocated. First, I shared my reservations about the wide-ranging “industry” that has sprung up around coaching. And I gave her a link so that she could order the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, which aptly summarizes my concerns about coaching. It features Metallica hiring a $40,000-per-month performance enhancement coach to help them work through their team-based issues.

Go to 4:05 in the video, where the performance coach comes in to meet with Metallica. One of the first things out of the coach’s mouth is “Are you guys free enough to risk being seen by other people?” And that’s when I start squirming and rolling my eyes.

It’s that way through most of the documentary, until the coach finally gets to the point where he’s so connected emotionally with the group that he feels comfortable handing them proposed lyrics (from him!) in a recording session.

Of course, that’s when they fire him.

It’s the psycho-babble that turns me away from the Yanni-like end of the professional coaching spectrum, where life coach uneasily coexists with business coach and success is hard to prove.

Like most things related to performance, the Holy Grail of coaching should be a demonstrated ability to measure change. Most coaches have no way of measuring improvement in clients. If they have a proven model, they should be willing to link the majority of their compensation to increased performance in their clients. Most won’t do that.

And so no matter how much I might want to like the industry, it’s hard. I just may not be “free enough to risk being seen by other people.”

Meanwhile, good luck to you credible coaches out there running your own practices. Keep it real and focused on business results, and people will know the difference between you and Dr. Phil.