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Selecting the Coach

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 09:53

It is hard for organisations to determine which coach is right. But doing it right starts with being clear about the problem, and measuring the outcome. By Darren Baguley

The Managing Director of automated document management company ReadSoft, Frank Volckmar, had a problem. One of his senior technical people, a person who prided himself on how much he knew, had a habit that made people feel foolish if they asked him a question.

"He was a person who would roll his eyes if someone asked a stupid question," says Volckmar. This might sound innocuous, but it was causing problems in the organisation. People would attempt to 'muddle through' rather than ask a question and get made to feel stupid.

Volckmar solved the problem by doing something that is increasingly common in corporate Australia; he brought in an executive coach to work with the person. Indeed, the use of executive coaches has become so widespread that it has created a series of problems. As so often happens when something becomes the next 'new big thing', people get attracted into the area because it's seen as trendy, or worse, a way to make a fast buck.

And there are companies out there catering to this market, claiming they can turn someone into an executive coach in three months, one month or in just one weekend.

"It's an enormous issue out there, every man and his dog espouses being a coach - life coach, mentor, executive coach - and many of them are just individuals who figure that they just have to chat to people about life at work," says DBM Asia Pacific Vice President and Managing Director Greater China, Karen Faehndrich.

This view is echoed by highly successful serial entrepreneur and founder of the Million Dollar Plus Club, Anne McKevitt. "There are a huge number of people in the business who are really crap. There's a whole industry out there with companies that are large franchises, and the purpose of the franchise is to sell the training to someone rather than build up client bases for people who train."

This creates a problem for board members and executives of companies large, medium and small.

How best to sort out the cowboys from the coaches who can actually help an organisation with its problems? Defining a coaching strategy rather than just taking an ad hoc approach is also important and the process needs to be managed and measured just like any other project. So how does an organisation do all this?

The strategy

To begin, choosing which coach or coaches to work with needs to go hand in hand with developing the coaching strategy. This is because not all executive coaches are able to help with all aspects of the modern executive's role.

"There are great differences among these people and it really starts with knowing what you want," says Volckmar.

This is echoed by Odin Management Consulting Managing Partner, Don Holley. "There are lots of different types of coaching, and people get the different types confused. There are specific skills such as communication, remedial coaching, strategic coaching and transformational coaching where we try and accelerate someone's development. So one of the things a manager should do is determine what type of coaching they want."

More generally speaking, however, it is important to look at the attributes, experience and qualifications of an executive coach just as you would any employee or consultant, says executive coach and author of Flip the Switch, Andrew May.

"An executive coach working at the top level should have academic qualifications and a lot of experience. An executive should be asking 'what's your background and education and why are you credentialled to teach me?'.

"A lot of successful executive coaches are trained in psychology, are studying psychology or at least have done some subjects as part of an undergraduate degree. The fundamentals of coaching is behaviour change, and the new coaching is all based on self-psychology - What are the parameters of getting someone to change? What is behaviour change? - which is underpinned by cognitive behaviour therapy. You don't learn all that at a weekend course."

Executive coach Matt Church believes that academic qualifications can be a useful guide as to a potential coach's credentials, but he sees coaching as a skill in and of itself.

"A coach doesn't necessarily need a background or experience in what they're doing because their skill, their trade, is the ability to ask questions," he says.

"If I was interviewing a coach I'd want to know whether they had an appropriate methodology; so I would say, 'give me a list of questions you would ask a senior leader'. Based on the quality of the questions, you'd know if they know what they're talking about."

Coaching credibility

Faehndrich believes that the personal characteristics of the coach are also important.

"Someone may have been a very successful businessman and a top CEO, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be a good coach," she says. "A good coach needs to have seven to 10 years at a senior corporate level or relevant executive position to have business credibility and acumen as a coach.

"If I were selecting a coach myself I'd want someone who can give me a record of success and some business coaching training. It doesn't matter if it's a three-month or two-week course, provided it is a sound coaching methodology and the person has the right background."

While it is important for an executive coach to have all the right attributes professionally, it's also important that the executive feels that they can connect with the coach.

U@MQ Chief Executive Officer Deidre Anderson says, "Having worked in management for a long time I'd never bothered with executive coaches because I couldn't decipher [who was good and who wasn't].

"But I was sitting in an aeroplane and heard Karen Faehndrich talk about how executive coaching should work in organisations. It was like connecting with what my values were, it was that absolute value alignment with what she was talking about."

Anne McKevitt adds that people often fail to make a distinction between mentoring and coaching when they are actually subtly different activities. "With coaching, you don't have to have done it to be able to coach someone. With mentoring you need to have been at those sorts of levels; but you can both coach and mentor someone at the same time."

This was certainly the case when McKevitt started working with founder and CEO of Investors Direct, Bill Zheng, who arrived in Australia as a 21-year-old student with $300 that he'd borrowed.

"I worked four different jobs and my last job was with PricewaterhouseCoopers as a management consultant," says Zheng. "But when I started running my own business seven years ago, I realised half the stuff I had learned at MBA school was not practical."

Zheng, then a part of the CEO Institute that helps similar-size company CEOs talk with each other, was looking for how to take his business to the next level.

"But after two years I was looking to work with someone who had run much bigger businesses, multi-hundred-million-dollar businesses, to help me get to the next level," says Zheng. "I met Anne at a conference and realised that she was someone whom I could ask for help to reach my goal."

Defining a strategy

Deciding what is needed from the coach and then selecting the coach or coaches may be the first step in defining an executive coaching strategy, but there is more to it than that. Church believes that defining the strategy comes back to linking it to the overall organisational strategy.

"Coaching is about the capabilities of the individual; it's not about the organisational strategy, yet it should be driven from that. If the organisational strategy is to increase exposure, and the CEO is reluctant to speak, then the company needs a coach who can help that CEO do that."

While this may be the ideal, Church admits there is not always such a direct linkage, but the coach should always be looking at the capability of the senior leadership, ascertaining what they are trying to achieve and the gaps in their ability to achieve it.

"For example, if an executive's communication skills are so poor that their team aren't engaged and employee turnover is through the roof, we've now got to do some work with that individual on engagement, communication and employee management.

"That specific piece of work is about the ability of the individual, yet it still has an indicator towards the overall strategy. The great executive coaches are able to clearly articulate and demonstrate that."