The Five Myths about Executive Coaching

As companies consider ways to develop executives and strengthen their back-ups, they often consider executive coaching.  Yet the term itself, executive coaching, can be confusing.  It conjures up various images, from a disciplinarian sports coach browbeating an athlete, to a personal coach helping a client lose weight.  Myths and misconceptions are common.  Here are the five most often heard myths, and the reality behind each one.

Myth #1:  Executive coaching is only for executives in trouble.

Reality:  While it’s true that executive coaching is often seen as a remedy for poor executive performance, credit unions increasingly are using coaching to develop executives who are already performing well and will benefit from some guidance in preparing themselves for higher-level assignments.

Myth #2:  Executive coaching is very expensive.

Reality:  Executive coaching is not cheap.  On the other hand, various studies have demonstrated a substantial ROI for dollars spent on coaching.  A study by Manchester, Inc. examined the impact of coaching with 100 executives in 56 companies. They estimate that coaching resulted in an average return of 5.7 times the initial investment. Coaching improved productivity 53%, quality 48%, work relationships with direct reports 77%, and overall job satisfaction increased 61%. 

Myth #3:  If I get coaching, my staff will think I’m in trouble and lose respect for me.

Reality:  Quite the contrary.  Most staffs see their boss receiving executive coaching as a positive step.  They recognize that it demonstrates the company’s commitment to the individual and to his or her development.   They also give credit to the boss who has the courage to take in feedback and respond to it. 

Myth #4:  Executive coaching is too much like therapy, it’s too touchy-feely.

Reality:  Unlike therapy, executive coaching does not delve into the client’s past, explore unconscious motivations, or seek to change personality.  Executive coaching is a structured process that starts with feedback about the executive’s leadership behaviors, and involves the executive in determining goals for more useful behaviors and in designing a plan for achieving these goals.

Myth #5:  Executive coaching is only for executives.

Reality:  While executive coaching was originally designed for executives, many companies now offer coaching to directors and even middle managers, either where there is a specific individual need, or where one or more high-potential directors or managers are being groomed for increased responsibilities.

Despite the myths and misconceptions, executive coaching has taken hold.  Many organizations now find coaching valuable by itself, or integrated with other development initiatives such as stretch assignments, in-house mentoring programs, and external management programs, as a way to enhance the learning and effectiveness of their current and future leaders.

From Techie to Manager: What Does it Take?

Can “techies”—engineers, scientists, or programmers—become good managers?

Some of the technical people I’ve known have become extraordinarily capable managers and executives.  Yet many more have difficulty making the grade.

Most of us have seen the consequences of ineffective managers—low productivity, poor morale, high turnover. In a startup I worked with recently, the CIO’s entire staff—all 5 of them—marched en masse into the CEO’s office and threatened to quit unless their critical and bullying boss was fired.  (He was.)

Why do some technical folks have a natural bent towards relating and communicating well with colleagues, while others have more difficulty? One major obstacle is a tendency toward binary thinking.  The training in most technical fields leads to a perspective that sees the world in terms of yes or no, black or white, on or off.  While useful for developing code or solving technical problems, such thinking is a hindrance when dealing with people.  Relationships and relationship issues are filled with ambiguity.  They rarely fall into neat categories, nor can they be addressed using formulas or either/or thinking.

Top management’s promotion criteria are the flip side of the problem.  Some companies don’t sufficiently consider people skills when hiring for technical positions, then promote the most technically skilled to management.  It’s a hit or miss proposition, especially when there’s little or no support later on for developing the needed interpersonal and management skills.  The predictable result: limitations of many of these managers will show up in their groups’ lack of teamwork or sub-par performance.

Once promoted, many techies unconsciously slip into their former problem-solving mode, often forgetting that “delegation, motivation and supervision” are now part of their job description. While hands-on detail work serves them well as individual contributors, it’s contrary to the role of a good manager.  In their heart of hearts, technical people may not want to manage others, or even value management as a discipline, but are lured up the hierarchy by the promise of the higher rewards and status granted to managers.  (While many technical companies do have “dual career tracks,” which provide technical positions comparable in rank to management positions, many other companies have not created these structures.)

What does it take for the technical person to become an effective manager?

  • Shifting the technical mindset.  Technical managers often retreat to familiar and concrete technical work, drawn to the details rather than the big picture.  Motivated by a need for individual expression of creativity and inventiveness, they often view their managerial duties as a minor annoyance to be dealt with only when absolutely necessary. To overcome this mindset, they need to shift their definition of success from achieving individual goals to accomplishing team or organizational goals. 
  • Developing management skills. Managers require a host of skills which may be unfamiliar.  Aside from a foundation of well-developed basic communication skills, as a manager, the techie will need to be able to manage differences among staff, delegate effectively, exercise influence, and coach others. While the rare technical person comes to management with finely-honed communication skills, almost all will benefit from some combination of training programs, mentoring from more senior managers, and/or one-on-one coaching.
  • Developing emotional intelligence. Shifting the technical mindset, and developing management skills aren’t enough to produce a truly effective manager.  What’s also necessary is emotional intelligence (EQ)—the ability to recognize and manage emotions—our own and others’—in order to create trust and connections with others.  Managers with a high level of EQ are better able to deal with change and ambiguity, handle charged situations without over-reacting or withdrawing, and manage productive working relationships with others. While EQ generally increases with age, it can also be learned.  Cognitive methods alone, such as reading books or attending brief seminars, are usually insufficient to achieve long-term emotional competency.  Techies who wish to improve their EQ will need to practice new skills, monitor their own behaviors, and receive feedback from others—preferably under the guidance of a skilled mentor or coach.

 Techies can become good, even outstanding managers and leaders.  They can learn to use their cognitive abilities in the service of learning new skills and expanding their repertoire of behaviors.  However, as in the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb (only one, but the bulb has to want to change), techies must have a genuine desire to adjust their behaviors and become good managers.  Those with the motivation to develop themselves in a new direction, and with the courage to leave behind a good part of what has made them successful, can reap the personal and professional rewards of mastering a new challenge while enhancing their organization’s overall capability.

When Someone Else Decides You Need Coaching

Not everyone who gets coached signs up voluntarily.  Many coaching clients are conscripted—by a mandatory program that includes all managers in a particular organization or at a certain level, or by their boss or human resources who think they need special attention.  This "special attention" may be clearly positive—often the manager is on a fast track for promotion and needs some skill building to be ready for the next assignment.  The attention may have less positive implications when the manager is singled out for coaching to address performance problems.

Those selected for coaching to enhance their upward potential are likely to have positive reactions.  After all, how many of us will object to being groomed for higher-level positions?

Managers who are part of an entire group that's been designated for coaching may have mixed reactions. Many will welcome the opportunity for learning, while others will resist.  They may resent the intrusion into their time, or may be uncomfortable with coaching itself or with feedback from colleagues. 

The most troublesome reactions are from those who are picked for coaching because of a performance issue.   Jim, an executive with a manufacturing company, was devastated when his boss handed him a four-page memo outlining his deficiencies for the past year, and told Jim that a coach was being engaged to work with him.  Of course, Jim's boss could have handled the situation far better, by giving him feedback along the way, rather than saving it up for the end of the year.  But even in the best of circumstances, managers' reactions to being told they must work with a coach to fix a performance problem are likely to be difficult. 
When you're the performance problem

It's never fun to be told that you need to address a performance problem, and that a coach is going to work with you to help you to do so.  This situation can stir up a range of reactions, which may include one or more of the following emotions:

•  Numbness ("What reactions?  I don't feel anything.")  
•  Denial("Who me?  I'm fine.  No problem.") 
•  Defensiveness ("There's nothing wrong with my performance!")
•  Self-criticism ("Boy, I've really screwed up now!")
•  Disappointment ("And I thought I was really getting somewhere in this organization.")
•  Anger ("Who does he think he is, telling me what to do!") 
•  Relief ("They finally found out I can't do this job as well as I pretended I could.")
•  Confusion ("What does this all mean?")
•  Fear ("What will happen to my job, my career?")
•  Embarrassment ("What will my colleagues think of me when they hear about this?")

All these emotional reactions are valid, and are a normal response to being told you're not doing the job as well as you thought you were.  They may persist for a while and may even interfere with your ability to focus on your work.  To the extent you're able, talk to your coach about your reactions.  An experienced coach can help you to sort out your emotions and lead you to taking useful next steps.

What's in it for you?

Despite the above and your coach's suggestions, you may still feel that this whole coaching process is for the benefit of the boss or to satisfy organizational requirements.  You don't really need this work.  You're going through it grudgingly, to keep the boss off your back.  Here's something else to consider. 

Since you have to go through coaching anyway...what would you like to get for yourself out of the process—apart form what the boss wants?   

Many clients have found that thinking through the answers to this question converts the coaching experience from a meaningless "have to" to a useful and productive activity.

Jane, a territory manager for a sales organization, didn't accept that she had a problem in her working relationships with peers and reports.  She even disputed that she had a perceived or political problem.  When encouraged to think about what she wanted to get from the coaching process (since she was stuck with it anyway), she eventually raised the question of whether the job she was in was a good fit for her.  After her coach reassured her of the confidentiality of their discussions, she agreed they would explore the issue of fit together.  In time, Jane discovered that her current job, which required significant hands-on management of and collaboration with others, was not a particularly good fit with her need to perform independently.  She applied for and ultimately received a promotion to a higher-level position, which required far less people interaction, and in which she was able to be highly successful.

Your response to the coach

Your point of view that you don't really have a problem can affect your attitude toward the coach and the entire coaching process.  A coach I met has a stock line which she uses to greet new coaching clients: "Congratulations!   Your company thinks so highly of you they're willing to pay me lots of money to work with you."  She has a point.  By investing in your coaching, your employer is announcing that you're a keeper. 

Talking with your boss

One of the most critical next steps you need to take when told you have a performance issue is to talk to your boss about the situation.  You need to find out more about the problem, how serious it is, and what the boss expects.  Here are some questions to ask:

•  What led you to conclude there's a problem?  Can you give me specific examples of what I've done (or not done)?

•  How serious is the problem?

•  What will success look like?  What will you need to see or hear to be satisfied that the problem is solved?

•  If I'm on a "performance plan," what will I need to do or demonstrate to be off the plan?

•  Who else knows about this?  What have they been told?

Since most coaching begins with 360-degree feedback, your peers and reports will be involved in the process.  If you're in a company where coaching or feedback from colleagues isn't customary, asking them to rate your leadership skills, or even using a coach at all, may send the message that your performance needs "fixing”—not a message you’ll care to broadcast.  What to do?  Agree with your boss on what you will tell people about the coaching process.  Your boss is unlikely to object to your putting a positive spin on the situation.  For example, you may want to say something like this:

"In the spirit of continuous improvement, I've decided to work with a coach to enhance my leaderships skills to become the best leader I can be.  As part of the coaching process, you will be asked to participate in an interview (or complete a survey).  Please answer the coach's questions as openly and honestly as possible as this will provide me with the most value from the process.  All responses will be anonymous.  They will be summarized in a way that does not reveal who said what.”

Don't confuse your boss with your coach.  While your coach will undoubtedly be sympathetic to your emotional concerns, your boss may be entirely uninterested in your feelings.  In talking with your boss, focus the conversation on actions and behaviors, not your inner reactions.

When you genuinely don't see a problem

Robert, sales manager for a large insurance company, was dumfounded and resentful when told by his boss and the human resources director that he "needed coaching."  "I don't have a problem," insisted Robert.  All those people who complained about his "imperious" attitude and unwillingness to listen to others?  Why, they were just malcontents who were jealous of his position, or resented him because he demanded superior performance from others. 

If you, like Robert, refuse to accept that you have a problem, consider this:

If your boss thinks you have a problem, you have a problem.  It may be aperception problem, or a political problem, but it's a problem.

There may or may not be other problems lurking beneath the perception problem, but you clearly need to address at least this one.  If there's a perception that you have a problem, you need to work on changing that perception.  As you work with your coach, you'll want to further explore your own contribution to the perception.

Why Your Team Won't Tell You The Truth

Can you afford to miss out on your people's best thinking? Or their full commitment? Your goals are in jeopardy when people hold back their contrary opinions, off-beat ideas, or disagreements with you as too risky to surface.

"Too risky?" you may ask. "Why, I encourage openness," you likely protest. "And I certainly don't intimidate people, or punish them for disagreeing with me. Why would they hold back?"

Why indeed? Why would anyone reporting to a reasonable and well-meaning manager hold back from saying the truth?

Why people hold back

For many people, speaking up to the boss is hard simply because he or she is the boss. Some people are naturally cautious, or perhaps have been burned in the past. Others may be culturally programmed to show deference to the boss and to avoid any possibility of criticism. And there is always the possibility that you, the boss, really will hold something against people who displease you, or speak uncomfortable truths. From the employee's point of view, why take the chance?

At a deeper level, we should also consider that some may not have completed the last few steps of the developmental journey from child to fully autonomous adult. As a result, they may unconsciously respond to bosses in the same way they responded to their parents or other authorities when they were children- seeking to please them, and to avoid their displeasure.

The boss's contribution

Finally, there is the possibility that you, the boss, inadvertently give out signals that it's not okay to disagree. This can happen in many ways, ranging from body language and facial expressions that convey criticism, to a failure to encourage the expression of differences.

I once interviewed the staff of a plant general manager who spoke of the GM's stated interest in creating a participatory atmosphere at team meetings. They described how Harry (not his real name) would stand at the flip chart and ask for their ideas. But as one of them went on to say, "After a while we noticed that he'd write down the ideas he agreed with, and pretty much ignore the rest. Eventually, we stopped giving him our ideas."

Helping your people to speak up

Let's assume you want to make the most of your staff's ideas and creativity. What can you do to encourage people to speak up? Here are several suggestions:

  • Raise the issue with your team.
    Tell them you understand why they might hold back. Encourage disagreement with your ideas, and commit to a policy of no retributions. By itself, this is not enough-your staff may not believe you at first-but it's a good start.
  • At staff meetings, save your opinion until last.
    If you hold your opinion back, others won't be as concerned about disagreeing with you.
  • Model openness.
    Self-disclosure is a powerful tool for encouraging openness in others. Reveal what you're thinking, and why. Share your plans and assumptions. Admit mistakes.
  • Get feedback from your staff and discuss it with them.
    Whether with the aid of a consultant or human resources specialist, or on your own, get staff feedback on your leadership style, and review the feedback with them (see accompanying article, "Getting Staff Feedback: Do You Dare?"). This is a dramatic way of demonstrating your commitment to openness. Of course, you'll likely learn a few things about yourself as well.
  • Reward people who speak out.
    At staff meetings, recognize people who disagree with you or who raise unconventional ideas. Say, "Thanks Linda, for suggesting that."
  • Monitor yourself to see that you're walking the talk.
    Be alert to ways in which you might be sending mixed messages. Ask people for informal feedback. When you discover ways that you're discouraging open communication, make the needed adjustments, and tell your people you've done so.

Putting these suggestions into action is not easy. It takes a concerted effort to do things differently. But the payoffs are well worth it-a more open team atmosphere, more innovation, and higher quality results.

Getting The Best From an Executive Coach

First, think through the results you want to achieve. You might ask yourself, "What do I want to be able to do better or differently?" Be specific. "Improving my leadership skills" is too vague. Do you want to improve your ability to inspire others? To develop people? To deal more effectively with change? If you have difficulty identifying the specific results you want, the coach you work with can assist you.

What results do you want?

Asking for feedback from colleagues

Say you're in a company where coaching or feedback from colleagues isn't customary. Asking your peers and direct reports to rate your leadership skills, or even to using a coach at all, may create the impression that your performance needs "fixing." What to do? Simply tell your associates that in the spirit of continuous improvement, you've chosen to enhance your leadership skills towards becoming the best leader you can be. This conveys a powerful message about your integrity and models your commitment to professional growth.

Identifying the results you want is important, even if the decision to bring in a coach was made by others. Sure, your boss will have some desired results in mind, and it's important that the two of you sit down and discuss them. But it's equally important to come up with your own goals for the work. (Later on, you'll also want to have a three-way meeting with your boss and the coach to ensure everyone's on the same page.) Even if you're dead set against being coached, and are only doing it to go along with the boss's agenda, try to find something you want from the process. Maybe it is a validation of your existing strengths, or picking up some pointers on coaching so you can do a better job of working with your reports. Building your own personal goals into the process will help you to feel more in charge, making the process more valuable and enjoyable.


The right coach

How do you find the right coach for you? One of the critical factors is that you trust and feel comfortable with this person-comfortable enough to let your guard down and talk openly about your aspirations, your concerns, and your political dilemmas. If you don't have a high level of comfort with the company-endorsed coach, talk to your boss or your Human Resources department; you will often have some choice in the matter. Remember: the coaching process won't work if trust cannot be established from the outset.


What is an executive coach?

An executive coach is a consultant who works with executives and senior managers to help them realize their full potential as leaders. Coaches typically start with an assessment of the client's strengths and limitations, help the client create a development plan, then work with the individual over time to implement the plan. A qualified executive coach will combine solid business experience with specific education and training in psychology, coaching, or a related discipline.


Let's suppose you get to make the choice. Where do you start? The best approach is to ask for referrals from colleagues who have had a positive experience with coaching, or from your Human Resources department. Find out who they recommend, and interview two or three likely candidates. Ask the coaches how they work. Do they start with 360-degree feedback? If so, do they use interviews or survey forms? (Forms require less consultant time, but interviews can provide more in-depth information.) What will respondents be told about why they're being asked for feedback? (See sidebar: Asking for feedback from colleagues.)

What organizational level do the coaches usually work with? How often will they meet with you? In addition to the one-on-one coaching, will they bring you together with your staff or peers for feedback sessions? To what extent will your boss be in the picture? You should have a clear picture of what services and experience to expect from your coach.

Don't forget to check references. You wouldn't hire an employee without checking references. And the same goes for someone to whom you are entrusting your professional development. There are many people calling themselves coaches these days, some with limited business experience or superficial training. A good coach can accelerate your development or get a derailed career back on track, while a mediocre one can make things worse with bad advice. So ask for references and make those calls.


How will you work together?

After you've selected your coach, you need to clarify your needs-not just the results you want but how you and the coach will work together. Before you start is the time to work out such details as:

  • How often will you meet, and over what period of time?
  • How long will individual meetings last?
  • How will feedback be collected?
  • How will confidentiality be assured-yours, and that of your respondents?
  • How can the arrangements be terminated if either of you is unhappy?
  • What fees will be payable and when?


Additional tips to ensure you get the most from your coaching experience

  • Don't push back against the feedback. You'll get feedback from your colleagues as well as from your coach. Some of it may be difficult to take in-perhaps even the positive feedback about your strengths. Feedback is especially hard to hear when it reveals some imperfect aspect of your work and your work style. It can be hard to accept. Yet we all have blind spots, and honest feedback can shine a light on yours and help you to grow, to improve as a leader.
  • Be open to trying new things. Your coach is likely to encourage you to experiment and try out new behaviors. For example, if you give out insufficient recognition or "strokes," your coach may ask you to go out of your way to praise people. If you tend to dominate meetings, your coach may ask you to remain silent. Only by trying out new behaviors, sometimes overdoing it at first, will you be able to build greater flexibility (and a greater range of options) into your leadership skills and style.
  • Persist. Trying out new behaviors is necessary-but it's not enough. New, unaccustomed behaviors often seem awkward and unnatural at first. And they may not achieve the desired result. (Remember the first time you tried to drive a stick-shift car?) Any new skill or behavior change requires practice and persistence until the new way of doing things becomes a comfortable part of your repertoire.

Working with an executive coach need not be a difficult or painful experience. On the contrary, most coaching clients-even those who were "sent" by their bosses-find it a productive and rewarding experience. In many cases, clients even find that the positive effects spill over into their personal lives as well. ("My wife and kids are thrilled that I'm far less critical with them now.") By clarifying your intended results, carefully selecting the coach, and being open to learning about yourself, you can enjoy significant gains in your leadership style and career potential.