Great Executive Coaches Know What It’s Like
An unedited article by John Renesch and Alan Parisse which was subsequently
published in Executive Excellence magazine in 2001
Executive coaching has been a growing phenomenon in recent years, as more and more people enter this highly-personal aspect of individual consulting. With the constant demand for greater and greater productivity from executives who are shouldering larger and larger responsibilities, there is growing need for some sort of private confidant, confessor, questioner, buddy and pal, who can show empathy, offer support, help release the stress, be a cheerleader and sometimes even “get in the boss’s face.” Coaching has become mainstream, growing throughout all levels in the executive ranks in organizations. Demand for this sort of confidential support is high, and growing every day.
As a result of this growing demand, many people are entering this new field of practice – a field that seems like a mix of psychotherapist, father-confessor, coach, confidant, cheerleader, consultant, and “tough lover.” While there are some consultants who’ve included this sort of private coaching in their practices for many years – long before the term “coach” became popular – the vast majority of practitioners are new to the field. Many of these new arrivals have taken a course on how to be an effective coach, often becoming “certified” after completing their course of study.
Some of these new arrivals have been psychotherapists in the past. Having learned how to listen to clients as a part of their therapy practice, they now see greater opportunities with the “corporate coach” label in the business world. This usually means higher fees as well as less interference with state boards and licenses that prevail in the mental health community. Others have been business consultants, and have chosen to expand their professional services to include one-on-one coaching for individuals within their client organizations. And there are some of these new coaches who are really taking advantage of the growing popularity of the field. These are the “instant coaches” who had overnight epiphanies – usually driven by their need to make a buck.
There is clearly a wide range of skill levels and experience among executive coaches – ranging from the brand new people who’ve just graduated from some sort of training course who are setting their sights on building a “coaching practice,” to those well-seasoned and wise elders who have been around for decades, discreetly making themselves available to their contemporaries and their peers. There is a lot of difference between the thirty-something person who left a corporate job as a marketing assistant, took a weekend course and now has a business card that says “Executive Coach” and the fifty-something person who ran a public company and knows what its like to meet an employee payroll regularly, deal with labor strikes, hold their own with their board of directors, and negotiate with compliance officers.
There is also a wide range of experience in the ranks of the potential clients for these services. Some may be fairly new to business, fresh out of business school, and having a private coach could mean a lot to the individual and his or her organization who have a large stake in their “rookie” executives. Matching these young up-and-coming stars with slightly older and more experienced coaches might be a fine fit, depending upon the chemistry between them. In addition to being a coach they may also serve as a mentor – something now being offered by growing numbers of professional firms.
But if you have an older and more experienced executive, who’s acquired some real seasoning over the decades, he or she is going to want to work with a coach who’s “been around” for a while, “walked in their shoes,” and shares some of their experience with them.
Selecting a coach who’s a good fit requires clients to take a hard look at what they want from the coaching experience. If all they want is for the “coachee” to have someone to talk to occasionally – much like many therapists who are essentially “friends for hire” – then the screening filter needn’t be as fine. But if the person being coached is to receive any true value and become a stronger, more powerful leader, more self-confident and strategic as a manager, or more inspiring as a role model for the people who report to him or her, then having a private confidant who has “earned some stripes” in the business world might be a huge advantage and worth a few dollars more.
In sports, it is obvious that the truly great coaches – like Casey Stengel and Tommy Lasorda in baseball, Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh in football, and Phil Jackson in basketball – all stood out more as coaches than they ever did as players. But they had played the game. In fact, most great coaches were not “naturals.” They were not as fortunate as some athletes who rose to greatness after seemingly being born with the skills to excel in their sport. They had their own struggles as players – they had to learn the hard way, eliminate bad habits, pay close attention to things that the natural athletes took for granted. So they knew what it was like to fail, and retry, and fail again. They knew what it was like to have challenges that seemed insurmountable, face sure defeat or failure, and put in the hours it took to achieve a higher level of competency.
The same applies to business. If an executive coach has never known how it feels to have employees wanting one thing, stockholders wanting another, and the board insisting on something entirely different from the first two, then they cannot “walk in the moccasins” of a client if that client is a very senior executive with large responsibilities. They cannot be a great coach for that person if they’ve only got an idea, or can only imagine how it might be, but haven’t shared their client’s experience! They might be quite good for their clients and provide much value for what they cost the company. They can effectively coach more junior executives. But it will be a major challenge for them to be great coaches of CEOs, Chairpersons and Directors of Boards, or Senior Vice Presidents of large corporations, or other high-positioned executives with major responsibilities.
To get the best value for your coaching dollar, be sure that the coaches you select have the experience of the person to be coached. Make sure that they have been down that road sometime in their past and can identify with the challenges and perspectives of the person to be coached. Otherwise, you are merely retaining someone to listen to the trials and tribulations of that executive, and they can get that from a shrink for much less money.