Executive Coaching: What's in It for You?

By Witherspoon, Robert; White, Randall P. | Training & Development, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Executive Coaching: What's in It for You?


Witherspoon, Robert, White, Randall P., Training & Development


We all want to perform better. In the beginning, improving performance is relatively easy. Learning some new skills, applying new technologies, and just plain experience seem to do the trick. As high performers move up the ladder of success, however, squeezing out that extra ounce of performance becomes increasingly difficult. For many, coaching is the answer.

For decades, athletes, public speakers, and actors facing a similar dilemma have turned to coaches to help them perform better. Often, these individuals have already reached the top of their profession. The coach's role, therefore, is not as a teacher, but as a partner who introduces the high performer to new challenges, options, and behaviors.

Now this approach has taken hold in the business world, where top performers are turning to executive coaches to help them reach their personal best in business. According to Fortune's survey of leading companies, those coached in business "may be anyone from a $60,000 middle manager up to the CEO, although more commonly that person will be a leading contender for the CEO's job." These coaching candidates are valued people who are motivated to perform even better.

Because executive coaching targets high performers, the focus is less on teaching new techniques than on helping the executives become their best. Those who coach are typically skilled outside consultants who collaborate with executives on a regular basis. These relationships may last a few months to several years, during which time a coach provides the constructive feedback and wise counsel an executive needs.

Feedback - the coach's stock in trade - ranges from active listening to formal reports about an executive's behavior and blind spots. Executives (just like the rest of us!) are often unaware of the impact of their actions on others. Feedback gives the executive a snapshot of these important tendencies and helps to change behavior as a result.

Executive coaching goes far beyond collecting raw data, however. For example, to be successful at leading a booming business (or to fail at turning around a chaotic operation) may tell the executive nothing. Most useful learning lies in examining how a situation was managed, what available resources were used, and how things might have been done differently. By asking tough questions, the coach and the executive learn lessons from experience and practical insights to prepare for future leadership roles. This personal learning process is the essence of executive coaching. Because executive coaching is so personal, no two situations are alike. But the following scenarios serve to better illustrate the coach's role.

When it's lonely at the top. Leading a business or major business function can be lonely. Issues such as the executive's own growth and development, working relationships with the executive team, or specific business challenges can be highly confidential. But these matters are also important enough to merit the rare opportunity to discuss them, think out loud, and receive constructive feedback. As an objective outsider and "talking partner," a coach is free to question the executive on major issues, an option less open to corporate insiders. Often, a coach also helps the executive to obtain valid data to address specific issues or concerns.

Good coaching can lead to

* Better decisions. Experienced coaches offer insight and perspective on an executive's ideas. Talking through actions before they are implemented tends to improve the chances for sound decisions.

* More ideas and options. A coaching environment encourages creative suggestions from both the executive and the coach. An exchange occurs without risk. One creative idea often sparks another.

* Better support for the executive's agenda. Coaching sessions start with the executive's agenda. Coaches are free to offer suggestions, but the coaching format ensures that executives address the issues and concerns that matter most to them. …

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