Executive coaching – Going back to school

Coaching is about deliberately choosing to be bigger, faster, better.

You use a coach as a resource in the same way you would use, say, a lawyer, a specialist consultant or even a personal fitness trainer.

They offer you a quick way to access expert knowledge or ways of operating which they have studied in depth and you have not. With executive coaches this specialism usually includes business experience and insights into human behaviour.

Senior partners, financial directors and management accountants are ideally placed to use coaches. They have a specialist technical skill, are usually very bright and often need performance management support. But what are the particular situations that herald the opportunity for them to use coaching?

First, look out for patterns. It could be that people problems have become more of an issue in your team than you would like. Or perhaps you regularly spend too much time compensating for individual team members’ shortcomings.

Such problems may not be the same each time, but they have a familiar feel about them and each time they surface you find them intensely irritating.

Their recurring nature tells you that your tactics aren’t working and this is clearly a good time to consider coaching – a time to identify underlying problems and think things through anew. Coaching will also enable you to develop new skills, change your approach and make strong decisions.

Another telltale signal for coaching is when you need to address a particular problem.

Take the example of the senior accountant who had a formal complaint lodged against him for offensive language and behaviour. Perhaps it was all due to a personality clash, intense rivalry with a colleague or even, under pressure, a simple misjudgement. Whatever the cause, his people skills were suddenly put under the microscope.

In this scenario, the accountant used executive coaching both to understand how he had got into this situation as well as to develop a new perspective on leadership style.

Directive management is less effective the higher up the career ladder you climb. What he understood through coaching was how he could use positive influencing skills as a style of management – not only with those people he saw as his peers, but also with his direct reports. Within this context, coaching provided him with the mirror and the expert one-to-one tuition he required.

The third common signal for coaching is when people are promoted to a new position where they have wider business and management responsibilities than ever before.

In this respect, financial executives have the same problems as anyone else with a predominantly technical background. Frequently, they are not great natural communicators and have to develop keen interpersonal skills to complement their professional expertise.

Coaching gives people with intellectual dexterity the opportunity to pinpoint what they need to do, identify practical models that work in their unique circumstances and develop appropriate new behaviours.

So are you still defensive when it comes to coaching? If so, why? Is it an issue about finding someone who can be your intellectual equal?

If you are hiring a coach then you certainly need to be rigorous in your selection.

Find someone you can trust and get along with and make sure that their background, style and approach fulfils all your requirements. Remember coaching isn’t a remedial activity, nor is it some sort of therapy – it’s there to add value.

When I coach accountants, FDs, treasurers and investment managers there is almost always, in the early stages, some intellectual sparing. I take this as a positive sign of an emerging relationship. Such executives want to know that they are dealing with someone who is solid, robust and who can challenge their own thinking. No problem.

Further down the line, however, and frequently after we have addressed the urgent business problem, we start to deal with underpinning people concerns.

This is an area where financial executives are often more vulnerable and where they need personal support and someone to bounce their ideas off.

And this is where expert training skills in areas such as conflict, change management, effective communication and influencing are of such value.

A coach has to have this repertoire and must be able to provide sound advice, great insights and hard skills.

So how do you know if your coach is the right one? Well when you first meet together they should be identifying with your clear criteria which will help you to measure your progress. You also have to get along together.

If you don’t like your coach then forget it.

Find someone whose company you do enjoy and respect. But notice too when you do start to achieve those leadership gains and business successes.

When that’s the case it’s a sign that you have been using coaching well, as a powerful business resource.

  • Rob Cram is the managing director of performance trainers STC

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