Coaching, Coaxing or Counselling – The Power of Executive Coaching
This professional article contrasts coaching, therapy and manager-led development, espouses some of the benefits of executive coaching, asks whether everyone is a candidate for coaching, explores various models used and the professional backgrounds of credible coaches.Three clients in the space of a week asked me if I’d seen the Harvard Business Review article by Steven Berglas on “The Very Real Dangers of Executive Coaching (June 2002).” One client was particularly interested in my reaction to the article’s contention that coaching services provided by people who were not psychologically trained, experienced or skilled, could be destructive. It was only later that I realized our discussion around that issue had parallelled the coaching process. He set the agenda, I asked questions, we switched from a discussion about the article to a discussion about our coaching relationship and reaffirmed our “permissions” to communicate with each other at any time if either of us were not satisfied about how things were progressing. My client made a final observation about the spontaneous fear that surfaced as he’d read the article being possibly associated with a negative experience he had with a school counsellor in his teenage years. It is unlikely that he would have otherwise made that connection simply by reading the article. It took the coaching process to help him identify his feelings of disquiet and how he might address them constructively. The coaching had made a difference.
What is coaching?
Corporate Coaching (with executives or others) is defined by the International Coaching Federation as “an ongoing process driven by the client which focuses on taking action towards the realisation of goals or desires.” These goals might include business improvement, leadership, workplace change, career , work/life balance, or personal development. I have coached both clients who wanted unashamedly to focus on themselves and those who were focused on job performance, organisational transformation and team relationships. Many, of course, make the appropriate nexus between self development and people skills, leadership and change because they’ve decided that if they work on themselves, the rest will follow.
Why get a coach?
We live in an era where we are time or resource poor. It is common nowadays to commission external providers of service. Engaging a coach however is not like engaging a domestic cleaner who performs the service for us.
Coaching enables the services of an impartial facilitator,
· not a friend (who can get offended),
· not a boss (to whom you may not want to display frailty)
· not a mentor (where a power imbalance may exist or career may be the primary focus) and
· not a therapist (who is oriented to work with deficit and dysfunction).
Coaches are engaged because of their capacity for objectivity and certain skills that we (or others close to us) may not have. Coaching is often subtle, yet direct, confronting yet affirming, provocative yet non judgmental, intimate but not tender; ultimately empowering of the client whilst constantly calling for rigorous self examination.
Coaches must be aware of their own baggage, be aware of their limitations, must work within the highest ethical standards and dare not seek to work with others in order to work through their own issues. That is not to say that coaches ought not seek to improve themselves. Most of the impressive coaches I have met, have coaches themselves.
Is everyone a candidate for coaching?
Coaching can support the development of those who are highly motivated and also those identified for coaching who may not otherwise be enthusiastic candidates for change.
To coach the so called “uncoachable” the coach has to help the client identify their reasons for maintaining the status quo, what homeostasis does or does not do for them and therefore what they stand to gain or lose by letting something go. If you think this sounds like a process with a psychological underpinning – you’re right. I believe that a good life coach or corporate coach has to work within a knowledge framework that goes way beyond ethics and empathy. That coach has to understand cognitive dissonance, defence mechanisms, patterned behaviour; be able to tolerate ambiguity and welcome , even foster ambivalence at times.
Importantly also, the professional coach must have the insight and the humility to know when they have a client who should be referred elsewhere, perhaps because of burnout, excessive anxiety, clinical depression, mental illness or severe concurrent stresses that may be impinging on work performance.
There is undoubtedly far less stigma, and even arguably more prestige associated with consulting a coach than a therapist. If one considers that 20% of the population will experience some depression in their lives, then it is surely on the cards that some individuals who want or would benefit from therapy find their way to a coach. Can one manage a dual role? Can a coach be a therapist? I say yes, but four criteria must apply. The coach:
· has to have the expertise to do both
· has to be clear on which hat he/she is wearing and when
· has to have a client contract that allows for it (or the client has lost control of the process)
· must not be breaching an understanding with the person or company who has paid for the coaching; for example, a coach being engaged by a company for leadership coaching but spends all their time helping the client manage their grief over a failed relationship or a looming child custody battle with their ex-partner.
Choosing a Coach
Obviously word of mouth helps but as a prospective client, you should be clear about the questions you ask someone being coached and what outcomes they have sought or you may find that you’ve inadvertently engaged a personal fitness trainer or a business strategy specialist when your objective is to develop your emotional intelligence!
I would recommend that a responsible coach meet with a prospective client at least once on a no fee basis to determine the ‘fit”. The fit is not purely or even about, likeability.
To establish a coaching partnership, both parties must be confident they have:
· sufficient rapport to work together
· shared understanding of the goals and the process
· negotiated the frequency, cost, duration and format of contact time (how often, how long, minimum charge, ratio of face to face, email and telephone etc)
· resolved issues around confidentiality, personal and corporate goals and progress reporting (absolutely critical where the economic buyer of the coaching is not the coaching client) and also
· the circumstances under which coaching might adjourn i.e. at what point might it be acceptable for one party to express a desire to discontinue.
I attended an international coaching conference some weeks ago and met some fantastic people. Many were undoubtedly highly skilled; all excited about making a difference but to whom? Many had solid backgrounds in marketing and business. I can only hope they coached people in …marketing and business. Some were personal trainers, some touted themselves as life coaches. A few had business cards that testified to this but when I chatted with them over coffee it became clear that they had been a financial accountant or a Reiki instructor some four or five weeks previously. In other words, some of these people were in transition themselves and saw coaching as a way of reinventing themselves.
Coaching can be a wonderful tool, a source of competitive advantage for organisations, a retention strategy, a change management strategy, a stimulus for visionary leadership and a way to increase emotional intelligence in an organisation.
We have examples all around us of coaches who’ve enabled their charges to achieve more than they did when they were still competing – Jose Higueras who coaches Pete Sampras never achieved Sampras’ stature as a player – and therapists and counsellors may not have experienced divorce, depression or eating disorders but are able to help clients with those life issues. In other words, the coach does not have to have “been there” to be credible and helpful, but the coach has to know how to help clients work out where they want to go and facilitate a process that helps get them there in good shape.
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