Harvard Managemnt Update

Do You Need an Executive Coach?

by Paul Michelman

Is executive coaching at U.S. companies destined to play the role occupied by psychoanalysis in some Neil Simon version of Hollywood:  A virtual prerequisite for anyone who aspires to be anyone?

It might seem that way at some organizations, at least to the untrained eye.  IBM has more than 60 certified coaches among its ranks.  Scores of other major companies have made coaching a core part of executive development.  The belief is that, under the right circumstances, one-on-one interaction with an objective third party can provide a kind of focus that other forms or organizational support simply cannot.

And whereas coaching was once viewed by many as a tool to help correct underperformance, today it is becoming much more widely used in supporting top producers.  In fact, in a 2004 survey by Right Management Consultant (Philadelphia), 86% of companies said they used coaching to sharpen the skills of individuals who have been identified as future organizational leaders.

“Coaching has evolved into the mainstream fast,” say Michael Goldberg, president of Building Blocks Consulting (Manalapan, N.J.), whose clients include New York Life and MetLife.  “This is because there is a great demand in the workplace for immediate results, and coaching can help provide that.”  How?  By providing feedback and guidance in real time, says Brian Underhill, a senior consultant at the Alliance for Strategic Leadership (Morgan Hill, Calif.).  “Coaching develops leaders in the context of their current jobs, without removing them from their day-to-day responsibilities,” he says.

At an even more basic level, many executives simply benefit from receiving any feedback at all.  “As individuals advance to the executive level, development feedback becomes increasingly important, more infrequent, and more unreliable,” notes Anna Maravelas, A St. Paul, Minn.-based executive coach and founder of TheraRising.  As a result, she says, “many executives plateau in critical interpersonal and leadership skills.”

So, should you have a coach?  And which managers in your sphere of responsibility might benefit from working with an outsider to help sharpen skills and overcome hurdles to better performance?  The right approach to answering these questions still varies a great deal depending on whom you ask, but input from several dozen coaches, and executives who have undergone coaching, does provide a useful framework for how to think about the role of coaching.

The road to coaching runs two ways ~ Although both the organization and the executive must be committed to coaching for it to be successful, the idea to engage a coach can originate from either HR and leadership development professionals or from executives themselves.  In the past, it has more often sprung from the organizational side.  But given the growing track record of coaching as a tool for fast movers, “We see more executives choosing coaching as a proactive component of their professional life,” says Cheryl Leitschuh, a leadership development consultant with RSM McGladrey (Bloomington, Minn.).

Executive coaching is not an end unto itself ~ In spite of its apparently robust potential, the very act of taking on a coach will not help advance your career.  In other words, don’t seek coaching just because other fast movers in the firm seem to be benefiting from it.

Coaching is effective for executives who can say, “I want to get over there, but I’m not sure how to do it,” says James Hunt, an associate professor of management at Babson College and coauthor of The Coaching Manager (Sage Publications, 2002).  “Coaching works best when you know what you want to get done.”  Perhaps, in spite of your outstanding track record, you haven’t yet gained the full interpersonal dexterity required of senior managers – for example, you’re not yet a black belt in the art of influence, which is so important in the modern networked organization.  Honing such a skill might be an appropriate goal for a coaching assignment.

But simply having a clear purpose won’t guarantee coaching value, says Michael Goldberg.  “You have to be open to feedback and willing to create positive change.  If not, coaching may not be the answer.”