You’re a 40-year-old executive heading an operational division of a large company. You get to work at 07:30, scan the business news, then respond to 57 priority e-mail messages that you can’t delegate to your line managers or PA. A message from the CEO reminds you to forward him a key strategy proposal with headline budget by noon Friday, for discussion by the Board next week. You must get to grips with this today, or you won’t have a fully worked-out proposal ready in time; and there are some tricky issues to consider. But HR calls: one of your line managers has objected to an unfavourable performance review and non-promotion, and is threatening a CCMA action; you quickly draft a brief for HR and the Legal Department, and schedule a meeting with the manager. You field a call from a journalist wanting comment on an allegation that company officials rigged an environmental impact assessment. Then your husband calls; your son’s teachers want to meet with both of you to discuss his “behaviour issues”, which you suspect are due to bullying, of which the school denies all knowledge. You rush to chair two scheduled meetings with prospective clients, and one with a project management team. You planned to snatch 40 minutes during lunch to work on your strategy proposal, but are asked to advise procurement on an unresolved dispute with a supplier about faulty equipment. You quickly read through your last round of direct report performance reviews and have a tough meeting with the disgruntled line manager and the Deputy Director of HR. Then it’s a two-hour return trip through heavy traffic for a site visit to a major project; while driving you conduct seven cellphone calls with HR, a client, the Finance Director, a project manager, a project accountant, and two engineers. You get back to the office in time only to rush off for your school meeting, and a difficult evening trying to communicate with your son. And this was just an average day. As you get into bed, exhausted, you realise you still haven’t thought through your strategy proposal.
Executives and senior managers have to keep many balls in the air. They’re often so busy dealing with a never-ending series of urgent or challenging issues that they have little room for reflection on their work experiences, or for clear-headed thinking about future strategy. This is problematic: as Kolb (1984:68–69) pointed out, reflecting on one’s concrete experience is a crucial part of the experiential learning cycle (concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, active experimentation). An executive who does not reflect on their experience, nor think about how to improve their practice, is unlikely to deliver excellent performance. And since executive performance leads the company’s results, the same applies to the firm as a whole – an organisation’s performance is shaped by the quality of thought of its management. In effect, if executives are not reflecting on and learning from operational experience, and thinking carefully about the future, the company is strategically brain-dead.
So how can busy and highly-stressed executives, having to field and shoot a myriad of different balls every day, make the time and space for high-quality thinking? Business coaching can help, in two fundamental ways.
The coaching intervention provides a formal and acceptable way of taking executives out of their frenetic daily rush, and giving them time and space for discussion and thought. As Kline (1999/2004) says, “One of the most valuable things we can offer each other is the framework in which to think for ourselves”. An executive demanding an hour alone “just to think” risks being considered hopelessly self-indulgent by their colleagues. But a formal, structured and disciplined business coaching intervention, seen to improve executive performance and company results, is a different matter.
More importantly, within that quiet time and space, a good business coach will be a “thought partner” for the executive, helping them to think clearly about the issues they need to address. The coaching conversation is a thinking partnership, where coach and client reflect on the client’s experience, transforming it into potential for learning and action. The coach’s job is to help the client to think clearly about the core issues which challenge them – in their job, career and daily working life. The client is encouraged to think for themselves and to develop an awareness of their own conscious and unconscious behaviours, which may influence performance and systemic change.
By asking the right questions, in the right way, in the right order, the coach helps the client find their own solutions. The coaching conversation literally provides a “thinking environment” where business professionals are able to develop self-awareness and a depth of understanding of themselves and others. The coach’s job is not to provide answers or solve the client’s problems for them. The greatest gift the coach can offer is to help the client to consider experiences, approaches, ideas, strategies, behaviours, and actions they have not previously considered.
For the harassed executive in the example above, the most important issues a business coach could help her reflect on, and develop clear strategies for, would probably include:
- developing her strategic leadership competences;
- sustaining complex but rapid decision-making processes;
- effectively motivating, developing and managing the performance of her direct reports;
- managing complexity within her teams, the division and the firm;
- effectively addressing diversity issues (particularly around gender, race, and age) in a sector historically dominated by middle-aged white males;
- effectively dealing with workplace conflict, and managing difficult people and situations;
- transitioning into a new position and role(s);
- gaining insight into her own intrinsic personal and professional drivers;
- dealing with corporate stress levels; and
- balancing business and personal life demands.
And for any busy executive, under pressure to deliver big results in a competitive industry under difficult economic, financial and systemic circumstances, real help in getting to grips with these issues can be absolutely priceless.
So what do coaches actually do? Coaches help someone think clearly about something. That might sound naively simple, but it’s both the real core and the real value of best-practice coaching. Because business leaders the world over are finding it more and more difficult to think clearly about anything – for a variety of reasons. That is why executives are turning to business coaches – not because they need therapy, or mentoring, or consulting input, or moral support, or even to develop new skills – but because they need help to think clearly about the big issues currently challenging them, and to work out better ways of addressing them.
Coaching is unique. It involves helping people to systematise their conscious thoughts about the immediate actions needed to address specific practical issues, and to understand the mental and systemic processes that may be sabotaging their success. What other discipline does this? And it’s difficult to do that simple-sounding task well – to be an effective thought partner – which is why coaches need to be properly educated, trained and professionalised.
If this description of the core process of business coaching makes sense, and if the potential value of business coaching to clients is intuitively obvious, why does business coaching still struggle to articulate exactly what it is and what real value it can contribute? There is as yet no single clear and authoritative definition of “coaching”, and coaches have not yet reached agreement among themselves on what coaching is, what processes it involves (and doesn’t involve), and what it can really do for their clients. So, it is not surprising that prospective clients also remain confused, which has been noted by various external observers.
This situation stems partly from the fact that most coaches come into the industry from other disciplines, and continue to apply the methodologies of their earlier vocations within coaching. It is also partly due to a fundamental insecurity that coaches in general seem to have about the industry: many are tempted to hype what they’re doing to their clients in order to sell it, because they’re not actually sure of or confident in what they’re doing. This is manifested as a continuing urge to be all things to all people, to be the hottest thing in town, the next big thing.
As Nic Bednall, a highly experienced and respected MD, pointed out at a COMENSA chapter AGM two years ago, coaching is an industry in need of a belief in itself. If the discipline is to make progress in this regard, it might help to go back to first principles, and underline the very real and inherent value at the core of best-practice coaching. Only when coaches engage with this simple fact, and abandon the need to sell coaching by smothering the basic process with gimmicks, is coaching likely to receive the recognition and respect it deserves as an emerging profession. One that can give its clients real value – beyond all the balls.
Kline, N. (1999/2004). Time to Think: Listening with the Human Mind. London: Ward Lock.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Stout Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: unlocking the secrets of business coaching. Randburg: Knowres Publishing.