Co-authored by Nick Wilkins and Sunny Stout-Rostron
How do corporate leaders develop the competences they need? And how should they be supported in their development?
These are important questions, because the answers determine the precise forms of support executives and managers will need at particular stages in their professional development. This article briefly reviews the various forms of developmental support available to corporate management, outlining their appropriate applications, and highlighting key issues concerning the most suitable roles for coaching.
Training methodology has evolved considerably over the past century. In essence, however, training can be defined as the communication of information to someone in a systematic way to achieve the knowledge and understanding required for the development of a specific competence. Training is necessary for young people entering the job market to attain the necessary technical and professional skills they will need in their vocations.
Can corporate leaders be trained? In the basic principles of management, certainly. However, one of the hallmarks of a good leader is the wisdom to always know exactly what to do next. And managerial wisdom is difficult to teach – it develops through the use of all four phases of Kolb’s (1984:68–69) experiential learning cycle (concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, active experimentation). In one key respect, leading and managing is similar to driving a car or flying an aircraft – the only really effective way of learning is by doing.
A mentor’s role is to directly share their experience, expertise, advice and wisdom with the “mentee”. In contrast to the broad definition of best-practice coaching that is steadily gaining ground, it is arguable that being “directive” and giving advice is the function of a mentor, rather than a coach (Stout-Rostron, 2009:16).
When combined with appropriate training programmes or qualifications in specialised competences, mentoring can be a particularly useful form of support for younger managers learning the ropes. To be fully effective, however, the role of mentor usually needs to be fulfilled by an older person with greater experience in the same industry and job type as the younger mentee. Domain-specific expertise and experience therefore need to be carefully matched between the two parties if mentoring is to work – in addition to compatibility or “chemistry”, mutual respect and trust on a personal level.
When things go wrong in life, managers invariably benefit from competent counselling, whether professional or non-professional. Counselling is a form of help and support for people troubled by emotional trauma or other personal challenges, involving sympathetic listening and a modicum of (often commonsense) advice, usually on a short-term basis, typically in response to a particular event or concern.
Counselling generally deals with the personal side of a corporate leader’s life, including such issues as bereavement, divorce or dependence issues. Mentoring, in contrast, would focus on the leader’s working life. Counsellors (and mentors) need to be able to refer the person involved to an appropriate professional (such as a psychotherapist) for help with more intractable challenges, such as clinical or personality disorders.
A business coach uses question frameworks and coaching models to help the corporate
leader work out solutions to specific issues (Stout-Rostron, 2009:16). Or, to put it even more simply, “Coaches help someone to think clearly about something” (Wilkins and Stout-Rostron, 2010:3). The role of coaching in Kolb’s experiential learning cycle is to help leaders and managers to reflect on their corporate experience, so that they work out how to address critical issues facing them. “Coach and client reflect the client’s experience and behaviours, devising new thinking, feeling, behaviours and actions” (Stout-Rostron, 2009:118).
The issues identified by managers as important topics for coaching sessions could include:
- developing their leadership competences;
- developing, motivating and managing the performance of their teams;
- addressing issues around diversity and corporate culture;
- dealing with workplace conflict and managing difficult people and situations;
- gaining insight into their own personal and professional motivators or drivers;
- coping with high stress levels; and
- balancing business and personal life demands.
There are many different types of business coaching, including:
- performance coaching, particularly useful for enhancing the competence of line managers and other mid-level corporate leaders;
- team coaching, helpful in boosting the cohesion and effectiveness of functional teams within companies; and
- peer coaching, usually between people at similar levels and in similar jobs within the organisation.
And there are many different coaching models and frameworks to apply within each of the various types of coaching. These models need to be carefully chosen to fit the specific corporate context, and the particular needs of the corporate leaders being coached.
For example, the Thinking Partnership® framework developed by Nancy Kline (1999) as part of the Thinking Environment® model is arguably the purest and most high-level form of coaching, because it is completely and absolutely non-directive. In most forms of best-practice coaching, the coach will directly intervene in the coaching conversation to help catalyse the manager’s thinking, by asking a carefully considered and appropriate question that will “unlock” any confusion or blockages. In contrast, a Thinking Partner does not intervene directly in the coaching conversation at all – in fact, they ask only a limited and carefully-defined range of absolutely neutral and non-directive questions. Because the key principle underpinning the Thinking Environment(c) model is that the thinker is fully capable of thinking through the issue and working out the solution themselves. The critical role of the Thinking Partner is simply to provide a supportive “thinking environment” within which the thinker is entirely free to think for themselves, without interruption, or prompting, or “help”.
Managers are likely to reap greater benefit from coaching (as opposed to training and mentoring) once they are experienced enough to identify and prioritise the issues they need to be coached on. Similarly, corporate leaders are likely to reap the greatest benefit from the Thinking Partnership® once they have achieved the further experience necessary to develop their self-confidence as entirely free and unfettered thinkers and visionaries.
Corporate leaders and managers need different forms of support at different stages in their career development, and different forms of support to meet particular challenges within each stage. This means that business coaches need to be careful not to oversell the usefulness of their craft – coaching is not a corporate panacea. As Maslow (1966:15) famously remarked, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Good business coaches should know better than that!
Kline, N. (1999). 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.
Maslow, A.H. (1966). The Psychology of Science: A reconnaissance. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Stout-Rostron, S. (2009). Business Coaching Wisdom and Practice: unlocking the secrets of business coaching. Randburg: Knowres Publishing.
Wilkins, N. and Stout-Rostron, S. (2010). Business coaching: going beyond the balls. COMENSAnews, July. http://www.comensa.co.za/language/en-ZA/NEWSLETTERS/COMENSANews_July_2010.aspx.