Faced with ever-challenging demands, today’s leaders are increasingly
turning to an occupational prop in the guise of an executive coach. Alison
Long gone are the days when the boss cracked his whip and everyone jumped to
attention. Status alone no longer commands respect and today’s leaders have to
prove their worth. They must lead by example, motivate and inspire, maintain
their distance yet stay in touch. They need vision and entrepreneurial
qualities to anticipate change and keep ahead of the game.
It is a tall order, and to help their top people rise to the challenge, more
and more companies are turning to executive coaching. When the Hay Group
recently conducted a survey of 170 HR professionals from around the globe, more
than half the respondents reported their organisation had introduced coaching
in the past 18 months and 88 per cent were planning to broaden its scope.
Moreover, 70 per cent believe coaching is more effective than training courses
as a means of changing behaviour and improving the performance of senior
executives and high flyers.
Myles Downey, director of studies at School of Coaching, agrees with this
view: "The more senior you get, the more unique and personal-specific your
development issues become," he says. "Attend-ing a generic programme
does not really answer that need. You require something tailored and
He draws a distinction between development and performance and warns against
coaching that does not relate to performance goals. "It is important to
strike a balance between the inner [your beliefs, aspirations, desires] and the
outer [behaviour, results, how you impact in the workplace]," he says.
The role of a coach is not to instruct, but to help executives work out
their own solutions. Life at the top can be lonely and there is often no one to
turn to for advice or support. Coaching provides a safe environment, a place to
explore ideas and discuss decisions with a trusted, highly skilled, independent
It is not just a cosy tàte-à-tàte, however, and a thorough coach starts by
examining all the factors, external and internal, that may be affecting
performance. This might take the form of a 360-degree feedback or a survey of
the organisation’s climate. Mary Long, chief executive of Inspirational
Development Coaching, goes one step further and witnesses her clients in
action. "Their perception of their impact may be very different from
reality," she explains, citing the example of a sales director who was
very proud of his ‘open door’ policy, but failed to notice that no one had
crossed the threshold.
Opinions differ as to how long a coaching programme should last, but there
is general consensus that it should stop if it is creating dependency. Whatever
the specific performance goals, the aim is to foster self-reliance and expand
people’s capacity to stretch and grow.
It is particularly valuable at times of upheaval, such as transition to a
new role. Tony Dunk, principal of development business at CDA, points to the
case of managers who, having gained promotion through their operational
brilliance, feel insecure in their new environment.
"Operations are prescriptive and now they have to take a visionary
approach – an entrepreneurial position. That is where coaching can be useful.
It helps them to put their objectives in perspective and think things through –
what they already have in their makeup, their skills set, their behaviour and
attitude. Techniques tend to get compartmentalised and they often miss the
potential adaptation of something they already have as a resource."
If the stakes are high for the individual, they are even higher for the
organisation, which invests vast sums of money growing or recruiting senior
staff. "If the support of a coach keeps someone on board for just a couple
of years longer, the savings are massive," says Mary Long. "For the
individual, it is the fulfilment that counts. Leaders are remarkable people and
what they want most of all is to make an impact."
According to research from Penna Executive Development Coaching, they
haven’t got much time in which to do it. The honeymoon period has come down to
three months – and some executives are expected to make their mark even sooner.
If they do hit the ground running, the company reaps handsome rewards.
According to another piece of research from the Hay Group, between 50 to 70 per
cent of an organisation’s climate, and hence its effectiveness, can be traced
to the leadership or management style.
"Most people have within them a capacity to lead, and will lead in
their unique fashion," says Downey. "There are two more important
questions. First, is their predisposition appropriate to the situation? For
example, a retail environment might require someone charismatic and
inspirational, while leadership in a legal practice might have a more
intellectual edge. Second, do they have the will to be a leader? I have seen
people from relatively uninspiring positions and backgrounds come to the
realisation that they have a certain innate power and that there is a way in
which they can express it. That is very exciting to see."
The impact executive coaching can have on the bottom line was highlighted by
a study conducted by MetrixGlobal for an executive coaching programme designed
by The Pyramid Resource Group. Its findings, based on 43 participants,
concluded that coaching produced a 529 per cent return on investment, rising to
788 per cent when financial benefits from retention were taken into account.
These are impressive figures, yet some people remain unconvinced, as the Hay
Group’s HR survey illustrates.
Of those respondents who had encountered resistance, 85 per cent attributed
this to the values of senior managers. While this may reflect a lingering
misconception that coaching is only for people in trouble, the Hay Group holds
HR professionals responsible too.
Only 24 per cent saw a role for coaching when building for growth, while
just 13 per cent spotted its potential for easing mergers, acquisitions or
Moreover, only 46 per cent had personal experience of coaching, which may
explain why they have failed to convert sceptical managers. As the Hay Group
report concludes: "If HR is to play a strategic role, HR professionals
need to become more closely involved in developing those who determine
Does your manager need help?
10 tell tale signs….
– You cannot get a date in their diary for months
– They cannot remember the last time they met a customer
– They do not understand half the jargon in the management report
– All their goals are short term
– They overmanage their subordinates
– They have stopped speaking out at board meetings
– They feel liable to be challenged by anyone about anything at any time
– They feel overwhelmed with information
– You can always predict how they will react
– They can’t delegate and have no successor identified
Source: Inspirational Development Coaching
Case study – Unilever
Coaching encourages staff to lead with heads and hearts
"I am allowing my emotions to surface more. This makes me more
vulnerable, less polished. I am better at taking criticism and acting on it.
"It has allowed the real person to shine." These comments come
from two Unilever employees who have discovered the joys of coaching.
It began in February 2000 when the Anglo-Dutch consumer products company
launched its Path to Growth initiative, with the aim of raising top line growth
from 1-2 per cent to 6 per cent. "One of the key elements was to create an
enterprise culture," explains Fergus Balfour, senior vice-president of
"That requires not only leaders with the right attributes, but a team
who behave in such a way as to create a climate in which growth can
The coaching programme was introduced as part of a broader strategy and the
starting point was an analysis of prevailing behaviours followed by the
development of a leadership growth model consisting of 11 key competencies.
External coaches worked one-to-one with around 70 senior managers to
establish sustained leadership development. Outside agents were also used at
middle management level, together with some internal coaches – the first
members of a growing coaching cadre. In some businesses coaching was extended
to junior managers in the form of a two-and-a-half-day intensive programme.
"The idea was to help them understand what coaching in leadership
means," says Balfour. "By starting young we hope they will take to it
more readily and adopt it as their natural style."
The ultimate goal of this three-pronged attack is to develop a coaching
culture that will extend throughout the organisation. One of the major
challenges has been to achieve global consistency on quality and methodology,
not an easy task. Another has been to persuade managers that their diaries must
be cleared to make time for coaching others. "I would include myself in
that," he says. "You have to be there when people need you, but it is
The issue of giving up time has three significant implications. First, it
encourages managers to delegate and give others more responsibility.
Second, leaders find their people want to share issues or require guidance.
This does not imply that they are avoiding making decisions, but they want
them enriched by the leader’s knowledge and experience. Third, leaders must be
Those who are coached will get into trouble if they are encouraged to take
risks and no one helps them to learn from their mistakes.
The culture Unilever is trying to shift is the traditional male-dominated,
analytical model. "The most important message we are trying to get across
is that it is fine to be vulnerable and to put your emotions on the
table," says Balfour.
"Unless you lead with both your head and your heart, you do not inspire
people. These are key leadership issues and the coaching process is helping us
to address them."
Early indications suggest that the strategy is beginning to bite, albeit on
a modest scale. It is still early days, however, and Balfour is optimistic that
they are on the right track. "We are very encouraged to see what can be
achieved and know we must go further, faster and harder," he says.
"To do that we need an internal coaching programme."