It’s lonely at the top. A cliché perhaps, but the truth nevertheless. Senior managers, be they in the corporate sector or business owners, all experience a degree of isolation and it is in response to this that a world-wide industry has emerged and grown. That of executive coaching. What exactly does this offer, and who are the coaches?
Executive coaches provide senior managers with a friend – someone they can trust to provide support in the form of a sounding board, a clear perspective, fresh ideas or impartial advice.
In addition to providing this individual support system, there is also a growing international trend toward the use of coaching as a management development process. Individual managers have different needs in terms of level of input, and interpersonal or technical skills required. Recognition of this has highlighted the fact that in some cases, coaching, the equivalent of an individual tutor, offers significant advantages over group training. It is, however, important not to confuse coaching with teaching or lecturing. While a coach may assist with the development of skills, this is achieved by supporting the individual along a path of self-development. Any teaching that does take place is of a Socratic nature. Coaches give guidance as to how to go about learning, suggestions as to where to find information and frameworks to assist with the evaluation of information received. Coaching is about asking questions – not providing answers.
The coaching process will clearly differ from discipline to discipline and from need to need. Coaching processes in the financial area will differ from those in the inter-personal skills area. For example, the financial management coaching I provide to non-financial executives is made up of a two-stage process. The first takes the form of a structured one-on-one workshop during which a wide range of business and financial concepts are discussed. This is followed by extended personal consultations over time to support the individual as they apply the theories, skills and frameworks learned in the first stage to their personal managerial roles. This latter part of the coaching process allows for expansion into a far wider range of issues which impact on the managerial function.
As senior non-financial executives begin to play a more active role in financial management areas they often feel threatened or at risk – which is where the sounding board aspect of the coaching process comes into play. The confidentiality maintained throughout the coaching process is a major advantage. Participants at public workshops are often reluctant to ask company-specific questions, and even at in-company group training workshops many non-financial executives are reluctant to ask questions lest they appear ignorant.
Who are the coaches? Some coaches are appointed internally, and the mentorship role is, for example, an established corporate process. More often, however, external coaches are sought because managers feel more comfortable and are more likely to interact freely, knowing that their coach will not be involved in evaluating them at some later stage. The external coach is also often better placed to act as an impartial guide, bringing to the relationship an objective perspective that fosters trust.
It may well be lonely at the top, but there could be a coach at the other end of the line.