Executive coaching is now a very important one-on-one development tool. Interestingly, despite the fact that coaching was entrenched in other venues such as sports, acting or even opera, coaching in business is a fairly recent phenomenon. When Jerry Beam and I founded BeamPines in 1981 there were many training and leadership development firms that promoted group activities, but no one-on-one coaching firms. However, as leaders in the assessment field, we recognized that if managers and executives didn’t develop their leadership and interpersonal skills, their careers might be limited.
Our first candidate had strong technical and operational skills, which had resulted in his reaching a senior level position in manufacturing. However, because of major interpersonal issues with his peers and his boss, he was on the verge of being fired. His boss decided to meet Jerry and me to discuss whether anything could be done to salvage the situation. We designed a one-on-one development program for the individual and he worked hard to be successful. While it never led to the individual and his boss becoming close, it made the situation livable and we saw a great new business.
Over the years, most companies decided that it was more cost effective to utilize coaching to develop managers and executives who had potential, rather than to use it as a tool to salvage individuals in trouble. In addition, individuals who were salvaged might be appreciative, but mostly they just wanted to forget the experience. High potential candidates who benefited oftentimes became friends and clients.
Not everyone is coachable. For example, it was unusual to be successful with individuals who possessed low objectivity or possessed issues more about ability than leadership or interpersonal relationships. In regard to individuals with low objectivity, sometimes their issues were due to stress, exacerbated by the fact that they were now under the microscope. As we explained to our clients, these individuals were like trees. You might think after a session you had motivated them to change some behaviors (i.e., becoming a better listeners), only to discover at the next session that, like trees with their roots planted, they snapped back and once again decided they were not the one with issues.
Another interesting aspect was that male executives usually appeared more open to being coached than women executives, especially if the boss suggested it. However, it was obvious that a number of these men didn’t really believe they needed coaching, but agreed just to please the boss. They saw being coached as a weakness and when the initial phase was over, even when they believed they had learned a lot, they were reluctant to ask for more coaching. More often, women were very suspicious at the beginning of the coaching experience, wondering about the boss’ agenda and whether the coach could be trusted. However, once they became involved, if they felt the coach was helpful, most were extremely appreciative. About 75 percent of our extended engagements were with women.
One of my more interesting women candidates, who became a CEO, initially was advised by her boss that she needed coaching to be more effective with her peers. The HR head had wanted her to be coached by a woman whom I knew and respected. However, she decided I was the better choice. I wondered why. She explained, “My problems are with my peers who are all men. So why would I want a woman coaching me?” Made sense to me.