Several years ago, I suffered from a bad back and after much effort found great relief from consulting a highly regarded homeopath. I was so impressed with his treatment that I referred several back pain patients to him. When I met him a few years later, he thanked me for the referrals but also told me in jest, “Mr. Ganesh, Just for your information, I also treat other ailments”.
What was true for this homeopathic doctor is true for executive coaches too. A lot of popular literature and articles often focus excessively on the role that coaches play in helping their coachees “behave themselves”. In reality, coaches do other things too and it is important that we don’t end up creating the impression among sponsors, coachees and prospective coaches that coaching is used predominantly to correct bad leadership behaviours.
Let’s now get back to understanding what I mean by bad behaviour. Bad behaviour is often associated with lack of emotional regulation and stress tolerance. It is associated typically with Alpha Male executives with an obnoxious style or super competent but emotional unintelligent specialists who are often referred to in a derogatory manner as “brilliant jerks” or even worse a set of senior executives who display what are often called the dark triad personality traits: machiavellianism (a manipulative attitude), narcissism (excessive self-love) and psychopathy (lack of empathy).
Leaders who display such lack of emotional regulation and cause harm to others and themselves needs attention and are often referred to for coaching within organisations. While some of them might actually benefit from therapy, I find that at least in India, it seems more socially acceptable to refer them to a coach. While behavioural coaching or the genre of coaching which focusses almost entirely on working on behavioural changes is an important part of coaching work, I must say that executive coaching is far wider and broader in its impact and purport than just getting people to behave themselves. A much less “remedial” and a much balanced and broader “developmental” view to the power and value of coaching is likely to help put to rest the popular myth that coaching is only for people who have serious behavioural problems and is often one step away from being shown the door.
So, what do sponsors use coaching for, you might ask? Based on my role of being a coach provider for well over a decade and overseeing hundreds of coaching engagements, I have found that sponsoring organisations tend to leverage executive coaching in three contexts or for three reasons:
1. To groom and prepare an executive for a future set of roles and higher responsibilities
2. To help an executive become far more effective in his or her current role
3. To help executives manage their transitions in their roles effectively.
In addition to these three broad agendas that are important for the sponsor, coachees of course bring to the coaching engagement their emerging agendas from their executive or personal lives and seek the support of the coach in whom they have found a trusted helper, in gaining clarity or resolving dilemmas or taking decisions.
In each of these three contexts, we are likely to find coachees who have some immediate problems to solve as well as some future focused aspirations or potential to develop.
Across these three contexts, to help coachees solve problems or leverage potential, they may need to develop skills, revisit their styles, gain new perspectives and pay attention to strengthening certain functional and leadership competencies.
As you can see, coaches have the opportunity to contribute across a much larger plane and across a broader array of needs beyond behavioral changes that are remedial.
Having said all this, I must add that all coaching interventions across all contexts will call for the coachee to make certain fundamental behavioural changes. Without change, no development will be possible. However, such behavioural changes can be positive and developmental and is different from correcting bad behaviour.
The Indian context
This distinction is best understood when we look at coaching in the Indian context.
One of the important drivers of demand for coaching is the sheer size and complexity of many of the emerging leadership roles in functional or business domains. Many entrepreneurs and leaders have never before managed roles with this level of accountability and complexity at such a young age.
Leaders are expected to remain innovative and flexible in the face of deeper, faster and more frequent economic cycles, constant and disruptive technological changes and frequent geopolitical tensions. They are also leading a workforce that has rapidly changing socio-cultural values, needs and preferences. Add to this our cultural context and you see the emergence of a unique set of coaching needs.
For example, a lot of coaching needs for senior executives revolves around enhancing self-esteem and confidence, become more assertive and learning to say no, delegating more effectively by holding on to one’s role boundary, developing a much more formal process-based leadership style or present oneself well and display executive presence or thinking and acting strategically.
Effective transition is yet another driver for executive coaching in India. Given the shortage of leaders many organisations prefer to grow their leaders from within. Leaders making such steep internal movements need help to even understand what the transition actually means and get the support to actually make the transition. The most typical transition needs include developing a more effective delegation style, managing a complex web of stakeholders, learning new domains, developing the ability to think strategically and see the big picture, developing the ability to respect and lead other functions, giving up one’s functional loyalty and developing the ability to engage in developmental relationships to nurture talent.
Add to this the problem of missed developmental milestones which is quite unique to India. Generations of Indians have grown within corporate ranks based on their sheer intelligence, ambition and diligence but without some of the fundamental life skills that are expected to be acquired early in life. As a result, we find that organisations are filled with leaders who have moved several notches up the hierarchy while carrying the organisational equivalent of academic arrears or backlog in the form of competence deficits and gaps not just from the previous work level but often from several levels below.
So, it is not uncommon to find that a functionally competent senior executive has a need to develop his spoken communication skills, or has to learn to influence, or make decisions with firmness and so on.
So, as you can see, the Indian context presents a unique set of needs as far as coaching is concerned. Add to this the preference for executives to work with a coach who is mentor-like in his or her stature, wisdom and demeanour and you have a rather unique bouquet of possibilities for a coach which goes well beyond getting people to behave themselves.