Executive Coaching 101

By: Cynthia L. Adams Harrison, Ed. D., LICSW

Although the term "Executive Coach" has been used for years throughout the world of business, it is not surprising that few people easily understand what an executive coach does. Coaches are trained across many disciplines; it is difficult to universalize their approaches or degrees of success.

Essentially, any coaching focuses on performance, a term which is often associated with sport. In fact, many terms that are currently used in business have been borrowed from the world of sport. Sport includes competition and anticipated outcomes, as does business. Success in sport is measured by effective performance outcomes which involve scores or time. And success is achieved by the right caliber of talent, both coaching and athletic, and through effective preparation and practice.

An effective executive coach understands the elements of performance. For example, the ultimate goal in sport is to achieve a flow state as much as possible - that is, to perform a task with poise, calm and complete success. Many athletes describe this "flow state" as if time stood still. Every thing they do is "right", fluid and effortless. Their bodies do what they have been trained to do. An athlete achieves this flow state when s/he is not distracted, internally or externally, from the activity s/he is performing.

As in sports, the goal of executive coaching in business is to enhance performance by identifying and limiting both internal and external distractions. Internal distractions are those which come from within the individual, such as lack of confidence, negative thinking, anxiety, either self imposed, or aggravated by increased pressure for job performance. External business distractions come from the environment and are primarily related to industry limits/obstacles and corporate limits. They can include a noisy or chaotic work place, unexpected events, a lack of financial, technical and personnel resources, a manager who is non-communicative or hostile, compensatory practices, organizational constructs/designs, cultural and political environment, and goal orientation.

In order to define and limit an individual's internal distractions, an executive coach assesses a manager's attentional style - the ability to shift focus effectively from one stimulus to the next, depending on the task at hand. The coach also assesses the individual's interpersonal skills, such as the need for control or speed of decision-making, in order to support the most effective attentional focus for each task. For example, the art of effective management requires a broad focus to size up a situation and every component involved; an analytic focus to figure out the best solution; and a narrow focus to determine the most effective processes and procedures to execute that solution. Those managers who are more inclined to attend to internal and analytical concerns may miss the big picture and administer a solution which addresses only part of the problem.

Employing a variety of tools - the Test Of Attentional And Interpersonal Style, a 360 degree interview of the individuals peer group, and subordinate and dominate reporting relationship - the executive coach evaluates a number of individuals skill sets, including technical skills, personality characteristics, and social and emotional I.Q. Then s/he creates a Performance Plan which identifies the individual's goals, and creates technical, tactical, mental and environmental measures to achieve those goals.

The executive coach also teaches the individual how to decrease external distractions and/or to manage them more effectively. Through the executive coach's guidance, the individual learns to distinguish those factors s/he can control or influence from those that s/he cannot, and how to prepare effectively. Having made that distinction and having identified the external limitations, the individual then can realistically determine and work with the resources available to achieve his/her goals.

In the more unique area of family business consulting, executive coaches help family members as well as non family members understand the often complicated family dynamics and systems involved in a family owned business, and how to handle those relationships effectively. An executive coach gives advice on the management of all systems of the family business, including the family, governance and operational structures. They also assist the family and non family members in balancing the family's core values against the demanding needs of the business.

In sum, executive coaching involves much more than working with individuals to enhance their performance. It involves understanding the advantages and limitations of the system within which the individuals are working, and then creating interventions which help them achieve their goals. The achievement of those goals not only enhances an individual's skill set, it also benefits the business, and ultimately, the bottom line.

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