Coaching the Boss (and the Boss’s Boss)

By: John Raymond • 4 years ago •

An executive coach is not a fancy bus that drives executives around…so what is it?

When you were a kid, you probably had a coach; whether it was a soccer coach, a tennis coach or a footy coach. Hopefully that coach was encouraging, challenging and helped you perform better at whatever sport you were playing. Or maybe you had a maths coach or an English coach, who helped you to get better results at school and in your exams.

Sports coaching has been around for a long time and is what most people think of when you say “coach”. The sports coach is highly visible pacing the pool beside an Olympic swimmer or sitting with his head in his hands when his team scores an “own goal”.

What about executive coaching?

This is a much-misunderstood term and it only really emerged in the 1990s. The term “executive coach” can also be described as an “organisational coach”. They assist people at all levels in organisations to improve their performance, by helping them eliminate whatever it is that interferes with high performance at work. Executive coaching is often said to have been influenced by the work of Timothy Gallwey. Timothy wrote a series of books in which he set forth a new methodology for coaching and for the development of personal and professional excellence in a variety of fields. He called this “The Inner Game” and wrote The Inner Game of Tennis and The Inner Game of Golf before going on to write The Inner Game of Work to help people be better performers at work. Many see Gallwey as the founding thinker in the field of modern executive coaching.

So, how does a coaching conversation work?

A coaching conversation should never be anything like the friendly chat you might have with a mate over coffee. That kind of conversation usually has no specific outcomes, no actions and creates no real change. It’s usually not challenging in any way. At IECL we like to say that “a good coaching conversation will get you thinking differently and acting on that new thinking.”

The GROW model is commonly used to structure a coaching conversation and is a good foundational model, especially for the beginner coach. There have been many claims about GROW’s authorship and while no one person can be clearly identified as the originator, Graham Alexander, Alan Fine, and Sir John Whitmore all made significant contributions. Max Landsberg also describes GROW in his very readable book about coaching in organisations; The Tao of Coaching.

A good coach does not suggest strategy or dwell on “the story” (what happened next?) and does not (well, hardly ever) give advice. A really good coach builds rapport to provide a safe space for open discussion, ensures they have trust and then challenges their client through insightful questioning. They may also, through asking the right questions, hold up a “mirror” for their client to observe and reflect on their own behaviour and actions, and how these relate to “interferences” in their lives.

That sounds like life coaching! Isn’t it the same thing?

Executive or organisational coaching differs from life coaching in that the organisational coach usually has two clients; the organisational sponsor of the coaching (who is often authorising the payment of the coach’s bills) and the person being coached. This creates a triangular relationship which can mean a quite different coaching environment to life coaching (where usually the client is also paying the bill).

Often the two “clients” in the executive coaching triangle have differing agendas and may even have a different understanding about why the coaching is happening. A good organisational coach will ensure they have a robust discussion about the confidentiality and ethical issues around this three way relationship before they start the coaching engagement. They will also ask both parties to sign a “coaching agreement” that outlines the terms of the ongoing engagement. With this in place, everyone can relax, knowing that most of what is discussed in the coaching room is confidential and what is shared with the company is only whether the coaching goals have been met.

Ah, so it’s business coaching is it?

Well, no, not really. Business coaches tend to have previous experience in the client’s industry (or something closely related) and they regularly use their subject matter expertise in their discussions with clients. For example, they may use the coaching session to review the business plan, talk about how things are going with various personnel, look at a potential changes of strategy etc. A business coach also gives advice to their client, based on their business experience. They often tell the client what to do. In many ways, a business coach is similar to a management consultant. A good executive coach will never tell you what to do, but they may well ask you the most important question you need to answer or the question that nobody else has dared to ask.

How do you become an organisational coach?

Good organisational coaches often have a background working at mid to senior management (or higher) levels in organisations. While this is not entirely necessary, it is common. It also helps if the coach understands the culture and politics of organisations in order to coach successfully. However, we have seen many great coaches come from industries as varied as education, psychology, television and the health sector. What is important is the ability to be present and listen fully; to have a curiosity about people and the capacity to think on your feet and follow the coaching conversation wherever your client takes it (they set the agenda, not you). Having a genuine interest in organisations and how they operate also helps. If you dislike the corporate world, it’s probably best to stay away from organisational coaching.

At IECL we train our organisational coaches in all the complexities of coaching within an organisation. The methodology learned can also be used to coach anyone, about anything, but a certain level of understanding of organisational context is necessary for an executive coach. For this reason, we ensure that our coach trainees understand that an executive must be coached holistically. They need to understand that their client exists within a complex landscape which includes their own personal goals, values and beliefs, and the organisation’s culture, systems, processes, and politics. There’s no point in coaching an executive to “follow their heart” if the company culture doesn’t reward that kind of behaviour unless they want to leave the company. But that’s another story.

What’s the future of executive coaching?

While executive coaching has been popular in Australia since the late 1990’s, it is in more recent years that it has become a fairly common and positively regarded intervention (or even reward) for executives with a wide variety of performance related conundrums. As an industry, we are increasingly seeing highly informed purchasers of coaching, some who are even trained as coaches themselves. Most now demand that the coaches they hire be certified or accredited by an International Coach Federation (ICF) approved educator.

Some of this change in attitudes can be attributed to the 2011 Standards Australia publication: Coaching in Organizations. This handbook was written by a group of coaching training organisations (including IECL), as well as providers of coaching and client company representatives. In terms of an entire industry agreeing on the parameters and putting them in writing, it was a world first. It sets out the expectations you should have of a coach and what all organisations should understand before purchasing coaching.

At around the same time the International Coach Federation (ICF) started to raise the bar in terms of what they expect from coaches wanting to become members and gain ICF credentials. This increase in basic standards has contributed towards an increased professionalisation of the industry. However, we believe that it’s unlikely that coaching will become an official profession with all that entails any time soon.

So, how do all these types of coaching fit together?

In the organisational coaching area, there is increasing understanding of what a coach should and can provide. Most purchasers of coaching are now clear about when they need an executive coach, as opposed to a mentor, a business coach or a life coach. Sports coaching is often far more directive (“you need to kick the ball like this”) and in many ways, can be closer to mentoring, especially if the coach is an expert or former champion in that sport. However, Gallwey would say that anyone can get better performance out of a sportsperson; it’s all about the “inner game”!

How do I get more information?

See the reading list below, and if you want to learn more about executive coaching, come to a free introductory session at IECL in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne or Perth. Or take a look at our website:

John Raymond, Head of Coaching, IECL

John is a Senior Executive Coach and Facilitator, and a Principal at IECL, Sydney.

Further Reading List

  • The Tao of Coaching, Max Landsberg (1996)
  • The Inner Game of Work, Timothy Gallwey (2001)
  • Coaching for Performance, John Whitmore (2002)
  • Coaching in Organizations, Standards Australia (2011)

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Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!

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