1) How to select an executive coach? Don´t be this person!
What is the worst strategy/marketing/consulting advice you ever received? Why? Think about that! One of the reasons may have been that it cost too much. The next subpage "2) What are the usual fees for executive coaching?" discusses fee structures with specific examples, including the common one of hourly rates, which in the U.S. reportedly range from perhaps $50 to $5,000 an hour.
Don´t be this person!
- "Verkaufen Sie Ihren Kunden die Katze im Sack - pardon - Bildungs - und Beratungsleistungen?"
"Are you selling a pig in a poke - pardon - training and consulting services?"
Bernhard Kuntz, the founder of PRofil Berater, opens his attractive and informative (German language) website with the first question above. It is aimed at his targeted customers, who include coaches. What a trainer, consultant or coach is selling is intangible. The customer can't kick the tires and take it for a test drive. It has no "if it doesn't work, money back" guarantee. You can't even return it for a partial refund or exchange it for another model. Tough sale.
Tough purchase, too. The Bridges business model based on payment for results and one client per industry was developed precisely to address these concerns. (The model is not unique. Marshall Goldsmith, probably the leading executive coach in the U.S. to Fortune 500 CEO's, also has performance based billing for his six-figure fees.) However virtually all coaching firms and coaches, some of them excellent in their own right, have conventional billing. How should one proceed with them? Let us begin with how not to proceed.
"All I need is a sounding board. A reasonably competent individual with a pleasant personality will do just fine. Besides, the company is paying for it anyway. I´ll figure out how to make our meetings useful as we go along."
This attitude is unlikely to yield optimal results. One gets a referral, meets the person, who is pleasant enough, and voilá, instant coaching. Alternatively, one glances at some websites, looks over some CVs and prepares a short-list. A couple of interviews are held and one chooses the person with whom one feels most comfortable.
Approaching the selection with a little more rigor is recommended. One should note that successful coaches are in turn selective in accepting assignments. On the one hand, they want real challenges. (Being a glorified "yes-man" may be lucrative but is hardly fulfilling.) On the other hand, no coach wants to be associated with a losing team (sbu) or a player (CEO aspirant) plummeting in the rankings.
We follow with three admonitions and some questions. We conclude with a recommendation to participate in a Universty of Augsburg research project about coaching that specifically includes selection criteria.
I. THREE ADMONITIONS
Beware of coaches who
• do not have hard, tough questions about the assignment
• are blinded by too much success, especially their own - hubris
• represent a particular dogma - one methodology fits all
II. THE KEY QUESTION
W h a t E x a c t l y I s N e e d e d?
The point of departure is to reflect on the coaching goals before conducting interviews. ("If you don´t know where you´re going, you´ll wind up somewhere else." Yogi Berra*) What is one looking to accomplish, and what kind of coach(es) will be best suited to achieving it?
Need a catalyst to help make that determination? The GROW model is discussed at FAQs, question five about common coaching methodologies. An expanded version of the acronym SMART for the setting of goals is given at the lead page Services. The standard versions of the acronyms are:
1) GROW: Goals, Reality, Obstacles/Options, Will/Way
2) SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed.
Filling in the blanks after the letters of these two acronyms can serve as a starting point to define more precisely an engagement and its success metrics for "smartly growing."
* Yogi Berra (born 1925) played 19 years for the New York Yankees and is arguably the greatest catcher in baseball history. Although he never got past the 8th grade, after his playing career he became a team manager. He is famous for his fractured English and malapropisms such as, "It ain´t over till it´s over." (Wikipedia, 2011)
III. TOUGH QUESTIONS
Below is a list of questions to use as part of assessing a coaching engagement.1
1) T o u g h Q u e s t i o n s -- to ask the coach
• Explain a major management mistake you made (strategic blunder, mishandling of a key account, blown negotiation, bad hire), its impact on the organization, and what you learned from it. (A good number of wins notwithstanding, we have certainly had our share of losses, as the examples on those subpages at Testimony show.)
• Here is a (hypothethical, or real) business problem or opportunity, How would you handle it as the line manager with the authority to take the decision? How would you handle it as the coach to that manager?
• Here is an ethical problem. How would you handle a similar situation as the manager, and how as the coach?
In turn, you should expect to hear some of the following:
2) T o u g h Q u e s t i o n s -- some examples, asked by the coach
• What is the biggest frustration, most daunting challenge?
• How does that reflect questions such as:
• What are the key business drivers?
• What constitutes sustainable competitive advantage?
• What is the value proposition?
• What does the business portfolio look like, for instance in terms of cash cows versus question marks, stars versus dogs, or in terms of relative market share?
• What story are the financial metrics really telling?
• What is the impact of debt financing and leveraging?
• How healthy is cash flow?
• What has the greatest impact on cash flow?
• How is the (regulatory, economic, industry) environment (mis)behaving?
• How is the market (mis)behaving -- specifically, what is the impact of new technologies?
• How are the existing customers (mis)behaving -- and how are new ones acquired?
• How are the competitors (mis)behaving -- and what is the threat of new entries?
• How are domestic and off-shore suppliers (mis)behaving?
• How is management (mis)behaving -- and what is the effect of cultural differences?
• How open are the CEO, the board and the management team to new ideas?
• Are there formal or informal procedures in place for learning from mistakes?
• How is the workforce (mis)behaving?
• Does the average employee bring a mistake to the attention of his boss?
• Is there a set of corporate values (mission, vision) that people really subscribe to, which they use to decide how to handle an unusual situation, such as solving a customer problem, or in dealing with a "gray" area in terms of ethics?
• How do you deal with 800 lb. gorilla inertia, implacable resistance to change?
III. THREE SELECTION CRITERIA
1) T o o M u c h S u c c e s s -- beware the peril of hubris
The second admonition about "blind success" is perhaps not self-evident. The coach brings added value through his ability to ask penetrating questions, and to share experience. Successes of the past tend not to apply equally well to the present. Drawing sensible conclusions from yesteryear's glory is far more difficult than heeding cautionary tales about yesteryear's disaster. (This subject will be elaborated upon on in "Strategy Bestsellers - Pretty Good to Really Great?" at "Papers.") What astonished and delighted customers five years ago, let alone 15, may not impress them much today. ("It even comes in color!") In contrast, the actions (or lack thereof) that led customers to sputter with frustration, or curse in rage, 5, 15 or even 50 years ago will today probably still be pretty effective at frustrating and enraging them.
An entrepreneur was once asked how he had amassed his great wealth. He answered: "Good decisions."
How had he been able to make such good decisions, he was then asked. He explained: "Experience."
The third question was how he had acquired this experience. He laconically replied: "Bad decisions."
Certainly there are highly successful executives whose perception of their careers is a string of successes, correct decisions, appropriate actions "given the circumstances at the time," with only occasional, insignificant interruptions because of events "beyond my control, which could not be anticipated." That may, in fact, be true -- but that is not the most desirable background for coaching.
From the perspective of executive coaching, better is to have overcome failure. One has done it the wrong way -- and knows the warning signs all too well. One has failed, overcome, and learned how to do it right: not "vini, vidi, vici" -- I came, I saw, I conquered, but "vini, defici, devici" -- I came, I failed, I overcame.
My first attempt at education failed miserably The very first time I promoted someone, a legitimate star performer, he precipitated a "palace revolt" that could well have ended that operation's existence. (See, respectively, "Academic, U.S." and “Cultural, Iran” under "Losses" at "Testimony.") I was surprised at how useful such experience was when as a teacher I later advised students, including mature professionals in executive MBA programs. However the first time I headed up a negotiating team for an enterprise sale, I enjoyed enviable success. First time, even repeated, failure may be associated with eventual success -- but is by no means a prerequisite for it!
2) O n e D o g m a -- fits all
The "right" coaching approach differs among executives, companies (the company as a learning organization) and divisions as well. Many coaches have the breadth and depth of experience to prefer an eclectic approach. Others are truly expert in one particular methodology, e.g. appreciative inquiry, balanced scorecard, Six Sigma Quality, etc. Hence the client needs to consider what kind of coach best fits his needs at the time.
Do you need a generalist with an extensive toolkit?
Downside: jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
Do you need a specialist, a master of a particular methodology or tool?
Downside: tunnel vision and the procrustean syndrome.*
* In Greek mythology Procrustes was a giant who would offer travelers shelter: food and a bed for the night. If you were shorter than the bed, he would stretch you to fit; if longer, he would hack off your limbs to size. Therefore the Procrustean syndrome refers to a complete disregard of individual differences or special circumstances that leads to arbitrarily, often ruthlessly and violently, forcing conformity with a system or method.
3) T h e I m p o r t a n c e o f A f f i n i t y - the bottom line
These observations opened with the comment that "reasonable fellow with a pleasant personality" was not a recommended selection criterion, any more than an "abrasive rocket scientist" would be. One needs to think hard about what kind of competence is needed to accomplish the task at hand. The bar for that competence should be set high. Seek someone with real expertise. Having done that, now you need to feel comfortable with the person you choose.
Lee Iaocco was the heir apparent for the car company Ford. He was the rising star of the industry with an awesome track record. Almost everyone, including the press, was surprised when he was not appointed CEO. Asked why not, the controlling member of the Ford family answered: "Sometimes you just don’t like someone." The bottom line is that there must be affinity between the executive coach and the client. All the competence and the qualifications in the world will not overcome even mild discomfort with someone.
An University of Augsburg team in Germany is researching coaching, specifically including selection criteria. The team is overseen by Professor Dr. Erik E. Lehmann, chair of the Department for Corporate Strategy and Organization at the University of Augsburg and Professor Dr. Dr. Rolf Haubl of the University of Frankfurt, who is also the President of the Sigmund Freud Institute. The project is being led by Dr. Marcel Hülsbeck at the University of Augsburg with Daneil Berndt. The website explains an interesting opportunity for coaches and firms to participate in empirical research. The results could well be of immediate, practical value to the participants.
Many of the comments above apply to the selection of professional advisors in general. Some brief additional comments about their selection, specifically including that of attorneys, are made at the subpage "and other Advisors" shown on the menu.
1 Some of the questions were adapted from Sydney Finkelstein´s seminal book Why Smart Executives Fail and What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes, Penguin Books, 2003, p. 269.
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