Who can be an executive coach?
Mel Brooks – Executive Coach, Programme Director and Lecture – Wits Business School
There seem to be many different views on this. Is there any skill required to be a coach? One wonders. Especially when seeing advertisements for two or three-day coaching courses which, when completed, will enable you to earn a living as a coach. Ignoring for a moment any formal training - what are the requirements that enable an individual to provide executive coaching? One important requirement would be the recognition by potential coaches that coaching is a tough job – not quite sitting next to the couch asking how people feel.
Firstly, business experience. Sure, a coach is supposed to lead a client toward arriving at their own solutions. But if the coaching process is based on questions surely some business nous is required. Surely some idea of what the problems are and potential solutions is required in order guide the line of questioning. This does not at all imply that one is telling the client what to do, but rather that the coach has a good feel for the context within which the client has to operate. Having been around the block a few times will enable the coach to ask questions that resonate with the client. It is also necessary to have a broad knowledge of local business and international business events and trends. A good coach will read all local business publications such as Business Day, the Financial Mail, Business Report, Business Brief and international publications such as the Economist, the Financial Times and Business Week. This will raise their level of business understanding and lead to them asking better questions
Secondly, corporate experience. A knowledge of the realities of corporate politics and an understanding of, for example, the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of corporate structures and their impact on executives. This implies that the coach has held an executive position and has lived through and experienced the buffeting of restructuring, downsizing, rightsizing and so on. And has had to look people in the eye when firing them.
Thirdly, life experience. With good, but tactful, questions a coach can establish whether a client is being affected by family or other personal issues that are clouding his approach to managing and leading. Knowing how to lead a client to resolving these issues requires first-hand experience. Of life.
If a person is able to acquire coaching skills on the above foundations then building on them by acquiring a toolkit of relevant coaching skills. The most important of these is listening. Unfortunately the word ‘listen’ has a bad name due to its often being misused in SA; people say, “now listen here” when they mean, obey me. “My children won’t listen to me’” when they mean, my children won’t obey me. Good listening is a coach’s most powerful tool. Another is the ability to frame powerful questions. Remember, that executives may well have a shortage of people listening to them at home, and at the office. Creating a climate where people open up is an essential. The ability to emphasise is important but is probably more a function of personal experience, whether personal or business, than it is of coaching training.
Another element which needs to be considered is that of generational matching. A coach old enough to be the client’s grandfather may experience communications difficulties based on an experience and outlook gap. The reverse could apply to a much younger person attempting to coach a much older executive. It is not a maturity factor being referred to here; after all there are many teenagers that are more mature than some in their fifties, but rather a shared experience level which will enhance mutual understanding of the issues being dealt with during the coaching engagement.
Finally a coach should be an approachable person who comes across as non-judgemental and confident – one needs to be confident in order to inspire confidence. The above will go a lot further than a battery of ‘skill' sets and coaching ‘models’.