Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Time for executive coaching to come out of the shadows

Published 15 July 2013 11:49, Updated 16 July 2013 07:29

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Time for executive coaching to come out of the shadows

A reticence to talk about what makes coaches so important means executive coaching is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, which doesn’t help the coaches or leaders. Photo: Stefan Moore.

Executive coaches have become a permanent fixture of the modern organisation. Coaching seemed an extravagant fad destined to fizzle out of existence when it first materialised some 20 years ago, but unlike most management fads it has stood the test of time.

It’s not always immediately clear why the coaching “industry” – or “profession” as more status-conscious coaches prefer – has gone from strength to strength, but it has. It seems that there are more executive coaches than Elvis impersonators and self-published management authors, which is saying something. If you haven’t been handed a business card by at least one coach in the past 12 months, there’s only one conclusion to be reached: you need to get out more.

There are many estimates as to how many coaches there are in Australia: they vary from 1500 in one recent article to 4000 when I wrote a column about the proliferation of coaches for the Australian Financial Review a couple of years ago. Some coaches are dedicated to their post and do nothing else; others have a laundry-list of handles that includes keynote speaker, facilitator, trainer, author, et al. No doubt the odd one offers picture framing and dry cleaning among the list of services.

Coaching is one of the most heavily-spun sections of the consulting fraternity. Most claim to be coaching at chief executive and boardroom level, a claim with varying levels of credibility. I have met scores of coaches over the years; they have ranged from impressive trusted advisers and confidantes of substance to opportunistic spivs, flakes and carpetbaggers.

Naming names

Wherever they sit on the scale, what is invariably missing is the names of chief executives, emerging leaders and company chairmen that they invariably claim among their clients. This is understandable, but it is also very convenient when coaches are seeking out media exposure and flogging their services to potential clients.

Leadership today is becoming increasingly complicated and so it is not unreasonable that executives would look for some outsider perspective and expert counsel. Many of these issues are confidential or delicate in their nature, so it may not be appropriate for executives to have these discussions with friends or even close colleagues.

Listen to the coaches and the rule of thumb is that behind every successful chief executive is an executive coach. But coaches don’t name names when it comes to individuals, and that’s the way the individuals like it because it is rare for chief executives who do have coaches to admit to it, let alone discuss the relationship with their coach.

Which makes the report in the 15 July Australian Financial Review an unusual one. The story, Meet the coach who fine-tunes the chief, is not so unusual in featuring a coach to the corporate stars and an explanation of what makes the coach’s role indispensable.

The father of executive coaching

The coach in question is New York-based Gary Ranker, who has been a coach since 1989 and is often described as a “father” of the industry. Ranker says of his role: “I can look any CEO in the eye and say ‘You can’t do it alone’.”

The breadth of the issues that Ranker acts as an adviser or confidante on include communicating with staff, personal development, balancing the demands of constant travel and being sensitive to cultural differences.

Ranker, who plies his craft around the world, including China which now accounts for one-third of his business, likens the executive coach’s role to that of the sports coach at the elite level.

“A person at a high-peak performance level such as an Olympic runner has a coach, so why should it be different for a CEO?” Ranker asks.

“As long as you wish to stay in the game in what is a very competitive environment, the coach’s role is integral to your success.”

What makes this story stand out is not so much Ranker’s seasoned observations – or his spruiking, for that matter – but the fact that a chief executive has been willing to step forward to discuss how Ranker has assisted him in his role.

Ranker’s client is the chief executive of Leighton Holdings, Hamish Tyrwhitt, who meets his coach four times a year and has regular Skype conversations with him during the year.

“He [Ranker] has brought to me personally the skills to be able to make myself more aware and more equipped to deal with situations; the ability to be resilient in certain areas and to step back and prioritise,” Tyrwhitt explains.

His endorsement is not without management-speak: “I have moved from being reactive to spending more time in a proactive space.” But the salient point is that Tyrwhitt considers himself a better leader because of his relationship with Ranker.

Role shrouded in mystery

Despite the proliferation of coaches, much of the coach’s role is shrouded in mystery and even misinformation. It doesn’t help the cause of the coach that anybody can be an executive coach – there are no barriers to entry.

Unlike most new callings, the cowboy phase seems to be lasting longer than is usually the case. Just as the market is awash with coaches, so it is that there is a proliferation of coach training programs from private training providers. The “graduates” vary greatly in quality.

Some semblance of order has come into the coaching industry with training offered at a higher and more credible level, such as Swinburne University of Technology’s graduate certificate in organisational coaching and the Australian College of Applied Psychology’s Bachelor of Applied Science (Coaching).

There’s nothing new about executives wanting a sounding board. The difference is that this role would once have been filled by a trusted peer or friend, the board chairman, a director or a valued colleague.

But flatter, leaner organisations mean that executives and rising stars no longer have ready access to old hands with deep institutional and industry knowledge. Cost-cutting companies have wrung institutional wisdom out of their organisations, leaner companies make it more difficult for informal “trusted adviser” relationships to flourish and stiffer competition for promotion in flatter organisations dissuades executives from confiding in potential rivals.

Some executives have come to believe they can no longer do their job or develop their leadership skills without a coach. This in itself is potentially a problem if executives come to feel that they cannot properly do their job without a coach - or crutch - in their corner.

The more chief executives are willing to discuss how coaching has assisted them become better leaders, the more the role of coaches can be understood and better applied in business (and even more broadly) – not just for chief executives but for emerging business leaders as well.

Anything that contributes to the quality of leadership can only be a better thing for the economy and productivity, and for the community generally. But the coaching industry also has to play its part by better explaining its role and function, by better ensuring that practitioners are properly trained and accredited, and by ensuring that the cowboy element is eradicated once and for all.

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