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Confessions of A Global Coach

Across the Board, July/August 2005

By Omar Khan

As a global coach, you hear all kinds of arguments that reflect basic misunderstandings about the coaching process.

“When people are weak, they need in-house mentoring, not external coaching. Coaching should be dealt with internally by our executives, an external coach wouldn’t know our culture or issues.”

“I’m already successful, why would I need a coach?”

“Is it even possible to measure coaching value?”

I welcome clearly and honestly expressed opinions about the viability of coaching. They express interest and concerns and pave the way to a real conversation, the cornerstone of good coaching interaction. While worthwhile questions, each expresses an assumption or confusion about catalytic coaching.

Coaching for success is not primarily “remedial,” rather it is creative or generative. In addressing weaknesses or identifying areas for improvement, coaching emphasizes the identification and liberation of fresh possibilities. Internal mentoring may not suffice when we are trying to enable more than “repair.” The internal perspective may be part of the problem rather than its solution.

Why do you need a coach? Ask Tiger Woods why he has one, or why Pavarotti had a voice coach. As my own coach, Dan Sullivan, says: “Coaching is how the best get better.”

How you measure coaching success depends on the objectives. As a personal initiative, we measure coaching based on how supported you feel and if that trust-filled and valuable relationship will encourage you to achieve greater success and move more decisively towards your goals.

If the coaching is initiated by a company, each participant is given an assessment against agreed performance or other measures and progress is monitored at specific intervals. The challenge here is to discern the highest impact and highest relevance improvement areas upon which we can all agree to focus.

For some highly dedicated companies, who make internal coaching a clear leadership priority and hold executives accountable for its success, an external coach can prepare the senior leaders for their coaching roles.

Without significant senior focus, I’ve heard: “I’d love to coach more, but don’t have the time.” The assumption here is that coaching is something formal, done in chunks of pre-organized time.

We believe otherwise. Coaching is engagement, a commitment to the other person’s success and growth. Every conversation can-and should-be a coaching conversation. Executives who make time for every other type of conversation-barking orders, undermining people, browbeating them, haranguing them, belittling them, and confusing them-often claim there’s no way to find time for coaching.”

The culture of a company and its issues do not require years of decoding. But the non-negotiables remain time, energy and commitment to the coaching process.

To illuminate how coaching works in practice, across continents and cultures, here are some practical experiences from the global playing field:

GROW US SOME LEADERS

A client in Asia Pacific, Chairman of a region, approached me with the following quandary:

“Two levels down from senior management we’ve identified about 35 up and coming Asian leaders. At present, we have no Asians at or near Board level. We need to break through this invisible glass ceiling and fast-track their development.”

As I explored the challenge with him, two fascinating elements emerged-one about the challenge, the other about the motivation for this exercise and how we might measure its success.

There was no shortage of intelligence, capability, or experience among these Asian leaders. But they tended to be less vocal, less forward, and perhaps less at ease in English (the langua franca of this Western multinational company) when they interacted with regional and global bosses. Their global superiors, in particular, found this frustrating and tended to conclude that the Asians weren’t as engaged, didn’t have powerful ideas, or wouldn’t have the leadership impact necessary. As Eastern executives, what was being asked for was difficult culturally, and sometimes seemed to require of them excessive bragging and self-aggrandizement.

In order to help the company appreciate the Asians’ talents more, we had to enable these Asian leaders to bridge from their own cultures to modes of expression required in a global Western company. If successful, the windfall to the company would be significant. Each expatriate package at senior levels, including housing, relocation and additional benefits, amounted to nearly $1 million dollars. If out of the 35, even five or six of the Asian leaders could replace Western expatriates, the ROI on the coaching and leadership development

initiative would be extraordinary. Once we could make this clear, motivation for the project was no longer an issue.

To ensure the coaching could proceed along a transparent path that everyone agreed on and understood, I worked with the Chairman and his senior team to devise three success factors that would catapult these leaders forward to making greater impact throughout the global company.

  1. To express the company’s strategy by linking achievements and progress to the company’s most critical goals. Verifying that this was true and learning to make it evident in communications and interactions would be key.
  2. To communicate and partner across hierarchical, horizontal, regional, and global boundaries and to develop and understand the different skills of engaging, influencing, listening, bridging and partnering.
  3. To be absolutely dedicated to optimizing every personal development opportunity and showcasing what is gained from it, while also becoming a world-class talent developer and success coach for their own team, growing a pipeline of leaders.

We converted each of these into clear goals, and did a base-line assessment of where each of them was beginning. We built in a number of sessions where these leaders interacted with the Board (a first!) and their immediate bosses in workshop environments to get agreement on the skills and distinctions required for success in those three factors. Group interaction sessions were laced throughout with nine months of intensive personal coaching as a way for them to flex their growing confidence in a senior leadership setting, tp provide feedback to their leaders in terms of the support they needed, to brainstorm together and share experiences, and to learn how they were doing.

As of this writing, nine of these Asians we coached have gone on to significantly higher leadership positions, fulfilling the primary aim. Thirty have progressed tangibly in their careers overall, and two or three are serious candidates for Board roles in the next few years.

FACING REALITY

Working with a Board of a major electronics and technology firm, I was coaching the Chairman and a few of the other Board members and a fellow coach from our team was taking the rest.

While the corporation’s culture seemed to grow healthier and more authentic, seeming to profit from a very powerful “journey” together into the

mountains where challenging personal commitments were undertaken, the company’s business results were still floundering.

Speaking to top executives and Board members, it was clear that sales was the issue. The sales leader was not optimizing the distribution channels and had alienated many of the firm’s distribution partners. He was also offloading inventory simply to meet quarterly forecasts.

Elsewhere in this company, fellow leaders were wondering why the Chairman wasn’t correcting the problem by confronting the sales director. No matter how often it was broached, the Chairman always allowed himself to be seduced by the sizzle of the sales director’s explanations and projections and his tap dancing skill.

It became clear that everyone else saw the problem, but that the Chairman just chose not to. The sales director, when tackled more forcefully by my other coach, decided to opt out of further coaching with the rationale that the coach didn’t understand him. He claimed he needed someone from his own cultural tradition, his own particular part of Europe, to appreciate him.

When the HR Director pointed this out to me, saying they were going to explore another coach for him and hinting at the need for this similar cultural

background, I expressed strong reservations. The sales director had a blend of autocracy and chauvinism toward some in his team that could not be ascribed to “cultural differences.” His actions were unacceptable in a director. Hiring a coach that would pander to him was hardly the solution. Coaching is not performing frontal lobotomy. Could we really expect that a coach from the same locale would jolt this person out of his cocktail of reality-avoidance, swagger and sales fluff?

The senior team pulled away from us after this feedback, while ostensibly expressing deep gratitude for our contribution to date. We were saddened, but it was their call.

Six months later, a panic call came in. The wheels had come off and the global CEO was threatening to fire the Chairman if immediate changes weren’t made and the sales director sacked.

Despite a reluctant HR Director, who seemed to be in a co-dependent denial relationship with the Chairman, I got an agreement to be able to get unvarnished feedback from the top executives and Board members. The outrage and anger we discovered were palpable across the length and breadth of the organization.

Finally, in a series of team coaching sessions, first with the Board, and then between the Board and their direct reports, we got everyone to face constructively and accept emotionally what had gone wrong in the sales area. After these crucial and radical interactions, the Chairman committed to staying the course in terms of the remedies which, frankly, we had offered a year back. He and his team committed to the program publicly, even though it meant enduring a few quarters of sales slumps and head-office pressure in order to solve the real problem and return the company to the path of growth. Sensing a new passion for reality and renewal, everyone jumped on board and we had a way forward.

Oh, the sales director, who continued to try to regale everyone with tales of his past successes and perceived heroic stature, was sacked…at last.

THE SEARCH FOR BALANCE

One of the world’s leading financial institutions had a vice-president who was in trouble. A charming, impressive leader, who seemed to have a Midas touch, his life had been a series of successes from academic kudos to a meteoric rise in business.

A year prior, he had married someone he was deeply in love with and felt he had found his soul-mate. He felt fulfilled and complete.

A year later, he was close to unraveling. He was thinking of quitting, his health had taken a dive, he was close to a divorce, his self-confidence was shot and he was a wreck.

His boss, a capable woman CEO, asked me to see if coaching might help him. She thought he was talented and that his departure would be a loss of experience and ability to her senior team, particularly with regard to global operations. She also felt sorry for him. Some of the acquisitions he had been involved with had gone sour. She didn’t feel it was his fault, but he had taken the failure personally.

He had also clashed with a number of other senior executives and felt increasingly undermined and isolated. His inability to land a success since having been made vice-president had affected his home life.

Overall, he felt he was on thin ice and, despite a trusting relationship with the CEO, he no longer felt like her heir apparent. He was considering withdrawing and finding a less taxing arena in which to work.

When I met him for our first session to assess whether coaching could help, it was clear he needed to unburden. Coaching is not counseling, but one commonality is that senior leaders often have no one to whom they can express their doubt, frustrations, and vulnerabilities. They have them. They are human. Yet they feel they have to mask them and bury their tensions. Our work, therefore, is about helping to create a context in which people can both ask for help and offer it to each other, so that such anguish doesn’t stockpile and build to acute levels.

When, after a few face-to-face as well as phone and e-mail coaching sessions, the CEO called me and asked: “What did you do? He’s a changed man! He’s got some of his old energy back, he’s contributing more. I even saw him smile! His wife has commented on it. He’s still tentative and needs a lot of reassurance, but he’s back from the dead and very much moving forward.”

Of course I hadn’t done it, he had. But what I had been able to do is to help him regain some perspective. Earlier all his emotions had fixated on continually earning success. When he realized his company was investing in him because they considered him valuable; when he looked around to appreciate that his wife was standing by him because she loved him; when he took stock to see that he had talents to express and a potentially productive life ahead of him, then we could and did make progress. Then we could indeed be generative and future-focused not dysfunctionally past-obsessed.

Often coaching offers new frames, fresh interpretations, an objective but supportive sounding board, a way to appreciate what we’re not seeing. The gift it offers is balance. Once having regained a measure of balance, people with essential grit and a fighting spirit tend to rally. They recover and find a path they can grow along once more. This executive now has a new definition of his own value and a larger vision of what “success” might really be. He seems to be making more measured but still impressive strides forward.

WHOSE PERFORMANCE CULTURE IS IT?

Sometimes as a coach, the most challenging and most rewarding times are when you work with a boss whose own boss is the impediment.

I was working with a senior leader in a US company in the logistics business whose boss was highly numbers-driven, ruthless relative to execution and immune to any entreaties about leadership culture, people’s needs, or team interaction.

I was hired by Bob because of his passion to turn around his team. Bob’s business unit had been bleeding red when he inherited it. A year of coaching him and his senior team had been fruitful. Members of his team, who once wouldn’t speak to each other now had a grudging respect and were collaborating effectively.

Bob had articulated a growth vision with his team and together (with some coaching support) they had driven it until it caught fire and spread throughout his business unit.

Now in our second year of work together, Bob was getting increasingly vexed by how little credit he was getting from his boss for all the results he and his team had produced, for the significant improvement in culture survey results, attrition rates and talent retention, and for overall productivity.

A big breakthrough came when Bob stopped allowing his boss John to influence how Bob felt about himself and what priorities were worth pursuing. Bob decided he would give his boss the numbers so that he would be pacified and stay off his back. Bob would use his earned leadership space to look after and grow his people and to help them to build their own brands in the larger organization.

“Energy spent fuming over my boss is energy that could go creatively and productively elsewhere,” Bob said one day, more as an emotional epiphany than as a bumper sticker slogan. He had arrived at this realization because he had already lived the alternative of despondent fretting.

Bob’s team broke every performance record in the book. A number of its members went on to significant senior leadership roles in the company. Bob was given, despite the squeals of his immediate boss, a major global project to spearhead for the company. This in turn gave him exceptional visibility and allowed him to share his ability to help transform more of the company that he loved.

With the help of coaching, Bob did not divert his imagination unduly to an unproductive locking of horns with his boss. Rather, he decided to claim the culture he wanted and make every bit of impact he could. In so doing, he showed himself and his organization what a leader he was.

WHAT HAVE I LEARNED FROM COACHING?

A coach has to be able to enter many different stories and care passionately and congruently about the people whose lives these stories color. I have learned that as a coach I have to help people imagine and empower possibility. Our company vision is to enable our clients to succeed at ever higher levels through leadership. Our core purpose is to help make leadership “possibility” real. That is the essence of our coaching philosophy. It is what turns me on in this role.

What I’ve learned can be summed up in five key lessons. As leaders and coaches:

  1. We have to make other people powerful. We have to help them liberate passion and we have to focus that passion.
  2. We have to help people first face and then work to transform reality.
  3. We have to provoke change by always appreciating what has already been achieved and by bridging from and building on all the things that do work and deserve to be affirmed and leveraged.
  4. We have to create synergy and connection. Teams that really trust each other produce a multiplier effect in terms of value-creation and innovation.
  5. We have to make a larger and larger personal impact, take increasing accountability and be relentless at growing leaders at all levels.

For me, from Shanghai to Toronto, from London to Dubai, from Singapore to Sri Lanka, from New York City to Casablanca, it’s been an amazing privilege and ride.

Despite cultural differences and excitingly diverse people and situations, the above five lessons seem portable, enduring and timeless. I’ve learned them from engaging with many wonderful leaders and having been able to participate, for a while, in their leadership stories and lives.

My real confession is that in coaching I’ve found we all become more coachable. I’ve therefore been able to help people because of what I’ve continued to learn from others just like them.