Food for thought

Why do Executives need their own Coaches?

by Stefan Stenzel

Do you want to take the time for a little experiment? Please close your eyes and think of your last party and now scan all the people you have invited. What are you recognizing? Exactly! – most of them look (e.g. dress-code, brands etc.) and behave (e.g. manners, communication style etc.) and think (e.g. way of reasoning, values etc.)  in a similar way to you. And this is o.k. because all humans tend to surround themselves with people who share their living style and view of the world because it´s comfortable. Comfortable in a sense that it helps to strengthen the own-group identity (“we / they”) and status, gives a feeling of social security and distinction as well as keeping up and enforcing one’s own personal identity (“I / me”) and self-esteem. And what is valid for the private life is valid for the professional life as well. 

Executive Coaches must have the “street credibility” of the C-level

A similar educational and social background, level of self-consciousness, very often an age of 45+ and (former) top management position – without being seen as a competitor. All of this is key for the “chemistry-check” at the beginning of the coaching process and even more crucial as THE foundation of all coaching processes: Rapport. Normally we really listen to or allow questioning of beliefs and behaviors only by people we highly appreciate and trust. The special professionalism and challenge for the Executive Coach is of course to go beyond the established and – at least so far - successful behavior and thinking!

Executives sometimes need not only the professional coach – but a friend. 

That being at the top of the rock can be very lonely, constantly challenged or – worst case- in a constant fight mode is a no-brainer. This could lead to several mental stress/ challenges normally only executive coaches know about. But the answer to this permanent stress is not always a purely professional answer. Sometimes it´s only being present, listening and living this very empathic and human side of this very special relationship of “peers”. That this requires a coach with a very balanced, mature, trustworthy and stable personality is the other no-brainer. But to earn her/his money the coach would have to switch after a while to her/his professional role and work on the question why the executive thinks she/he has to be a “lonely wolf” or what are the reasons for this situation and what would be more beneficial for the executive, his direct reports, the company and its leadership culture.

Executive Coaches are experts in Resilience

As described before the upside - and downside - of the executive role is the permanent challenge to succeed with the company in a world which can be described with the acronym “VUCA” (Volatility, Uncertainty, Chaos, Ambiguity). Moreover, their often highly competitive mindset combined with a strong motivation for high performance could lead to situations where these overused strengths turn into a weakness and the executives are confronted with their human limitations – worst case with a burn-out, issues with their partner or spouse or within their whole family. Consequently the Executive Coach should have the competence to minimize or mitigate the risks of this stimulating life on the razor´s edge. If agreed with the client the coach constantly tries to link the topic of work-life balance for the sake of the individual as well as for the sustainable health of the company in a preventive way. If the Executive Coach is confronted more serious issues she/he knows when to recommend a psycho- or family therapist.

Executive Coaches are familiar with the special derailers of the executive level

They know that strengths in a lower management position (e.g. still being familiar with nearly everything what´s going on in team) can turn into weaknesses – especially at the beginning of a career. In another context a derailer can be linked to a talent taken to an extreme (e.g. too smart). To know the pitfalls of this management level and warn and navigate the client around these career stallers and stoppers is an essential for an Executive Coach. Essential because multiple strengths cannot compensate for a derailer and others – especially in a competitive environment - tend to focus on, and emphasize our weaknesses. Based on research a famous Institute for Leadership Development identified 13 derailers. The six most common and dangerous for Executives are (1) not a team player (being selfish; places personal agenda before the good of the team), (2) not trusted (violates or compromises the trust of others; has difficulty gaining the trust of others), (3) micromanaging (overly controlling; does not empower others with the freedom and latitude to do their best work; (4) being aloof (distant, unapproachable, or isolated; viewed as indifferent to others; fails to build effective relationships, (5) arrogant (egotistical; displays a strong sense of entitlement) and (6) closed-minded (is closed to new ideas; not open to critical feedback; unwilling to consider other viewpoints). To check and – if needed – to work on these behaviors as soon as possible can be career saving.

Executive Coaches know the power of politics and (unfair) games on C-Level

Based on their own experience they are able to analyze the social structures and dynamics in a group of ‘silverbacks’. In addition to potential onboarding challenges a career as an executive means to say goodbye to all rational and idealistic models of organizations and hello to a more political view of the company. This means, for example, that the decision process is definitely not orderly, logical or even rational but chaotic and characterized by the push and pull of different interests. Or that rules and norms support the optimization of the organization – but under the surface a result of the free play of market forces, individual ambitions and coalitions etc. On an individual level the client is maybe interested to reflect on his strong bases of power (reward power, coercive power, position power, expert power etc.) or to learn more about regarding power tactics like keeping useful information, scapegoating, alliances etc. or how to ward them off or getting involved in a special situation. In one of the next blogs we will elaborate on this. Without being the moralizer the Coach should at least raise the awareness for the potentially tremendous cost and destructive forces of power games within the company or executives teams. The latter could be another special feature of the work of an Executive Coach.

Executive Coaches are able to facilitate the (dysfunctions of) Executive teams

Experienced executive coaches do not just work with a manager they also deliver team coaching - either (a) with the direct reports of the Executive or (b) the Executive and his/her peers – the Executive team. In this context the coach has to work, for example, on the so-called “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” based on a model created by Patrick Lencioni in 2002. The most delicate issues in groups of executives are the absence of trust (unwilling to be vulnerable within the group), the fear of conflict (seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate) and the inattention to results (focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success). If the Coach should step into the role of a facilitator in a workshop of the Executive and her direct reports the dysfunctions can of course pop up as well, but the communication of reorganizations, the culture, mission, vision and strategy are the more common topics in a life of an executive and his direct reports. (In connection with the onboarding of Executives, we will cover this topic in a future blog.) But such a workshop is mostly the result of a previous one-to-one discussion regarding the strategy where the coach has to demonstrate another capability.

Executive Coaches can wear the hat of a strategist

At least if that is what is needed because it´s likely that they have the background as a top manager or consultant. The downside or even danger of this capability is that the coach forgets to explicitly change the very different hats of a consultant and coach. Again a highly experienced and qualified specialist is needed. Is strategic management the task to define which are the weeds (don´t do) and flowers (do) in the universe of plants (opportunities to reach a vision / mission/ goal)? The coach would be the ideal sparring partner to talk with the executive, for example, about the coach’s criteria for weeds and flowers, her/his special understanding of garden or landscape architecture, the blind spots for certain plants, perception of beauty or the lack of boldness etc.. In the role of a consultant the Coach would talk about his upsides and downsides in the past of defining a special plant as a weed and the danger of missing a window of opportunity for innovation in doing so.

The Pricing of a Luxury Product goes Beyond the Rational

We are prepared to pay higher prices for (luxury) products not only because of the expected higher quality but also because of the expected added value of the social prestige which is linked to the product or service. Certain people simply can afford these expensive goods and – in our case – to work with the best of the best. The enormous fees executive coaches sometimes charge give clients the good feeling of being a part of an elite and will get the support she/he deserves and needs. Business people know that image and brand is not everything – but they also don´t underestimate the social impact of brands. This is the irrational part of this very special relationship between Executive and Coach - but an aspect we can´t neglect in the world of products and services - in the business world.

 

In 2001 Stefan Stenzel was the pioneer at SAP for coaching as a defined service of HR and ran this program untl 2008. Since 2013 he is responsible for all external coaching services at SAP for Managers and Executives across board areas and across regions . In parallel he is working since 2001 as an instructional designer, project manager and program manager for different leadership development programs and concepts like mentoring, rotational assignments and work shadowing. Moreover he is working as an internal and external coach, facilitator, trainer, mentor and author. In 2004 he was the co-founder of the German Coaching Association (www.dbvc.de).

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