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Why executive coaching is not a luxury

Posted on May 21, 2014

Being a leader is a tough gig. You work long hours because you feel responsible for the livelihoods of those who depend upon your organisation. You might even make significant personal sacrifices that you hope you won’t regret later. You are aware of the long shadow you cast for your employees and this makes you act more self-consciously. You worry that you don’t have all of the answers or that something important is eluding you and may impact in the future. You may even feel like they made a mistake when they hired you and you are the only one who knows the grisly truth (it’s called Imposter Complex and be reassured that it is much more common than you think). All of this is happening internally, but there are external challenges too.

The job of a social leader has never been more complex. Money is scarce and the impact of the recession, and the political measures that have been undertaken in response, have created more need and new challenges to meet within society. Opportunities have arisen through technological and social change that need to be harnessed and organisations of any size need to build resilience and agility to withstand this rapidly changing pace. Formulating a strategic ambition in this environment is tough and leaders need all the help that they can get to fulfill their role to the best of their ability.

And so with all of these challenges and potential opportunities in play, how do you make sure that you make good decisions about what to do? And who do you go to to get inspiration and challenge in equal measure? In my experience of working with senior people, I know that many find this question hard to answer, and it is for this reason that so many successful leaders work with executive coaches.

Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group says, ““Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of their board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone,’”.

We know that coaching can be an excellent tool for working on the personal level, with building confidence and resilience, developing influencing skills or a leadership identity, but this is only part of the story. Coaching can be of real practical value when it comes to the organisational decisions that you have to make. There may come a time when you are sitting at your desk wondering how to translate new ideas into action, or when you are faced with a seemingly intractable problem.

Our brains are very good at finding patterns. It is part of our survival repertoire to remember what course of action works and what doesn’t so that the next time we are being chased down by a sabre toothed tiger, we can make the right decision quickly. We may not find ourselves in life or death situations quite as often nowadays, but the brain is still strongly biased towards taking the tried and tested route when it comes to finding solutions to problems. When we are faced with a new problem, which for leaders is an all too common occurrence, it can be difficult to move out of familiar thinking patterns and we find ourselves struggling for an appropriate response. We can even develop blind-spots” in our thinking.

A good coach, using a method such as co-active coaching, will be listening for these patterns of thinking and will articulate them back to the coachee. They will then offer provocations and challenges to move the coachee out of their decision-making rut and help generate new possibilities. They can model creative thinking techniques that the coachee can use for himself or herself in the future. In this way coaches are excellent sounding boards for new ideas and strategies.  A coach can also bring focus and structure to complex challenges to help create robust solutions.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that a coach offers is a regular opportunity for the coachee to have the freedom and the space to talk about, think about, and reflect on themselves, their performance and their career. And to do so with someone that they trust and who will not judge them or tell them what to do. Imagine how valuable it can be for you, and your organisation, to gain the insight of another with no personal agenda, who will not judge or flatter you and is focused on helping you to achieve your full potential as a leader.

Lisa Sofianos is a coach on the Clore Social Leadership Programme and a Director of Robin Ryde Consulting Ltd. She was the researcher for Never Mind the Bosses; Hastening the Death of Deference for Business Success, Robin Ryde, published by Wiley. She has co-authored a new book to be published by Kogan Page in October called Creating Authentic Organizations; Bringing Meaning and Engagement Back to Work with Robin Ryde.

Further reading

Stanford School of Business 2013 Executive Coaching Survey

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