For the umpteenth time I had yet another one of those frustrating circular conversations with a 'fellow executive coach' at the recent EMCC International Coaching and Mentoring Conference in Edinburgh. It went a little like this...
FELLOW COACH: "What does CoachDirectors do?"
ME: "We provide executive coaches with commercial acumen to businesses. All our coaches have had successful careers in commercial leadership roles before training as coaches."
FELLOW COACH: "Interesting. Is that coaching or mentoring?"
ME: "Well, in practice some of us probably do a bit of both but we mainly coach."
FELLOW COACH: "Sounds like mentoring to me."
ME: "Trust me, it's coaching."
And so... on goes another tedious conversation about the differences between mentoring and coaching; about the need to clearly distinguish the two; and the dangers of adopting anything less than the 'purest' of executive coaching approaches when contracted to work as a coach. Yawn!
Well... Guess what? None of our coaches are purists! None. They are all realists. Pragmatists, not dogmatists.
Realists insomuch as we focus on real-world applications of coaching and the most productive ways to get results for our clients without getting too hung up on narrow, academic definitions. Pragmatists insomuch as we dedicate ourselves to being fully aligned with the commercial imperatives of the businesses we serve. That sometimes requires pure coaching, sometimes it doesn't.
I get the fact that our message to the market is not very palatable to 98% of the coaching community, namely the ones who lack the commercial credentials we actively seek in our coaches, but I am at a loss to understand why many of these so-called 'purists' regard 'having extra tools in one's bag' - instead of just the one - a disadvantage!
Surely, it's an advantage, isn't it? A typical CD coach will tend to have many tools in their bag, as well as personal knowledge and experience of something at least parallel to their coachee's particular role. They won't need to 'imagine' it, they have often been there themselves. They will often have some fluency in the everyday language (and the jargon) of their professional business and commercial matters and therefore need far less explanation to fully grasp issues. And it's a far less intimidating prospect for the coachee to take those first tentative steps into the coaching process when the person across the table is BOTH someone with a similar career background AND a highly credentialed coach.
I suppose one could perhaps argue there's a danger that knowing so much about a particular role might tempt a coach to start providing answers, rather than pose questions. Well, that situation really applies to everyone and any good coach worth their salt will be conscious of the danger and very capable of resisting the urge to switch into mentoring when they are required to coach. Alternatively, if they do need to switch into mentoring mode very briefly - perhaps to eliminate one issue to make way for a more important one that really does need to be coached - then it's not beyond the wit of a skillful coach to do so without compromising the integrity of their coaching work.
The purists might argue, quite correctly, that they provide an impartial and objective platform for behaviour change, which they manage to achieve without relevant industry experience. Our response: But is that the most effective way to achieve it?
Relevant commercial experience absolutely IS an advantage, especially at more senior levels. It enhances the coach's perceived credibility, it supports rapport building and it has the great benefit of faster assimilation of the nuances in culture and environment specific to the coachee's world. Many buyers of coaching services are onto this and increasingly look for coaches with industry-specific OR role-specific experience AND commercial acumen. Long may that continue!
The CoachDirectors (CD) approach is to provide coaches with commercial acumen who invariably have a wide range of relevant 'tools' at their disposal, used pragmatically to achieve the specific outcomes they have contracted to deliver. They simply have more tools to choose from than the average 'purist'.
So, all these discussions have had the very positive effect of inspiring me to write this blog post to try to explain the world of coaching and mentoring as seen through the very specific 'commercial' lens of a CD coach. Hold onto your hats - grab yourself a cup of coffee - it's going to be a long one!
What is coaching?
The CIPD definition goes like this...
"Coaching targets high performance and improvement at work and usually focuses on specific skills and goals, although it may also have an impact on an individual’s personal attributes such as social interaction or confidence. The process typically lasts for a relatively short defined period of time, or forms the basis of an on-going management style."
At its core lies a process that enables learning and development to occur and thus performance to improve. Professionals have always found it hard to agree on a precise definition for coaching, but it tends to focus on interpersonal skills, rather than business skills, and is traditionally based upon a combination of personality theory and competency theory.
Coaching qualifications are rooted in psychology, therapy, sociology, anthropology and social work as well as “alternative” psychology disciplines like NLP.
As an emerging profession, it has tended towards being populated by individuals who are high on 'soft skills' and also seems to attract a disproportionate amount of people with HR, L&D or Organisational Development backgrounds.
First and foremost, a CD executive coach needs to have a successful 'commercial' background BEFORE becoming a fully credentialed and experienced coach. They need a good balance of 'soft' and 'hard' skills and the ability to coach BOTH interpersonal skills AND business skills. Our brand of business-focused executive coachin
?g services - especially when dealing with teams, groups or whole companies - is always aligned with business strategy and often includes an element of business mentoring.
What is mentoring?
Thanks to the CIPD for providing another sensible definition...
"Mentoring involves the use of the same models and skills of questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing associated with coaching. Traditionally, however, mentoring in the workplace has tended to describe a relationship in which a more experienced colleague uses his or her greater knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of a more junior or inexperienced member of staff."
Alternatively, David Clutterbuck (EMCC) defines it more succinctly as...
"A mentor is a more experienced individual willing to share knowledge with someone less experienced in a relationship of mutual trust"
Whilst mentors might use the same skills and tools as coaching, the 'mentor-mentee' relationship may be less formal than a coaching relationship, may last for a much longer period of time and mentors are sometimes more prepared to be ‘directive’ - providing specific advice where appropriate - than pure coaches.
We regard mentoring as a relationship between two business people, in which the more experienced person uses their knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of the less experienced person. Within an organisational context, mentoring is particularly appropriate to help individuals prepare or transition to a more senior leadership role, or help acquire the skills and ways of working required to perform more effectively in their existing role.
John Leary-Joyce (AoEC) is reputed to have described mentoring most succinctly as... "Coaching-plus"
If the '-plus' means a mentor is a highly qualified coach who comes with contextually specific knowledge and/or experience; is also a role model; and has the ability to use their wisdom to help another person develop wisdom of their own – then that accurately describes the added value clients get with a CD coach.
Coaching versus mentoring
Despite the many similarities between coaching and mentoring, the 'purists' like to draw distinctions by pointing out the differences in techniques used in each. In reality, many of these distinctions are unnecessary and confusing. To add to the confusion, the rules of traditional coaching and mentoring are also often blurred by professional practitioners themselves. There are mentors who have little or no direct experience in their clients' roles and there are coaches who do.
The situation becomes even more confused when you factor in the plethora of terms coaches use to describe their own particular 'niche': executive coaching; business coaching; corporate coaching; leadership coaching; performance coaching; skills coaching; personal coaching; presentation coaching; life- et al. Now add the word 'mentoring' to that lot too.
The CD approach is to regard coaching and mentoring interchangeably, so we have adopted and adapted 'coaching' as a universal term for both. Therefore, our 'coaching' process embraces the full range of coaching and mentoring tools, models and techniques necessary to develop the skills, knowledge and behavioural needs of both the business and the coachee. Once unnecessary distinctions are out of the way, we just need to make sure each coach is a) fully skilled in applying the tools available to them; and b) properly matched to both business and coachee in a way that efficiently satisfies those needs. Hence, our continued energetic focus on grading, selecting and matching the UK's top coaches with CoachGrade®.
Coaching in sport is widely accepted as vital for those aiming to be at the top of their game - like Andy Murray's relationship with his coach, Ivan Lendl, pictured at the head of this page. I can imagine Ivan leaning heavily upon his own personal experience as a top tennis player when he works one-to-one with Andy to help him develop his technique, his performance, his confidence and his mental resilience. I can also imagine the meticulous work that goes into challenging, supporting and encouraging Andy to be his absolute best. The results they achieve together are incontrovertible.
Less widely accepted is the notion that business leaders should also seek to achieve similar improvements in personal performance through the challenge, support and encouragement of an executive coach. Even C-Suite directors who understand the power of coaching and find it easy to prescribe coaching to subordinates, sometimes fail to consider it as readily for themselves. Perhaps an implied admission of fallibility gets in the way when it comes to developing 'non-physical' skills, or they are just happy to accept the way they are when it comes to their own soft skills, thought patterns and behaviours. Whatever the reasons, those who do choose to work with a coach report dramatic results and an exponential return on their investment. Those who forego the opportunity really are missing out, in the same way that Andy Murray missed out on winning Wimbledon during the period Ivan Lendl took a rest from coaching him.
Business coaching versus executive coaching
Business coaching and executive coaching get used interchangeably too. Anne Scouler's book, The FT Guide to Business Coaching, is exclusively about coaching within a business context. She says:
“In the US, the two terms are very distinct, with executive coaching meaning working solely with the most senior executives in the organisation, and business coaching usually meaning working with those lower down the organisation chart. In the UK, however, the two terms are more interchangeable, with business coaching usually taken as a comprehensive term to cover both.”
I would argue that the same goes for ‘corporate coaching’, ‘leadership coaching’ and ‘performance coaching’ because, for me, ‘business coaching’ covers them all. An accomplished business coach should not only be capable of working at every level within a client business - from C-Suite down - but also experienced in coaching the complex needs found at every level. Although, admittedly, those truly capable of coaching captains of industry as an equal are few and far between because the gravitas, resilience, credibility and charisma required cannot easily be taught in any coaching course.
CD, therefore, uses the terms business coaching and executive coaching interchangeably to cover all aspects of coaching – often a blend of coaching AND mentoring – within a business.
Top 5 approaches to coaching & mentoring
When choosing an executive coach it can be a little daunting to decifer the terminology some coaches use to describe and distinguish their individual approach. However, it is critical to make sure you understand how a coach will work so you can make an informed choice to match your own personal needs and preferences. Although nowhere near an exhaustive list, the 5 most common approaches are as follows:
PERSON-CENTRED: This was developed by the psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers as a radical new approach to psychotherapy and counselling in the 40's, 50's and 60's. The theory trusts the coachee's own innate capability to find their own solutions and relies on the personal qualities of the coach to build a non-judgemental and empathic relationship. It is non-directive and can feel a little 'unstructured' as a result.
SOLUTIONS-FOCUSED: This model emerged from family therapy in the 80' s to become a powerful, practical way to facilitate positive change through collaborative, strengths–based values. It focuses on helping the coachee to find solutions rather than problems, to build upon their strengths and find positive ways forward rather than dwelling on the past. It identifies what is already working and amplifies it to make useful changes, a little like the positive psychology movement of today.
GESTALT: This therapeutic model was developed in the 40's and 50's as an existential/experiential form of psychotherapy. Practitioners believe that people are innately capable and competent. Similar to person-centred coaching and equally non-directive, it seeks to raise a coachee's awareness of their own thinking, emotions and physiological state. Gestalt coaches often use 'experiments' to role-play situations and 're-live' a past event within sessions in order to encourage a coachee to discover new ways of seeing, choosing and acting. It focuses on exploring topics in the present and coaches use their own awareness as a catalyst for heightening a coachee's awareness in the belief it will improve current and future goal attainment.
COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL: This model was developed by US psychiatrist Aaron Temkin Beck in the 60's, first as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and then its offspring Cognitive Behavioural Coaching (CBC). The theory posits that situations don't cause us stress, but sometimes the meanings we ascribe to them do. Through the process of exploring and re-evaluating the link between thoughts and feelings, a coachee is encouraged to find more effective ways of thinking and behaving. Coaches tend to take a more active, collaborative role with coachees in a more structured, perhaps slightly more directive, process.
ECLECTIC: All the above approaches require the executive coach to follow either a model or a process. An eclectic coach may become proficient in a number of approaches so that they can apply them selectively to different situations. By the time a coach reaches the highest levels of experience and maturity in their individual coaching journey, they have often assimilated a wide range of approaches within their work coupled, somewhat paradoxically, with an almost effortless style of delivery. The processes, models and tools they use become even less perceptible to the coachee, as if each has merged and subtly become an integral part of the coach's calm and confident demeanour. Such coaches are more likely to have a well developed personal philosophy underpinning their work and the clarity to articulate precisely the type of work situations they operate best in. Charismatic, wise and full of dynamism, the most effective ones are most likely coaching high-flying corporate CEOs and future captains of industry.
What is the role of the coach?
Not so long ago coaches were mainly called into businesses to solve people problems. Whether it be performance issues or clashes in personal style, the coaching process was associated with people who were struggling or careers that were heading off the rails. Fortunately, relatively recent changes mean coaching has now been recognised as an indispensible tool that can be used positively to develop key people, to achieve strategic business objectives and even to create sustainable competitive advantage.
Attitudes have also changed towards leaders and leadership development. Whereas leaders were once expected to be business superheroes, 'born' with leadership superpowers and blessed with a natural ability to know all the answers, they are now thankfully recognised for what they truly are... mere mortals with strengths and weaknesses and learning needs like everyone else. Nowadays, businesses coach their best people to be the best leaders that they can be. They invest in their leadership potential and coach them through all stages of their leadership journey.
Robert Witherspoon and Randall P. White published an article in 1997 entitled “Four Essential Ways That Coaching Can Help Executives” which is also helpful in identifying when a coaching intervention is appropriate.
SKILLS: This focuses on helping a person to learn new skills or build upon existing ones in their current job, project or task. 'Skills' can include basic ideas, strategies, methods, behaviours, attitudes, and perspectives associated with business success. Some examples include: presentation skills; sales skills; public speaking; negotiation skills; interpersonal skills etc. A skills coach needs to be both a specialist in the specific subject matter and a highly skilled coach. Situations that are particularly well suited include: supporting on the job learning; supporting traditional training; or supporting changes in roles and responsibilities.
PERFORMANCE: This focuses on a person's effectiveness in their current position. It may be as part of general leadership development, for a newly appointed executive, or someone whose role is changing. It can also be a 'corrective' intervention where problem behaviours or specific performance issues need to be remedied. Examples include: challenging ineffective attitudes or other motivational issues; alleviating performance deficiencies that could jeopardise a person’s productivity, job, or career; improving confidence and commitment when experienced executives suffer setbacks or disappointments; or dealing with blind spots that detract from otherwise outstanding performance.
DEVELOPMENT: This focuses on preparing a person for a future role - including promotions and lateral moves - often as part of succession planning. It may be to strengthen leadership skills before stepping-up within an organisation, or to correct 'overdone strengths' and behaviours that have become liabilities. It can be a challenging and intense analytical process for the coachee and can involve a deeper focus on executive development and personal growth. This coaching role can include learning how to learn and can help an executive to bridge the gap between their current knowledge, skills and capabilities and those required for their target role.
EXECUTIVE AGENDA: Somewhat more open-ended than the previous three roles, executive agenda coaching focuses on the aims, aspirations and challenges of both the individual and the organisation. It is particularly suited to senior executives, it tends to run for longer periods and it covers all aspects of the business (such as productivity, quality improvement, leadership transitions, mergers, acquisitions, turnarounds etc), as well as issues of personal leadership style, strengths, capabilities, behaviours & effectiveness. Coaches often act as a sounding board to support the executive in processing issues, making decisions, reflecting upon events or dealing with the stresses of a complex, competitive and challenging - often lonely - work environment. It requires a coach who is highly-skilled in all three of the foregoing roles - skills, performance and development coaching - with a detailed specialist knowledge of business.
What is company coaching?
Whereas executive coaching supports the momentum and performance of individuals, company coaching focuses on optimising the operating model of an entire business, corporate department or team to build momentum and drive sustainable value to the whole organisation. Working directly on the means by which each company executes its strategy and business model, specialist company coaches partner with senior leadership teams to define, measure and develop the key processes, resources, abilities and behaviours necessary to deliver outstanding success.
In undertaking any client work: Our business is based on the quality of the relationships we co-create with our clients; Our measure of success is the quality of the abilities transfer we are able to co-create with the people who are involved in each client company; We measure these against sustainable growth in efficiencies, revenues, profits, assets and the specific ROI for the company from their investment in coaching and their progress towards their chosen objectives.
We use business models, or "Frames", to stimulate coaching conversations. Whilst elements of this approach may resemble traditional management consultancy the similarity is only skin deep. Our approach is predicated on the belief that the client and their colleagues are the true experts in the specifics of their business and that only them and their staff are best qualified to make the decisions about what they want for it. It is our role in the relationship to act as a catalyst to help them build the depth of commercial, business and management abilities to create a sustainable base for growth.
Accordingly, we "ask" rather than "tell", we "coach" rather than "consult", and we run our coaching agenda to align with their choices and their vision for the company. Yes, we can introduce business processes that have proved their value in commercial application to clients' businesses; we can train their company in how to use them; and we can offer support in the creation of collateral to deliver value into their business; but at the heart of our work is a coaching approach designed to help them to work more effectively, to solve and resolve their problems more speedily and to take much of the stress away in growing their business.
Our integrated set of Frames or models stimulate coaching conversations with individuals and teams, each of which operates like a mirror to frame up a dialogue about a different facet of business. Each Frame contains an image or diagram which creates or refracts a personal reflection from the perspective of the viewer or viewers. In a group context, these reflections create the coaching dialogue and the different perspectives or interpretations of the image generate discussion focused on the specific skill set or issue under review.
Once alignment has been created about the relevant frame of reference for the skill or issue, then we can coach the participant(s) about how to use the Frame to resolve the issue, and turn that resolution into the first step in acquiring the related skill set. Our core coaching Frame, illustrated above, is called "Drive". It brings focus to the different aspects of management and operation in a business, broken down between what we call "Direction" abilities, which create the profitability of a business, "Design" abilities, which determine the appropriateness of the allocation of resources to create that profit and also create the resource base upon which revenues can be created through the application of the "Deliver" skill set.
By engaging each of these distinct skill sets appropriately and in alignment with each other, a company is able to maximise the output of its "Drive" to create value. The set of "Drive" abilities include what are generic leadership and people management capabilities that facilitate the smooth running of the business.
Top 5 myths about coaching and mentoring
Buyers of coaching and mentoring services have their work cut out separating reliable facts (fully supported by valid evidence) from the spurious assumptions and woolly or wishful thinking that sometimes masquerade as 'truths' in certain coaching circles. I therefore have some sympathy with some of the disparaging conclusions some have made like: "Those that can, do... Those that can't, teach!" and "A life coach is just a therapist without a licence!"
In an emerging industry where the power and effectiveness of business coaching is almost universally accepted by organisations, it's shocking how little agreement and understanding there is amongst buyers on the differences between the good, the bad and the average coach. Some senior executives still engage their own coach on a 'gut feel' or because they had a drink together at the golf club and he or she seemed like a good sort. Other L&D teams engage whole coaching cadres purely on the strength of 'PLU' - People Like Us - because it's more comfortable (and perhaps not so personally challenging) to have a team of coaches from the HR or L&D world than it is for the team to come from their potential coachee's world. Can you imagine recruiting an organisation's top talent in the same manner?
It can also be a difficult enough task to isolate valid key performance indicators in professions where practitioners can be easily observed 'in action'. Coaching mostly happens behind closed doors, in a confidential space, so it isn't so easy to witness good or bad coaching as it's happening. Add to this the fact that even inexperienced coaches can sometimes get lucky and deliver acceptable results just by turning up and listening,
One thing we are certain about at CD: we know our onions when it comes to identifying and developing top talent in coaching and mentoring. Along the route towards becoming as competent as we are, we have had to dispel quite a few myths ourselves so we thought it might be interesting to share a few with our readers...
1. THE BEST COACHES ARE ACCREDITED: Much as I think the associations - EMCC, AC and ICF in particular - have done some sterling work in setting up accreditations for the coaching industry, the result of their efforts can only be regarded as a crude indicator of very basic competence and, perhaps, an ability to follow a process. Over two thirds of the buyer's market ignore accreditation and the remaining third (who don't) seem to regard it as just a bit of insurance rather than a valid performance indicator. Which stands to reason, particularly for the higher echelons of coaching. Formula one racing champions are not measured by competency levels and premier league footballers are not judged on their ability to follow a process. We regard accreditation as a basic, entry-level sign of commitment to coaching but no more an indication of performance that a driving licence makes someone a good driver.
2. THE BEST COACHES HAVE THE MOST IMPRESSIVE COACHING QUALIFICATIONS: The coaching industry seems to attract a lot of people who like to collect qualifications. I am regularly amazed at the impressive appetite some coaches have for CPD, gaining new skills and amassing certificates of learning. Unfortunately, we can find little evidence of any correlation between academic attainment as coaches with performance. There are highly qualified coaches who struggle to demonstrate even basic levels of competency, whilst some coaches with few qualifications show great natural abilities and deliver fabulous results consistently. In my opinion, this is mirrored across all disciplines and perhaps throughout life in general. Talent is talent. Some people have it and some don't. Counting certificates might indicate a certain amount of understanding and commitment to the cause but it doesn't in any way correlate with performance.
3. COACHING TESTIMONIALS ARE AN INDICATOR OF GOOD PERFORMANCE: The whole industry seems to rely upon positive testimonials to prove a good track record as a coach. It is not unusual for clients to be pleased with the results they get from a coaching intervention and many coaches make it their mission to collect written statements of such satisfaction. Personally, I think testimonials are about as useful as only getting positive feedback from a 360 degree survey. It's unrealistic. The real value in feedback after a coaching intervention is to inform the coach on their personal development needs. Selectively presenting snippets of just the positive feedback they get is not only unrealistic, it would only have real value to anyone if it were procured anonymously by an objective third party and with a view to understanding a coach's true performance. In their current form, we largely ignore testimonials and avoid referring to them with our clients.
4. THE BEST COACHES HAVE DONE THE MOST COACHING HOURS: Interestingly, we have some top class coaches who have done several thousand hours over as many as 20 or more years and their effectiveness is self-evident. We have also assessed a number of similar coaches who, despite their many hours and many years of diligent service, are not so obviously gifted or mature as coaches. Obviously, it's a very good starting point if a coach has a great depth of experience, however, the nature of that experience is much more important to us, as well as the detail of the progression a coach has made in their own effectiveness. Great coaches exude confidence, maturity, self-awareness, presence and charisma. A lack of these qualities is more telling than the number of hours they have spent coaching.
5. COACHES DON'T NEED INDUSTRY EXPERIENCE: There are no polite ways to say this other than poppycock. In the world of sport, like the Evan Lendl/ Andy Murray example above, can you seriously imagine any coach being as effective but without ever having played tennis before? Do you really think they would have the credibility and knowledge to outshine Ivan? Then why would it be any different within the business arena? I personally think that coaches who push the misguided belief that they can coach anyone, without contextual knowledge and experience, are discrediting the industry and potentially putting themselves and their coachees in danger. The overwhelming evidence is convincing enough, assessments show that coaches with contextual experience are significantly more effective. Let's all stop pretending it could be any different.
The only way to identify really great coaches is to put painstaking, meticulous effort into the challenge. Set out the selection criteria that makes most sense for your organisation, taking into account the range of requirements you expect; assiduously apply your criteria to shortlist your coaches; test each prospective coach in a live coaching demonstration; test them with one assignment; rigorously monitor, measure and share feedback on performance; rinse and repeat. Alternatively, you could always let us do it for you 😉