Calming stormy seas: executive coaching

In periods of uncertainty it’s in the interests of both employers and employees to commit to professional development, and one proven option is executive coaching

Calming stormy seas: executive coaching
In periods of uncertainty it’s in the interests of both employers and employees to commit to professional development, and one proven option is executive coaching

“This is a really tough time to be a CEO or running a large corporate division,” says Denise Fleming, managing director, Foresight’s Global Coaching (FGC). “There’s generally nobody to talk to once you get to that level, and it can be a very competitive environment. That’s why we often see CEOs of large corporations stay for fi ve years and at the end of that period they’ll need at least 12 months to do nothing but rest. They are burnt out – it’s often a 24/7 job and most of them are 365 days a year. You can’t keep that up.”

This personal stress is magnifi ed during uncertain and often volatile business conditions. Fleming says there is only one response: leaders must exponentially ramp up their leadership  skills. “The future is indefinable. The challenges a leader today faces will require high levels of courage and a truly open mind to enable them to lead their organisations successfully to some new place, probably in a changed marketplace,” she says.

How can these choppy seas be navigated?

One answer may lie in executive coaching. “Working with a former CEO or country head, which is what all FGC coaches are, can provide a confi dential space to try to make sense of what’s happening and come up with the best possible solutions,” Fleming says.

Why use an executive coach?
Finding an effective coach is critical. Although history over many decades has shown the benefit of having an internal mentor – as opposed to coach – Fleming warns the mentoring process must be well structured and the mentor must be a senior executive from a different part of the business, otherwise confi dentiality issues can arise.

Much more effective, Fleming says, is an external coach who works with a leader in an environment of total confi dentiality.

“Another employee acting as a sounding board can’t do that,” she adds.

HR practitioners, for example, can provide an executive with feedback on a whole host of issues pertinent to the organisation, but they must do so carefully. “Giving feedback to a more senior executive may not be a good career move for a HR practitioner,” says Fleming. “Internal sounding boards may not see the organisation objectively or understand the full ramifications, particularly in terms of how decisions may impact the board of directors.”

An external executive coach will be fully briefed on negative issues, which can be addressed within the coaching environment. They may also have greater understanding of those issues in terms of the impact on the executive’s career aspirations.

The coaches at FGC are themselves non-executive directors and have often had extensive senior-level leadership experience. In short, they know first-hand both the external environment currently facing leaders and the stresses these leaders are under.

“As a senior-level coach you only have credibility if you’ve been there, done that. It doesn’t matter what qualifications you have or where you’ve come from and what theory you have behind it – unless you’ve actually sat in one of those high-level roles you have no understanding of the enormous pressure and the stress in these jobs,” Fleming says.

Foresight’s coaches are also committed to continuous learning themselves, including monthly development meetings with their colleagues and two off-site sessions a year. To cite just one example, for the last two years FGC has been researching and learning about what Fleming calls the global digital revolution.

“We looked at the industries that were going to be dramatically impacted by technology; we looked at the leadership in those sectors and the sorts of things they’d have to do differently,” Fleming says. “Our focus has been on coaching leaders to navigate these changes.”
Is there a fine line between executive coaching and life coaching? 
Denise Fleming explains: “It’s easy to see what’s common between life coaching and coaching leaders in an organisation: both involve work with people. The appropriate life coaching can provide support to someone who needs individual help for whatever reason, but usually they pay for that service themselves. Executive coaching is measured against the objectives set by the organisation, who pays the fee, and it’s only successful if it meets both the organisation’s and the client’s [executive’s] objectives. There has to be an organisational return. In this environment many are relying on leaders’ success – the investors, the employees, the board.”

The practicalities
The FGC model starts by matching the senior executive to the right coach. Firstly, a brief is taken from the executive’s manager or chairperson. “We ask them, what do you want this executive to do differently that will make your job easier? It’s critical to get their involvement because they know what this particular individual could do that could make the organisation more effective, more efficient or deliver whatever it is the board wants them to deliver on,” Fleming says.

A separate brief is obtained from the group HR leader or most appropriate HR professional. The objective is to gain insights around how the executive works with people: Do they have loyal reports? Do they have difficulty retaining people? How do they work with peers?

Finally, a brief is obtained from the executive – the client – to get a sense of the challenges they are facing. “It’s holistic,”

Fleming says. “For example, sometimes people have external pressures at home. Or internally they may have difficulty with peers, or difficulty with direct reports, or they may be extremely keen to get that next role and they don’t quite know why they haven’t got it or what they have to do next.”

Those three briefs are then merged together into what FGC calls the ‘Coaching Brief ’. From there the organisation will set the objectives. That brief is used by Fleming and her team to select the most suitable coach; that is, the person with the right background, experience, knowledge and personality to deliver what both the organisation and the individual hope to achieve.

From there it’s up to the executive and their diary to decide how much time they devote to the coaching sessions. “In our model you have total uncapped access to a coach. There are no specific sessions. Everything is customised to you and your needs,” Fleming says, adding that ideally a face-to-face meeting is held at least every two weeks. (This can escalate to a couple of times a week during a restructure or major upheaval.)

“It’s a relationship, not a timed-session model,” says Fleming.

Every three months FGC will review the coach with the direct manager, the executive themselves and the HR representative to make sure objectives are being met. A contract may run for only 12 months, or it may be extended depending on personal circumstances. The one proviso, Fleming notes, is that the executive does not become dependent on the coach for decision-making. “Our coaching is about enhancing our client’s ability to make decisions, to own what they’re doing. The client always owns the decision they take, but a coach will help them to make sure they’re exploring the right areas, asking the right questions, and so on.”

The agreed objectives form the backbone of assessment of ROI. The FGC model is simple in this regard: advancement towards the organisation’s agreed objectives is considered the appropriate return on the coaching investment. These objectives might, for example, concentrate on integrating an acquired business or preparing an executive to step into a CEO role. The organisation has the opportunity at any time to change those objectives. Senior executives will also be given confidential personal objectives such as stress reduction or enhanced leadership capabilities; these are assessed in total confidence by the coach.

“The evidence of our success is the longterm relationships we have with our corporate customers, which goes back in some cases to when we started in 1998,” Fleming says. “It isn’t hard to assess ROI in our model because we coach to measurable objectives. That’s what we do – there’s nothing woolly about what we do.”
Denise Fleming says it’s a myth that anyone with business experience can be an executive coach. “They can’t,” she says. “Brilliant coaches are very rare and very special.” Here are some characteristics they must hold:

• Credibility and peer respect; not just knowledge of administrative or business roles but genuine credibility from having been there, done that. They must understand the dynamics and politics of large organisations
• Collegiality and collaborative skills – and the ability to communicate with clarity
• Wisdom and authenticity, with a genuine commitment to the success of the client and their organisation; it’s not about them
• Intellectual rigour
• Personal confidence
• Superior listening skills
• The ability to frame and ask the right questions. “If you know the right question to ask, it can be a game changer,” Fleming says.

It takes courage to be a great leader, and Fleming reiterates that this new era requires a different kind of courage. “We can’t predict what will happen in the future. No doubt a lot of what’s to come will be brilliant and exciting – but it’ll take courage on the side of leaders to get there.”

FGC began as a subsidiary to Foresight’s M&A advisory in 1997. FGC provides Executive Coaching to the most senior corporate executives across Australia, and in the UK, South Africa, the United States and parts of Asia. FGC‘s distinguished and experienced Coaches are supported by a robust coaching model.

Free newsletter

Our daily newsletter is FREE and keeps you up-to-date with the world of HR. Please complete the form below and click on subscribe for daily newsletters from HRD Australia.

Recent articles & video

Building 'for purpose' organisations

Despite slowdown, these industries posted more jobs online

HR on set? TV network revamps HR policy

Global CHRO reveals future of 'transformational' HR

Most Read Articles

Revealed: Australia’s most attractive employers

Inside QBE’s paid parental leave initiative

Should HR encourage exercise at work?