What do Andy Murray, Mo Farrah, Jessica Ennis and Robbie Grabarz have in common?    They have a coach who has made a difference.  Whether it be Ivan Lendl, Fuzz Ahmed, Toni Minichiello or Alberto Salazar, all have been accredited with making the difference between success and failure by their charges.   In fact, name a professional sportsperson who does not have a coach.

Why then, do many business people not even know what a Executive Coach does, let alone consider having a coach working with them?

I had an operation last month and as I was being taken on the trolley into the theatre, the anesthetist and his assistant asked me what I did for a living.  I explained that I was an Executive Coach.   What do you mean, you work with athletes?  With only five seconds before I was to succumb to the sedative, I managed to say ‘no, Executives’.  But I wanted to say more.

Here is what I would have said, had I had the time.

As with any form of coaching, whether it be football or business, there are badges to be had, but the badges do not make you a good coach, but they can be helpful and provide knowledge and information, but they do not make you into the next Alex Ferguson.    The quality of a coach varies hugely, but the best coaches can make a huge difference to the performance of an individual.  How does this work?  As with sports coaches, the Executive Coach does not go on court, on the pitch or running track and perform.   In fact the coach may or may not have ever performed at the same level as the person being coached (Arsene Wenger was not a good player, Bobby Charlton was not a good coach).  

Here are 7 things that can make a difference:

  1. Experience.  Some coaches have been there, done that and got the T-Shirt.  They, like Ivan Lendl, may have got the scars and may be able to give insight, support and ideas to their protégés.   This may be more ‘mentoring’ than coaching, but experience has a part to play in some coaching assignments.
  2. Diagnosis.   Mo Farrah was a good runner before he worked with his coach.  However, he did not even qualify for the final of 10,000m in Beijing.   His coach, Alberto Salazar, assessed Mo Farrah’s strengths and weaknesses and worked on solutions.    Good Executive Coaches help Executives work out what they are doing well and what they could do better.
  3. Questioning.   Coaches can ask questions that others cannot or will not ask.   They are not managers, not subordinates, not peers, not spouses, not friends, they are not actors in the drama of the business or life of the person being coached.  They can skillfully facilitate the thinking of the coachee to find solutions to issues that need addressing.  Jessica Ennis has some very challenging conversations with her coach, we are lead to believe.
  4. Accountability.  Coaches can hold their charges to account or better provide an environment where the person being coached holds himself or herself to account.
  5. Psychology.  One of the most famous coaching books, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Galway, focused not on the topspin, backhand or serve, but on the psychology of the game.   The beliefs and values of individuals may be an impediment or a platform for success.  The coach can elicit these beliefs, work with the coachee on understanding their beliefs and values and how they can use that understanding to enhance their performance.
  6. Focus.  What get measured gets done.  By creating space and time in which to focus on key issues, the coach can work with the person to prioritise and focus on what is important, away from the noise of day to day activity.
  7. Trust and support.  The life of a senior executive can be a isolated one.   The coach can provide a safe place for an individual to explore and test thoughts in a safe environment.  Those ideas may be the source of new achievements and results, but the executive needs space in which to explore them safely  in a non-judgemental environment.

In my experience, coaching is one of the best ways of making a difference in an executives’ performance.   Training courses can be valuable for skills development and providing knowledge but coaching and its sister mentoring provide the opportunity over several months to bring about an agreed change or deliver specific improvements.  Coaching used to be given primarily to ‘problem’ executives to turn them around.   Now coaching has moved to enhancing the highest performers.   Given the growth in executive coaching over the last 20 years, it would not surprise me if any senior executive worth his or her salt will have a coach and nobody will be asking the question what is an Executive Coach.