What Is Executive Coaching?

About half of the e-mail I get after one of my columns is published in Arkansas Business asks the same question: “What is executive coaching?” So this month I am presenting an overview of executive coaching through the words and impressions of Arkansans who have worked with an executive coach.

Frank McGehee, CEO of Legacy Capital Group of Little Rock, describes his work with a coach this way: “It is time away from working in your business for working on your business.” He describes coaching as a process of evoking excellence — in the same manner that an athletics coach does. Frank also credits much of the growth and success of his firm and his own growth as a leader to his experience working with two different coaches.

Executive coaching is a relatively young profession that descends from the disciplines of performance improvement and executive development. Coaching creates time away from day-to-day demands, in the company of an objective observer and rigorous facilitator, to set strategy and identify opportunities to improve both personal and organizational performance.

A good executive coach provides more than just objectivity. “My coach was not long on advice.” says Andy Kessel, CFO of the Clinton Foundation. Andy worked with a coach while the foundation’s organizational structure was under review. “Together, we examined and clarified the role I wanted to set out for myself and what would be most effective for the organization. But he never told me what to do. He would push me hard to look for the underlying issues and patterns then give me room to explore options.”

While standards of conduct and integrity are in place for coaches belonging to the International Coach Federation, the World Association of Business Coaches and other emerging coaching organizations, there is no licensing process in place yet. As a result, training, experience and practice approach vary widely. Coaching is an emerging profession and today has no entry requirements. Any person without training or appropriate experience can call themselves a coach. It takes both experience and training to be an effective coach. A business owner in northwest Arkansas described two very poor experiences with coaching. “One had 20 years of business experience and only wanted to tell me what to do. The other was a counselor with little context to understand the challenges I face here.”

It is important to note that executive coaching is not psychotherapy. Some coaches have a background in counseling, and coaching can often explore the impact of emotion on performance. However, coaching is not about uncovering emotional material for the purposes of healing. “Coaching has helped me remove blinders to see habits and beliefs, both good and bad, I have developed in my career,” says Little Rock attorney Derrick Davidson of Gill Elrod Ragon Owen & Sherman. “I am now looking anew at the overall picture to better integrate my personal and business life. I am finding that helps alleviate stress and make me more efficient and productive.”

In his book, “55 Steps to Outrageous Service,” Greg Hatcher, president of The Hatcher Agency, describes his long-standing coaching relationship as an opportunity to strategize and get feedback weekly in a way that “most business owners are lucky to be able to do two to three times a year.”

Coaching is not a quick fix. The foundation of coaching is that it is not about fixing a problem for a client. Instead, it is about evoking a client’s own best abilities. One CEO in northwest Arkansas said it very clearly. “My coach and I took over two years to address both my leadership style and my company’s strategy. That seemed like a long time. But we avoided flavor-of-the-month fire drills and have seen sustained, profitable growth ever since.”

More information on executive coaching can be found at www.coachfed-eration.com and at www.wabccoaches.com.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, April 25, 2005.