The Dangers of Executive Coaching

Coach and coachee.

On March 20th  The Straits Times did an article on coaches – coaches who claim they make anything from 700 bucks to 1650 bucks per hour.

I know a couple of them.

One of them featured, I wouldn’t call him a coach for sure. I call him a crook.

He knows who he is and he knows why.

Suffice it for me to just say “Beware of executive coaches and beware of coaching.”

In a knowledge-based economy, where executives’ explicit and tacit knowledge can contribute significantly to performance, productivity and profitability, it is important that executives have access to the appropriate help. It is assumed that one form of this help is executive coaching.

However, while becoming very fashionable, coaching is a much-misunderstood concept.

The popularity of coaching owes much to the modern craze for quick fixes. In this world of instant cures, businesspeople constantly look for new ways to change as quickly and painlessly as possible. Success is promised in one minute or if you follow seven habits, or simply understanding who’s moving your cheese.

Coaching is a major growth industry. Some time ago, Dr Steven Berglas wrote in the Harvard Business Review that in the US alone, at least 10,000 coaches do work for corporations. And that figure is expected to exceed 50,000 in the next five years. Coaching is also highly profitable; employers are now willing to pay fees ranging from US$1,500/- to US$15,000/- a day.

No wonder everyone’s in it – including crooks. Someone I know who used to sell pots and pans, grandfather clocks, insurance and health supplements (in that order) rang me the other day – ta da, he’s now an executive coach!

Although one or two coaches here claim to have hailed from the world of psychology, most are former athletes, management consultants, retrenched executives and failed entrepreneurs – and yes, crooks.

Undoubtedly some executives do get help from such individuals, but in an alarming number of situations, coaches who lack rigorous psychological training do more harm than good. Indeed, when an executive’s problems stem from undetected or ignored psychological difficulties, coaching can actually make a bad situation worse.  The lure of coaching, however, is so great especially when executive coaches offer seemingly speedy and easy results. A coaching engagement typically lasts no more than six months. Psychotherapy is not only frowned upon – especially in Asian societies where anything involving seeing a psychologist or a therapist carries with it so much stigma – but people joke that it takes six months for therapist and patient just to say hello.

My misgivings about executive coaching are not a clarion call for psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Seeing a psychologist, in particular, does not – and never will – suit everybody. Nor is it up to companies to ensure that all employees deal with their personal demons. I’m simply trying to heighten awareness of the difference between a “problem executive” who can be coached to contribute positively and an “executive with a problem” who can best be helped by seeing a psychologist.

These are the issues: First, many coaches sell themselves as purveyors of simple answers and nippy solutions. Second, even coaches who accept that an executive’s problems may require time to address still tend to rely solely on behavioral solutions. Third, coaches unschooled in the dynamics of psychotherapy often exploit and abuse the powerful hold they develop over their clients. Unfortunately, if allowed to careen off like a runaway train, coaches ignore – and even create – deep-rooted psychological problems that often only psychologists can fix.

Self help manuals proliferate – just step into any bookstore. We are told to practice The Gentle Art Of Verbal Self-Defense, Eat Or Be Eaten, know The Tipping Point, understand The Black Swan, Awaken the Giant Within, put on Six Thinking Hats and Staying Street Smart so that we will Never Be Lied To Again. People who really need to see a therapist stay away from the therapist. Psychological counseling is being marginalized. And executive coaches have stepped in to fill the gap, offering a kind of instant alternative. And the gullible suck it all up and pay big bucks doing so.  I suspect the term “coach” is used because it is easier to spell than “charlatan.” As leadership expert Warren Bennis observes, “A lot of executive coaching is really an acceptable form of psychotherapy. It’s still tough to say ‘I’m going to see my therapist.’ It’s okay to say, ‘I’m getting counseling from my coach.’”

The idea that a coach can help executives improve performance swiftly is a great selling point, but be warned: if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Even if coaches adopt a more scientific approach they still tend to fall into the trap of treating the symptoms rather than the disorder. That’s because they typically formulate their approaches from behavioral psychology. Such approaches are sometimes too limited to address the problems that disrupt executives’ ability to add value. For example, lots of coaches recommend assertiveness training. Coaches work with executives who appear to lack confidence to become assertive in an effort to get them to perform better. Unfortunately, learning and regurgitating responses to stressors often fail to help executives deal with their intrapsychic pressures. Such oversights are common when coaches focus on problems rather than people. Such coaches tend to define the problems plaguing an executive in the terms they understand best. If all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. We’ve seen executives put on problem solving and decision-making courses when what they need is a good dose of process re-design.

Remember the creepy and revolting Grima Wormtongue in theLord of the Rings who had Theoden, King of Rohan eating out of his hands? (Wormtongue was the king’s counselor when in truth he was the servant of Saruman.) Coaches are at their most destructive when they win the CEO’s ear. This puts them in a position to wield great power over an entire organization, a scenario that occurs with disturbing frequency. When I was working for a HR consultancy many years ago, the young managing director was virtually being manipulated by a seasoned, older subordinate who has wormed his way into the managing director’s heart, becoming his personal advisor on everything ranging from which restaurants to eat to which employees to get rid of.

Since many coaches were corporate types in previous lives, they connect with CEOs (and senior execs) easily than most psychologists do. They are fluent in business lingo, they talk the talk and they move easily from discussions on improving an individual’s performance to conducting interventions that can seemingly help entire organizations perform better. Unless these coaches have been trained in the dynamics of interpersonal relations, however, they may abuse their power. Many coaches gain a Svengali-like hold over both the executives they help and the CEOs they report to, often with catastrophic consequences. When a person increases his reliance on his coach’s advice, he becomes a victim of what, in the language of psychiatry, is called “transference” – a dynamic that gives the coach extraordinary psychological power over the person he oversees. Most people understand transference, as “falling in love” with one’s therapist and the outcome can be devastating.

To best help their executives, companies need to emphasize coaching from a developmental focus rather than a problem resolution focus. Working with a coach must be positively perceived as the executive’s willingness to embrace continuous learning, enhance his self-awareness and a genuine effort to improve and raise his performance bar. Companies must draw on the expertise of both psychologists and coaches with legitimate skills. At a minimum, every executive slated to receive coaching should first receive a psychological evaluation. By screening out those not psychologically prepared or predisposed to benefit from the process, companies avoid putting executives in unnerving – even destructive and demotivating – positions. Equally important, companies should hire independent mental health professionals to review coaching results. This helps to ensure that coaches are not ignoring underlying problems or becoming part of the problem themselves.

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