Why executive coaching? It’s very simple – and very human.


“What’s really driving the boom in coaching, is this: as we move from 30 miles an hour to 70 to 120 to 180… as we go from driving straight down the road to making right turns and left turns…abandoning cars, getting motorcycles…the whole game changes, and a lot of people are trying to keep up, learn how not to fall.” John Kotter, Professor of Leadership, Harvard Business School

I’m constantly in awe of those people who manage to maintain their humanity as they negotiate the ladder of the corporate world and I feel especially honoured to coach them. Lately I’ve reflected on the themes in my coaching. I think there is a subtle shift. Coaching of senior leaders is less about achieving goals, “learning new things” (although everything is learning) or managing difficult relationships (although they are always present).

It is mostly about, “how do I manage the (very complex) present” I find myself in.

Ten years ago I wrote about how the hyper-connectivity of our world was changing organisational leadership. Ten years later it is even more vivid. The shift from technical to strategic leadership is vital with the ever-increasing competing perspectives, organisations are increasingly under scrutiny – not only from the eye of the regulators but also customers, the body politic and the public at large. Furthermore the boundaries of organisations travel across political and cultural boundaries and are virtual, leaky and transparent.

This means the higher one travels up the organisation, the bigger the view and the more complicated the competing perspectives. Most leaders are not equipped for this. Two scenarios come to mind:

  1. A CEO of a company that works in environmentally/socially sensitive parts of the globe has pressure from the Board, shareholders, community members & environmental groups to make some hard calls.
  2. A CEO of a company that’s been brought out (his job finishes too) is under pressure to conduct business as usual (or is it unusual?) over the year before the deal goes through.

Add to this the constant pressure for newly appointed and aspiring leaders who are adjusting to new contexts. Here are two other scenarios:

1.A young leader is two weeks into his new role in a new business when the boss asks him to propose a new strategy for the whole business and present it to the SLT within a week.

  1. An organisation that has suffered severe reputational risk has, as a result, introduced large volumes of new regulations/compliance. The amount of them is increasing daily. A leader is overwhelmed with increasing demands and responsibility as employees are scared to make any decisions.

Ten years ago organisational coaching was thought of as a passing fad. Yet, recent research estimates that $2 billion is spent on executive coaching at senior executive levels in Fortune 500 companies. The ‘fad’ is still here. And I think the reason is fairly simple and human. When we are dealing with complexity, human beings need to talk to someone they trust. So while we have tried to define and tie coaching to the latest theory or the latest (‘brain”) research, the reasons why coaching is successful is fairly simple and very human – at least at senior leadership levels.

Here are the five things that when asked to reflect on my coaching, clients said:

  1. A space to focus, reflect, clarify“A breather and a balance from the demands. I now work smarter not harder. This is a most precious time in my month. It is time to focus on myself. Who wouldn’t value that!
  2. A safe place to talk about issues and ideas.I talk about many things I wouldn’t talk to others about (including my life partner).. I feel safe and completely open to talking through things that concern me. It works for me as a sounding board
  3. Growing presence and understanding. I’m more confident and clearer about my decisions after talking them through with someone independant. I like hearing another person’s perspective. I’m now more conscious of how others and I operate and having had it modelled for me I use a coaching approach everywhere.
  4. Needing the ritual – self-discipline to care for self, The monthly sequence is useful and a self-discipline. I also like being held to account – as well as the flexible structure that allows us to go where I need it to. Any gaps in my monthly coaching I really miss – it means I lose the momentum.

5.Independence from organisation politics (and the conflicts within) HA is independent so I can talk about political issues. Her independence is important – she is not involved in any company politics and has an “outsiders” view. It’s so important to have a completely independent sounding board – especially as a senior leader. The independence is a huge benefit and I learnt to deal with ethics which I was always worried about as well as with political issues and conflict.

Organisational life is often seen in terms of transactional, process driven decisions and actions. If actions and decisions are black/white/true/false they are not in the realm of senior leadership. And, leaders are only human! Complex and considered decisions and actions require reflection and dialogue in a “safe” environment such as coaching. Not only is this good for the organisation, it is also good for the leader’s well being.