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Executive coaching: lessons on how to be a boss

Be the best leader possible with a CEO coach.

Newly ushered into your leadership role? Congratulations. Just bear in mind that studies conducted in America over the last decade have consistently shown that about half of the new executives hired from outside an organisation are likely to exit their role within 18 months.

As if coping with new expectations and work culture are not challenging enough, the age of disruption is also constantly hurling curve balls at new CEOs who are expected to lead and inspire – a tall order when one might be feeling a bit lost in the new role.

Enter executive coaches: the men and women who make CEOs. Whoever said leaders were born have not met them.

Essential skills for a new era

The age of disruption calls for an agile adaptability and a resilience to stay standing even when battered by the winds of change – and not just as an individual, but as a corporation.

“CEOs today need to be able to adapt their leadership style to different contexts, cultures and situations,” says Rob Bier, managing partner of 6:30 Partners, a boutique firm whose executive coaching clients include Pericles Lewis, president of Yale-NUS College, and Markus Strobel, CEO of Asian skincare giant SK-II. He also stresses the ability to engage empathetically with all kinds of stakeholders, and to effectively address conflict resolution.

Bier’s view is echoed by Louise Kovacs, managing director of Madston Black, a 10 year-old boutique consulting firm that provides coaching and leadership development programmes across the Asia-Pacific region. “CEOs will need the ability to match their leadership style and decision-making approach to any situation.”

“Some circumstances will require them to be decisive and directive. Other times, they will need to step back and let others lead,” says Kovacs, whose doctoral research project covered the critical issues CEOs today need to focus on.

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“Their role is to facilitate problem-solving in order to ensure different perspectives and ideas are heard. This can be a challenge for many who feel they must take charge of every situation.”

However, in the current VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, they also need to ensure that even opposing pointers are heard, as it is often these ideas that lead to innovation because they challenge the norm.

The role of a coach

To this end, executive coaches can actually take the role of information gatherers, collating feedback from a range of stakeholders to help the CEO address issues that arise. “Coaches also act as a sounding board for ideas and strategic thinking,” says Kovacs.

“There are not many people that a CEO can talk to openly. Having an external party, who is skilled in facilitating thinking from different perspectives, is very valuable. For skills development, CEOs can use the coaching to practise new skills or rehearse difficult conversations.”

“The focus of executive coaching is to develop the leadership capability of our clients,” shares Kovacs. To fine-tune this capability in business leaders is a complex affair, and her coaches work with a broad spectrum of issues, from external to internal. These include dealing with challenges within their business, developing new skills, increasing awareness of their impact on others, and understanding personal motivations.

“Some coaches also work with their clients to address health and well-being goals, which we see as a foundation for sustainable leadership – and which are often neglected by senior leaders,” highlights Kovacs.

An inside job

But before you start thinking of executive coaching as a silver bullet for all CEO woes, Bier shares this: “Coaching can address a wide range of behaviours, as well as the assumptions, thought patterns and mental states that drive such behaviours.”

“It can even make you seem smarter (by teaching you to ask better questions and listen more). However, it can’t help you if you are fundamentally not suitable for the job.”

At Madston Black, CEO coaching programmes – priced between $15,000 to $20,000 – typically last six to 12 months, and require two to three coaching hours per month. Mostly unique to the needs of individual clients, early sessions generally focus on identifying the key issues for each leader and developing an action plan to address gaps.

Later ones tackle implementing success-driven goals and evaluating the results. Some may also focus on specific issues CEOs are dealing with at the time. “Any homework is mutually agreed upon, and often has to do with putting decisions into effect, and reporting their outcomes, or trying new approaches,” shares Kovacs.

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At 6:30 Partners, the average CEO coaching curriculum – which typically costs between $20,000 and $30,000 – lasts 10 months. Attendees spend two to three hours per month in coaching sessions, and another hour to two per month doing homework such as reading, keeping notes about challenging situations or conversations, and trying out new behavioural tactics. “From one client to the next, each situation is completely different. The whole point of coaching is that it is entirely customised to the needs and context of each client,” says Bier. “Virtually everyone learns something about themselves, and picks up practical skills to help them be more effective.”

A complementary role

A quick search for executive programmes online turns up a gamut of offerings. They include INSEAD’s $31,000, five-day Avira forum to “explore and discuss the characteristics of effective top executives and high-performance organisations, and to learn to lead and deliver more effectively”.

Another is The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania’s US$47,000 (S$64,000), three-week, multi-location Global CEO Program – a ideas-forum for senior executives around the world that promises to get attendees to “rethink your business vision and management approach as a global leader”, among other subjects.

How do the services of executive coaches here compare to these? “We see coaching as complementary to formal education programmes,” says Kovacs. “Content and knowledge are delivered through excellent programmes while coaching supports the individual in applying what they are learning to their specific context. We find that many of our clients have actually attended the types of executive education forums mentioned above and know the theory. But what they need actual help with is making things applicable to their real-world businesses.”


Coach surfing

Searching for an executive coach? Rob Bier and Louise Kovacs share their tips for finding the right fit.

01 Know thyself

“Be clear about what you want from the coaching, and that coaching is the best approach for you at this time,” advises Kovacs. “What are the challenges currently facing your organisation – and you as a leader? What do you see as your strengths and developmental opportunities as a leader in your current context? What will success look like for you in terms of outcomes from the coaching? These are the questions you need to ask yourself.”

02 Credentials count

“An effective coach must have had formal training by a recognised coaching school,” says Bier. “Too many think they are good coaches just because they love to help others. Coaching is a craft, and both training and experience help one to hone that craft. Of course, personal chemistry is also important factor.” Kovacs also highlights that some excellent CEO coaches even come from a psychology background. “This is useful if the coaching is related to increasing self-awareness and addressing behavioural changes.”

03 Think out of the box

“A good coach can clearly articulate his or her approach to coaching so you will be able to evaluate whether his service meets your needs. You should feel that you are able to trust him and can develop a sound relationship,” says Kovacs. “However, don’t naturally pick the person who thinks most like you. An effective coach is someone who is able to challenge your current thinking. He doesn’t have to be an expert on your industry, but he does need to have business experience and be commercially savvy.”

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