The Career Coach Debate
According to The Human Capital Institute, as many as 60% of American companies are using the services of executive coaches to alleviate corporate ills like co-worker conflicts, employees lacking in leadership skills and low morale due to workplace changes. But is this one-on-one instruction a worthwhile investment or a waste of time? Two leading experts weigh in on how much of the coaching phenomenon is beneficial and how much is hype.
ILLUSTRATION BY KALI CEISMIER
THE CASE FOR…
Ivonne Chirino-Klevans, PhDProfessor of Organizational Psychology at Walden University
It can be lonely at the top. That's why so many businesspeople seek out someone to help them see things in a more objective light. In decades past, psychiatrists held this position, but admitting to seeing a shrink can have unwanted consequences in the workplace. Likewise, the counsel gained from conversations with subordinates, or even peers, can be tinged with political agenda. It's for these reasons that the business of coaching came into being and why it provides such an invaluable service.
A formal engagement with a qualified coach can lead to dynamic, confidential conversations that produce very positive results. The engagement may be growth-oriented-helping an individual get up to speed quickly after a new promotion, for example. Or it may be change-oriented, such as helping a high-potential individual retool their interpersonal skills so they are in a better position to be promoted.
One 2003 study from the Center For Creative Leadership found that of the 3,500 top executives surveyed, 88% said they highly value the mentor/coach relationship for career development. Among their top reasons for wanting a coach were assistance with leadership skills, developing more vision for the company, team building and managing change.
And a 2005 study published in the Journal for People and Organizations in Transition looked at 100 executives who went through business coaching to calculate the organizations' ROI. The results showed that the ROI was, on average, five times more than the cost of the coaching. In one example, an executive was able to convince his top management team to go into a new line of business that ended up producing high earnings for the company. Without the coaching, which helped him develop his negotiating skills, he said he would not have been able to convince management to support his idea.
Good coaches have expertise in an area of specialization and specific competencies, including empathy, business knowledge, effective communication and facilitation skills. When all this is in place, and the coach has built a strong client relationship, it can unleash a powerful process that empowers both the individual and the company.
THE CASE AGAINST…
Ben Dattner, PhD Professor of Organizational Psychology at New York University
Coaching has become a tempting intervention for companies because it identifies a single individual who "needs help," rather than examining the larger and more complex challenges arising from misalignment between company structure and strategy, problematic team dynamics or a dysfunctional corporate culture.
One analogy is to the family systems model. For example, if junior isn't doing well in school, it may be because mom and dad are having problems at home. If you just send junior to therapy for acting out, you're not getting at the underlying issues.
The parallel is that in coaching situations, the individual may be the one being blamed for his or her personality or style, but when you scratch beneath the surface, you find that roles, incentives and structures have been set up to be at odds with the results the company says it's looking for.
For example, an industrial materials company wanted coaching for a sales executive because his team was focusing on high-volume sales rather than high-margin sales. Upon closer examination, the issue was that, because of company-wide incentive plans, the sales team was rewarded for revenue, rather than profits. The solution wasn't to coach the sales manager-it was to change corporate policies.
Many researchers and theorists have cautioned that executive coaching is not a panacea, and there may actually be dangers to it. One leading article by psychologist Steven Berglas in the Harvard Business Review cites examples of coaches who lacked proper clinical training and insight, and therefore misdiagnosed clients.
Berglas describes one client who was assigned a coach to work on her "assertiveness," when, in fact, she had deeper issues that were impacting her performance and workplace relationships. She subsequently sought the assistance of a psychotherapist.
The bottom line is that organizations often find that no matter how much coaching individuals get, the fundamental issues remain the same-and the issues are often the effects of organizational problems, not the causes of them.