An “executive coach” sounds very lofty and even mysterious to the uninitiated. G. A. Finch interviews Victor Chears to shed some light on the use of executive coaches by some up-and -coming executives as well as more established executives. Mr. Chears is the president of Chears & Associates, a firm that provides services pertaining to executive coaching, organizational development, strategic planning, succession planning, executive transition management, executive search, leadership development, and nonprofit operations and processes.
FINCH: Victor, let’s start with the basics. What does an executive coach do?
CHEARS: He or she works with individual leaders or leadership teams to improve their performance (much like sports coaches); provide focus or context to issues of concern; assess barriers to success; and provide a safe environment to explore strategic, personal and operational issues that lead to effective strategies.
A primary goal of the coaching process is that leaders are more aware and better prepared to do what they do.
FINCH: What brought you to executive coaching?
CHEARS: I have been a management consultant for over 25 years and have been advising (aka coaching) clients long before “executive coaching” was an industry unto itself. In doing analysis and planning for a wide variety of organizations and building trust with the leaders in those organizations I was often sought as a trusted advisor. I found that I had the ability to listen, understand, synthesize concepts, and provide a framework for leaders to grow. Also, of critical importance, is that they trust me. This is key as coaches often press buttons and push their clients to reach beyond their comfort zones.
FINCH: How does one find an executive coach?
CHEARS: Any search should consist of careful exploration and due diligence. Practically all of my clients come from referrals and when they are introduced to me I usually talk to them extensively before we meet. That conversation consists of me exploring what they are looking for and letting them know my approach and philosophy. Therefore, I would tell someone to explore their networks to see if anyone they trust or respect has ever used a coach.
If one does go at it blind and does an internet or association search they should ask lots of questions and feel comfortable before proceeding.
FINCH: What should one keep in mind when selecting an executive coach?
CHEARS: Successful coaching relationships are dependent on trust, judgment, communication, mutual understanding, and goal/outcome driven. If a person does not have a sound understanding of their motivations and needs, a coach can take them in a direction that’s based on the coach’s ideas and not what the individual may actually need.
Bottom line: ask a lot of questions, especially behaviorally based ones like “have you ever run across a situation like mine?” “If so, what were the outcomes?” “ How long did it take?” “Was the coaching relationship successful and define what success looked like.”
One should get a gut feel that allows them to make a judgment on moving to the next step.
FINCH: Are there certifications and credentialing of executive coaches? If so, do the certifications meaningfully vouch for any skills or competence?
CHEARS: To be honest I don’t know much about the coaching websites and credentialing organizations, of which there are many. I know that if you “google” it there are lots of hits but could not advise anyone where to go from there except to be clear on what they are looking for and see if someone’s experience matches those needs.
To me the ability to be a good coach comes from a breadth of experience in a variety of situations coupled with a keen opportunity to listen and weave what you hear with what you know in a way that someone feels heard, served and challenged (in a positive way).
FINCH: Do executive coaches have specialties like physicians, lawyers, and management consultants?
CHEARS: Absolutely. Many coaches come from a specialized field such as marketing and sales. Others are generalists. It actually depends on what the client is looking for in a coach. For example, many of the people that I coach are looking at making a job or career transition. I have worked with multiple leaders who have hit a “stuck” point and are asking themselves “is it time for a change” or “can I find a way to reap new satisfaction where I am?” I have had people approach me and after a conversation let them know that I may not be the best person for them. I could give them counsel on certain levels but if they are looking for industry specialization that I don’t posses, I look within my network for someone who might better serve them.
FINCH: How does an executive coach differ from a career or business mentor?
CHEARS: In some instances there are no differences. What I mean, is that a coach is often invested in the client in a way that he or she is holding a specific vision for the person that they might not as yet developed for themselves. As a result, they are offering counsel that could alter the course of their career or business.
Again, it gets back to what the person is seeking. For example, one person may be seeking a coach to improve a perceived or actual deficiency that has been highlighted by a performance appraisal or pattern of behavior that is holding them back. Another person may want to explore coaching for a more holistic need such as whether or not they are in the right job or career.
FINCH: How do executive coaches typically charge and how long do those relationships last?
CHEARS: Fees are often dependent on the sector and the available budget. A nonprofit executive might only be able to afford $150 an hour while a corporate executive could pay $500+ and hour. If an individual is paying out-of-pocket versus through the organization can also affect the pricing structure and duration. Most coaches should be able to give a general idea about the length of time involved based on stated goals and suggest a budget based on that.
Some relationships last indefinitely as the client may seek to have the coach as a sounding board on an ongoing basis. Others want to address a specific issue or group of issues and then move on.
FINCH: How do you know you are getting value from your executive coach?
CHEARS: The first order of business is to have a realistic mindset about the coaching goals and to build a mutually honest and straightforward relationship. Often clients will think “I am paying you a lot of money to fix my situation” and get frustrated if things don’t get “fixed” as quickly as they’d like.
An individual must resolve to be open to change, try new things, take risks and recognize that the coach is a facilitator but not the one who is in position to make the change occur. Now if a client follows the advice of a coach and ends up with a mess, he or she has to backtrack and look at the confluence of factors that contributed to the situation. Sometimes people are in untenable situations that, frankly, cannot be changed. A good coach will point out that the likelihood of success is slim, especially when the client is dependent on others changing in ways that will facilitate their ability to do things differently.
I have seen people walk away, frustrated, from a coaching relationship because they had unrealistic expectations (e.g., thought that the coach was going to give them a “silver bullet.”) It is also crucial that the coach be honest and operate with high integrity given the level of vulnerability a person is often in when they seek coaching.
FINCH: Could you briefly share an executive coaching success story?
CHEARS: I recall a president of a significant nonprofit organization who had a board that was dysfunctional (as in not doing their mandated jobs but rather micro-managing organizational functions that were not their purview). Further, he had board members who basically wanted him gone based on emotion rather than performance. His staff was disheartened by the dynamics that were playing out and were not functioning effectively. The day-to-day work was getting done but basically everyone was miserable. So after we explored multiple strategies for him to effect change, it became clear that his situation was essentially unwinnable. At first that was a hard pill for him to swallow given his long-term investment in the organization. The position had prestige and notoriety. The organization was well known and respected in spite of the behind-the-scenes madness.
We got to a place where we both agreed that to make significant changes he would have to take a radical approach and basically “blow up everything” and take his chances at piecing together the remains – a very high stakes and risky proposition. With that level of clarity, we began to look at alternate career possibilities and opportunities, put together a strategy for him to lay the seeds of change while seeking new options, and then transitioning out of that organization into something new. Four years later he is happier with his current career choice than his former one, and is thriving. He left with integrity and is in an environment that is supportive and rewarding.
At times my coaching was confronting to his mental images of himself, but he trusted me and shifted his whole dynamic for the better.