Executive coaching is one of the most powerful ways organisations can invest in their top talent. At Omnicor, we’ve seen a significant change in the behaviour of senior leaders because of coaching, and we’ve been privileged to see our coaching candidates take their careers to the next level.
Despite this power, coaching still suffers from more than a few misconceptions and myths. In this post, we’ll discuss three of the most pervasive ones.
Myth #1 Coaching is for poor performers
It is easy to spot executives who feel “forced” into coaching: they delay in setting up the first discussion, cancel a few times, and inevitably proclaim that they don’t really see the “need” for coaching. As the conversation progresses, they may use catch phrases like –“ If I am being 100 % honest “and “Off the record “or “I don’t know why my boss thinks I need coaching, my performance rating was good this year”.
When we hear that, we know that the myth of coaching only being for poor performers is at work. But is this a justified belief?
The actuality of coaching is quite different. In our coaching practice, we see few cases of poor performance or so-called “remediation coaching.” The reason for that is simple: such coaching is often unlikely to succeed. Overwhelmingly, our clients request coaching for executives they want to invest in, who they want to retain, or who they simply want to reward for being high performers.
So, although this myth (and accompanied stigma) may have been true a decade ago, things are changing in the world of work and of coaching.
Executive coaching is best applied to cases of executives not realising the potential they so clearly have, or when people hit a barrier in their development and need coaching to navigate them through to the next level. Coaching candidates are therefore not poor performers — quite the contrary, they are like elite athletes who are training for the Olympics — and need a coach to get them there.
A recent example from our own coaching experience illustrates this rather well: A junior leader was recommended for coaching because he needed to be fast-tracked into the larger global organisation. Conventional training and leadership development courses were not focused enough on this goal, so our client decided to opt for coaching instead. Since being in coaching, this young leader has gone on to a role far more senior than before and shows every indication of having a very promising career ahead of him.
Myth #2 Coaching is therapy
A common fear that some of our coaching candidates express before entering coaching is that it seems to resemble psychotherapy. It certainly has elements that overlap: the coaching candidate meets with a professional, often in one-on-one sessions, often in private. But that’s where the resemblance ends.
Executive coaching addresses very specific business-related goals and behaviours. Whereas psychotherapy (and some forms of so-called “life coaching”) tends to focus on the person’s overall functioning in life, executive coaching addresses highly circumscribed challenges that an executive is likely to face in her or his career. Executive coaches assist executives to perform at their peak by overcoming unique challenges they face in their day-to-day work life.
And while some psychologists also act as coaches, all of our executive coaches also have at least one foot firmly in the business world.
In that way, executive coaching is closer to a more intensive, highly individualised training programme or leadership development programme than therapy. Another key difference is that executive coaching comes with a host of supporting assessments, reporting, manager support, and company input — all of which one won’t find in a typical psychotherapeutic engagement.
Myth #3 Coaching is not scientific
It is a common myth that coaching and other forms of behaviour modification are not scientific. These disciplines, detractors argue, are “soft” and full of flimflam.
This idea that the science of behaviour and psychology is somehow “softer” than the “hard” sciences of physics and engineering might still have traction in the popular imagination, but the reality is quite different. For the last 100 years, the disciplines of cognitive science, neuroscience, and behavioural science have uncovered remarkable discoveries about how the human mind functions and how to change behaviour (for a good popular overview of such work, see Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Blink).
While there are unfortunately still more than a few pseudoscientific coaches around who use questionable practices, a responsible coaching provider will employ coaches who are accredited with official bodies (e.g. ICF, COMENSA and HPCSA) and such coaches will employ actual psychological and behavioural science in what they do.
Consumers of coaching need to be discerning. In any field, no matter how “hard” or “soft,” there will always be flimflam artists and snake-oil salespeople. But organisations who hire responsible, science-friendly service providers have firm scientific ground to stand on when applying coaching to executive development.