Executive Coaching with a Business Centric Spin

What do we really know about leadership – empirically that is? 

Discussions about the role and use of executive coaching often tend to focus on relatively “soft” issues. That may be appropriate in certain situations, but we take a tougher minded and more business centric view: We believe the objective of coaching should be to very directly help the individual help the business!

Most executives understand that coaching is not therapy, but many coaches – in fact, operate with a more psychoanalytic bias or perspective – we call this the social work paradigm of executive coaching. To quote one behavioral economist, Dr. Ted Prince: 

“It reminds us of Tony Soprano in the Sopranos. He attends therapy regularly. His therapist wants to make him a better person. She steers well clear of issues such as who gets whacked and who gets the loot. Tony feels better (maybe) but the business goes its merry way undeterred. Tony considers his well-meaning therapist as a source of psychic, but not of business support. We call this the social work paradigm of executive coaching.” 

It may well be useful and important to have an executive feel better about themselves and, indeed, to work on improving certain skills, better appreciate their strengths, etc. However, we believe that in today’s competitive global environment, the central question many executives deal with is “....how will I survive?” This suggests that it is prudent to take a harder nosed approach to typical executive coaching engagements – one that focuses more directly on relevant business results and metrics. 

We come to this conclusion for several reasons – including what is actually (or empirically) known about leadership. Let’s start by first taking a fresh approach to defining effective leadership – the ability to build and maintain teams that demonstrate sustained and distinctive performance (vs. popularity, charisma or other armchair softer definitions). 

So, what do we really know about this important subject?* 

There are all kinds of leaders and leadership styles. However, when one looks at the hard evidence, net net -- we know at least six important things: 

  1. A leader is a leader is a leader – effective leaders tend to be resilient and handle stress well, they promote a vision and develop strategies to translate that vision into reality; they solve tactical and strategic problems, they set high goals and work hard to achieve them; they project a sense of self- confidence; they build relationships and treat people fairly; and they plan and organize work. (These attributes do not guarantee success, but they improve the odds significantly).

  2. More the two-thirds of people in leadership roles will fail, and the most common reason will be their inability to build or maintain a team. This is usually a function of certain dysfunctional interpersonal tendencies that are not easily detected in typical interviews or hiring practices.

  3. We also know that bad management is the primary cause of employee dissatisfaction (and the best predictor of that is poor leadership).

  4. The fourth thing we have learned concerns leader reputation – there are certain qualities people want to see in leaders and when lacking these – it is very difficult if not impossible to establish credibility and to effectively be in charge! In order of importance, four themes regularly come up: integrity, decisiveness, competence and vision. The first and most important of these is clearly perceived integrity – keeping one’s word, fulfilling one’s promises, not playing favorites, not taking advantage of one’s position and not claiming special privileges.

  5. Good to great themes after Collins’s (2001) research-based book, Good to Great, -- demonstrate the importance of modesty and humility, as well as phenomenal persistence.

  6. Finally and interestingly, relatively few documented differences, if any, have been found across managers functioning at different organization levels (i.e., in terms of competencies required or cognitive and personality factors demonstrated). It seems that basically that very senior executives differ from junior managers in terms of experience and political skill, and to whom they report – but in little else that is measurable! (To quote the former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, when queried ....the key to becoming a Chief Justice is “...to be there when the bus pulls up.” 

The Emergence of Balance Theory of Effective Leadership 

  • Kaplan and Kaiser (2003) have proposed an elegant model of leadership competencies organized in terms of seven ideas – three sets of two bipolar concepts and one meta-concept. The model begins by recognizing one of the oldest dichotomies in the history of leadership research – the distinction between structure and consideration -- or between an autocratic use of power and a focus on the tasks at hand -- vs. a democratic use of power and a concern for people. (Kaplan and Kaiser refer to these two concepts as “forceful and enabling”). The second of these is denoted by the terms strategic and operational. Strategic leadership involves developing, evaluating, selling and revising the “big picture” and trying to understand, evaluate and fine-tune business models or strategic marketing issues. Operational leadership on the other hand, concerns the efficient and effective implementation of strategic decisions.
  • But here is the potentially key research finding, one that is highly consistent with what observe in our executive coaching practice: We have learned that managers routinely tend to be either forceful or enabling, i.e., they are overdeveloped on one side, and underdeveloped typically on the other. Thus, the basic premise emerges that there is an optimal amount of certain types of leadership behavior depending upon the (ever changing) situation!
  • “Extreme lopsidedness” is a major cause of career derailment and undermines talent management for many organizations. In fact, Kaiser and Kaplan's statistical research indicates that versatility—having a well-rounded repertoire—accounts for half of what separates the most highly regarded leaders from the least well-regarded leaders. “There is a central human tendency to rely too heavily on our strengths,” says Dr. Kaplan. “In leaders, this often creates blind spots that lead to complete career derailment. The problem is expensive in both business and human terms.”
  • Models such as this, along with hard nosed empiricism, suggest alternative paths to traditional competency theory – and potential ways to link talent development initiatives more directly to business goals and strategies. We need to further develop these concepts and find ways to make them less threatening to HR professionals.
  • Executive coaches have learned that it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to change behavior when it comes to fundamental personality structure (e.g., an executive’s drive or energy or emotional stability) -- the “spots on a leopard” so to speak! But with great care and persistence, one can acquire or develop and refine behavioral skills – particularly with positive reinforcement from a boss or a team (i.e., you can teach that leopard to extend a paw)!
  • There is powerful wisdom in the notion “To Thine Own Self Be True!” However, ample research suggests that it is folly for leaders to only focus on key strengths (as some coaching pundits recommend), just as it is to ignore potential derailures or the so-called “dark side” of their strengths and core personality. Self-awareness is a very important differentiator between successful and less successful leaders.
  • The good news is many interpersonal (e.g., conflict management and influencing skills), as well as essentially functional or technical business skills (e.g., effective presentations) are, indeed, highly learnable. And this insight strongly reinforces our bias that executive coaching should focus more directly and intensely on those behaviors that relate directly and demonstrably to the creation of high performing teams – which the empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests creates relatively distinctive and sustained levels of economic value.
  • The data are quite clear about this: Leaders are developed most effectively through the “fires of experience.” And, much as experience has shown that high performing teams are best formed by solving very challenging problems together (versus participating in so-called “teambuilding” exercises) – so too we believe that the most effective coaching interventions must deal directly with improving relevant business or organizational performance metrics (and the more directly they relate to the drivers that create true economic value – the better)! 

*For the interested reader, a full discussion and very comprehensive review of the empirical learning’s about leadership can be found in Dr, Robert Hogan’s (2007) book “Personality and the Fate of Organizations” from which these observations were extracted. Also, Dotlich & Cairo (2003) “Why CEOs Fail”) provide a complimentary and excellent overview of derailment research.

An excellent overview about specific questions and answers relative to executive coaching can be found in Morin & Morin (2007) “Executive Coaching – Questions and Answers” 

Summary prepared by: Edmund B. Piccolino, Ph.D.