It was a select gathering of some of Chennai’s young entrepreneurs, and among them a sprinkling of top executives from a few multinationals, who listened with keen intent to a session held recently on the concept of executive coaching by two coaches from the UK, Peter Hogarth and Kenneth MacLennan. Hogarth, regarded as a pioneer in the EC space, having started in 1992, built Change Partnership UK into a global outfit with coaches in over a dozen countries and billing close to 10 million GBP before selling it off and starting again in a very high-end niche in the UK.
Hogarth has been a mentor since 2000 to V. Ramakrishnan, Managing Director of the Singapore-based Organisation Development Lte Ltd. Ramakrishnan established Change Partnership Singapore in 2003 to hive off the burgeoning coaching practice and to give it a distinct identity while Change Partnership India (CPI) was set up in 2004 with T. Ramakrishnan of Laras Leaders as a partner.
Hogarth, says V. Ram, has developed a wide array of tools and interventions which are available to the Indian affiliate, which will also tap into Hogarth’s vast experience as an executive coach (EC) . In Chennai recently for a session with local entrepreneurs to propagate the concept of executive coaching, Ram interacted with The New Manager in a conversation and on mail about whether Indian businesses and CEOs are ready for coaching.
Has executive coaching as a concept gained ground in India or is it early days yet?
It is not an infant and not yet into the teens. When we started just a few years ago the main client base was MNCs looking to get a coach for their senior expatriate managers.
Many Indians were being sent to set up operations here and found the going difficult. These ‘virtual Indians’ had little or no knowledge of the working Indian ethos and needed the support of an experienced hand to make their way forward, especially in the early days.
While not mainstream yet it is more accepted and we are seeing Indian firms asking for coaches. In India we are currently doing several assignments, all with MNCs. The names are confidential.
When does a CEO typically find the need for an EC? Are Indian CEOs ready for it — is it an admission of a shortcoming or a weakness, rather, is it perceived as such and that’s why they are not forthcoming even if they do need guidance?
Often a quality functional specialist who has delivered good results consistently, say, as a marketer or finance head or manufacturing chief, is elevated to become a CEO either within the firm (rarely) or is hired into that position, or in the case of MNCs is parachuted into that position.
Undoubtedly these are competent, intelligent and highly motivated people. The need is for them to understand and acquire cross-functional skill sets quickly. There is little room for error or mistakes; the stakes are high for the company and CEO. This is where most executive coaching goes to develop the manager for a higher role in short order or help the person improve his performance just that tad so he goes from being good to outstanding.
The second area is where the CEO/Chairman needs to vent, talk, share, debate. He or she cannot do so internally as it develops political ramifications. There is a need for a ‘sounding board,’ an objective and experienced listener who can talk to the person as an equal, draw on his experience, active and informed debate of the pros and cons through skilful query and help the person develop his or her insights.
The crux to coaching is not giving advice or one-on-one consulting; EC is about questioning in a way that helps the person find the needed insights.
It is important that the coachee sees the need for and benefits of EC. It cannot be and should not be sold or forced. Initially, as with all new ideas, there is scepticism. Once they understand what they can get out of the sessions, and that is the EC’s first focus, they become willing partners.
The situation to avoid is where they become totally dependent on the EC; the EC cannot become a surrogate CEO.
When is an EC ready to be an EC — obviously you are dealing with high achievers, right at the top of the ladder — so what skills/knowledge does an EC bring to the table that he has the CEOs ear? How does the EC stay ahead of the knowledge/skills barrier that a CEO would turn to him/her?
In the CPI scheme of things we are looking for high performers who have held and been successful in senior general management positions over and above their functional specialists. We find that people who have been at the coal face and worked on it seem to command greater respect and are more skilful in assessing and understanding the coachees’ needs.
The key skill for an EC is the ability to raise the appropriate question to develop the needed insights. The coachees are high achievers, talented and often need just a trigger to get them going. On occasion, the coachee would draw on the EC’s experience to find solutions to specific situations — sort of directed advice.
The single most important caveat for an EC is that he or she should encourage the coachee to assess the inputs in terms of the situation and circumstances around the problem and generate his or her own solution. These can be discussed and debated with a coach but cannot be handed out as a solution by the coach.
The EC has probably four hours to assess and understand the coachee, determine the needs and develop a coaching plan.
An EC needs to be able to run what is called a triangular assessment centre — the key strength for which is detecting trends and patterns in the feedback given by the coachee, his peers, direct reports, his supervisor and customers and the EC’s own observations derived from a structured interview.
The EC has to spend time in staying current in a whole slew of subjects — general affairs, overall trends, vertical knowledge, specialist functional knowledge, understanding evolving HR and business practices.
The EC also needs to nurture a large network which can be tapped to provide specific inputs.
Formally, every EC in the CPI system has a ‘buddy’ partner, a shadow coach with whom he shares the situation, the challenges and explores solutions — it is mutual learning. As always, the EC and the buddy have to maintain the very highest standards of confidentiality.
Coaching high achievers is an issue, especially the early generation of young managers. Many have difficulty in accepting their shortcomings and we have learnt that if there is no open mind, these superb functional high-performers trip up sooner than later.
The more mature ones understand that in recommending a coach, the company’s message is: “We value you but you need to commit to develop yourself if you are going to stay valuable!” They recognise that in some firms it is de rigueur and over time people start seeing the value.
If executive coaching generally remains in the realm of managerial issues what’s the difference between a management guru and an EC?
EC has a wide range and needs to be restricted to management issues though it is used extensively for people in management positions or getting ready for such positions. EC offers a way for thinking through solutions to practical problems, near-term challenges and to develop that incendiary thought processes that long-term leaders seem to have.
What are Change Partnership’s plans for the Indian market? Will you target medium-sized companies/large ones — is it more by word of mouth?
The market is big, nascent and growing. Currently the focus is all-India and on MNCs — they want it and see the cost benefit. Indian companies are just beginning – though a few have been at it for some years now — and only the large to mid-sized firms would value a top-notch coach.
SMEs in our experience often do not see the need and if they see it baulk at paying for it.
Thus far it has been based on our global networks but plans are underway for a more structured approach to market and business development.
We have a training programme for our new coaches and are searching for experienced general mangers who would seek to build on EC as a career. They cannot be just retirees who share an experience.
One issue that should bother people is that many jobless professionals and retirees are now calling themselves coaches and mentors.
This category includes lifestyle coaches (teaching dance, music, etc,) and a lot of people who have learnt off the Net or self-learn tapes.