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EM Lyon, ESMT, executive coaching, Forbes, Goldman Sachs MBA, Google, McGill - Desautels, Wharton School

Executive coaching – another set of clothes for the Emperor?

(published in Forbes, Jan 2011)

Executive coaching is a fast growing business, at least in the ‘usual suspect’ economies of the developed world. And there are no shortage of individuals, firms and educational institutions ready and willing to provide it. Just try entering the term into Google to see just how many (this morning the search generated over 770,000 results  – a little behind ‘royal wedding’ with 46 million, but you get the picture). But just how effective is it?

The commitment of corporate titans such as GE, Goldman Sachs and Google now sees spending on executive coaching in the US alone at more than $1billion per year. But whereas 20 years ago most coaching was a remedial effort aimed at poor performers, most coaching budgets today focus on developing high potential leaders. And what are they getting for their money?

Though the exact impact of coaching is notoriously hard to quantify, Marc Roudebush, CEO of Inspiring Workplace, points to a recent global survey of coaching clients by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource center which concluded that the mean ROI for companies investing in coaching was 7 times the initial investment, with over a quarter reporting an ROI of 10 to 49 times. For Roudebush, who has worked with senior executives at companies as diverse as Google, Bacardi and HSBC, the reason for such large returns is clear: leaders cast a long shadow. “When they are able to walk their talk, people listen and are likely to follow suit, improving the levels of enthusiasm, trust, and team effectiveness throughout a team or organization.”

As well as providing executive coaching services and producing academics that deliver some of the most credible work in the area, many of the world’s top business schools are putting their money where their mouths are by allocating at least a small part of their MBA programs to the intense, one-to-one techniques involved. And some are sticking their necks out even further.  The ESMT school in Germany, for example, claims that it is now devoting between five and eight times more time to coaching than its peers on the European continent. Meanwhile, The Wharton School in Philadelphia has committed to a two-year coaching experience as part of a major overhaul of the MBA program – a focus they hope will encourage development of the personal skills that are crucial to exemplary leadership.

Although this must give some badge of quality to the concept of executive coaching it does also raise the worry that its real basis is academic theory rather than hard, practical ideas that can be used in the day-to-day workplace.  Take for example, the coaching undertaken by Christophe Haag, an associate professor at the French business school, EM Lyon. He focuses on ‘emotional intelligence’, the ability to recognise how other people are feeling in a business context and to react appropriately for mutual benefit. As Haag puts it, “There is a direct link between emotion and successful communication. And in day to day situations, as well as in times of crisis, it’s the leaders who can use a wide range of emotions effectively who gain the most support from their audience.” The idea may not be new, but what is novel is his belief, based on extensive research, that the skill can be measured as an ‘emotional intelligence quotient’ and, crucially, developed through training. Perhaps surprisingly this training does not involve years of analysis and introspection, but a series of extremely straightforward exercises.  One simple example is where he instructs his student to look at pre-written cards that describe emotions such as ‘angry’ or ‘enthusiastic’ and then make the appropriate facial gestures. At first this is done in a mirror and the student assesses their own performance, but step two is for them to practice with a friend or partner and have them critique it.

Back at ESMT, Professor Konsatantin Korotov, takes the view that ambitious executives don’t only need to understand what makes others tick they need to recognise what is going on in their own personalities. And coaching can play a key part in making this happen. “If a particular behaviour is ineffective, it makes sense to try and understand what explains it,” he says. “If an executive is, for example, afraid of taking risks, the reasons may be found somewhere beyond the rational, conscious level.” He argues that a coach can help individuals explore beyond the obvious, less as a teacher and more as a guide, helping to get them to what he describes as the ‘a-ha moments’ that lead to real insight.

Perhaps, however, the most effective coach of all is staring back at you from the bathroom mirror every morning, at least in the view of another business school, the Desautels Faculty at McGill University in Canada. Great believers in the idea that working out the answers for yourself is often the most effective approach to problems, they have deliberately created space in their MBA program, whereby students get an opportunity every week to switch off the phone, email and internet and engage in some good old-fashioned reflection. Liberating the inner coach, it seems, may still be possible in the modern world. But only if you’re prepared for the peace and quiet which most of today’s professionals and managers can only dream about.

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About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.

Discussion

One thought on “Executive coaching – another set of clothes for the Emperor?

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