Change How Coaching is Being Executed

A company chairman recently engaged me to review and investigate the credentials of someone who has sold coaching services to the CEO of his company’s Asia Pacific operations.

Coaching is the practice of supporting an individual through the process of achieving a specific personal, professional or sporting result.

The term “coaching” is sometimes used interchangeably with “mentoring.”

Actually there is a difference.

The term “mentoring” takes its name from the Greek classic, The Odyssey, in which the character Mentor becomes responsible for guiding Odysseus’ son, as the father goes off to war. The presence of an older, and possibly even parent-like, figure as an advisor in a persons’ life is often traditionally referred to as having a mentor.

Whatever it is, like training, it appears that anyone can set himself up as a coach or mentor and come into companies, charge tens of thousands of dollars and make suckers of everyone. This is exactly what happened to the Asia Pacific office of the multinational corporation. This is the reason why the chairman of the company, based in Scandinavia, engaged me to assess the credentials of a particular “coach” and her entire “coaching program” which she managed to sell to the head of the corporation’s Asia Pacific operations.

My counsel has always been this: Before engaging a coach or mentor, ask some hard questions and ask to see certifiable results. If possible, ask to speak to the people being coached by the coach. Also ask to speak to the bosses of those being coached. Has the coaching made a significant, measurable difference to the company’s performance?

Most coaches I come across here are former athletes, management consultants, retrenched executives and failed entrepreneurs. Some are none of these things – just self-styled gurus who managed to sweet-talk some clueless company bosses into engaging their services for the whole company. (Didn’t someone once say that “guru” is easier to spell than “charlatan”?) Undoubtedly some executives do get help from such individuals, but in an alarming number of situations, coaches who lack rigorous psychological training do more harm than good. Indeed, when an executive’s problems stem from undetected or ignored psychological difficulties, coaching can actually make a bad situation worse. I’ve not met any coach here who hails from the world of psychiatry or psychology.

My misgivings about coaching are not a clarion call for psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. I am psychology-trained professionally yet I believe seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist, in particular, does not – and never will – suit everybody. Nor is it up to company bosses to ensure that all employees deal with their personal demons or receive coaching to “realize their full potential.”

I just want to heighten awareness of the difference between a “problem executive” who can be coached to contribute positively to a company’s bottom line and an “executive with a problem” who can best be helped by seeing a psychiatrist or a psychologist.

These are the issues: First, many coaches sell themselves as purveyors of simple answers and nippy solutions. Second, even coaches who accept that an executive’s problems may require time to address still tend to rely solely on behavioral solutions. Third, coaches unschooled in the dynamics of psychotherapy often exploit and abuse the powerful hold they develop over the people they coach. Unfortunately, if allowed to careen off like a runaway train, coaches ignore – and even create – deep-rooted psychological problems that often only psychologists can fix.  I know – if I deposit a ten-cent coin into my bank account every time I am asked to go into a company to do damage control after a coach has left behind a trail of devastation I would be a millionaire many times over by now.

Remember the creepy and revolting Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings who had Theoden, King of Rohan eating out of his hands? (Wormtongue was the king’s counselor when in truth he was the servant of Saruman.) Coaches are at their most destructive when they win the CEO’s ear. This puts them in a position to wield great power over an entire organization, a scenario that occurs with disturbing frequency.

When I was working for a HR consultancy many years ago, the young managing director was virtually being manipulated by a seasoned, older subordinate who has wormed his way into the managing director’s heart, becoming his personal advisor on everything ranging from which restaurants to eat to which employees to get rid of.

I know someone here who bills himself as an “outplacement consultant and coach” and he has confessed to me that one of the secrets of his success is that he always wears a suit to impress. Imagine that!

Coaches gain a Svengali-like hold over both the executives they help and the company bosses they report to, often with catastrophic consequences. When a person increases his reliance on his coach’s advice, he becomes a victim of what, in the language of psychiatry, is called “transference” – a dynamic that gives the coach extraordinary psychological power over the person he oversees. Most people understand transference, as “falling in love” with one’s therapist and the outcome can be very destructive.

To best help their executives, companies must draw on the expertise of psychiatrists, psychologists and coaches with legitimate skills. At a minimum, every executive slated to receive coaching should first receive a psychological evaluation. By screening out those not psychologically prepared or predisposed to benefit from the process, companies avoid putting executives in unnerving – even destructive and demotivating – positions.

Equally important, companies should hire independent mental health professionals to review coaching results. This helps to ensure that coaches are not ignoring underlying problems or becoming part of the problem themselves.

In medicine, pathology is central to learning about disease but in management we don’t perform enough autopsies on people who call themselves coaches to determine their true worth. If these parasites and fraudsters prove unworthy, like malignant tumors; they should immediately be excised and flushed down the gutter.

I am sick of hearing about coaches who take companies for a ride. They get in the way of the real pros who are trying to do their job.

Thinking of getting some coaching? Tread carefully.

A wrong move could cost you a lot of grief.