Mirror, mirror: executive coaching

We're a far cry away from the days when executive coaching was seen as a last resort for people who were simply not cutting it.

It's tempting to think the corporate mantra of Campbell Co. of Canada — “Extraordinary, authentic nourishment for all” — is a bit of alphabet soup. But a funny thing happened after the food conglomerate settled on the slogan, in 2003: its employees bought in, helped by a coaching program that started at the top and filtered down through the ranks. “If we're going to go outside and talk about it to our consumers and customers, we have to be living it internally,” says Greg Smith, vice-president of human resources, of Campbell's formal coaching strategy.

One of the four pillars of that initiative is a five-month Inspired Growth Leadership Program. And according to Nick Evans, the company's internal coach who co-developed it with Pursuit Inc., a Toronto consulting firm, the plan has helped participants “create a higher level of awareness of their own values, strengths — and we even get into their hopes and fears.” As a result, Evans says, “they get a much clearer sense of how they contribute their best each and every day.”

That's a far cry from the days when executive coaching was seen as a last resort for people who were simply not cutting it — essentially, a “learn or get out” proposition. Today's executive coaches are focused on smoothing out a leader's rough edges and drawing out his or her best game — not dissimilar to the way a hockey coach coaxes his star players to work within the system to improve the entire team.

No one, of course, tells a Mario Lemieux how to play. But a strong coach can help show him how to modify his skills to better fit his team's changing needs. It's done using a bit of psychology, a bit of consulting and a bit of mentoring, but good executive coaches are more like sounding boards — part motivator, part devil's advocate. Think of them as mirrors that reflect what's really going on. “Coaching is really more about self-directed learning and self-discovery,” says Eileen Chadnick, a certified coach and owner of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. “It's more about mastery and less about fixing.”

In a world where personalized services — from chef to fitness trainer — are on the rise, individual executive coaching makes a lot of sense, especially considering the success paradox: the further up an organization people climb, the less opportunity there is for them to glean objective, knowledgeable and candid guidance from others. “I know people who are careful about thinking out loud, because in some cases you come back two weeks later and your off-the-top thought has been implemented, and that was never the plan,” says Michael Stern, president and CEO of Michael Stern Associates Inc., an executive-search and coaching specialist in Toronto. “When you're in the trenches, it's hard to distinguish when a leader is thinking out loud or whether this is a subtle test of your initiative.”

When done right, the return on executive coaching can be quite startling. Campbell, one of the acknowledged leaders when it comes to the practice, reports that it gets a 100% return on its coaching program's ability to re-engage people who would otherwise leave. And beyond nurturing and retaining top talent, improved business and innovation are gravy. A widely quoted 2001 study by consulting firm Manchester Inc., now owned by U.S.-based Right Management Consultants, examined 56 companies and determined that the average return on investment for those that used coaching services was almost six times the initial costs of those programs. Productivity gains were cited by 53% of survey respondents, while 48% reported quality improvements. On the intangibles side, 77% said they improved relationships with direct reports, and 61% noted improved job satisfaction.

With results like those, it's no wonder coaching is gaining momentum. A number of self-proclaimed (and sometimes unqualified) coaches have hung out their shingles to cash in on a profession that can charge up to $400 an hour — everyone from recent biz- school grads to retiring execs. “Anybody can call themselves a coach, because it's not regulated,” says Chadnick. “But the coaching profession is moving toward the place where qualified coaches need to show they have stepped up to a credential.”

The current standard is one of three designations by the Lexington, Ky.-based International Coaching Federation, which has local chapters across Canada. But such training is not mandatory, leading to a lot of confusion. “I've heard people say coaching is just a conversation,” says Stern. “Well, no, it's not. A conversation makes it sound like a tea party.” Stern's theory — one echoed by other coaches — is that while a client is the expert on knowing his strengths, what has worked in the past and how to face challenges, a coach is there as a trusted confidant to challenge assumptions, talk through potential issues and obstacles, show empathy, and help an executive put it all into perspective — but not provide answers. If the relationship is working, a coach is sometimes going to be unpopular. But nobody will gain anything if all a coach does is agree with everything, offering a pat “good job” once a week. After all, the last thing a busy exec needs is another yes-man.