Corporate Focus

How executive coaching helps businesses

Read Time: 9 min

It’s a misconception that executive coaching is punishment for failing managers. At its most effective, it takes high-performing, high-potential individuals from good to great. Ten top executive coaches share the most common challenges these business leaders face.

Hitting those moving targets

You can’t win a World Cup without a coach, and you wouldn’t dream of going to the Olympics without one, yet many businesses are still reluctant to bring in coaches or facilitators. 

They’re losing out. Executive coaching is a powerful tool for on-the-job problem solving, and – as we discovered from 10 top South African business coaches – many of those problems are the same, whether you’re an entrepreneur, an employee or a top exec.

‘Sport is a great analogy, and it’s actually one of the sources of executive coaching,’ says Lesley Harris, director at Connemara, a business and skills development agency. ‘In sport the game changes all the time, as it does in business. Business leaders are constantly dealing with moving targets, and the coach is there to support and help them.’ 

Connemara has its coaches observe the business leader in action, engaging with their team and with clients so they can give live feedback.

Harris says that every business coach has two clients: the organisation and the coachee. ‘The organisation sponsoring the coaching has to benefit, so they have to be involved,’ she says. 

That said, the coachee still deserves a safe space where they think aloud and engage in confidential conversation. But the primary objective of the coaching is to benefit the organisation – and the coachee has to benefit on a personal level as well.

The softer skills of leadership

‘Executives typically call on coaches for three reasons,’ says Julie Courtnage, facilitator at The Institute of Directors in Southern Africa (IoDSA). 

‘The first is balancing conflicting priorities, either within the business or between business and personal demands – the latter is especially true for female executives. 

‘The second is to work on their leadership approach to help shift the business into a revived position. The third is to deal with conflicting values or ethical issues, where their personal perspectives are being challenged by business requirements.’ 

Yet, while the broad concerns tend to be common to all organisations, she insists that a good coach will help clients find their own solutions to their unique situations. 

‘The kinds of questions that prompt useful insights might include interrogating the benefits and costs of allowing particular priorities to dominate the executive’s attention,’ Courtnage explains. 

‘Examining business needs in comparison to the leader’s own style – and what shifts would deliver on those needs – can provide sometimes refreshing angles,’ she adds,

Unleashing potential through self-awareness 

Personality, personal style and, crucially, personal values play a key role. ‘Coaching taps into the potential of individuals, the belief being that the individual with the challenge often has the solution,’ says Dr Mariam Sha, business development coach at consultancy Awakening Excellence. 

‘Coaching has a holistic approach. It’s about shifting behaviour patterns and creating awareness of the management of emotions for yourself and others to change thinking patterns with a clear focus on end goals.’

Read that language again. Words such as ‘holistic approach’, ‘shifting behaviour patterns’ and ‘management of emotions’ aren’t what you’d typically hear on corporate golf days or during a tense negotiation session in Boardroom One. 

But that’s exactly the point. Executive coaching tackles a side of leadership that’s often overlooked. ‘Coaching works because the ownership rests with the individual being coached,’ Sha adds. ‘Through self-awareness, changes are made by the individual. The coach facilitates that change.’

Exploring values

One of the common challenges coaches are asked to help solve is the dilemma of achieving business results at the expense of supporting people. 

‘Interpersonal relations remain the primary challenge for our executive clients, as this underpins so many of the other challenges they face,’ says Deirdre Elphick-Moore, co-founder of The Office Coach. 

‘Getting interpersonal relations right impacts positively on autonomy, accountability, innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration... the traits execs want in their people.’

Close behind managing the immediate pressures of people management is the issue of self-awareness. ‘Our clients need someone to help clarify what’s important to them on personal and professional levels,’ Elphick-Moore says. 

‘What are their focus areas and priorities? By unpacking this, exec clients can motivate themselves and can work through the process to motivate others.’

The advice she and her team give in that situation centres around value: ‘We explore how execs’ values interface with the values of others, and the impact they have on perceptions, prejudices, expectations and communications. 

‘Then we explore their value proposition. Through a review of their strengths, talents and passions, we unpack the value they bring to the world and how this is best leveraged.’ 

‘When we talk about interpersonal skills, relationship issues and personal appearance fall into this category,’ says Alain Willem, executive coach at Path Coaching. 

‘It’s about creating self-awareness and greater understanding about the person’s impact on others. I usually ask my clients: What do you want to do that is an expression of who you really are?’

The importance of reputation management

Simon Ekin, business coach, facilitator and speaker, shares a similar experience. ‘Clients see that integrity is the most important area. Not moral integrity – such as not taking bribes – but personal integrity... honouring our word and doing what we say – and if not, clearing up our broken word and making amends to those to whom we have broken it.’

Likewise management consultant Deon Binneman follows a coaching philosophy based on integrity and reputation. ‘A few years ago I facilitated a workshop on crisis management in Beijing, China, when something was shared with me that I will hold dear forever: “Your name will arrive at a destination long before you do. Best make sure you have a good name”.’ 

As he explains, ‘A person’s reputation is their stock in trade. It is a commodity that speaks volumes about trust and integrity. But it’s also your biggest and most volatile risk.’

Coaches provide a sounding board

‘I think the reason a CEO would work with a coach is that it can be lonely at the top,’ says Binneman, echoing the idea of the ‘safe space’ mentioned by Lesley Harris. ‘A coach brings objective third-party insight, with many questions to be asked. They become a springboard for ideas and thoughts.’

That was certainly the experience of Dr Jerry Gule. As former general manager of HR & Transformation at Total South Africa, Gule has experienced executive coaching from both sides. 

‘When I was in executive management I called on a coach to help improve my performance by exploring ways for personal effectiveness on particular matters,’ he says. 

‘For example, we’d look at how best to influence others – peers and superiors – to drive company-wide cultural or behavioural change. A coach in this instance becomes an objective sounding board through asking robust, challenging, exploratory and uncomfortable questions.’

Now that he is a business and executive coach, Gule finds himself on the other end of that conversation: ‘Some clients look for a sounding board when dealing with issues they need to clear their heads on, or to reassure themselves that their thinking is on track,’ he says. 

‘Sometimes executives set up coaching meetings simply to have someone listen to them as they relate challenges in their business and personal life. 

‘My role is to help them reflect on and explore the options available in whatever they’re dealing with – through asking powerful questions that unleash their creative juices.’

Willem agrees, listing ‘space to hear your own voice’ as one of the key benefits of coaching. This can help leaders to think (or self-talk) something through more effectively and gain perspective. 

He says successful coaching also results in deeper self-understanding, including how you’re perceived and where you can improve; faster and more precise action; awareness of blind spots; and support for improving specific skills, such as communication, delegation, conflict management, team building and persuasion.

Preparing leaders for today and tomorrow

‘We run our coaching processes with corporate clients by determining where the gaps are at that particular level or role, or within a certain context. Then we design the coaching objects and coach towards filling those gaps,’ says Helga Landis, CEO at Saraswati Executive Coaching.

At some organisations, Landis will be asked to prepare a coachee to take up the CEO role a year hence. ‘In which case, I’ll uncover the gaps, determine where they’re at and where they need to be, and coach towards that,’ she says.

The process is four-fold, looking at the organisation and the coachee. Helga explains: ‘First I have to understand the level of maturity of the organisation, the level of maturity of the exco this individual is required to lead, the roles within the exco, the various functions within the business, the strategy of the business in the short and longer term, and finally what the organisation is good and not so good at. 

‘Then I assess the person: their current competence and what competencies are lacking for the CEO role. If you don’t look at the organisation and the individual, you can’t benchmark them against where they need to be. 

‘You can’t just prepare a new CEO for where the organisation is currently; you also need to prepare them for where the business is going.’

When not to call in an executive coach

On the types of calls her agency gets for executive coaching, Michelle Moss, founding member of Talent Africa, says, ‘The worst are those where the company has an executive or senior manager who is not performing and can’t work with people in the company. 

‘It seems as if the problems the company is experiencing are a direct result of that individual and they want us to coach the person to fix them.’

Moss dreads this call because, she says, coaching is not punitive – and it’s not a quick solution for mending poor performers. 

‘The trust relationship between a coach and a coachee is critical for success,’ she says, ‘and if the executive comes into the coaching session knowing the coach is there to fix them, the intervention has likely already failed.

‘We love calls where a company wants to support high-performing, high-potential individuals in getting “from good to great”. These individuals are focused on their future and want to gain insight into their current situation, challenge their current thinking, attitudes and behaviours, and explore options of how to be more effective. 

In this case, coaching is a reward and is aimed at helping leaders realise their potential and be the best they can be. As an added bonus for companies, this approach helps them attract and retain the best talent.’

But – to return to Lesley Harris’s sporting analogy – those ‘best-case’ calls typically come from companies or executives who are at the top of their game already. And organisations or people who are struggling to perform? 

Well, you’ll notice something that the teams at the bottom of the Premier League have in common: they all have coaches, but the teams that turn losing streaks into winning performances tend to be the ones with the most effective coaches. 

‘A person’s reputation is their stock in trade. It is a commodity that speaks volumes about trust and integrity. But it’s also your biggest and most volatile risk.’
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