Sunday, January 31, 2010

Executive Coaching - A Profession In Search Of Professionalism

Executive Coaching is hot and getting hotter. But, like every industry that experiences rapid growth, it attracts the good, the bad and the ugly to its ranks.

Anybody can claim to be a coach. The charlatans, the incompetents and the professionals all call themselves Executive Coaches and it’s not easy to tell who is who – even with a scorecard.

It’s this difficulty separating the good from the bad that has led to the emergence of organizations that purport to “certify” coaches they claim are qualified.

A quick look at the Web lists scores of institutions, associations, businesses and other entities ready and willing to train and certify coaches. They run from a three hour workshop offered by a franchisor of executive coaching to online approaches and classroom certificate programs provided by academic institutions of renown.

Certifying the certifiers …………

Among the largest of these “certifying bodies” is the ICF or International Coach Federation and, its rival organization, the IAC, the International Association of Coaching.

Interestingly, both were founded by the same guy, Thomas J. Leonard who passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of 47.

Leonard, who some refer to as the father of Executive Coaching and whom many speak highly of, was a very interesting character. Having never attended college he spent the first 20 years of his career as a Financial Planner.

According to his obituary posted in the New York Times, the story goes that one day he had an epiphany while helping a high net-worth client couple of his figure out what color Mercedes Benz they should buy. By asking what he saw as a series of introspective questions about their preferences, he helped this couple arrive at a color of choice.

They chose red, Leonard figured he was on to something, called it coaching and the concept of helping others sort through personal and professional issues was launched in the back of Leonard’s well-travelled and well documented RV.

Some things you just can’t make up…..

In an effort to capitalize on what he saw as a marketable skill he became a prolific writer of articles and books about coaching that successfully built the field and his own brand. More and more people were starting to use and talk about coaching.

Recognizing that others would be attracted to the field Leonard started something called Coach University in 1992 that morphed into Coach U which, as he often said was his reason for starting it, he profitably sold. He eventually replaced that one with CoachVille which markets itself as the largest network and trainer of coaches worldwide.

Then, recognizing a lack of credentialing among those calling themselves coaches he founded the ICF in 1995 to certify coaches and which says it is “committed to the art, science and practice of coaching" and today claims more than 14,000 members in over 90 countries.

But the story doesn’t end there, in 2001 claiming dissatisfaction with the way the ICF certified its coaches, Leonard, depending on who you listen to, either left the organization, or was asked to leave and went out and formed the International Association of Coaching, the main rival training and certifying body whose stated mission is to inspire the on-going evolution and application of universal coaching standards.”

Today, in countries large and small people proudly display varying levels of their ICF or IAC certification as proof of their ability and competence to provide coaching to others. And thousands more blindly accept this certification as proof of the coach’s qualifications and effectiveness

Caveat emptor – Buyer beware………...

Having been retained since the early 1980s by several leading corporations to coach their senior executives - and knowing other coaches who have similar backgrounds - I and many of my colleagues, would be the first to admit that as a profession, Executive Coaching is poorly defined, poorly regulated and poorly monitored.

It truly is a profession crying out for professionalism.

And while the large multi-nationals vet their coaches exceedingly well, they do so based on experience and reputation, rarely on the word of some certifying body.

But, because the Fortune 500 found coaching so effective at improving business performance, raising engagement levels and increasing retention, thousands of small and mid-sized companies as well as countless individuals from all walks of life have embraced it and seek coaches they can call their own.

Unfortunately, thousands now call themselves Executive Coaches and have the paper to prove it.

With some exceptions – and there are exceptions – the most effective coaches have a combination of thorough academic training and business experience. Graduate degrees in disciplines like counseling, psychology and organizational development coupled with pragmatic experience working with businesses and their top execs, along with the people skills to back it up, typically produce the best coaches.

The best training programs in the world without corporate experience just doesn't cut it. Nor does extensive business experience without thoroughly understanding and mastering the coaching skills necessary. Both are a “loaf half-baked,” the results of which can be disastrous at many levels.

First and foremost is because coaches have the power to impact people’s lives – both for good and bad. It’s not a game and the decisions coming out of these experiences can be life changing and irreversible. And second, the service is not inexpensive. It can be a big investment and the ROI should be steep.

Follow the money…

In 2004 a Harvard Business Review article described it as a $1 Billion dollar worldwide industry, by 2007 the global recruiting firm Korn Ferry cited coaching revenues at $3 Billion and the latest estimate due out next month will undoubtedly show industry revenues to be well in excess of $5 Billion.

Being a coach now pops up on all the career top-ten lists as one of the sure growth fields for the future.

Outplacement redeux…………

The parallel between what’s happening in the coaching industry today and what happened in the outplacement industry, over a decade ago, is erringly similar and one I had a chance to observe upfront and personally.

When outplacement first gained legitimacy in the late 70s as a company-provided benefit to assist people they were laying off, virtually all the practitioners had academic and business credentials. Lifetime employment was common then and being fired was seen as a traumatic event that required professional intervention.

The leading outplacement companies formed the Association of Outplacement Consulting Firms and our requirements for member firms and practitioners were stringent. We were a self-regulating industry that actually regulated.

Interestingly, many of the original providers of outplacement can be found among those providing coaching to today's C-suite inhabitants. In many ways, Outplacement was the true father of Executive Coaching.

Fast forward 30 years and outplacement is now seen as a commodity, delivered mostly by people who have gone through the service or received a one or two day training course from the large outplacement providers. Companies make their decision about what outplacement firm to use based largely on price and the leading outplacement firms pay their outplacement "counselors" a small multiple of the minimum wage.

That’s exactly where I see Executive Coaching going unless we ensure that only those truly qualified to deliver the service can call themselves coaches. That requires that a single reputable entity emerges to coalesce these disparate training and certifying organizations.

Back in '95, when I first saw mention of and ads for the ICF, I distinctly remember thinking to myself – “what gives these people the credibility to certify coaches?" But I also thought, "might be a good business idea, somebody just might make a fortune” and perhaps they did. But never did I think it would gain the level of blind acceptance that it has – shows you how smart I am.

Yesterday, I received a copy of the results of a 2010 survey of Executive Coaching from a firm that touts its ties to academia . They define the coaching process as meaning regular meetings between a business leader and a trained facilitator, designed to produce positive changes in business behavior in a limited time frame.”

It went on to further note what Executive Coaches should not do – namely

  • Not share their experiences – that was for mentors
  • Not provide advice – that was for consultants
  • Not impart specific knowledge – that was for trainers
  • Not touch upon personal issues – that was for counselors & therapists

I’m not sure I agree with any of those statements. Sometimes they're appropriate and sometimes not. They infer that with the right facilitation the client will always come to the appropriate conclusion...........that has not been my experience.

But what they are is dogmatic and imply an inflexible “one size fits all” approach. Worst of all, they support a definition and support the creation of a methodolgy that allows anyone who can learn how to question, call themselves a coach.

The only thing I can add to that list of what not to do is – maybe those people should not coach.

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