Executive Coaching at the Board and Senior Levels in Organisations
© 2018 CMC Today and Yvonne Burger, CMC-Academic Fellow
This article is about the practice of executive coaching at the top levels in organisations. The result of an exploratory survey, it looks at the outcomes of interviews with people from different sectors and with different backgrounds who all have experience of executive coaching. Based on the survey, this article formulates answers to the following questions:
Why do leaders work with coaches?
What issues are encountered at the top?
How are coaching and reflection given shape at the top?
What does executive coaching demand of coaches?
What are the do’s and don’ts?
What makes executive coaching effective?
And what similarities and differences are there when comparing coaching of leaders with coaching of their employees?
The practice of executive coaching at senior levels in organisations definitely merits a place in any special issue on organisational coaching. After all, the new generation of directors and board members are increasingly using executive coaching as an aid to reflection. These executives are aware - partly as a result of recent scandals in both industry and social organisations - that organisational patterns can affect their behaviour. They also find in their position that they no longer automatically receive open and honest feedback. Increasingly, therefore, this target group is also turning to external coaches to help them stay focused and work on their own development. In recent years, coaching has evolved into an instrument that is used not only to cure but also, and above all, to prevent.
This article is about the practice of executive coaching at senior levels in organisations. It is the result of an exploratory survey of executive coaching in organisations which I described previously in my book Spiegel aan de top: over de praktijk van executive coaching (Burger, 2013). The survey aimed to gain a better understanding of how coaching is experienced and practised at senior levels in organisations. This article is qualitative in nature. It looks at the outcomes of interviews with people from different sectors and with different backgrounds, all of whom have experience of executive coaching. For results of quantitative research in the field of coaching, I would refer you to the books Relational Coaching (2008) and Coaching with Colleagues (2nd edition 2014) and various articles (e.g. De Haan & Burger, 2015). In the following pages I examine the survey’s objectives and research questions, nature and design, and findings, in that order.
Objectives and research questions
I conducted this survey based on our objective at the VU Center for Executive Coaching of improving our understanding of how coaching is experienced at senior levels in organisations. I approached this from a social constructivist angle: the way in which senior directors and executive coaches experience their own reality was a central focus of investigation. I was seeking answers from three different perspectives on the practice of executive coaching, namely that of the client, that of the coach and that of the supervisory director. The following questions were asked in each case:
- Why do leaders work with coaches?
- What issues do you encounter at the top?
- How are coaching and reflection given shape at the top?
- What does executive coaching demand of coaches? What are the do’s and don’ts?
- What makes executive coaching effective?
- What similarities and differences are there when comparing coaching of leaders with coaching of their employees?
Nature and approach of the study
As indicated earlier, this article is not based on hypothesis-testing research. Hypothesis-testing research works well only if we know enough to identify the key variables and have enough evidence from the scientific literature to predict which variables will have which consequences. Hypothesis-testing research is possible only when working with large numbers. Only then can we talk about ‘evidence-based practice’. The relationship between a director and his or her coach is a complex and dynamic one, and cannot be translated easily into cause-and-effect descriptions. That is why I opted for an exploratory survey in this case, starting from practice, looking for possible patterns, with the aim of describing a new perspective on existing practice.
Theory is not the guiding principle in this type of research; rather, research contributes to the forming of theory. The interviews were semi-structured as this kept open the option of exploring various topics in more depth. This can also be seen in the interview reports included in my book Spiegel aan de top: over de praktijk van executive coaching (Burger, 2013). The reports are both similar and different, depending on the topics that came up. The 17 interview reports, 15 of which are included in the book, were taped, transcribed, checked by the interviewees and then analysed. Based on this analysis, answers were obtained to the research questions listed above. I examine each question in turn in the following sections.
Outcomes of the interviews
1. Why do leaders work with coaches?
Coaching at senior levels in organisations is a way in which directors look after their own reflection. No luxury at a time when organisations, directors and supervisory directors are coming under increasing pressure. This is precisely when space for reflection is necessary in order to maintain an overview, especially when confronted with personal issues and sensitivities. The new generation of directors is keen to seek this reflection outside of the organisation: due to political sensitivities, due to their position (having no-one else ‘above’ them), or because an outside view is sometimes much sharper, due to the distance or a completely different perspective. As a senior executive, you don't receive much feedback on your own performance. And even if you ask for it, it is by no means certain that the people around you will feel secure enough to give it. Much is projected on to you as the leader of an organisation. An outside view therefore makes a valuable addition, provided a coach is bold and focused enough. Some directors work with a ‘permanent’ sparring partner in a long-term relationship. Others opt for a series of coaches with whom they have a limited number of sessions. And still others work with several coaches concurrently, depending on the topics they want to discuss. As a general observation, there is a growing need for self-knowledge and compassion in organisations. And more and more directors are taking the lead in this respect and hence becoming role models in their organisations.
2. What issues do you encounter at the top?
Various issues are encountered, which have to do with the role, person and context of the director. Sometimes it is mainly about strategic and administrative issues in management settings and dealing with power and influence (‘power theme’). New directors sometimes have to get used to a new role and are encouraged in this by the Supervisory Board (‘onboarding theme’).
Keeping to your limits, organising your own reflection, and isolation are important themes for some senior executives. Others are mainly keen to stay themselves within their role, and seek authenticity and individuality (‘authenticity theme’). Still others come into contact with situations requiring behaviour that is (well) beyond their comfort zone, and want to explore what bothers them in this respect (‘personal effectiveness theme’). And directors often wonder what their next step should be, or what legacy they want to leave to the organisation in the final phase of their career (‘offboarding theme’).
Younger directors in particular, sometimes want to give something back to the company (‘learning, earning, returning theme’). ‘Work/life balance’ is a recurring theme, as working in this type of role occupies such a large position in the director’s life. But what they seek above all is to develop wisdom, self-knowledge, versatility and growth, and to connect or stay connected with their own feelings and intuition so they can continue to give good leadership in a demanding and unpredictable environment. Or, as one director put it: ‘a coach helps someone to set a steady course for their ideals and to use all their options’.
3. How are coaching and reflection given shape at the top?
There is no single method of coaching at senior levels. Directors often find their coach through referrals from their own network, and sometimes via their HR department. Directors themselves are not especially interested in whether these coaches are formally accredited, although they do express concerns about the fact that coaching is a fast-growing occupational group where professional requirements are certainly important. But mainly for someone else. For themselves, they choose primarily on the basis of intuition, chemistry (or ‘click’), trust, and whether the coach has something to offer. They are interested in whether the coach has the same level of intellect, life experience and wisdom. But mainly in the power of difference. They hope the coach will offer a different perspective that might contribute something they lack themselves. A coach does not need to have held the role of director but should understand the role and context thoroughly. After a first session it should be clear whether the chemistry and this understanding are there, because a coach rarely gets a second chance. Now it depends on the client and their issue which coaching style is experienced as effective.
Some clients seek a counselling approach, others a biographical one, while still others mainly seek provocation and critical feedback. All styles of coaching are used, but coaches should take care not to become too personal too quickly and overstep the boundary with therapeutic approaches. A client finds it useful to look at their biography only if he or she realises the benefits, which is not always the case. However, most coaches do believe that behavioural patterns are based in childhood or adolescence and that it is useful, if not essential, to look at this.
Some clients enter into a long-term relationship with a single coach, while others prefer multiple shorter relationships. Some coaches come to the client’s office, but there is a preference for holding sessions at a different venue, which takes the client out of their own context. Some clients work with internal coaches but there is a strong preference for external coaches. Some clients like to work with women, others with men. There are even clients who work concurrently with two coaches who differ in terms of style: one for business, the other for personal development. Standard programmes, recipe books and ‘tricks’ are not appreciated. Or, as one client put it: ‘if there was a simple solution, I’d have thought of it myself’. Questionnaires about personal motivations and personality are sometimes appreciated if they help in acting as a mirror.
What clients do appreciate, however, is a coach who offers room for reflection and a listening ear, and encourages self-examination. Assignments or exercises in between the sessions are useful only if they do not take up too much time and are devised by clients themselves. Then they become exercises along the lines of ‘experimenting with new behaviour’. Suggestions are welcome if the client is unable to come up with any of their own.
Incidentally, directors also reflect outside of coaching. The directors’ partners were mentioned lovingly in this respect, for their ability to supply the right responses to their partners. Or, as one director put it: ‘I think my partner has an excellent moral compass, and it comes in very handy’. Or, as another director said: ‘your coach and your partner can say the most awful things to you without you getting angry’. But sport, reading and being close to nature are also welcome ways to view your own performance from a distance and to create the necessary space in a full existence.
4. What does executive coaching demand of coaches? What are the do’s and don’ts?
Executive coaching demands the art of balancing. Coaches should take their clients seriously, but with humour and the ability to put things into perspective. They should understand their client’s role without feeling intimidated. It is by no means easy to work with people in senior roles in settings that can come across as intimidating.
Good coaches are confrontational without judging their client: clients are open up to the level at which they feel understood. Coaches should be there for their clients without losing their independence and critical faculties. They should focus on the person in the role, without psychologising or being didactic. They should not be tempted to step outside their role by passing judgment on the content (‘cobbler, stick to your last’). By being with their client and bringing their full attention to bear, they act as the mirror in which the other person sees him- or herself. By monitoring the connecting thread running through the sessions, they help their clients to move forwards, sometimes alternating gentleness with strictness. The setting should be safe enough to allow a degree of tension. The coach should have the courage to name things the client doesn’t (yet) see, while staying connected with the other person. So perhaps the most important skill of the coach is to confront clients in a loving way. To offer a place of compassion. And to be flexible in style and interventions if the client needs it. Or, as one coach said: ‘the moment when you become the mirror that suddenly starts to talk back, that moment, that decision, is like a surgeon making the first incision. It needs a delicate touch. And it demands courage, and trust.’
Coaching is therefore an art, rather than a skill or a trick. It also demands proper self-examination and self-reflection on the part of the coach. So that you can stay calm in a situation that is tense not only for clients but for coaches as well. So that you know what your own expertise is and when you would be better to refer. But equally it demands self-examination focused on the question of why you want to fulfil this role in organisations and what you need in order to do it, and to prevent your own patterns from getting in the way in your role as a coach.
Psychotherapists undertake learning therapy and supervision in order to work with clients from a healthy situation. This would be very valuable for coaches as well: working with people calls up a lot in terms of (old) behaviour and as a coach it helps to be aware of the behaviour and feelings your client is evoking in you, and whether this has anything to do with your client’s patterns, or your own. Awareness of parallel processes in the coaching (see also De Haan, 2011) is one of the most valuable sources of feedback and confrontation that you can draw on when working with your client. Because if your coach doesn’t do this, who will?
One of the do’s that came up explicitly concerns the theme of independence. Some clients reported that it can be difficult in this context if a coach is working with several people in an organisation who know each other. ‘The coach needs to be sure of their ground’ was the comment of one director. As a coach you may be tempted to judge the people appearing ‘on stage’ in your sessions, and it can be difficult to keep listening neutrally, or to be perceived as neutral. It is also seen as a problem if coaches have other assignments in a client system, which may give the impression of having a financial interest in observations about the organisation. In any case, the theme of independence calls for attention and self-reflection in the coach (what is best in this situation for the client and the organisation?)
about being able to deal with paradoxes. A skilful coach does both and utilises the creative space in the tension between the extremities.
Looking at all of the above, it is apparent that executive coaching is not so much about do’s and don’ts as about being able to deal with paradoxes. A skilful coach does both, and utilises the creative space in the tension between the extremities.
Paradoxes in executive coaching
|Take your client and their issue seriously||Art of putting things into perspective, humour|
|Respect your client’s performance||Don’t be intimidated or paralysed by your client’s position and success|
|Confront and give feedback||Have compassion and avoid judging|
|Be available and fully present||Stay independent and critical, maintain distance|
|Focus on personal issues||Avoid unwanted psychologising|
|Know yourself and take yourself seriously||Stay out of your client’s domain and limit your role|
|Offer space to work with what is there||Maintain the connecting thread|
|Offer safety and containment||Create tension, challenge|
|Have the courage to name things the other person hasn’t seen||Stay connected with your client|
5. What makes executive coaching effective?
Some directors found it a shame that coaching has become a buzzword, which does not do it justice. They considered it important to position coaching properly and to make clear exactly why it is useful and helpful. Professional qualifications and organisations are desirable for that reason, although the directors also see the limitations of regulations that seem to have gone too far in some professional groups. The same concern about the quality of coaching was expressed by some of the coaches. They cited the uncontrolled expansion of the profession, the complexity of measuring coaches’ quality, and the importance of setting a good example in the professional group by seeking accreditation and further professionalisation. This concern is sincere and informed by mainly positive experiences.
The people I interviewed experience coaching as highly effective - which, incidentally, is in line with studies done in this field (see also De Haan, 2007). However, coaching is not effective if it is imposed on directors, for example as part of a leadership programme, without them realising its benefit. Directors should choose coaching of their own volition, or be convinced of its necessity or advisability by the Supervisory Board. Some supervisory directors fulfil this role themselves. Although sometimes at odds with their role as supervisors, it is nevertheless enshrined in the Dutch civil code. After all, part of the Supervisory Board’s role is to advise the directors.
On the question of the benefits that coaching yields and when it is effective, one aspect came very clearly to the fore. Coaching mainly generates a sense of peace for directors, through greater self-knowledge, awareness and self-acceptance. And peace is welcome in a context in which they often experience high levels of pressure. It is not found by offering quick solutions but by connecting clients with their core. Through careful self-examination, they get to know themselves better and they report that this also helps them to connect better with other people. As Carl Rogers (1961) once said: ‘the most personal is the most universal’. And, to encourage this self-examination, the right atmosphere, the right combination, the right firmness, setting and style are crucial.
To achieve this, you need to be accepted as a coach, because you are similar in terms of level but still sufficiently different or complementary. Accessible, while also exercising distance. Able to teach the client something because you ask questions and view the world from a different perspective. Allowing the client to proceed at his or her own pace, without applying tools or boxes of tricks that do not contribute anything but may subconsciously be designed more to help you strengthen your own grip. Because, as one director put it: ‘your own wisdom comes from within’.
Coaching is seen to be effective for the organisation as well: a director who is more in contact with him-or herself can also be so with others, which has consequences for the quality of relationships in the management team and elsewhere in the organisation. Indeed, many studies show a relationship between the behavioural example set at the top of an organisation and the organisational culture. Coaching can therefore contribute to a culture where there is more listening, better cooperation and more compassion for diversity. Or, as one coach put it: ‘if senior people in organisations can look with more awareness, so not through a haze of unprocessed, unconscious emotions, the whole organisation benefits and you lay a solid basis for organisational development’.
6. What similarities and differences are there when comparing coaching of leaders with coaching of their employees?
There are many similarities between coaching of leaders and coaching of their employees when it comes to basic skills of the coach. But there are also differences. These have to do with the person, the context and the role of the director.
About the person, one coach said very aptly: ‘executives are people who have achieved something in their working lives, often going against the current. They are strong people who have been able to turn their ideas into actions, are successful as a result and often operate in complex organisations’. Such people demand a lot of their coaches in the area of speed of thinking, intellectual level, courage and authenticity. The coach must be a match for the director in these respects, or you won’t get beyond the first session. You need to establish a connection by demonstrating that you have something to offer. Only then will your client be prepared to look at the emotional underlayer that influences his or her behaviour.
Your client’s behaviour is affected by the context, such as the executive or management team in which he or she operates. The coach therefore needs to have a thorough understanding of the client’s context. How complex, dynamic, tense and political it is, and what it means for a person to be in it day and night. This does not mean you need to have held the role yourself, but it does mean you have a feel for it and it does not intimidate or paralyse you.
But the main difference between executive coaching and coaching at other levels in organisations may indeed lie in the role of the director, which may overawe due to the feelings of power and impotence that it can provoke. Working with this role calls for reflection not only in the client but also in the coach. Feelings of self-doubt or concerns about your own effectiveness and belief in your own status in the relationship can sometimes creep in unnoticed. The latter feelings in particular can lead to coach and client becoming entangled in a narcissistic dynamic that has nothing to do with coaching. And that, for example, may start to resemble the situation in the director’s management team. This is a missed opportunity, because opening these feelings up for discussion - if it contributes to your client’s learning process - can bring great benefits in the coaching. This too demands courage. Because having such a conversation is a bold act for a coach. With coaching, you take someone out of their comfort zone, and you never know in advance if you will be able to stay in your own comfort zone.
A final difference is that, as an executive coach, you are working with the organisation as well. Due to their position in the organisation, directors often have a direct impact on its culture, results and decisions. Organisations are becoming ever larger in a globalising world, influencing the lives of vast numbers of people. Coaches therefore have a huge responsibility when bringing their talents to bear at senior levels in the organisation, and this makes them organisation coaches as well. Working with people who take decisions in these organisations calls for a high degree of self-reflection and awareness of that responsibility. Because people at the top are still people, with their own insecurities and doubts. Although they are quite capable of sending a coach away if they feel the combination hasn’t clicked or the coach is too judgmental. But of course there are also situations in which they do click and the director does not feel so comfortable in their own skin. This can result in an influence with highly dubious consequences.
Coaching helps directors to connect with their own core. Developing self-compassion helps with developing compassion for the other person. This helps in your role and in your context, and reinforces the contact and quality of relationships in organisations. And that benefits the whole organisation, and society as well.
I conclude with a review of the main points of my exploratory survey into experiences of executive coaching at senior levels in organisations.
- Coaching at senior levels in organisations is a way in which directors look after their own reflection; it is no luxury in a society in which people are experiencing increasing pressure, in organisations as well.
- There is no single method of coaching at senior levels. In choosing a coach, the director uses his or her intuition and looks for sufficient trust and chemistry. Other essential factors are the coach’s level of intellect, life experience and wisdom, and the power of difference. Clients also appreciate a coach who offers room for reflection and a listening ear, and encourages self-examination.
- Effective coaching calls for the art of balancing and the ability to deal with paradoxes. One of the most important skills of a coach is perhaps the ability to confront in a loving way. Coaching at senior levels is more an art than a skill and demands proper self-examination and self-reflection on the part of the coach. To avoid falling into their own patterns, parallel processes and a narcissistic dynamic in which coach and executive start to confirm each other.
- Coaching mainly generates a sense of peace for directors, through greater self-knowledge, awareness and self-acceptance. To achieve this, the right atmosphere, the right combination, the right firmness, setting and style are crucial. Effective coaching benefits the whole organisation because a director who is more in contact with him- or herself can also be so with others, which has consequences for the quality of relationships in the management team and hence at lower levels in the organisation.
- There are many similarities between coaching of professionals and the coaching of leaders, but there are also differences. These have to do mainly with the strength of the client, the dynamic in his or her team, and the director’s special role within the organisation. An executive coach is an organisation coach as well. It is therefore essential to know how organisations actually function.
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About the Author
Prof. dr. Yvonne Burger
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands,