Ross Thompson at Arden University reveals the hidden benefit of executive coaching – which is the potential to unlock talent and capability via the promotion of candour and personal opinion
The growth of the executive coaching industry has been well documented in recent years. Indeed, a recent article in Forbes Magazine (1) even suggested that coaching may well be destined to supplant the consultancy industry, with client organisations seeking to “solve” challenges and problems via staff development rather than outsourcing them to a third party.
Accounting for the reasons behind this tremendous growth has likewise been well covered in the business press, but there is one key benefit that is frequently overlooked: coaching has the potential to unlock talent and capability via the promotion of candour and personal opinion. The absence of these attributes often bedevils plenary training and development interventions.
Management and leadership development programmes in the 1980s and 1990s tended to be dominated by an abundance of classroom-based training. Delegates were typically treated to a set piece diet of talks, discussions, group working and presentations. Trainers of the day would frequently indicate that the training was interactive and they would incorporate ample opportunities for delegate input and questions. This all sounds good, but it overlooked one key factor: people behave differently in a group context compared to a one-to-one situation. Their candour is frequently inhibited in the former scenario, meaning the level of interaction may be muted.
Academics refer to the “concept validity problem” to describe the phenomenon of failing to capture the precise intention of a research or consultancy question. In other words, a well-conceived and organised study may still generate the wrong answers to the questions. This is because research subjects may interpret the questions in their own way based upon their own context and situation. Something similar can happen in group training; the mere act of asking for delegate input and comment may not guarantee authentic or comprehensive responses. This is largely because of the group environment itself, which naturally inhibits our desire to be sincere and bare our souls. Honesty is most likely to be restricted if a delegate perceives that an utterance or admission may make them look weak, foolish or inadequate before their colleagues.
For example, imagine attending a training event with a selection of colleague managers, all of whom are hungry for career advancement within the organisation concerned. Now, suppose you do not fully understand a key element of the training. Are you going to raise your hand in front of your colleagues (and perhaps superiors – the “gatekeepers” to your career) and ask for clarification or further explanation? Many delegates would not feel comfortable to do so in a situation like this; others might feign agreement and then covertly try to “mug up” on the detail after the event.
Outcomes such as these have two major negative consequences. Firstly, the delegate is deprived of the expert clarification from the trainer and secondly, the trainer proceeds under the misapprehension that the key element is fully understood by all delegates.
One-to-one coaching carries with it the potential to eliminate both these problems. A skilled coach can use the privacy and intimacy of a one-to-one environment to build trust, openness and confidence. These are obvious and well-established benefits, but an astute coach will harness them to reduce candour barriers. They will encourage delegates to admit mistakes, concerns and weaknesses enabling the coach to offer the necessary support and guidance.
The delegate is, therefore, no longer prevented from accessing solutions to their concerns, whilst the coach/trainer is able to glean a more accurate assessment of the delegate’s needs and tailor or recommend a response accordingly. The “one size fits all” approach, frequently utilised by the group trainers, will struggle to achieve this.
It is not just the supportive “one-to-one” nature of executive coaching that engenders benefits to the coachee. Clever coaches will exploit this relaxed and trusting environment to encourage their coachees to reveal more about themselves, thus paving the way for more precise and tailored learning and training thus increasing the potential ROI of coaching.
Programme Team Leader – Postgraduate Business
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