Tiger Woods has one. So does Roger Federer. And Lance Armstrong. People in virtually all walks of life, from sports to the performing arts to education, now have private coaches to guide them toward their full potential. Lately CFOs have joined the party as they, or their companies, realize that a demanding and multi-faceted job often requires some external guidance. As a result, the field of executive coaching is booming, with the ranks of practitioners swelling and companies in related fields rushing to add coaching to their menu of services.
“Over the last five years, we have probably seen more people come in for coaching who are in finance or information services parts of the business,” says Bill McCarthy, a coach with LeaderSource, an executive coaching firm recently acquired by executive search company Korn/Ferry International. The reason: the technical expertise that helps a CFO or CIO rise to the top is just one part of the skill set needed to succeed in a C-suite position.
“Nobody has taken the time to train promising executives to be effective at strategy,” says Melanie S. Robbins, a Boston-based executive coach whose clients include Fidelity and Johnson & Johnson. “There’s no formula for being a good manager. One of the things a really good executive coach can do is help somebody find their style, their voice, their process.”
There was a time when coaching was positioned as a last-ditch effort to prop up a failing manager, but these days executive coaches are usually called in to help talented executives reach for the next rung on the corporate ladder. “Executive coaching is widely accepted. Everybody either has a coach or wants a coach,” said Suzanne Bates, president of Bates Communications, a Wellesley, Mass. firm that specializes in coaching communication skills. To be sure, if your company shells out for a coach (and it isn’t cheap—the average engagement can run $30,000) you should be flattered, not insulted. “If you were that much of a train wreck, they’d get rid of you,” says Robbins.
Coaching is not therapy, although some coaches are psychologists who emphasize an understanding of human behavior. Nor is a coach a mentor, but there are similarities. “A mentor is someone who imparts experience, expertise and information,” says Kevin Cashman, president and founder of LeaderSource. “A coach tries to draw forth your potential in the most effective way.” Coaches often specialize in, for example, communication skills or teamwork or making the transition to a new company or new position. While good chemistry between a coach and coachee is desirable, don’t expect your coach to be your friend. Coaches may ask difficult questions and prod their clients to address weaknesses or confront problems.
This can be helpful. When Mark Young, chief financial officer and senior counsel at Personnel Decisions International, found himself with a new hire who was 15 years his senior and had been a CFO, he found that he was apprehensive about the situation; his coach helped him talk with the new hire so they could both adjust to this potentially awkward relationship.