Executive coaching

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Written by Peter Honey on 17 October 2013

I have spent a significant part of my working life coaching managers of different shapes and sizes.  Often some of the most interesting coaching conversations have happened accidentally when a beleaguered manager started to talk about his or her (usually his!) feelings of inadequacy and/or about some current difficulty they were facing. 

Managers have few people they can trust with confidences and often find it a relief to open up to a disinterested outsider like me. Unfortunately, the climate in most organisations encourages 'closed' behaviour where admitting to inadequacies is considered naïve and career limiting. It is not surprising that executive coaching has grown in popularity.

Over the years, I have found that coaching conversations tend to revolve around four recurring themes.   

1 The perils of delegating 

Every manager, by definition, has a job that is too big to be accomplished single-handedly. Inevitably, therefore, managers must confront the dangerous business of how to delegate, i.e. how to get someone else to do part of their job for them - preferably willingly rather than under duress.  

This may sound straightforward, but on closer examination delegation is something of a minefield.  For example, the delegating manager has to decide:

• what to delegate and whom to entrust with part of their job

• whether to risk 'stretch delegation' i.e. where the task is deliberately delegated to someone in order to provide them with a developmental opportunity  

• whether to delegate by sticking to 'whats' and leaving the person to decide 'hows'

• what authority the person will need in order to carry out the delegated task

and how to delegate so that  the person feels  accountable (even though, in truth, the accountability remains with the manager)

• how, and when, to follow up.

The whole process is fraught with uncertainty. No wonder so many managers are timorous delegators.

2 The perils of losing control

Every organisation has a built-in propensity to fail and anything that smacks of anarchy or chaos is a threat. The knee-jerk reaction is to impose authority and tighten controls. However, much of the control mangers hanker after is illusory.  It is impossible for managers, particularly senior managers, really to know what is going on. The information they are fed is selected and laundered 

In my experience, most managers are wary of letting go. It seems to them little short of suicidal.  They are even wary of more participation (a fraction of what is involved in letting go!).  It seems messy and time-consuming and people might make the wrong decisions.

So, managers, despite all the propaganda about empowerment and encouraging their staff to take responsibility, are racked with doubt about the wisdom of letting go. 

3 The perils of developing people

Mangers know they are supposed to develop their people's talents by providing them with ample opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills. They even understand the benefits of doing so; competent direct reports are likely to be more dependable and make fewer mistakes. However, it is one thing to understand this intellectually and quite another to make it a daily priority. The gap between knowing and doing is usually at its widest when it comes to managing people.

Most mangers are reluctant to give people helpful feedback to improve their performance and of coaching and conducting appraisals. It is far easier to avoid vague, emotive topics and stick to safe things like the latest share price or even the weather!

4 The perils of keeping up a 'can-do' pretence 

Managers are human. They have off-days, days when they don't feel like keeping up the pretence that they are omnipotent. Yet they are expected to appear keen and enthusiastic, to exude a 'can do' attitude, to 'walk the talk', to 'do the vision thing'.

I have always been critical of those books that suggest managers need to be 'super' or 'great' or 'incredible'.  Good managers don't need to be miracle workers. They just need to be honest and resilient enough to keep going in the face of difficulties and setbacks. Managers, however, are understandably loath to drop the facade.  Imagine a manager saying 'I was wrong and I'm pleased to announce a U-turn'. Imagine a manager calling his or her staff together and saying, 'I can't keep up the pretence any longer. From now on I'm simply going to be me'.

Sadly, managers are role models whether they like it or not, their staff take an unhealthy interest in all that they say and do. I have known entire organisations come to a halt as rumours spread about the CEO's latest crazy idea, the next hare-brained initiative or a boardroom coup. 

About the author
Peter Honey FRSA, FCIPD, FIMC is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications. He can be contacted at peterhoney1@btinternet.com or via www.peterhoney.org
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