New Manager

Coaching for the corner office

VINAY KAMATH | Updated on September 10, 2014


Many top managers are seeking out coaches to enhance their skill-sets and self-awareness as they grapple with tumultuous changes

A few years ago, Venkat was all set to be anointed CEO of a large global recruiting company headquartered in the UK. He had served the company well for many years in different capacities and now he was set for the corner office. Though young for the new role, Venkat, with his confidence and sunny disposition, was not one to be assailed by self-doubt. “But I felt I needed more skills as the demands of a CEO’s job were going to be different,” he recalls.

So, Venkat’s coaching journey of eight to nine months started by way of intense two-hour sessions with a senior coach every month. The agenda was set after a three-way meeting between Venkat’s boss, the coach and himself. “A coach doesn’t give you readymade answers, but prods and nudges you, making you reflect with constant questioning. Many times, you may feel inadequate but, like a batsman who has to finally face the bowling despite all the coaching, you need to find the answers yourself,” elaborates Venkat on his learning experience.

Scale, complexity

There are many like Venkat in top management who seek out coaches as they find their way through today’s tumultuous world of business. Ganesh Chella, veteran coach and co-founder of the Coaching Foundation of India (CFI), says there are a few drivers for the sudden spurt in coaching needs. For one, the last decade has seen the emergence of many multi-billion-dollar Indian companies. “We never had so many large global companies with an Indian presence, or Indian companies acquiring global entities. Also, companies now have thousands of employees. This scale and complexity have placed new demands on business heads, with many falling significantly short of the ask. Organisations are asking if the best guys are struggling, what can we do to help?”

The real challenge, as Chella explains, is how to do leader development on the job. There isn’t enough time to send top managers back to B-school, and schools can, at best, give them a conceptual framework. These managers need to come up to speed even as they slug it out in the market. “Coaching, as an intervention, is powerful and helps enhance self-awareness about what they have or don’t have. Second, it can create a safe, private space in a non-threatening, non-judgemental manner, where they can talk about their jobs. An average leader is judged quarter by quarter, day by day. Coaching is a safe space, where the coach challenges the CEO and helps him learn new skills,” elaborates Chella. Coaching needs, points out Pradipta Mohapatra, also a co-founder of CFI, are no longer random but fall into certain patterns: leaders seeking competencies for their present, or future, jobs is a predominant need. Then, leaders are required to do huge functional shifts which may need big transitions — say, from an Indian company to an MNC — and they need help managing such shifts.

The other area where leaders seek out coaches is where style shifts are required: from micro managing to more empowering, from being Indian to more global, “…we are seeing repetitive needs. The final theme we are seeing is that many leaders have to make big decisions — to scale up or not, bring a new partner, or, in a family business, should more professionals be hired? Each of these decisions has huge implications both for the organisation and the individual and they badly need a neutral sounding board; that’s where a coach steps in,” says Mohapatra.

Functional shifts

From the time the CFI was founded in 2006, the foundation has trained and certified over 200 coaches who, in turn, have taken on numerous assignments. These assignments had burgeoned to over 500 cases when Mohapatra and Chella decided to showcase 25 coaching experiences, each of a different nature, from leaders learning to manage transitions to acquiring global competencies to entrepreneurial struggles. All these have put together in a book Are you ready for the corner office? published by Sage. “There are very few books on real-life experiences; most are independent coaches and many of the books are abstract wisdom,” points out Mohapatra, on the genesis of the book.

While for reasons of confidentiality the coach and coachee names are masked, all are real-life coaching experiences, written in an anecdotal and compelling style. Here’s a para on how an organisation brought in a new senior leader from outside to head the organisation, ruffling the feathers of the incumbent: ‘Ramaswamy woke up in a cold sweat, looked at his bedside clock and realised it was just 3 a.m. He had been having a bad dream. Of late, the frequency of these unsettling dreams had begun to increase. As he paced around the kitchen sipping a glass of water, he began to wonder if there was any connection between these dreams and what was happening to him at work. Ever since the arrival of the new CEO, the dynamics at work had changed. Ramaswamy could sense that all was not well, and the situation could spin out of control very quickly if he did not do something about it….’ With all cases written like stories, it’s an easy and quick read with in-between chapters by top HR executives that set the agenda for different narratives.

Coaching itself is becoming specialised, with some coaches good at transition management, some with family businesses and entrepreneurs. While coaching is expensive as it involves top management, some companies, says Chella, are looking to coach managers in the mid-management cadre as well. They could well be the champions of the future and have a multiplier effect within the organisation.

What coaches cannot handle, though, is the increasing phenomenon of executive stress, where they cannot handle the job requirements. “Our coaches do get a good dose of psychological inputs. We can help executives increase their skill-sets to help cope with the job,” says Chella, adding that anger management ultimately is beyond a coach’s ken. As Venkat, quoted above, says: “Finally, it’s all about you, the shift has to happen in you; coaching will not help you reach managerial nirvana!”

Published on September 09, 2014

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