Why does Executive Coaching need to be External?
Senior executives around the world are increasingly valuing executive coaching. “To combat the isolation, he enlisted his executive coach to help him ’work through complex, confidential issues that can be difficult to discuss’ with people connected to the business. ‘Being challenged and guided on a monthly basis by someone independent ensured I was well prepared to answer complex questions’.” The above is taken from the article “Why an executive coach is now a must-have for CEOs,” brought in Financial Times, 18 July 2022. In this, several senior executives share why they consider executive coaching so invaluable in their continued success – especially in the unpredictable world we all live in. Having worked in the executive world, I can fully resonate with their experiences.
Coaching is overall a powerful tool to accelerate your development. In a coaching relationship, you get the confidential space needed to share the challenges you undoubtedly face in your job. A place for self-reflection – where you can strengthen your self-awareness and self-leadership. Many senior leaders take on the role of coaching more junior leaders – but often, the coaching varies in quality and is to some extent mixed with mentoring. So, many corporate increasingly educate internal coaches to support the leadership development of their “high potentials” in a pure coaching relationship. Often, internal coaches are brilliant in helping the mid-managers. However, internal coaches cannot effectively coach a senior executive in the same organisation. Several factors prevent this.
Firstly, it can be difficult to fully establish that confident space where the senior executive feels sufficiently relaxed around talking about their challenges and leadership challenges with a more “junior” internal coach. Despite best intentions from the internal coach and hopefully their excellent coaching skills, it fails to become a space where a senior executive can discuss “all” topics. Who will feel comfortable with sharing personal challenges with an “employee” placed several levels below yourself in your organisation and potentially reporting to your HR director or another senior executive colleague?
Specific topics like restructuring, mergers, lay-offs, etc., will often be so confidential that it can be challenging to talk with any internal coach. Despite the ethical rules of coaching stating that all coaching relations shall be confidential, it will be difficult to fully feel comfortable that such topics can be shared and discussed helpfully. What is said cannot be unsaid. How shall coaches manage to keep that knowledge if it also impacts them? For that reason, such topics are often only discussed with other senior executives - but they may sometimes be the main reason the senior executive needs coaching in the first instance.
It can be lonely and cold on the top. Some may have excellent senior executive colleagues, but equally, many have “competitors” and some even “enemies” - often with opposing interests as only so many top teams worldwide truly work as an effective team. Most teams struggle with one or more of Patrick Lencioni’s "Five dysfunctions of a team", like lack of full commitment, absence of trust or focus on shared results, etc. So, with whom can you share and work through the challenges you have with other senior executives in your organisation?
Everyone can, in theory, become a coach in whatever field they desire. However, it truly helps to have prior experience in leadership, especially senior leadership, and the challenges that often arise in that field as an executive coach. It gives the coach a good understanding of the world the executive operates in and the challenges they face. Equally, it can be difficult to become a good coach for a tennis player if you have never played tennis in your own life. It does not mean that you must have won “gold” medals or be better than the coachee, but it certainly helps you understand the game and can relate to the coachee’s challenges. For that reason, more and more senior executives seek external executive coaching as they genuinely find value in having that independent, confidential partner to help them work through complex challenges.
Are you being coached, or are you considering being it?