Roots and Boundaries of Executive Coaching
Elizabeth and Gifford Pinchot
Develop through Coaching
Executive coaching with clients from business, government and non-profit workplaces is a young professional practice that is still forming its identity. Coaches and coaching practices are just now cataloging the benefits and limitations of the profession, and working out the professional guidelines for the delicate relationship of helping across the boundary between the individual and the employer.
Executive coaching is born out of the leadership training movement, yet it shares the viewpoints of the adult development and human potential movements. The coach is a teacher, but the subject is the development of the whole person and, in turn, the development of the whole system.
Dilemma 1: For the Individual and for the Organization
Executive coaching, like most of psychotherapy, confers the privilege (and responsibility) of helping people develop on their own terms – within the constraint of enough success to keep the workplace solvent and thriving. It is a fine line to walk in workplace coaching, to focus on the needs and wants of the individual while being accountable to the health of the system, in this case the organization that contracts and compensates the coach.
A typical workplace coaching begins with looking at the client’s goals – within and without the workplace. Next is figuring out how to achieve them with this employer, if possible, and within the reality of the rest of the client’s personal life. It is personal futurist work, constructing a realistic and satisfying future rooted in the full panoply of the client’s life story and the world that surrounds him or her.
What could possibly justify the corporation putting assets into this project? Doesn’t work like this belong at home or church or in some self-improvement workshop? The only justification for the time and expense is if the coached individual improves performance, which in turn causes improved performance in the company. Fortunately, people perform better when they act more in harmony with their authentic selves. In our own practice, we see that the companies with the best performance do support the development of the whole person. The people they develop and retain, now more creative and congruent, support the development of a better workplace.
Many companies have gotten wise enough to see their people as their prime resource. It is common practice to focus time and money on ways to help employees to function more effectively, and to try to do so without burning them out. Coaching adds further ingredients to the developmental mix: effectiveness and lowered stress are part of a wider transformation of the person’s work life, of becoming more congruent by putting into action his or her goals and dreams and values, in work and beyond.
|Company View||Successful Coaching View||Successful outcome|
|Reduce Stress||Come from values and personal goals||Work life and personal life become congruent|
|Remove dysfunctional behaviors||Increase behavioral options||Client tries new ways of being and new ways of contributing|
|Train in new skills & improve performance||Client takes on system-wide responsibility and influence||Leading / innovating from personal passion and widespread caring|
Boosting the individual’s personal development, by coaching employees towards congruence and creativity, can accrue to the bottom line health of the company as a whole. Fortunately, examples abound.
One of our clients in a training function was suddenly thrown over his head by a major change in responsibility. Instead of training middle managers in project management and supervisory skills he rather suddenly found himself in executive leadership training, which demanded of him new skills in participatory design, working with senior leadership and teamwork in a highly political context. Dealing with the senior management team on leadership style issues required a broader repertoire of insights, stories, and wisdom.
In this case, as in so many others, the biggest developmental boost came not from our client receiving coaching directly on the workplace issues, but from his inner growth work that spanned both the workplace and his private life.
Our client had been making significant progress in reframing issues in his intimate relationships. He was practicing inclusion of his wife and children in making family decisions. He had come to see his children’s bids for independence as positive signs of growth. He had come to see his wife’s very different and somewhat softer management style as highly effective and appropriate in many of the situations he and his leadership training participants were facing at work. He had learned to use the power of gratitude to dissolve conflict. He had discovered that he didn’t have to play the hero himself around the home in order to be loved and appreciated – that in fact playing the hero often de-motivated and disempowered others.
When he brought these lessons back to his work with the leadership team he found the lessons very relevant. With his help, several members of the leadership team themselves developed a more participative style. Better leadership began to spread. “Gratitude is the attitude,” became a company mantra. The reward and succession planning process began to focus less on the heroes who saved the company’s bacon and more on those whose people were most creative and effective. The result was a significantly more effective organization.
Dilemma 2: Way Up From Already Good
The essence of executive coaching is helping the client move way up from already good. The people who come to executive coaches are highly functional, often star performers. And yet, they also have room for growth, and growth often begins with dissatisfaction with what is. How do you mix the right degree of admiration for what the client can do with helping them see what needs to be changed?
Society often perceives therapists as working in the arena of the dysfunctional; therapists try to fix that which is not functioning. Such a view can lead to a belief that the client is “sick.” But in coaching we are not therapists; we are peers working with admirable people who are often highly advanced in their understanding of themselves and how to get the most out of who they are. Our clients are certainly not sick: instead they are exceptional people eagerly striving to continually develop themselves–way up from already good. And the coach is there to facilitate and help.
Coaching can be seen as a kind of personalized training – a precise, tailor-made intervention. Yet even that distinction is misleading, because the most important aspect of coaching is that we aim to increase the executive’s intelligent control and responsibility – to release the expression of their highest talents and deepest strength of character rather than to add knowledge or fix something that is wrong. The core of this work is the client becoming more congruent, true to themselves, and thus more engaged and effective in both work and personal life.
Dilemma 3: Changing the Individual, Changing the System
In addition to our background as executive coaches, trainers, consultants, psychotherapists, and entrepreneurs (a typical sort of resume for coaches), we are also unabashed systems theorists. So, many ideas from systems theory permeate our work. Thus, we work from two perspectives in coaching: that of the individual client and that of workplace environment or business system. We see each client both as an individual and as a part of a particular context, immersed in a particular set of relationships. Is our executive coaching client shaped by the character of his or her workplace, or is the organization shaped by the character of the executive? Both perspectives are useful, and the interplay of individual and system is the dynamic the individual is struggling to resolve.
The next story shows how the need to deal with barriers that were in the way of our client’s success caused us to expand the boundaries within which an executive coach normally operates. For our assignment to be successful, we found we had to bring in another person whose role was complementary to that of the coach – a facilitator with a distinctly different set of boundaries and operating procedures. One of us retained the role of primary coach, which the other acted as a facilitator of the larger system. In large organizational transformations, it is often necessary to work at the micro or individual level and as the macro or system level at the same time.
One of our clients was CEO of an unusually structured service organization. Several members of the board of directors had themselves formerly held the CEO post in the organization and all of them felt an unusual sense of involvement with the idealistic goals and fate of the business. The board, and even other shareholders, frequently meddled in the business, often bypassing the CEO by telling her staff what to do and how to do it. Our CEO disliked their inappropriate meddling in the business, but she needed their support, their continuing investment, and ultimately their continued choice of her for job. She had been sent in to control costs and turn around a business that had been losing money for several years. She had excellent financial and business management skills and a deep spiritual path that aligned with the idealistic nature of the business and its owners.
She was most comfortable with the owners and directors, spending time with them at retreats and socially, and had not spent much time with the staff outside formal meetings. With the board, she found herself falling into reinforcing their prejudices by complaining about her employees, rather than protecting them and asking help in developing them. She had the support of the board, but was not pleased with her own performance. She faced a growing dissatisfaction from the staff who were not responding well to rather obvious cost control necessities. Morale among many of her employees was bad enough to affect the quality of customer service and the efficiency with which it was provided. She often felt frustrated and lonely.
We came to this coaching job through the president of the board, who was not satisfied with the CEO’s leadership or the structure of the organization. He was concerned that the organization was losing money and that the staff seemed to have low morale and a “victim / downtrodden worker” world view and responsibility level. He asked one of us to coach the CEO and see what could be done to improve her leadership style, especially encouraging more employee participation, initiative, and entrepreneurial focus.
She knew the coach had been sent in because things were not going well. At first she presented the situation to us \as one of poor organizational design and confused directions emanating from the board. Both were clearly true. The CEO also felt let down by the employees, both in their responsibility level and in their non-support of her efforts on their behalf. And it was true that before she came to fix it they were disillusioned of all management. Gradually she became trusting enough to talk about the opportunity she had for learning and improvement in several areas. She learned that we could on her side even when we saw opportunities for her to be more effective. Our client had the necessary analytic skills in business management, but came to see that she needed to work on deepening her engagement with employees as their inspirational leader and defender. She began to hold to a clear and inspiring picture of where the organization was headed, a courageous action given the strength of the board’s involvement. She had to protect employees from board members who told individual employees what to do, thereby sabotaging the plans, coherent vision and structure of the organization. Rather than let the board launch random projects, she asked employees to say, “Good idea. I’ll suggest it at the next management meeting.” This was difficult for her because she was afraid to offend board members, a justified concern given that short tenures of the CEOs who preceded her. Two things became clear to us. One, the CEO had a lot to learn about implementing the kind of participative leadership that actually suited her deep commitment to her spiritual path. Second, the organizational dysfunction was largely the consequence of factors beyond her control. We discussed the option of her quitting. Here we put to use part of the ethical boundaries inherent in client-centered therapy. What the client wishes to achieve in the areas of worldly success, emotional experience and spiritual growth is up to the client. Our job is merely to get them to see that there may be more productive options in the way with which they approach their goals. The hiring organization must accept that if the client’s best interest is to leave, the coach will not stand in the way.
The client decided that she could learn more by staying on the job and trying to handle the situation, rather than by leaving during a crisis. She knew her job would continue to be painful, but she felt she was growing new capabilities and understandings at a rapid pace.
As we pondered how to proceed, boundary conflicts arose. As the CEO’s coach, we could no longer talk with the board chair about the CEO’s fitness to serve. Our coaching conversations had created a privileged communication that superceded our role as organizational consultants to the board. Fortunately our work took us in a direction where the client’s interests and the organization’s interest coincided: finding a way to restore employee morale. If we focused the reborn employee energy on creating enough new business to establish profitability, the company’s interests would also be served.
In this case, like many situations in family therapy, coaching the client to change was inadequate to change the situation. We applied a basic boundary precept from fields as diverse as family therapy and organizational change: “Get the whole system in the room!”
Each member of the groups making up the system, including the owners and directors, needed to learn about the larger system, so they could channel their good intentions into effective action for the benefit of the whole. With coaching help, the CEO orchestrated a series of small and large group interventions that built understanding and respect between the groups, and also established common visions and goals for the organization as a whole. She became the synthesizer of a challengingly unwieldy organization, improved the nature of the board’s contributions, and grew to meet the challenges of effective leadership in a very difficult situation.
The best coaches we know have business consulting or organizational leadership experience as well as experience in psychotherapy and human development. They move seamlessly between asking good questions about the business issues and delving into issues of the leadership style and the psychological impact of their client’s actions on others.
Coaching in the workplace must serve the larger system while serving the individual who is presented to the coach for help. Family therapy has decades of experience walking this line between the individual and their family and society. Practitioners have developed the skills to protect the freedom and dignity and personal development of the individual (even adolescents!) while also supporting the other members in having better lives.
In family systems jargon, the client who arrives for help is referred to as the “identified patient,” identified by the family or group as needing help; the term implies that the entire family is the group to be helped, whether directly or indirectly through the “IP.” In many instances, whatever failings brought the IP into therapy can be looked at as a symptom of the group, rather than of the individual, whose behavior is for better or worse a response to the situation, or even a backhanded attempt to change it.
For the coaching profession, the reminder of shared responsibility must be sterner: there is no identified patient – just good people, doing their best, encountering their growth needs, and trying to contribute.
Dilemma 4: Integrating Work and the Rest of Life
Today’s organizations cannot be run by the tough workaholic individualists of yesterday’s executive pantheon. Workaholics, for instance, don’t learn the gentler skills needed to motivate people to work across boundaries. Rapid change and the takeover of many routine tasks by computers has left a workplace in which most of what people do is innovate, integrate, motivate and care. We need executives who can liberate and lead the people. Rather than being threatened by their best subordinates, they relish liberated people bringing their full commitment and abilities into a more collaborative and democratic workplace. By having success and happiness in their lives as a whole, executives are better equipped to help their employees develop more wholeness.
One classic example of a development opportunity and challenge for the coach is the high achievement young executive whose strengths suggest that he or she be groomed for very senior leadership. In the view of his or her management, this highly productive and talented person is also hampered by weaknesses in personal communication style or human relationship skills. The corporation would like to see such weaknesses surgically removed and necessary relationship skills added to this bright and competent super-executive.
These individuals are often described as very hard working and determined to do whatever is necessary to contribute and succeed regardless of the personal cost. It is hoped that with the right evaluations, training or mentoring they will make whatever changes are necessary to be a more functional manager and human being. The obvious approach is to teach them skills like communication, sensitivity to others and the varieties of human motivation. But this approach may run into the fact that they are already driven, already controlling themselves with elaborate sets of rules and beliefs about what kind of behaviors will win them approval. Even when conceptually well grounded, more rules on how to behave may not produce a warmer, more productive and more broadly creative manager.
Often in these cases, the executive is expressing readiness for a deeper change. After a rapid series of promotions and outward successes they are saying, “Is this all there is to it?” Hear this as the beginning of a perceptual shift from “how do I change myself to win the next rung on the ladder” to “how do I get in touch with my deeper self and express the power of my values and my whole self in my work.”
When a client is reaching out for deeper meaning can be a good time for him or her to release more of the “true self” that has been papered over by the demands of the “false self” which was created to please others. Our true selves, in fact, have the built in compassion and ability to see others that will naturally guide us towards developing better human relationship skills. When our words and music go together, when we can bring our heart and head and values to work, when we can be ourselves in all aspects of our lives, we are congruent. (For more on this framework, read Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child.)
The Cost of Not Coaching
One of our clients, the VP of HR at a large computer company, told us this story:
George was one of their most effective intrapreneurs. He had launched an impressive string of successful new products. Both his technical and his business judgement were excellent. He was marked at an early age for succession to very senior management positions and became a young vice president.
As George took on responsibility as part of the team guiding the entire company, his eager beaver “just do it” personality became a liability. He was impatient with consensual processes and sometimes tactless in his defense of good ideas. Of course this was just the flip side of the entrepreneurial personality that made him so valuable.
A mutual frustration developed. George was frustrated by what he saw as the agonizingly slow pace and lack of courage displayed by the leadership team. The rest of the team was frustrated by George’s impulsiveness and emotionalism when he did not get his way in defending innovative projects.
The VP of Human Resources put it this way:
“It is clear to me now that if George had had a coach then, he would be a very senior member of our leadership team today. A coach could have helped him see how to be more effective by presenting himself in a way that didn’t rub other members of the team the wrong way. And we could use his impeccable business judgement and strategic vision working for us instead of the start-ups that have made him and his new investors very rich.”
As this story demonstrates, the cost of not coaching promising talent can be immense.
Tools and Limits for Coaching
Although coaching is not psychotherapy, psychological counselors have learned many lessons that can be of great help to coaches. The progressive branches of psychotherapy have long been working on tools for bringing the whole person, with their heart, into their life and work. They have moved from fixing what is wrong to bringing out the extraordinary. “Whole people” bring a kind of magic into the systems they are leading. The challenge for the profession of coaching is to continue to find better ways to inspire personal development and improve performance in individuals and thus their organizations, while always respecting the individual’s freedom and right to direct and control their own destiny.
Coaches without extensive training in psychotherapy may not be prepared to intervene in a client’s deep personality issues, nor is the workplace necessarily the proper venue to do so. Coaches are helping people to see how they can be more effective and to have the courage to go through the practice period when new behaviors are awkward. They are not delivering deep therapy, nor are they offering friendship or romance. Coaches must be vigilant in limiting work with the client to appropriate coaching objectives and interventions. The coaching profession is particularly in need of professional guidelines and limits, to stay within the bounds of appropriate workplace support while still addressing the client’s personal development. The discussions to create and improve these guidelines will open inquiries into how our work promotes and embodies basic civil rights in the workplace, for instance, and how each member of an organization can combine more democratic ways of working with collaborative responsibility. In this chapter, we hope to open these questions, not close them.
Collaborative Change Model
The most important contribution of the psychotherapy model to coaching is the fact that people can cause their own positive change, in their inner worlds as well as outer, and often can do better with a little help. George Kelly, a great teacher of clinical psychology and personality theory, talks about psychotherapy as a collaborative venture that begins with finding where the individual’s quest has bogged down and getting it going again. Given the rather short timeframes and greater space between meetings that often characterizes some phases in executive coaching, it is fortunate that people do most of the work themselves.
Secure Base for Change
Because it deals at a deep level of a person’s being, executive coaching, like psychotherapy, begins with creating a safe space in which the client can begin to direct their own change process – discover their own goals and better ways to achieve them.
We don’t like it, but sometimes we coaches are brought in as a last resort, just before a high potential employee is regretfully fired. This is a particularly difficult situation because it does not fit the “making the better the best they can be” paradigm that defines coaching. If there is any hint that the employee is on the way out, we carefully check that we are not being called in as part of a process of firing someone, which is definitely outside our scope of work. Sometimes we need to educate our client’s boss that we will never reveal what we learn in sessions to the client’s bosses, no matter how useful our knowledge might be to the decision to retain or fire.
In one such case, the client’s employment was so near the edge that we refused to begin without a guarantee that the client had at least six months to show improved performance. In this comparative security, at least free to learn and grow, the client opened himself to a wide feedback request that included thoughtful write-ups and conversations with former staff as well as current employees. He began making changes, learning to delegate more fully and listen before offering his solution.
Our client’s explanation for his freedom to grow and change was the supportive character of all the interventions and help he received. He knew from the beginning that the coach was on his side, and he and the coach made a point of seeing that his key colleagues supported his new actions and initiatives. In this safe context he first succeeded at his existing job and then in moving on to what he really wanted to do.
Let Others Possess Their Experience
For clients to let go of their current pattern of behavior, someone needs to confirm the truth and validity of their current perceptions and feelings. Someone must accept what is, so they can stop defending their viewpoints long enough to see clearly what else is happening and how they are reacting to it. A typical example is the executive of color who needs confirmation that discrimination exists in order to let go of excessive concern about it and get on with succeeding despite the unfair obstacles. Someone needs to acknowledge the client’s discomfort or humiliation so they can get beyond their feelings to improving the situation. Often the first task of the therapist, and the coach as well, begins with this confirmation of the client’s experience and predicament. This shared understanding of the client’s experience is the first step toward creating a safe base from which to explore new options.
As helping professionals, we have needed to outgrow a deep compulsion to fiddle with others’ experience. Coaching – like good psychotherapy or good parenting – must have at its base a trust in the client’s experience, a willingness to witness it and accept it rather than change it.
Confirmation in coaching and therapy alike has its basis in returning control to the client. When we create a safe relationship for the client to own their own experience, and speak about it, we create an open system rather than a closed one. As they come to understand that they are not imagining their suffering, that it is in fact reasonable to be discontented in their situation, they gain the certainty they need to make changes in themselves and their situation. Some maxims we use to remember this kind of client respect:
- Never diminish clients; help them grow.
- Don’t invalidate their views of reality; help them expand .it
- Be wary of telling the client what to think; ask good questions that leave room for self respect.
Development for young and old is enhanced by the appropriate level of challenge and contradiction, especially in a relatively safe and supportive context as a good coach and good company can foster. Sometimes the situation the client is in has plenty of challenge and “optimal frustration” to spur the learning without much help from the coach. Other times the coach must inject some artful challenge, a bit riskier intervention for the coach than just confirming the client’s view of the world so they have the courage to act on it.
With an optimal level of challenge, clients will widen their perspective, and leave their comfort zone: learn new things, try to things, listen with an open mind, admit and learn from mistakes and successes, become comfortable with change, learn to be more open and authentic. The client can gradually see the opportunities and learnings in the challenge, a big step toward their taking effective action.
Who is Setting the Goals
The client, not the coach or the boss, controls the goals for the change process. One of our mentors, Robert Kegan, stated this best in his book The Evolving Self: “Among the many things from which a practitioner’s clients need protection is the practitioner’s hopes for the client’s future, however benign and sympathetic these hopes may be.” This is a harsh specific in the general rule that we strive to recognize and honor our clients’ distinctness. It is the client’s own hopes and goals that provide the ongoing boundaries around our collaborative endeavor.
It is difficult to protect our clients from our hopes for them, when we hope so much for the people we want to help. It is inconvenient when we have been given specific areas of improvement from an outside evaluation of the client. Nonetheless, to paraphrase Kegan, “In a world where people will increasingly put themselves in the hands of ‘coaches,’ it is the coaches above all who must understand that much of human personality is none of their business.”
The Involuntary Client
A truism in psychotherapy and in fact in any creative learning endeavor is that the client has to want to be there and engage fully in the process. When an employee is “offered” a coach to correct deficiencies, perhaps after a negative appraisal, it is a question whether the coaching is really voluntary. Yet it is possible to engage a client who did not beg for coaching by keeping his or her interests foremost in mind, and gradually yet vigilantly returning autonomy and control to him or her.
Check Client and Company Intent
As mentioned above, before we coaches start an assignment, we need to know if management is covertly attempting to fire a person or even take testimony from us to support a firing. This work we always refuse, although outplacement is good work. We need to know the company’s full intent, and how much support they can give to the client. Then we can decide if coaching is appropriate and if the situation if safe enough for it to work.
In our coaching we also try to identify the individual’s needs, wants and underlying values to compare with those of the organization. It may feel bold at first to examine the issue of the fit of the coaching client and their particular workplace role, as if it would be disloyal to the company, but it serves to highlight the voluntary nature of the employee/employer relationship. Does the client have a good basis for commitment, the seed of contributions, to their work and their workplace? Is the fit with the workplace strong enough for a creative and productive interaction? Does the client want to stay, or at least try to stay for a while? In our coaching, we often do a light evaluation on this issue in introductory conversations with the coaching client and the party who hired us, if different, before we agree to launch into a larger block of coaching.
Properties in the Relationships, Not Just the People
A major contribution of psychotherapy to coaching is adding to our meager language of relationships. The philosopher Bertrand Russell reminded us not to confuse the language of objects and relationships. Object language dominates much of science (including psychology) and traditional business thinking. For instance, “Jane is a manager” is object language, giving us a property of a person or thing. “Jane and Joe are colleagues” is relational language, telling us nothing about the people considered separately, but telling us about something that exists between the people.
Problems arise when we get taken in by the myth that properties which in fact exist between people are properties of the individual considered separately. “John is my boss” can imply a lot about John and a lot about me that may or may not be true. For instance, “boss” may mean to me someone who has all the answers (or none) or someone I should defer to (or undercut). It is easy in any relationship to presume qualities in another that may or may not exist, rather than taking responsibility for finding out what the other person is really up to, and what I am contributing to the quality of the relationship. If things are not going well, I can always ask, without blame, “What am I co-creating in this relationship,” rather than, “What’s wrong with me,” or “What’s wrong with that other person?” Although pathology and even evil are out there, it is both educational and effective to assume that the qualities of one’s relationships are mutually determined, for both the coach and his or her clients. Strengthening this understanding for our clients can give them fresh perspectives and new opportunities.
Every coach, every professional helper’s most important task is to be a good listener, for the obvious reason that there is a gap to be bridged between the reality held by the client and what we hear through our inevitable filters. If we listen sensitively, we can begin to piece together how our client composes himself and his world.
It is a wonder we communicate at all, given our different personal realities and the human proclivity for having habit and prejudice filter our view of others. Establishing deep communication between two people with two distinct models of reality is a bit of a miracle, requiring that we expand the intersection of our minds, at the same time maintaining our inevitable separateness of self. To the extent we carry it off, communication is an evolutionary triumph. As coaches, we continually remind ourselves of the power we can give to another by just listening, both directly (as our clients benefit from being heard) and as a model for them to use with others.
Thinking the Best of Others
As professional helpers we must model responsibility for listening and learning about what is really going on with our clients, so that they will bring more wisdom to their relationships. For instance, each of us, from time to time, when we somehow expect it, will misconstrue another’s actions as meaning something rejecting or derogatory. Many hurts and arguments begin this way. I feel slighted when I enter a room and an important colleague doesn’t look up. I can feel slighted and hurt, even though the other person is simply engrossed in a good novel, or a pondering their own problem of the moment. Differing expectations and assumptions of meaning are particularly difficult in cross-cultural relationships, a problem in our polyglot US and increasingly a problem in our mobile and globalized work world. Often our task is to lead our clients in finding a kinder understanding of others’ behavior.
Giving Meaning to the Facts
In the end meanings determine the facts as much as vice versa. The core technique of coaching is creating a setting in which the client can change his or her mind. We coaches conduct processes that encourage people to see more options for viewing reality, and then discover which ways of seeing things will lead to a happier and more productive life.
George Kelly gave coaching a maxim of hope: “Whatever exists can be re-construed.” To the extent this is true, we have great opportunity to change, and a coach is able to help others create more options. However, lest this sound like “Think and grow rich,” it is important to note that we are not alone in creating the meaning of our lives, for our lives are created in the spaces between others, and us as well as in our relationships to physical reality. The meaning, the culture, our accomplishments, and even in some sense our talents, are co-created with others.
Working at the Edge of Politics
Remembering the importance of each client’s context or environment, and understanding the quality of external conditions can humanize us, and politicize us. Any coach knows this. A person is having trouble at work being the best they can be. Yes, it is their problem, and they have to improve their approach to it, but what is impinging on them? Health? Nutrition? Family stresses? Money problems? Poor sleep? Negative co-worker? Unhealthy office? Add to the variety of concrete environmental factors all the workplace culture issues, and we, like the client, can begin to see their world as unfair. However, our assignment can only be to help change those things we can change.
Help Everyone Balance Status and Power
Managing status and power is another basic issue in coaching. Coaches must address both the perception and the reality of inequalities of status and power. One of our mentors, the family therapist Virginia Satir, brought these issues into her consulting practice. She pointed out the obvious, that we are all born small, and fully dependent. From this unavoidable beginning, we are, in all cultures, vulnerable to establishing relationships of excessive and fixed dominance and submission. Satir taught her tens of thousands of students in the helping professions that helping people change their relationships to greater equality is a direct way to reduce pain and suffering, no matter how seemingly psychological the suffering. Over the long term, people can outgrow their tendencies to expect and create relationships of dominance and submission.
It is ironic that people at every level of their organizations feel powerless before those in the levels above. Coaching can help clients to see that they are not as powerless as they feel, and also to let go of dominating behaviors.
Limits of Individualism, Benefits of Service and Altruism
Coaching has this built-in liability: focus on the individual client can threaten the common good in the workplace. Rampant individualism without commitment to the common good, says Martin Seligman, produces widespread depression and meaninglessness. “Our society cannot tolerate for long these painful by-products of its obsession with itself.” Our workplaces cannot tolerate too much obsession with self, or the depression and meaninglessness it engenders. Fortunately, workplaces with worthy missions provide the context for individuals to find purpose and meaning. It is the responsibility of the coach to help the client achieve personal meaning and more worthwhile purposes at work, and even in life. At the same time, the client can gradually take on the responsibility for raising the level of worthwhile purposes available to everyone in the workplace.
The profession of executive coaching is built on new concepts of human potential at work. The goal of coaching is not fixing what is broken, but in discovering new talents and new ways to use old talents that lead to far greater effectiveness. The goal is to help people bring their whole selves to work because their true self, an integration of a wonderful collection of parts, has more capability than any part or acted out role.
More “fully human” people are necessary to realize the potential of the more democratic, more intrapreneurial “learning” organizations demanded by today’s rapidly changing marketplace. Indeed, the geometric increase in organizational productivity and innovation which is occurring today rests on the convergence of these two streams, organizational and human development: organizational innovations favoring freedom, teamwork and shared mission converging with modern ideas of adult development (freedom to “grow,” high quality relationships, and worthwhile purposes). These more liberated organizations are the setting that maximizes the continuous learning and development of their members.
Executive coaching is both person-centered and system-centered – we are not training or fixing people, but freeing and focusing them to be their very best. Successful coaching achieves positive change for both the individual and the system.