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The Dangers of Executive Coaching
By Anna Garleff - Founder of Garleff Coaching and Consulting Group (GCCG) | The Seeking Veritas Business and Leadership Column is an ongoing collaborative project between SG Productions & GCCG
There was an article posted recently in the Harvard Business Review on “The Very Real Dangers Of Executive Coaching” - and I couldn't agree more with it. There are dangers, they’re real, and they can do more harm than good. You might think that’s an odd thing for me - an Organizational Psychologst and Executive Coach - to say … but hear me out.
It has become more and more mainstream for entrepreneurs and C-Suite to engage coaches. You know, it’s lonely at the top. A coach is seen as an invaluable, invisible partner with the depth and breadth of experience to help you think things through, like: risk, innovation, staffing, communication, marketing, conflict, team management, transformation, and a boatload more. But your coach can really only help you with things they truly understand.
When first repatriating back to Canada, one of the things I noticed immediately (like Rip Van Winkle) was the - for me - odd corporate fascination with social media personalities; anyone with an “I have overcome” story; and, overwhelmingly, star athletes. No doubt their stories are both entertaining and insightful; no doubt their advice helps some executives improve their performance and solve problems in many areas. But how does being a member of any of these occupations qualify you as a coach?
After all, what a coach should be doing is illuminating that which people cannot clearly see on their own. So if you’ve got no deep experience in diagnosing and treating trauma, cracking limiting beliefs, recognizing psychological difficulties and unconscious conflict - just how the hell are you going to add actual value other than as a sounding board in your niche subject matter area in your niche geographical location?
And don’t tell me that’s all just for “crazies”. I’ve yet to meet a solitary client who hasn’t had to face, address, and resolve a deep-seated personal obstacle. That’s just one of the reasons people come to me - I tell them what others won’t or can't.
So your “coach” is likely to either:
not recognize the root problem
downplay the problem - (or worse, and here it comes …)
make a bad situation worse.
I’ve seen this happen time and again. A well-intentioned but shockingly untrained “coach” passes out advice on the sole basis that it’s what worked for them.
The absolute bedrock of any coaching relationship is trust. To trust blindly is what pretty much anyone searching for a coach has to do because after all, you’re looking for someone with expertise you don’t have. This is why psychologists are bound to an oath of practice - the same as doctors are. If we don’t stick to it, we lose our license, our standing, our livelihoods.
And one of the things we learn - that takes years and years of practice and supervision - is how to fully immerse ourselves in the client’s perspective while remaining firmly anchored in our own. Sounds paradoxical, and I don’t blame you for thinking that. But now you try to explain to me the inner workings of your profession. Tax. Mechanics. Mergers & Acquisitions … (oh well that’s not quite true - I was ghostwriter on several blogs about that, but I digress).
So before childhood imprinting and limiting beliefs self-sabotage the client’s conscious attempts to improve, learn, and grow, you’d better be able to recognize the pattern, figure out what’s going on, and cut to the chase.
Here’s the irony, though: you have to ALSO know when and where and how to address the issue, once you’ve identified it. You can’t just blurt out: “Oh! So you’ve got narcissistic personality disorder! Oh well, that explains everything! Here, let me just quickly tell you what’s wrong with you!”
Or here’s another one: you provide a single working mom executive with some time management tips that completely ignore the fact that work can never be her first priority. There’s loads of examples like that, ranging from the plain ignorant to the profoundly dangerous.
People are enormously complex. And the study of people is, also - after all, you are both subject and object of study at the same time. The unique combinations that make up our “intersectionalities” are infinite. In fact, it’s a miracle you were even born: your individual genetic combination is mind-blowingly specific compared to the number of combinations of genes (and therefore people) that could exist. And that’s just the “nature” part.
Now add to that “nurture” - which is the sum of your experiences, culture, relationships … and then top that off with your preferences and innate personality proclivities, and you can see very quickly how no two coaching situations or clients will ever be the same. Tell me how an athlete - or a rocket scientist for that matter - can help you with that.
For sure, there are many things they can help with. And because not everyone is ready to address limiting beliefs or actually make progress (activity vs. productivity and other lies to self), maybe this type of coaching is what you can benefit from at this point in time. It’s like giving up smoking: Until you really want to stop, you won’t. Until there’s another behaviour to replace it, you can’t.
And this is why simple answers and misguided advice can actually exacerbate a problem instead of offering that quick fix. That’s not to say coaching is one, long, drawn-out psychotherapy session. It’s not.
That’s why it’s called coaching.
But you need the training and the experience to discern the right path forward, and accompany your client as they make their own choices and decisions at the time that is right for them.
About the Author: Anna Garleff is an Organizational Psychologist; she provides C-Suite Executive Coaching around the world focusing on scaling up and leading diverse teams through Garleff Coaching & Consulting Group. She has been a ghostwriter for KPMG, Deloitte and PwC; and a former Director of the Open University (UK) operations in Germany.
You can contact Anna at: https://www.linkedin.com/company/garleff-coaching-consulting-group/