“She has a way of getting you to confront the reality of what’s the underlying problem…of helping me to see alternatives or paths to handle things that I NEVER would have seen without her! Truth-fully, it’s my own stumbling blocks (which I’m not even aware of) that she helps me get over.”
— Medical Director

You ever wonder why someone would need to hire an executive coach? To get to the answer, think about a few well-known people who use coaches. Very few people in the world can skate better than Michelle Kwan or play golf as well as Tiger Woods. Yet they both use coaches. Are these coaches better at these sports than these two stars? Of course not. Then why do these high-achievers need them?

I have to answer this question often in my practice as an executive coach. I’m not a physician executive, and I’m not a healthcare administrator. So how am I going to help these professionals be more effective at what they do? The answer is actually very simple, but it takes some explanation.

Going back to those athletes. They’re superstars. They don’t need someone to teach them how to skate or golf. And they aren’t looking for someone to help them identify their weaknesses so they can work on them. They seek someone who can help them use their strengths to achieve greater performance and success. A coach—whether she is coaching athletes or executives—achieves this by providing an outside perspective to help a person become aware of things that they may not be able to see themselves.

People rarely call for my services because there is a problem; they mostly call me because they see a potential superstar—either in themselves or in someone else—who just needs a little guidance from an outside perspective to help them get to that higher level. They need a coach.

A study conducted by the global career management firm Lee Hecht Harrison found that organizations provided coaching for the following:

  • 54% of the time for high-potential and other employees
  • 29% for high-potential, fast-track employees
  • 20% for good performers to solve issues

People often look at their personal quests for excellence from the wrong direction. The question is often, “What are my weaknesses and how can I improve or eliminate them?” This is commonly the case with clinical providers, who often focus on deficits and differences as part of their assessment and diagnosis processes.

Working on weaknesses is not a good starting point. In fact, it often may be better to decide that a weakness is something you don’t want to fix. For example, let’s say that even though you communicate well verbally and are an excellent speaker, you just don’t write well, and you decide you want to take an intensive writing course to improve your e-mail, memo and other written commun-ications. Would the time you take learning how to write better be the best use of your time when you consider the other things you might do to improve your effectiveness as a leader in your organization?

Instead of looking at a weakness and trying to find a way to improve on it, why not ask, “How can I minimize this by using one of my strengths?” Seeking improvement in this way is more fun, more compelling and it’s easier. We tend to resist doing things that are difficult, so the road to improving weaknesses be-comes much more difficult than choosing the other method. The energy you have available to sustain change is much greater when you leverage your strengths.

I’m not saying that people should not be aware of their weaknesses. However, it is much easier to enhance a strength and use it for greater effectiveness than to try to improve on a weakness. This speaker and leader that we mentioned before could have much greater impact by getting up from in front of the computer, where he is struggling to make each line perfect, and use his strengths to communicate his message one-on-one to each of the people that were the intended recipients of his memo. Instead of working hard to improve on a weakness, he is enjoying himself, while fine-tuning an enviable strength and improving communication throughout his organization.

Going Directly to the Issues

Getting to the bottom of such issues is where a coach comes in, armed with valuable feedback from those around the client. In the 360-feedback process that forms the cornerstone of a coaching relationship, many insights are gained that allow a client to create impact by marshalling their strengths.

Feedback can be an eye-opener. For example, I have a current client who received surprising feedback from our process: several of the people around him commented that he was so intelligent that he could actually be intimidating to others in the workplace. He told me that it was never his intention to intimidate people in that way. Now he has an awareness that he tends to create that feeling by the way he dismisses people. He now knows that his body language might get in the way by suggesting that he has lost interest, even though these were not his intentions. He might have never learned this critical information without comp-rehensive feedback gathered by an outside source.

Such behaviors—either intentional or not—can shut down communication, because people are afraid of making mistakes or feeling foolish in the presence of this leader. What we found out that was when he was not stressed out and overworked, he was much more likely to sit and have conver-sations with people and lead them through a complete thought process. However, when he is burned out and overloaded, and his life and work are out of balance, he tends to dismiss people immediately. All it took was this awareness and a few simple steps to completely turn this perception of him around.

Now and the Future

The coaching relationship is primarily about two things: Where am I now and where do I want to be? It’s not about the past as much as it is about the present and the future. It’s why we focus on what is possible, what is desired and what is compelling for us to pursue.

Let’s say I have a physician client who is transitioning from employment to running a private practice. She has all of the drive, leadership qualities, organizational and people skills that she needs. However, she doesn’t have the financial knowledge to run the business end. At this point she needs to make a decision: “Do I want to take the time to learn the financial end and then spend a considerable amount of time immersed in that part of the business, or will it be better for the organization if I make the investment and hire someone to do it for me?”

Again, the leader has an opportunity to use her strengths—effective communications and ability to connect with people—to gain the amount of financial knowledge she needs, while leaving the nitty-gritty to someone who has those strengths. That way, this physician leader can focus on what she does best—leading, achieving the vision for the practice, and providing quality care that continues to generate referrals and grows the business.

Creating Impact

The coaching relationship, while looking toward the future, places a lot of emphasis on impact. Leaders always have impact because of the things they do. They may not be conscious of what it is, but they always have impact.

As a coach, I help guide them to be able to choose the impact they want by looking at their intentions vs. the impact they’re having. For example, before going into a meeting, the leader thinks about his intention, which is have a meeting where there is open and active discussion. He wants the participants to be comfortable with expressing their ideas and opinions even though there is a potential for conflict and confrontation in this meeting.

Impact is all about how you want to make people feel—you want them to feel that this is a collaborative effort, you want them to feel that their opinions matter, and you want them to feel that it’s OK to disagree. As a coach I say, “OK, if you want them to feel this way, how are you going to approach that meeting?”

He has had feedback that in meetings, when he disagrees, he rolls his eyes or crosses his arms—gestures that can serve to stifle open discussion. Others say that sometimes he simply tells people that they’re wrong when he disagrees. If he wants to have his intended impact, he will have to make a conscious effort to avoid such behaviors during the meeting. He will also need to think of how he wants to structure the meeting. Does he present his position at the beginning, or does he start with a brainstorming session, or some other method?

Remember that no matter what you do as a leader, you are having some kind of an impact, so it is important to be conscious of what your intentions are at all times. (I covered the subject of intentions vs. impact in depth in an April 2004 article, which you may find on my Resources Page on my Web site.)

Organizational Benefits

Coaches are often hired by an organization, rather than by individuals. When a hospital recruited a new emergency medicine chief, the chief operating officer thought he was a good candidate, but he had some concerns over whether the new chief would be able to meet all of the challenges in operating a 70,000-visit emergency depart-ment in a 500-bed hospital serving urban and suburban patients, especially when it came to standing up and appropriately challenging members of medical staff on tough issues.

The COO told me that executive coaching was a requirement for this candidate’s hiring. Through coaching, I helped to facilitate a smooth start-up for the new chief as he transitioned into the role. “Since then he has developed into one of our most successful ED chiefs,” the COO said. “Betty has worked with our ED chief to understand what was necessary to build relationships and collaborate with his peers as well as his clinical team. He has represented his department well in all areas in the hospital, is well respected, and has been proactive in communicating good news, as well as potential problems, to my administrative team and me. I believe she made a difference.”

The Lee Hecht Harrison study mentioned earlier found that retaining good employees is a key reason for hiring a coach. When asked “In your opinion, why has coaching grown over the years,” the top responses were these:

  • Helping people improve is better than replacing them (60%)
  • Good talent is harder to find and retain (54%)
  • Greater emphasis on performance (44%)

A March 2005 study reported in the San Jose Mercury News found that 35% of managers either quit or are asked to leave within 18 months of changing jobs. The same study found that 61% of failed hires and promotions are blamed on an inability to build strong relationships with peers and subordinates—the most common culprit. Coaching could help them both to more quickly assimilate into the culture of an organization.

Add these issues to the fact that some studies have found up to a 529-percent return on investment for coaching, and it’s easy to see why coaching is valued by organizations.

Physicians are regularly asked to call in outside consultation and opinions in complex medical situations. Leadership and career mobility issues are usually also very complex. Why not call in a coach at these critical junctures?

Going back to the superstar athletes and why they need coaches. Just like great potential leaders, they have all of that innate ability, but what the coach provides is someone to go alongside them and say: “Do you know that when you do that, you dip your shoulder slightly? Did you want to do that?” Perhaps the athlete did want to dip her shoulder, but was she aware that she was doing so, and was she aware of what affect it would have on her performance?

So why do you need a coach? Simple—Coaches help clients learn how to help themselves excel.