Personal Trainers

As executive coaching continues to gain momentum in corporate America, challenges continue to mount for HR.

Thursday, September 1, 2005
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Chuck Feltz knew that climbing the ranks of a publicly owned company such as Deluxe Corp. in Shoreview, Minn., would be an uphill battle. Certainly, he had made his mark as president of the check maker's financial services department. But Feltz wanted, as he puts it, an "opportunity to make more of an impact" and establish a stronghold in Deluxe's executive echelons. So he turned to an executive coach for help.

For an entire year, Feltz met regularly with Kevin Cashman, CEO of Minneapolis-based executive coaching firm LeaderSource, to gain "an outside perspective" of his leadership strengths and weaknesses. By the time the process ended, Feltz had been handed responsibility as president for Deluxe's Direct Checks business unit, in addition to his role as president of financial services.

"Coaching allowed me to see myself as a leader in the eyes of others and, while that's not always a pretty sight, it's been one of the most impactful experiences of my development," he says.

Feltz is one of a growing number of executives and corporations to call upon the services of an executive coach. Companies such as The Walt Disney Co., Sony and Mattel have enlisted executive coaches. With an estimated 40,000 coaches worldwide, the International Coaching Federation estimates that $1 billion is spent on such services in the United States annually.

A Google search for "executive coach" produced more than 4 million hits. And at costs ranging from $500 to thousands of dollars per month, today's coaches promise a host of deliverables, from grooming ambitious execs for upper-management to anchoring employees in times of corporate chaos.

All of which is placing unprecedented pressure on today's HR professionals. Not only are they expected to source qualified coaches, but many companies now hold their HR departments responsible for keeping tabs on the coaching process, gauging an executive's ongoing cooperation, advocating coaching's benefits, ensuring a coach's ability to produce results and guaranteeing that the high price of coaching delivers a calculable return-on-investment.

Says Marshall Goldsmith of executive coaching firm Marshall Goldsmith Partners in New York: "The role of internal HR professionals is key. They need to be the process champions to make this work."

Playing a starring role in the coaching process, however, has its fair share of challenges. Unlike the feel-good fields of life planning, career counseling and psychotherapy, the goal of executive coaching is to provide leaders with objective feedback, raise awareness of leadership shortcomings and strengths, and generate business results for the employer.

What's more, the coaching process itself can range from monthly one-on-one private sessions to a broad undertaking involving interdepartmental peer reviews and the participation of third-party players such as industrial psychologists.

For HR professionals, overseeing such an endeavor is never easy. Qualifying credentials, protecting an executive's privacy throughout the coaching process, retaining employees in times of career growth -- these are all difficulties HR professionals must contend with, or risk an unproductive outcome.

Coaching hasn't always weighed this heavily on HR's shoulders. For years, most companies viewed it as a quick fix for troubled employees. "A lot of times, a coach was brought in as a final resort before you were going to fire someone," says Mary Herrmann, a principal at the Chicago-based consulting firm Capital H Group. "Today, it's really used as a development tool."

As coaching gradually evolved into an instrument for career growth, however, countless professionals including CEOs, consultants and psychologists flocked to the field. Today, coaches' credentials span from PhDs and MBAs to C-level executive experience and training-school certifications. Without a universal set of standards by which to evaluate skills and expertise, HR professionals are now saddled with the difficult task of separating qualified experts from inexperienced amateurs.

Says Goldsmith: "One of the biggest problems in the field right now is there are too many people who call themselves executive coaches."

Fortunately, there are characteristics HR professionals can look for to quickly identify high-quality coaches. According to Cashman, the first step to finding a suitable one is to closely examine the needs of the executive. HR professionals should ask themselves, "Does the executive have trouble relating to a team?" Or, "Is the executive struggling with stress management?"

Proven Skills

Once the source of an executive's difficulty has been identified, Cashman says, an HR professional should ask a coach about his/her "consistent proven process" -- the means by which a coach helps executives reach their goals.

The next step is to determine whether there's a proper relationship fit. Rather than search for similar personalities, Cashman says, HR professionals should be certain that "these are two people who are going to want to work with each other and commit to working with each other."

Finally, he adds, it's important to gauge a coach's knowledge of the executive's organization. HR professionals should be certain a coach has worked with companies from the same industry and that the coach understands the company's unique leadership-development processes and business strategies.

While most coaches would agree with Cashman's approach to identifying an appropriate coach, there's much-heated debate surrounding the value HR professionals should attach to certification.

There are now nearly 170 training schools around the world that, for fees ranging from $200 to $20,000, grant students professional accreditation. Through pseudo-universities available online, aspiring coaches can sign up for everything from hands-on training and essay writing to examinations and coaching hours. The sheer diversity of these credentialing systems has resulted in both confusion and controversy.

"For the poor HR professional trying to sort through all these different schools, some of which offer certification with little training, how are they to make sense of who is a real coach and who is not?" says Steve Mitten, president of the International Coach Federation, a Lexington, Ky.-based nonprofit association representing personal and business coaches.

Mitten believes he has the answer. With more than 8,100 coaching members worldwide, the ICF now assesses training schools and accredits those that offer high-quality certifications in order "to set a fair and independent standard" for the industry.

Nevertheless, many coaches argue that certification -- regardless of cost, quality or industry accreditation -- simply isn't the mark of a skilled coach. Just ask Rey Carr. Carr is a seasoned coach and CEO of Peer Resources, a Victoria, British Columbia-based nonprofit organization that offers training, resource materials and curricula to aspiring peer coaches.

Carr, who penned the research paper, A Guide to Coach Credentials, says, "There are so many different certification systems that exist in the coaching field that it makes it dubious. There are a lot of very qualified, highly successful and very effective coaches who have no certification."

As a result, Carr concurs that an HR professional sit down with an executive to determine what he or she hopes to achieve through coaching. By prompting an executive to self-reflect, Carr says, an HR professional can determine what circumstances have led the executive to seek the assistance of a coach and why the executive views coaching as the best solution -- important information that can help an HR professional identify the appropriate coach.

Once an executive's intentions have been determined, many experts recommend drawing up a contract outlining a client's expectations of coaching and a coach's guaranteed deliverables. Ensuring immediate rapport and trust between a coach and client is another way to bring about excellent results. And HR professionals should never be afraid to ask a coach for customer testimonials and recent referrals.

The Failure Factor

Another challenge HR professionals face is ensuring buy-in from executives. It's not uncommon for a company to insist that an executive enlist a coach without an executive's permission or input. Unfortunately, according to Cashman, an uncooperative client can spell disaster: "If someone is clearly not committed to the process of growth and feedback and looking at new behaviors, then coaching would be a bad investment for the organization."

When gauging an executive's adoption of the coaching process, HR professionals need to consider external pressures, marital problems and family tragedies -- factors that can impede an employee's progress.

So, too, can a client's deep-seated behavioral or psychological problems prevent a coach from helping an executive foster new leadership skills. A coach should never be expected to tend to a client's psychological problems; one should draw the line between coaching and psychotherapy. 

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Says Herrmann of Capital H Group: "There's a big distinction between coaching and therapy. Psychotherapy is a tool that people use to look back on their lives and review what went right and what went wrong. You're looking at the past; a coach is meeting you where you're at today."

Nor should an HR professional look to a coach to reset an executive's moral compass. Goldsmith has worked with more than 70 CEOs, was listed in the Wall Street Journal as one of the top 10 executive educators and in Business Times as one of 16 global thought leaders in his field. Despite his vast experience, Goldsmith steers clear of HR professionals who believe a coach can straighten out a crooked executive.

"[Coaching] should never be used with someone who has an ethics or integrity problem," he says. "Executives who commit ethics violations should be fired, not coached."

A willing executive, a qualified coach and good intentions might make for the perfect combination, but many HR professionals find it difficult to assess whether coaching has produced a return on investment. Unlike investments in technology, which often result in cost and time savings, there's no easy way to attach a dollar figure to intangibles such as improved leadership skills and enhanced interpersonal relations.

Says Brenda Eddy, founder of Eddy Associates, a Glendale, Calif.-based coaching firm, "It's hard to measure the impact of behavior changes on the bottom line. There are many things that influence the final return on [a coaching] investment."

True Tests

Amicability, however, isn't one of them. Bob Gregory would know. A senior consultant and head of leadership development at BP in Houston, Gregory is responsible for sourcing -- and assessing -- the energy company's coaches. He says HR professionals often make the mistake of equating a warm and friendly coach-client relationship with success.

"The smile test is not one that carries a lot of weight with me," says Gregory. Instead, he says, HR professionals should conduct 360-degree assessments and interviews with the executive's colleagues throughout the coaching process to measure changes in leadership style and team rapport. Another way to gauge return-on-investment, says Gregory, is to chart turnover rates within an executive's department.

To track the coaching process, many experts recommend that HR professionals hold quarterly status meetings with the executive and coach. However, there's a fine line between keeping a finger on the pulse of the relationship and meddling in personal affairs.

In late 2003, David Peever turned to Eddy for her coaching expertise. A chief commercial officer at the Valencia, Calif.-based mining company Rio Tinto Borax, Peever wished "to become a better leader" and hoped that coaching would help him "look in the mirror."

With the assistance of an industrial psychologist, Eddy spent the first three months of the relationship conducting a 360-degree review process of Peever's leadership style with the participation of nominated co-workers. Following this, Eddy conducted monthly coaching sessions with him for nine months.

Peever says the 12-month engagement proved successful, in large part, because HR was far enough removed from the process that he felt comfortable critically examining his career without fear of jeopardizing personal and professional relations. 

"Preserving confidentiality is very helpful because it allows you to speak openly about the issues that you have and that you think your organization has," he says.

There are greater risks to coaching, however, than the divulgence of confidential matters. Regardless of an HR professional's level of involvement in the coaching process, Herrmann warns, "Oftentimes, when someone goes through coaching, they're coached right out of the organization."

Through the careful examination of one's career goals, professional paths, leadership qualities and relationships, coaching can enlighten the odd executive to the fact that he or she is better suited to another organization -- or career altogether.

In fact, coaching played a significant part in Janet Parks' decision to switch employers. After spending 12 years in The Walt Disney Co.'s creative department and seven years in a coaching relationship with Eddy, Parks eventually opted to join Starbucks as vice president of merchandise.

Although certainly the exception to the rule, HR professionals must learn that a decision such as Parks' is an acceptable outcome of the coaching process.

After all, says Parks, "there were many times that I had frustrations [at Disney] where Brenda actually gave me great perspective on what it was like to be in the corporate environment and reminded me of the skill level it took to navigate it and stay there."

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