On the sidelines

On the sidelines


AT THIS TIME of the NBA season already ended in the US, the search for coaches seems frenzied. It seems the decision to fire an existing coach is an easy decision for teams not making the playoffs or exiting too early in them. Why blame the marquee players when you can dump the coach?

While the coach doesn’t score any points, he’s the easiest to blame for any loss. It’s not just sports that require coaches. Corporate organizations too need help from the sidelines with the use of management consultants. Then there is the little-known niche in business advice which is “executive coaching.”

This special consultant has for a client not a company but only its CEO for “one-on-one” evaluation and guidance. In a period of four to six weeks, this corporate trainer watches his CEO from the sidelines. Much like a coach for basketball, he observes how the CEO undergoes fitness training, dribbles the ball through midcourt in time, makes foul shots, assists, trash talks, plays under pressure (down 15 points in Q4), and accept defeats — next season will be better, this is a learning experience.

CEOs are used to giving orders. Can they also sit still and listen to a coach evaluating their plays? When is the best time to recruit an executive coach? Probably not during a corporate crisis when the phone can’t stop ringing and there’s hardly time to sit still and listen to leadership principles. A quiet first quarter when the previous year’s numbers are being finalized (or massaged) may offer the right break.

The coach should not be part of a CEO’s management team. Being on the inside may affect the advice he offers when he may have his own agenda to promote. The ideal coach is retired from his corporate job, had a good and successful career behind him, preferably even residing in another country, making him an objective observer. A stranger with no professional ties to his client is ideal.

The CEO is deemed too close to the game, and so needs the perspective of someone on the sidelines who has also played this game. Like a retreat master, the coach raises basic questions which the CEO can meditate on. The counseling sessions can take the form of Ignatian spiritual exercises — is there a corporate after-life?

What role should the CEO play? This goes beyond a job description. It’s about the added value a particular CEO brings to his organization. Is he a foreman who gives instructions to the team on how to build the edifice? Does he write the play and cast the actors in particular roles and direct their performance? (Bring your voice down a little.) What are his priorities? Does the in-box dictate his schedule? Does he have an exit strategy for himself? Is he a good mentor?

Some questions deal with the company. Where does the CEO want to bring his organization in the next three years? What does he need to accomplish as CEO to make this happen? Does he consider himself irreplaceable?

Since the client of an executive coach also has a social side, some questions relate to personal issues. How much time does the CEO devote to personal growth? Has he considered what to do when he retires? Does he have a consuming passion outside work, like singing operatic numbers?

The final report after the engagement may just be verbal. It highlights the client’s strengths (he doesn’t sleep) and areas for improvement (he is never fully awake).

An executive coach must be detached. Since he is not out to curry favor with his client, he can be brutally frank. (The client does not always listen, anyway.) After the wrap-up session, the coach will be taking a plane out, not expecting any job offer. His effectiveness lies in his being outside the loop with no intention of being in it. A CEO too needs someone to give unbiased pointers and raise questions subordinates do not care to bring up. Anyway, the coach does not give absolution.

Even young CEOs need to be coached. Sometimes, this is done by informal mentors who may be related, as in the dynastic appointments in family corporations.

Getting views from a sideline coach can give better perspectives on the corporate game… and what to do to when it’s over.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda