Entrepreneurs and executives alike are elevating their careers with an executive coach
By Erin Chan Ding
When she started her own business, Emily Bermes heard from a bevy of detractors. Even her own mother told her she would fail. As did her then husband.
Wracked with doubt, Bermes felt she needed an outside stabilizing force, one who would push her, stretch her, encourage her, and give her the confidence to stay on her career path. She decided to hire an executive coach.
An executive coach herself, Bermes feels certain that her own investment in executive coaching helped her succeed in an industry in which growing one’s own firm and client base remains grueling.
“I was an absolute chicken when I started this,” admits Bermes, CEO of Emily Bermes + Associates in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “I still started the business, which now feels sort of brave, but oh my gosh, I needed so much help. I was so shy. I didn’t know how to put myself out there. Everything intimidated me. And now I’m like, ‘Put me in front of anybody. I’ll be fine.’”
That was 20 years ago, and her firm now maintains various US offices and has clients that include multinational companies.
She credits her sustained growth in part to 15 years of executive coaching, which helped her understand where she was limiting herself, where her fear limited her, and how to push past the fear.
Hiring a coach, she says, “got me to that next professional level. Without the support of a neutral party challenging those doubtful forces, it would have been very difficult to do alone.”
Over the past decade, executive coaching has changed in both perception and practice.
Sharon Krohn, who runs an executive coaching and consulting business based in Chicago, says that in the past people thought of executive coaching as remediation for a manager or leader, as a way to correct ineffective leadership.
“If someone was not doing well, then a human resources partner might come in and say, ‘Fix this,’” she says. “But leadership coaching now has evolved into helping outstanding leaders become even better, become the best version of themselves. So it’s used very often for high- potential people.”
The number of books, TED talks, and YouTube videos about leadership has exploded in recent years. The word leadership generates more than 4.5 billion results on Google. Leadership institutes and summits have blossomed in cities around the world.
As a result, the field of executive coaching has expanded to include not only executives at companies, but entrepreneurs as well.
“When I first got into coaching,” Krohn says, “people would look at me and say, ‘What sport [do you coach]?’ Today, it’s not, ‘What is it?’ and ‘Does it work?’ but ‘How do you apply it?’ and ‘How do you measure it?’”
Jennifer Habig, the managing director for the western region at the Center for Creative Leadership based in Greensboro, North Carolina, says the industry has gone from “really no regulation on what made someone an executive coach to a place where we’re getting more understanding of the kind of training and the ongoing development coaches need.”
She points to the International Coach Federation, which credentials executive coaches and accredits training programs.
Her colleague, Rosa Belzer, a coaching talent leader at the Center for Creative Leadership, says that two other major shifts in the past decade have boosted executive coaching: more research on the psychology of behavioral change and the virtual tools coaches have to connect with their clients. Most coaching was once face-to-face. Now a mix of Zoom, Skype, and phone calls is often incorporated into coaching sessions.
The abundance of assessment tools at coaches’ disposal has also altered their approach, says Rich Horwath, CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute.
“Coaching has evolved from being very general to much more specific because of the diagnostics that have come up,” he says. “They really help leaders understand, ‘What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What are their capabilities?’ And then home in on specific tools and techniques for those specific areas.”
Executive coaching goes beyond what books can do because of its customization and specificity.
“Coaching is so effective because it finds the intersection of where individuals are as humans, what is expected of them inside an organization, and what their team may need from them in order to be successful,” Bermes explains. “And it helps them calibrate that situation in a way that hopefully draws on their strengths, their values, and their moral compass. Where a book is prescriptive, like, ‘Just do this, and you’ll be an effective leader,’ I feel like our approach is so much more organic to the individual, to the situation, and to whatever the individual has been charged with.’”
Many people engage executive coaches when they are at the midpoint of their career. Midcareer for a professional presents a perfect time to seek executive coaching because of the tendency to plateau.
“The importance of continually learning and generating new ideas and new insights that help the organization get better is something not a lot of people do because they get complacent when they’re in that midcareer trajectory,” Horwath says. “People develop goals, but they don’t take the time to develop the strategies or pathways to get there.”
Women especially can benefit from coaching so they can analyze what could be inhibiting their growth and leadership (besides, of course, the very real gender discrimination practices endemic in Corporate America).
“Frequently, we find that women are being held back by their own internal voice,” Belzer says, adding that coaching can help women acknowledge how that voice is shaping their beliefs about themselves. “We help them learn how to put those beliefs aside and be able to move forward with more purpose.”
The coaching relationship tends to begin with an assessment. For Bermes and her team, who work primarily with organizations, this starts with a 360-degree review in which they venture to the client’s workplace and interview bosses, peers, direct reports, and internal customers. That gives the leader the opportunity to see where she is strong, where her assets really count, and what people acknowledge is valuable about her leadership style. It also gives a clear lens into areas of development for the leader and gives coaches enough data to formulate a plan.
“There is some magic in being an external person,” Bermes says of her team performing the 360-degree review. “And the client knows I’m not going to be around the water cooler, that I can’t talk about this stuff because I don’t work there. You get more of the real story.”
Krohn, who coaches a mix of individual clients and leaders brought to her by companies, also begins the process with various self-assessment tools. One in particular she likes to use, the Leadership Circle Profile, measures what it deems “creative competencies” and “reactive tendencies” in an effort to expose specific areas for development.
Coaches help calibrate how executives see themselves with how others view them.
“It’s a very healthy experience to go through that, because people don’t often get real feedback,” Krohn says. “An executive coach can help plan what to do about it. ‘Okay, people see that I’m autocratic. I never realized that. What are some specific things I might do because I don’t want to show up as autocratic?’ Coaching is, on one hand, aspirational, visionary, strategic. But at the same time, it’s also practical.”
Coaching engagements with personal coaches and with leadership centers and firms typically last at least six months, with two to three in-person or virtual sessions a month. With rising leaders, sessions can also focus on executive assimilation, helping transition someone into a new role or team; sometimes, they focus on specific situations, such as when an executive needs to fire someone or reorganize staff.
Coaches can also focus on such elements as developing executive presence, what Bermes calls “followership in your people,” and alignment, so that direct reports can work together more effectively. Coaches will work on flexing a leader’s style to fit situations, cultures, and teams. Coaches also make themselves available on a type of on-call basis, should an urgent situation come up in which a leader needs 10 to 15 minutes to talk through problems and scenarios.
“The role of coaching is to help someone challenge her assumptions, create new possibilities,” Habig says, “and that often happens through powerful questions—not giving advice.”
Coaches can also help reinvigorate an executive. Rich Horwath says he worked with a female executive who had been with her company for 20 years and didn’t feel she was bringing new thinking to the table and had become a bit stale with her thought process.
To counter that, he introduced the idea of innovative thinking techniques. To connect the techniques to the real world, every week she went through exercises in her workbook that applied to her business. Horwath gave her one new tool or technique each week. One, called domain jumping, took a business problem she was working on and put it in a completely different context.
Horwath would tell her, “‘Let’s say you were working in an Indianapolis 500 racing pit crew. How would you address this issue?’ Having her jump to different domains helped stimulate some innovative thinking.”
At the core, executive coaching is about creating leaders that a team wants to follow.
“Executives experience extreme pressure, and it can make them fearful, irrational, reactionary,” Bermes says. “Coaching does the best job of getting them back to calm, wise, strategic, creative thinking, which always drives the best result for the business.” DW
Erin Chan Ding is an award-winning freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.