Let’s face it, businesses don’t like to spend money on something unless they get a return on their investment. But sometimes if the monetary value is not immediately obvious, corporate managers may nix something that could substantially improve their businesses. Although research has shown that executive coaching can yield a 5:1 or 6:1 return, according to executive coach Susan Battley, many business people are just not interested — but usually for the wrong reasons.
Battley, whose training is in psychology, has thought carefully about why the corporate executives, small business people, entrepreneurs, technical professionals, public school administrators, and nonprofit directors to whom she markets too often try to usher her out the door, offering a slew of reasons. They may call them “justifications,” but Battley calls them “myths,” and her marketing strategy is to shoot them down, one by one.
Battley speaks on “Next Generation Coaching” to the Institute of Management Consultants New Jersey on Monday, May 15, at 6 p.m. at the Doral Forrestal. Cost: $60. Register atimcnewjersey.org. For more information, call Leonard Steinberg at 609-443-0469.
Many decision-makers have never been coached themselves, and they are often leery of new management fads. “They are ‘prove-it-to-me’ people,” says Battley, “and that skepticism is healthy.”
Others — the high achievers of Generations X and Y — are more receptive to coaching because they’ve seen their supervisors coached and because they’re interested in any tools that will help them advance their careers.
Battley herself has a foot in both worlds. She’s in her 50s and very much a self-made woman, and she has great insight into what it takes to function effectively in businesses and organizations. “I have had several sequential careers,” she says. She started as an academic. After getting a bachelor’s degree in political science and secondary education from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she continued on for a Ph.D. in economic history, which she then taught for a decade.
When she moved from teaching to administration, becoming an associate clinical professor in Stony Brook’s Health Technology and Management program, she decided to study clinical psychology — to develop the subject-matter expertise she needed for her new responsibilities. While working and teaching, she completed a full-time graduate program for a Psy.D. in clinical psychology from Long Island University.
Battley believes that her career has followed a logical evolution. The business consulting she does now is not so different from what she researched years ago: business communities in 16th-century England “that have been dead for 500 years.” When she decided that she was more interested in changing how business leaders achieve their goals today, she says, it meant a change from working in the past to the present: “The biggest change from 500 years ago,” she says, half seriously, “is that the people aren’t dead.”
Because Battley believes in executive coaching and its ability to help many people to perform more effectively, she opens up her marketing to executives with what she calls “myth-busting.” She has found misconceptions about executive coaching to be widespread among organizational decision-makers, and she has written a book “Coaching Power: Ten Myths and New Realities; Is Executive Coaching Right For You.” She talks about several of these myths:
Myth of the individual. Business people are, after all, self-made, or at least they like to view themselves that way. Many glorify individual achievement and have the attitude that “successful people don’t need coaches.” Battley counters with examples from sports and the performing arts. Golf pro Phil Mickelson, for example, has two swing coaches, one for his short swing and another for his long one. “The more successful people are, the more incremental gains can make a big difference,” she says.
Dependency myth. The same guys who believe that they’ve done it all themselves and will continue to do so also harbor some fear that coaching fosters unhealthy dependency on others. Research tells us, says Battley, that today the greatest users of coaching are senior executives, and the more successful, the more likely that a leader will use a coach and use one for a longer period of time. “Would the Yankees say, ‘We’ve won the World Series several times, so we don’t need Joe Torre anymore?’” she asks. “That’s faulty thinking. You need support to keep performing at a high level.”
A related myth is the “crutch” myth, which says that coaching should only be short-term. Battley counters that coaching will evolve from regular, directed meetings to “as needed” contacts with a trusted advisor.
Jaded myth. Sometimes people feel that they already have all the feedback they can handle, especially in large companies with performance management systems. True, executives get a lot of advice, but, says Battley, “often they don’t know how to use it.” A coach can help identify what changes will make the biggest difference going forward.
Suppose, for example, that an individual receives a comment in an annual review that employees are having a difficult time contacting him or her. Is the person overscheduled? Does he need to focus on better time management? Or does he choose avoidance because he is not good at conflict resolution. “A coach gets beyond the symptoms to the root cause,” says Battley.
“Many CEOs and senior leaders don’t get as much accurate feedback as they think,” she continues. Direct reports often don’t communicate directly, thinking that they are protecting the leader from bad news. As people rise in an organization, the information they get becomes more filtered.
“A coach is an independent, objective, neutral party who can get beyond the protective layer and provide valuable information they need to hear,” says Battley. Today’s leaders need not only to be able to hear bad news, but to ask for it. “If you don’t know what’s going on with your customers, employees, and investors, you’re at a disadvantage compared to the competition,” says Battley.
“Shrink” myth. Because so many coaches come from the helping professions, many executives believe that coaching is the same as psychotherapy or counseling. “It is not the same, because we have different goals and orientations,” says Battley. Coaching focuses primarily on a person’s workplace and professional performance, not on lifestyle or mental health issues. Coaching focuses on the present and future, while therapy can spend a lot of time looking to the past to make sense of present.
Emergency room myth. Then there are those people who believe that executive coaching should be reserved only for last-ditch efforts to fix a problem. Battley believes a wellness model is more appropriate, with coaching helping to overcome a performance gap or improve a situation before it reaches a crisis. Otherwise, she says, “it may be too late for a coach to help the person. If relations with the team are adversely impacted, it may be too late to resolve.”
“Walk in my shoes” myth. Some executives believe that a coach must share their background and experience to be useful. But that can be problematic. First of all, such a person may not have the skills necessary to help another person achieve. They may also have the same blind spots because of the shared experience. Although coaches certainly need to understand what constitutes success in a particular field, their expertise is in teaching skills like team building, effective communication, motivation, conflict resolution, and time and priority management.
Battley also dispels other confusions. She emphasizes that a coach is not a mentor, because the coaching relationship is formal, fee-based, and focuses on very specific goals — either acquiring new skills or changing certain behaviors. Although mentors also help with career building, the relationship is informal and open ended, involving sharing networks and contacts, and opening doors for people. And, finally, she says coaching is not necessarily for everyone. A good coaching candidate is a motivated person who is looking for an important benefit from coaching.
Battley’s interest in helping people acquire leadership skills was probably predictable from elements in her past. First of all, Brooklyn-born Battley was the oldest of seven children, and she observes, “from the point of view of formative experiences, nothing comes from nowhere. I had all the aspects of being the oldest in a busy family.”
But it went beyond that. Her years at Hunter College High School in Manhattan also played an important role. While there, she served as president of Red Cross Youth in Manhattan. She says the chance to observe Red Cross leaders being “effective in roles of influence in which they could positively affect the organization’s mission” were invaluable. She is equally enthusiastic about Hunter’s “wonderful, supportive teachers, constantly encouraging us to achieve and allowing us to try out new things.”
Battley says that both her academic and volunteer experiences contributed to her love for practical learning — “how I can take this information and use it.” And that pragmatism is the basis for the whole field of executive coaching, she says, defining her profession’s work as “just-in-time advice that helps someone in a decisive role be more effective.”