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How Many Executive Coaches Are Going Wrong!

I'm sure this article is going to ruffle a few feathers! I am totally against 'pure coaching' when working with leaders. When I say pure coaching I mean the practice of just asking questions.

Don't get me wrong coaching is really important and I totally believe in the power of great questions. But let me ask you this, "Have you ever been in a situation where you are being coached and you just need some help?" You know that moment when you say to yourself, "If you ask me another question I'm going to explode, I need you to give me some ideas!"

I believe the purpose of leadership is to awaken possibility in leaders to deliver extraordinary results, so coaching is really important. So is mentoring and teaching. I believe we need to have great coaches, great mentors and great teachers. Sadly many coaches feel the need just to stick to that specialism. I can fully understand that because that is what our education system has taught us. Specialism rules over being a Generalist.

Why specialism isn't always the answer

Group of professionals in lecture hall

We are educated by subject matter experts - where each subject is more important than the other, well according to the teachers. We are even taught in different classrooms keeping it all apart! We then organise our businesses in silo's of specialism. We have subject matter experts working in isolation all over our organisations making very strange decisions.

I once saw a Supply Chain Team of a retail business struggling to reduce costs by reducing the amount of stock in the supply chain whilst if you wandered over to the Buying Team you saw them struggling to increase the stock so the customer was happy and always had what they wanted on the shelves!

And dangerously we are developed by our archaic education system into using 'OR thinking' instead of 'AND thinking'. Should we be centralised or decentralised? We have too much control so lets empower everyone... oh that didn't work so lets go back to control... you get the cycle! All driven by OR thinking rather than AND thinking. We need a bit of both don't we? Control AND Empowerment.

I saw a great TEDx talk the other day 'Jack of All Trades' by Dr Jonathan Griffiths and he made a number of valid points around the medical world. Jonathan mentioned that when you train in the medical world you are constantly asked what are you going to specialise in or are you just going to be a General Practitioner! I met a surgeon the other day who when I asked what they did said that they specialise in hip replacements... left hip replacements!! Jonathan also mentioned that really high rank in the British Army is a called a General, I wonder why they use that term?

Many Executive MBA's are also flawed in my view because many are taught by Professors specialising in their individual subject. You get 5 days on Strategy (Which according to the Strategy Professor is the most important); then 5 days on Marketing (Which according to the Marketing Professor is the most important); then 5 day on Finance (Which according to the Finance Professor is the most important); then 5 days on HR (Which according to the HR Professor is the most important)... and so it goes on. You get the pattern!

It is so wrong, in my view. Perhaps MBA stands for Maybe Best Avoided... well according to the internationally renowned academic and author on business and management, Henry Mintzberg, they are!

How organisations really work

Group of people huddling with their hands in the middle

Organisations just don't work in isolation, they are symbiotic systems that all work together. We need to value specialists AND generalists. We need people who can craft solutions by using a variety of perspectives and methodologies.

I see it all go wrong in the project world when an organisation's mandating something like from now on all projects will now be done using the Agile Methodology. How stupid is that! Sure, some are better using Agile but some maybe better using Waterfall or Human Centred Design or PRINCE2. We seem to be obsessed with one way!! Just like in Executive Coaching when you are told you must only ask questions!

Having coached executives for 22 years with great feedback and amazing results I believe there is a better way. I received some wonderful feedback from a first session I ran the other day when the Exec Leader said, "I've got more use out of that 2 hour session than the two years of my EMBA... it all makes sense now."

Many years ago I got a bit worried because my average number of sessions with Executive Leaders was around 2 - 3 and then it stopped. Based on the consistent feedback, it wasn't because I was rubbish it was because the approach I took is so powerful they felt so empowered to get on with it they didn't need me anymore. How great is that!

I ran a 45 minute session the other day around the VUCA world and what this really means to leaders. The feedback again was "that was more useful than the 3 years I've just spent at a leading business school!". Why, because it was a mixture of coaching, mentoring and teaching.

Perhaps we need Executive Coaches who are more general and who can coach AND mentor AND teach.... all in one session! Executive Coaches who can flex and craft the right solutions with the leaders they are working with.

I'll leave you with this thought. A coach has some great questions for your answers, a mentor has some great answers for your questions and a teacher shows you how to solve your challenges.

Every success,


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About the author

Graham Wilson

Graham Wilson

I enjoy and specialise in teaching leadership skills, how to create winning strategies, how to build high performance cultures. Outcomes and results are the most important measures for me!