Dr. Marc Bassin is an Executive Coach who, for two decades, has worked with the top two levels of leading global sales organizations to improve the leadership impact of their executives. Some of his client relationships have spanned ten years and all of his business comes through referrals.
Almost no topic in sales has been researched and written about more than coaching. Yet we know creating a coaching culture remains a puzzle for most organizations. There are numerous slants on how to embed coaching into an organization, many of which add to solving the puzzle. Most focus on the front line manager as the key —and too often the stumbling block. Marc points to the critical role of front-line managers, but feels that alone is not sufficient. His belief, based on his deep experience in helping his clients build coaching cultures and making teams work, is clear: start at the top. And he means the very top, and here is how and why.
Change the Culture from the Top
Marc sees the big issue around coaching in general is that it is viewed as remedial vs. as an opportunity. Many companies, he says, are stuck in the idea that if you need coaching you have a problem. Because of this thinking, he emphasizes that companies miss the most powerful intervention there is to reach a high level of performance.
The biggest challenge that he sees, however, exists in coaching at the executive level. Paradoxically, executive coaching is the hardest – but the fastest – path to creating a coaching culture. The hard part Marc attributes to an unwritten code that exists in many organizations among top-level executives. Clearly, executives have accomplished so much to get where they are. But that makes it tempting for them to think they are exempt from coaching. The informal, often unconscious, agreement among many executives, is that because they have reached the top, “have made it” and have been rewarded for that, they don’t give feedback to one another, and most of their subordinates don’t dare give feedback to them.
Too Senior to Fail?
Marc has found that “nothing is more erroneous that the assumption that executives don’t need coaching.” No one in his view needs development more than executives, because of the impact they have on culture. The reason executives are executives is that they have some exceptional strengths that have carried them very well, but often leave other areas underdeveloped.
Marc described how the typical executive profile reveals one primary strength that the executive has finely honed. Often, that one key strength carries the executives. While they can get by without certain skills, certain underdeveloped skills begin to hurt them as they move up. Marc points out that 90% of the work that executive coaches provide centers not on content or analysis, but rather the relationship aspects of their impact.
Marc has found that the ability of executives to lead has much to do with how they relate to people. In all executive actions with colleagues or direct reports, the executive either gives energy or takes energy away. Many senior leaders are unaware that they are taking energy and enthusiasm from their people, because of how they relate to them.
As an example, Marc discussed a high potential client who is being groomed for a very senior position. He is superior in content, analysis and strategy, but needs to work on improving his relationships with key people. He was missing the inspirational aspect of leadership. To correct this, he worked hard on things such as the amount of time he spent on relationships, his interest in growth and development of others, building teams, and empowering others. Over 6 months, he significantly changed the percentage and manner in which he was spending his time. Marc’s goal with his clients is not just to help them be thoughtful, capable business people, but also inspirational leaders.
The Impact of Executive Coaching
Marc emphasized that, once executive coaching is in place, the impact is exponential. The real power of executive coaching is its boomerang effect. It goes beyond improving the performance of executives. It raises executives’ awareness of coaching and that heightened interest invariably pervades the culture. As Marc puts it, the only way to change a culture is from the top.
He recognized that executive coaching is hard territory to get into. In large companies, HR professionals often coach middle level managers. Most executive coaching must be provided by external coaches, because it is too difficult for a subordinate to give frank feedback.
For example, Marc described a phone conversation he had with another executive coach about a client who runs the biggest division of a global company. His colleague said, “Somebody actually had the guts to tell Tom that the way he was meeting with his people was scaring the heck out of them, and that they were terrified. Tom said he had no idea that was the case. I can’t imagine who would have had the guts to say that to him.” It was Marc who, as an external coach, could give that feedback so Tom could think about it and make an adjustment. Marc’s experience is that internal coaches typically would not say that.
Executive coaching is often painlessly introduced as a part of succession planning to identify high potential team members. When that is coupled with coaching of the most senior people, a coaching culture becomes real for an organization.