Career
How executive coaches are helping CEOs

They help CEOs cope with change enabling them to keep their ear on the ground

As leaders move up the ladder, they have fewer touch points within the organisation with staff at junior/senior level. They can lose touch with the reality. In professionally-managed organisations, this risk for a CEO (chief executive officer) is somewhat mitigated because there are people senior levels who report to the CEO or CMD (chairman and managing director) with whom there are lots of interactions by way of group meetings, leadership workshops, etc. But what about those firms that are founded by entrepreneurs where besides the main person who is at the helm of the affairs there are only one or two senior persons reporting directly to him and having direct access to him? This is actually a trap and before they realise this, many CEOs end up creating an environment in which not many employees can freely approach them. Before too long, the CEOs realise that it is lonely at the top.

These types of corporate situations have created a new breed of HR consultants called “executive coaches” who mentor and train such top-level leaders. Generally, executive coaches are senior-level leaders who help the CEOs cope with change enabling them to keep their ear on the ground. They try to help the CEOs eschew the normal tendency of insisting on what they want to listen rather than what they need to listen. In a corporate environment, many senior-level leaders tend to become chary about sharing unpleasant information with the top boss. This means that the CEO does not have a true picture. So, in such a situation, it is only such “executive coaches” who can help the CEO address his shortcomings in a constructive manner and work towards correcting the gaps.

Ironically, years ago, a role that was quite popular in corporate circles was that of an Executive Assistant (EA). Though an EA could not be called a mentor or a coach, he was an important resource for the CEO. Sadly, over the years, many corporates misused that position, completely obliterating and totally blurring the distinction between an Executive Assistant and an executive secretary. This eventually made many prospective candidates wary of such type of strategic roles.

Ideally, a real EA has the shadow authority of the CEO and can be a key resource in the organisation. However, there were reports of candidates who joined as EA being asked to do travel and hotel bookings, type letters, attend to screening calls and carry out similar such secretarial work.

With easy access to people at lower hierarchical levels, the EA would have been in a much better position to keep the CEO/CMD informed about the situation on the ground. He was also someone who acted as the sounding board for the CEO. The EA, to some extent, had roles similar to that of an executive coach, but at a junior level. He was someone who was encouraged to use a creative approach to resolve problems.

Political environment in organisations led such people appointed as Executive Assistants to become “tale carriers” instead of “information providers”. It takes two to clap and so one would also equally blame the leader for encouraging such tendencies. There are also ethical issues involved as there can be misuse of authority.

It is so very difficult to locate a candidate to fit in the role of an EA who has the highest standards of integrity and moral character. It is only references from past employers/ bosses/ customers that act as a viable tool to make an informed decision while recruiting such candidates. If the EA’s role had been given the respect it deserved, then CEOs would have had someone who was dependable and resourceful in taking strategic decisions.

The EA’s role was also considered as a springboard for moving onto other business roles and this was the key attraction. Sadly, the strategies changed and today there are very few ‘real’ Executive Assistant roles in the job market. Even for such job roles, there are not many takers for the simple reason that the job market has not been able to re build credibility for such positions.

Enter Executive Coaches
The demise of the EA’s role has now led to new concepts in HR consulting. Executive coaches are one such breed. There are management gurus like Robin Sharma, Deepak Chopra, Shiv Khera and spiritual gurus like the Bangalore-based Swami Sukhabodananda who train and mentor senior-level leaders at specially organised workshops. There are some others who call themselves as “thought leaders” and help the CEO gain a clear business perspective through unconventional means.

This is a healthy trend. For one, as these consultants are not part of the organisation, you can expect them to be unbiased and constructive in their approach. That apart, people who have retired from HR/strategy function can be gainfully employed by such CEOs for sharing the wisdom that they have gained over the years. But for all these mentoring/coaching efforts to succeed, it is important that CEOs improve their listening skills, give the consultants the respect that they deserve and make informed decisions based on the advice given. Eventually, it is the CEO’s call. There is no compulsion on the CEO to follow each and every advice given by the coaches. But rejection of an idea suggested by the coach must have a valid reason.

I have observed that this model of individual coaching/mentoring is far better than the other popular model of “strategy consultation” especially when it relates to coaching the CEO. This is because the strategy teams develop an attitude, taking advantage of their proximity to the CEO and before long they alienate the employees. In most organisations, the so-called strategy consultants are perceived as ‘butchers’—all out to reduce the head count. There may be exceptions to this rule, but it is an open secret that anything remotely related to strategy is now widely perceived as a means to slash jobs. It has become a corporate practice to hire more than necessary during good times and then launch a head count reduction exercise when the going is tough.

Last but not the least, the decision to engage such coaches must be taken at early stages and not when the damage is already done. Coaches/mentors can enable the CEO/CMD to look at a situation with the objectivity that is needed. At the end of the day, it is not about business alone. It is also about addressing the social needs of the CEO.

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Personal Finance Exclusive
Are you hiring correctly? -2

Team dynamics play a vital role and therefore need to be considered while hiring. Many firms are taking the right steps by conducting personality assessments to gauge the ability of a hire to work well in teams

Despite all precautions, there is no way to tell accurately whether a new recruit will be able to perform. It is a gamble. To reiterate, the performance delivery of an employee is dependent on so many factors-most important being empowering an employee to take decisions. Delineating the job responsibilities is also a sensitive process. If it is far too complex, it may scare the wits out of the prospects. It is also important to link the job responsibilities with the business goals.
 
Team dynamics play a vital role and therefore need to be considered while hiring. Often, employees who have been in the organisation (where the entrepreneur is at the helm of the affairs for a long time) resist change and can prove to be a bane when the firm's business model changes. Their emotional attachment to the past (and the entrepreneur) will make it impossible for the organisation to move ahead for executing its strategy. This is mostly the case in those organisations that are not process-driven. Such employees may no longer fit in the new scheme of things. The matter needs to be handled with utmost sensitivity. Such employees will have to be retrained. Expectations from them have to be realistic.
 
Candidates are smart nowadays. They are well-informed (thanks to the Internet and social media) and so they use all their ingenuity to overstress their strengths and underplay their weaknesses. Candidates with king-sized egos can find it a bit of a challenge to settle quickly in a new organization. Mr Surendran, a consultant who worked for Personal Search Services, says that candidates who have worked in multinational firms find it difficult to adjust and adapt to the organizational climate in start-ups and Indian firms.
 
Many firms are taking the right steps by conducting personality assessments to gauge the ability of a hire to work well in teams. No employee can afford to bad mouth his present organization in front of his potential employers. However, recruiters can seek honest feedback from candidates about the real reason for leaving. Candidates are well-advised to give honest opinion that is constructive and subtle. For instance-instead of saying that the current organization does not reward talent, a candidate can say that the organization has a policy of not discriminating between performers and non-performers.
 
The values in an organization are greatly dependent on the CEO and his outlook (this is more so, if it is a sole proprietorship firm). Hiring candidates who can meet the long term goals of the organization is a good strategy. If one is focused too much on hiring candidates with similar skill sets, then this may not always lead to a successful outcome. Placing more emphasis on the future is also a step in the right direction. Too many recruiters focus on what the candidate has done in the past. Very few look at what the candidate can deliver in the future.
 
In India, there is a tendency for recruiters/organizations to look down upon people who voluntarily apply to an organization. Recruiting is an on-going process. Even if there is no vacancy, firms can preserve resumes and source them when there is a potential opportunity. The response given to such candidates says a lot about the mindset of the top teams.
 
Use of social media, tapping the information in journals and magazines, sourcing candidates from the membership details of professional organizations, using industry trade shows to spot talent-these are some of the innovative hiring techniques used by some organizations. What a candidate does after office hours is also gaining credence as part of the recruitment process. The locations for conducting an interview are also changing. The days of an intimidating interview panel asking questions to a candidate sitting across the table are over. Informal interviews in coffee shops and restaurants are in. This is a welcome change for sure.
 
Let's end with an interesting story of mindless hiring process that got corrected on the spot. A past president of a Tata Group firm used to tell interviewers "be friendly with candidates and ask relevant questions". He told an instance where as an observer during an interview, he noticed that the interviewer was asking the candidates questions which were not relevant. The interviewer continued to frame some more similar questions that bordered on the absurd. At that time, the president politely asked the candidate to wait outside and informed him that he will be called back. Then he asked the interviewer, "will you please give me the answers that you put to the candidate?"
 
The interviewer was shocked. He did not expect such interruption from president but mumbled "sorry sir". The president patted him and told him to refine his interviewing skills by preparing relevant questions and then called the candidate inside. The reframed questions elicited correct answers and the candidate was selected and became one of the top executives in the company. In this episode, the guidance of the president is to be appreciated.
 
In another instance, a group of supervisors and a HR person were interviewing candidates for the post of fitter, turners and machinists.  The supervisors were happy with the candidates whose basic knowledge was sufficient to get work out of them. But the HR person suddenly asked "who is the prime minister of Sri Lanka?" which baffled the works manager who was observing the procedure. He got up and courteously called the HR person outside the room and told him "If the candidate is so much knowledgeable to know politics and know names of presidents and prime ministers, he could not have stopped from ITI course-the crowd in ITI stream is lower middle class who cannot afford a newspaper. He further said "Am I right in suggesting that to this type of candidates, we will stop short of asking basic technical questions?" The HR person acknowledged the guidance of the works manager.

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