Executive Coaching in a Vacuum Vs. With Context

January 19, 2015

In team sports, coaches try to put their players in a position to succeed. They draw up plays that maximize their team’s strengths and take advantage of the opponents’ weaknesses. Each player on the team has a role, and they should know what’s expected of them, when, and why. The halfback knows, for instance, when to pick up a blitzing linebacker, so that the receiver has time to run the route and the quarterback time to throw. They practice together so that they can how best to help each other and communicate; they don’t just train individually with weights and blocking sleds.

In individual sports, coaches design drills and exercises to improve specific aspects of a player’s game—like second serves in tennis or triple axels in figure skating. The goal is to improve the individual’s form, accuracy, strength, or endurance. The work is largely done in a vacuum. Most, if not all, of the focus is on the individual.

Too often in executive coaching, coaches act as if they’re counseling someone who is playing an individual sport. They act as if they’re working in a vacuum. In doing so, they ignore the complex systems in which today’s leaders work.

Just as a volleyball player does not play solo, you do not play leader alone. You have your team members to lead, plus you have to negotiate relationships with advisors, board members, suppliers, and distributors, not to mention customers. And you play your game of business in an ecosystem with both direct and indirect competitors. You are decidedly not alone.

Great coaches and leaders know that success is never a solo act. Context and collaborators matter A LOT. That is why coaching should involve more—much more—than just determining your individual strengths and weaknesses. Coaches should help you devise organizational strategies that fit your competencies, capabilities, and capacity. Further, coaches should help you assess and establish the roles and responsibilities of each team member as you seek to accomplish the strategy’s actions and objectives. Coaches can and should help you capture, communicate, and even shape your organization’s culture, too.

Most of the training programs today focus on just coaching the individual, and they do a huge disservice to their clients as a result. The exceptions that I know of are Bath Consultancy and Marshall Goldsmith. They truly consider their clients contexts—the large, integrated, team-based systems in which they work. Bath Consultancy and Marshall Goldsmith are the gold standard in the coaching business, to my mind. And I started CO2 Partners with a similar ethos and objective. The CO2 in CO2 Partners stands for Coaching Officers and Organizations. We see the individual tightly integrated in the larger ecosystem of the organization and competing forces.

At CO2, we know when we get it right not just when we see our client change, but when we see the entire organization shift.


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