Guest AuthorMahalingam

Games executive coaches play (Part I)

 By C. Mahalingam

Executive coaching has caught up big time in India. There is a realisation that leadership talent is in short supply and that playing a ‘buy’ strategy has serious limitations. The focus, therefore, has shifted to a ‘build’ strategy where organisations are investing in setting up leadership academies for grooming a cadre of internal leadership bench. Senior leaders are called upon to invest their time at these academies sharing their “teachable points of view” to the high potential internal candidates so that they can be prepared for higher responsibilities. Leadership competency frameworks are leveraged to focus the development and assessment/development centres are used to do the assessment that forms the basis for fast-track development.

It is now fairly well-established that people development follows a certain pattern. No more than 10 per cent of development is attributed to class-room training. Almost 70 per cent of learning happens through mentoring on the job or other work-related assignments. This leaves us with 20 per cent of development that happens throughrelationship-based strategies, such as mentoring and coaching. It is in this context that coaching has assumed importance in organisations. A few organisations have the foresight to build coaching competence internally as they have clear expectations from their managers that they double up as coaches. Managers as coaches are very powerful but managers need systematic training and role-plays before they can shift gears between the roles of a manager and a coach.

The two sides

Senior managers who are being groomed for higher responsibilities are given the benefit of external executive coaches, who reach a clear understanding with the sponsoring organisation and the executive to be coached on the developmental need and focus their coaching around the same. Usually coaching contracts for such purposes are for six months and sometimes longer. They key success factors for such

intervention to work would be (a) clear understanding of the developmental need; and (b) if the need so identified is something that coaching can address. The overarching success factor is the right choice of the executive coach.

Over the last two years, we have seen a dozen or more executive coaching certification/credentialing organisations that have come up in India to fill the gap in helping create a competent cadre of trained executive coaches. Their efforts are laudable. However, a caveat would be in order at this juncture. Not only in India, but even globally, it is both interesting and worrying to stomach the fact that these institutes have rarely ever failed any candidate, who has enrolled for the program. In other words, anyone who enrols rolls out as successful! This leaves the onus completely on the corporate house to discern the

“men from the boys.” Executive coaching is an expensive developmental intervention not just in terms of coaching fees, but the opportunity cost of six months of time being spent by the coachee.

The author, himself an executive coach, has been a keen observer of what is going on in this wonder world of executive coaching. Borne out of this observation and conversation with corporate houses is this discovery that if not done carefully, executive coaching can turn out to be frustrating for the coachee and an investment wasted for the sponsoring organisation. Coaching is a craft and not just an art and science. Great coaches are trained, get their unique value from rich experience and keep the coachee’s interest uppermost in their mind.

While training provides them with useful frameworks and dos and don’ts of coaching, effective coaches bring value through their intelligent and practical approach to helping the coachee overcome their challenges.

Games played

Like with any growing profession, coaching has its challenges. The biggest challenge is when coaches play games without realising they do. This arises out of lack of strong fundamentals in coaching. With credentials as a license, they unleash these games on the unsuspecting coachees. I have captured many such interesting “games that coaches may play” and how organisations can guard against such possibilities by carefully screening potential coaches and by periodical review once a coach has been signed up.

Traffic cop:

This game emanates from the psychological disposition of the coach that “I’m only trying to help.” The manifestation of this game is through generous suggestions to try this or try that from the coach drawing upon either their experience or extensive ‘Googling’ on the net. Professional coaching is anything but prescriptive, although an occasional tip in the form of “have you thought about this possibility” is permissible to break a situation of “impasse” or “no noticeable progress.”


Coaches are not psychiatric professionals. And there may be occasions when the coach recognises (hopefully) that the coachee may need professional help from qualified counsellors or psychiatrists. Ideally, this is recognised right at the beginning of the “getting to know” discussions and professional coaches stay out of a coaching contract once they recognise the need for a referral to a professional help. This game plays out when the coach assumes the role of a psychiatrist and begins to “treat the coachee” with his “techniques”. This causes more damage than good.


This game is all about the coach believing and communicating to the coachee that everything is “bright and shiny.” A coaching contract has been entered into because the sponsor believes that the coachee needs help. Positive reinforcements are needed from time to time but based on progress made. Half-baked coaches take to this game just to create a sense of “feel-good” so that the coachee may report positive impact of coaching to the sponsor. Eventually, this leads to frustration for the coachee, who reports to the sponsor what the coach least wanted — that the coaching was a waste!

War hero:

When coaching conversations drift from the a meaningful course and move into the coach reeling out how they solved the problem of Mr X or Ms Y and this happens meeting after meeting, this game is in full play. War stories are shared, which are of interest initially, but become a burden for the coachee eventually as the coachees are interested in their challenge being addressed and not stories of how coaches solved the world’s miseries!

(The author is an executive coach and an HR Advisor to corporate houses.)

Part II is expected to appear soon and will be shared.

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