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The Dangers of Executive Coaching

I've always felt a little uneasy about the Steven Berglas article "The Dangers of Executive Coaching" (Harvard Business Review, June 2002). When I first read it I put this down to a sense that it was rather self-promoting (the message seemed to be "you should always use a psychologically trained coach like me!"). I re-read it on the train up to London earlier this week. My first reaction was that Berglas was choosing examples where the coachees had significant pathologies to prove his thesis that "in an alarming number of situations, executive coaches who lack rigorous psychological training do more harm than good". But then when I looked at what each of the 'coaches' cited did, I realised that what he was describing was not coaching but actually (bad) training and consulting.

These are the four case studies he presents - in each case I have quoted his description of what the coach did (italics mine):

  • Rob Bernstein, an EVP in charge of Sales at an automotive distributor. The problem was that Rob caused trouble within the company by mistreating support staff, though he was worth his weight in gold with clients. The coach "taught him techniques for 'managing the little people'" - so teaching then, not coaching.
  • Jim Mirabella, a Head of Marketing. His problem was that he was impossible to work with because he hoarded information about company strategy, market indicators, sales forecasts and the like. The coach, McNulty, "analyzed Mirabella's behaviour and role-played effective styles for mastering interpersonal situations that Mirabella did not handle well." McNulty also "reacted to Mirabella's avowment of ineptitude and anxiety with exhortations 'Quitters never win, and winners never quit' was a favourite comment of his, but at times McNulty would also chide Mirabella for being a 'weakling' who needed to 'act like a man' ". So here it sounds like a combination of teaching by modelling behaviours and bullying - again, not coaching.
  • Jennifer Mansfield VP of Training and Development. Her problem was a lack of confidence, and a difficulty delegating. Berglas says that "the coach assumed that Mansfield needed to learn to set limits, to constructively criticize her subordinates, and to avoid the trap of doing other people's work for them. Within two months of what her coach deemed successful training, Mansfield began to lose weight, grow irritable and display signs of exhaustion." Training again.
  • The COO of an athletic shoe manufacturer. He had snapped under the strain of failing to meet sales targets for three successive quarters and had begun venting his frustration on store managers, buyers and suppliers. The coach, a one-time colleague of the CEO, used an approach "based on a profiling system that diagnosed managers' strengths and weaknesses and charted career tracks that would optimise individual managers' productivity". Six months later the coach claimed that the once raging COO was calm and capable of fulfilling his duties. When the coach suggested that he apply the profiling system to all the company's executives, the CEO readily agreed. During the next year, the coach suggested a number of personnel changes which were implemented. Many of these changes proved ill-conceived and damaged the company - but the coach had inadvertently set up a dependency relationship in which the CEO had formed a positive transference towards the coach. This meant that the CEO was unable to see that the coach was creating the organisation's problems. It's not clear if coaching was used here with the COO or not. But the subsequent use of the profiling instrument with all the company's executives was a consultancy intervention, so this example would seem to have little to say about coaching interventions.

There is a case that can be made for a coach needing to be psychologically trained - or at least psychologically literate - but that that case isn't made here. Instead, the examples demonstrate what happens when organisations use incompetent 'coaches' - and the dangers of a largely directive approach. Coaches who follow a non-directive approach can much more easily satisfy the injunction "first do no harm" (often attributed to Hippocrates but actually of 17th century origins). Of course, good coaches will use both non-directive and directive styles - but it takes much greater skill to make effective directive interventions than it does non-directive interventions - as Berglas' article does demonstrate.

 
 
 
Copyright © 2013. Dr M H Munro Turner. All rights reserved