When Leaders Struggle with Complex Challenges--Qualifications Matter

Thu, Feb 09, 2012

Expert.Istock.paid resized 600When you have a toothache, would you consult a car mechanic who took a year-long, part-time course in dentistry, even if you felt he had a knack for it? If your child has a high fever and hacking cough, would you take him or her to your neighbor for treatment, one who has two children of her own, and works as an accountant? Probably not.

In these cases, you would most likely seek out a professional with credible educational training, background, and evidence of mastery in diagnosing and treating your specific issue. Your decision would be based in common sense and an understanding that health issues are complex and require expert care.

Minimal Professional Standards

Yet in the business and coaching world, where the leadership dynamics intertwined with cultural, team, interpersonal, and tough business realities make issues especially complex, there is a lack of real professional standards and barriers to entry are minimal. 

Recently, the New York Times ran an article by Spencer Morgan about a 27 year old woman working as a life coach. She attended a life coach certification program and now has a successful business.

There were over 200 passionate comments posted by readers. One group felt strongly that age and credentials do not determine coaching competency. A second group asserted that the work described could be done by a good friend--why pay someone when you have caring friends who listen and challenge you? A third group passionately argued that some areas of human behavior and some challenges are complex enough that quality control is necessary. These readers passionately argued that having formal, credible knowledge, experience, and training are essential. I agree with the third group, especially when the issues are complex, for example, an executive leadership team with a new leader who must turn around the business and is faced with resistance, and/or the stakes are high; for example when a technically brilliant founder is unable to forge a necessary and collaborative relationship with a new CEO or the integration of two corporate cultures gets bogged down in petty rivalries.

In my field of organization and executive leadership development, many educated in the hard sciences or business claim to be organization development consultants and coaches. Others with formal backgrounds, education, and years of experience in marketing, accounting, public relations or communications claim to be experts in leadership and human behavior. The standards for entry appear low and anyone, sometimes with a flair for hype, can claim to be an expert.

Morgan, in the New York Times article, described life coaching as a process of asking good questions and holding people accountable. To some extent, I agree that this is part of the necessary skill set to be a good “coach.” It is not all that is required.

Consider some of the toughest organizational and leadership challenges:

  • Creating a collaborative environment when hidden agendas, power plays, and “us versus them” attitudes prevail

  • Navigating tough organizational changes

  • Inspiring a team that has to do more with less to stay focused and motivated in a volatile and uncertain environment

  • Leading tricky merger integrations

  • Smoothing out ugly personal dynamics on an all-star leadership team

Merger integrations and strategic change efforts often fail because leaders don’t hire the right help. Leadership development efforts fail for the same reasons. So what is the difference between saying you are a coach and actually being an effective executive leadership coach?

Knowledge Guides Good Questions

A few years back, I enjoyed watching the HBO show, In Treatment. Dr. Paul Weston  a psychotherapist, played by Gabriel Byrne is an excellent therapist who is also in therapy himself, with Gina, played by Dianne Wiest. In one of Paul’s sessions with Gina, Paul believes he has failed as a husband and father and wonders how he can effectively help others. Gina replies that being a parent or husband is very different than being a trained observer of human behavior. They require different skills. Gina reminds Paul, that as a therapist, he has spent years learning his craft. He is formally schooled in the behavioral sciences. He is trained to make observations, ask insightful questions based on his knowledge, make interpretations, and encourage others to look at their patterns of behavior. He draws on a body of empirical knowledge about human behavior to guide his thinking and the questions that he asks.

Being a Parent is not enough to Qualify to be a Child Development Expert

By successfully managing others, individuals absolutely learn about leadership and human dynamics. Being a spouse, one learns about relationships. Being a parent, one learns something about early childhood development.  However, these experiences alone are not enough to become an expert in the fields of leadership development, marital counseling, and/or child development.

Being an Executive Requires Different Skills than being an Executive Coach

When you hire an executive leadership coach to help you navigate tough organizational changes, tricky merger integrations, or to smooth out rough dynamics in your leadership team, it is crucial that you check the consultant’s credentials and experience. Someone with education, years of experience, and background in finance, or accounting, or engineering is not an expert in human dynamics. An individual who has been a CEO may not have knowledge or training in adult learning and development or a deep understanding of relevant psychological theories and concepts. Those with training and business experience in finance or sales are not experts in the nuances of leadership and human behavior.  The field of leadership and organizational behavior is a specialized discipline.

What are Good Qualifications?

Again, I agree with the third group, who say that business experience, knowledge, and acumen are a must to be an effective executive coach. Knowledge of human and adult development, adult learning theory, organizational systems are critical. I also agree with Paul’s therapist from In Treatment that it takes years to learn and master any professional craft.  And finally, I concur that an executive leadership coach must have a vested interest in ongoing personal learning and growth.

The Executive Coaching Forum has what I consider to be a comprehensive and credible list of executive coach competencies, which include a broad range of business, coaching, organizational, and psychological aspects. I recommend reviewing this when considering hiring an executive leadership adviser or coach.

While it might cost less to hire a quasi-expert or seem intriguing to be taken in by charismatic hype, it will cost more in time and money to clean up the mess.

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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