Monday, April 15, 2013

Executive Coaching in the Arts

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on.............................”

I’ve been doing a lot of coaching in the past year.  I like it, it suits me, I think I am pretty good at it - and I think I’m getting better at it.

My clients are varied, and each assignment is different, challenging in it own way.  While there is satisfaction in helping the client, I find that I am learning as much as I am helping.  I am meeting some extraordinary leaders who are facing different obstacles to overcome, and who are meeting those obstacles with grace, perspective, energy and most of all a willingness to go outside their own comfort zone boxes. I am learning more about our field and what management and leadership is all about, and about the thought processes involved in decision making and applying knowledge to specific situations.

Clients can range from Executive Directors of organizations - both large and small, long established, and some in transition to a new post; Board Chairs who want their tenure to have a positive impact; and rank and file staffing directors of various departments within the organizational structure.  Some have been of relatively short duration, others are on-going.  (I have become reluctant to accept “quickie” assignments that are of very short duration, because for the most part that perspective fails to understand that the process of coaching is best unfolded over a period of time.)

While I have found that our field is beginning to see the benefits of coaching and is moving towards a fuller measure of embracing the process, I have found that there is a lot of confusion about coaching out there, along with some myths.  I frequently hear these questions:  “What is coaching?  How does it work?  Why is it necessary?  How much does it cost?”

Coaching is a process that drives self-discovery and awareness for the client as both a professional and a human being.  Coaching is most easily explained using the sports metaphor.  Take a tennis coach as an example:  the role of the coach is to bring experience and knowledge to a process of working with the person being coached to improve their game - as a whole, or more frequently, some specific part thereof.   Process is the operative word.  Improve their game is the right objective.  For us that means helping the arts manager be more effective and productive - as a manager, a leader and a professional.

Coaching isn’t a coach coming in with all the answers, isn’t someone taking over and doing the work.  The process involves three principal stages:

First, the more the coach knows about the player’s game, and their perception of where their game needs improvement, as well as the ecosystem in which the player operates, the better the coach can help the client.  So intake assessment to become familiar with both the client player and the situation and environment in which the player works is critical.  That involves everything from a first client interview, to interviews with the client’s co-workers, supervisors, subordinates, peers, vendors, Board members and stakeholders, to shadowing the client through an average workday.  The intake assessment process is also important in giving both the client and the coach an opportunity to determine if the requisite positive chemistry between the two can grow.  Not every Coach / Client match works.

Second, the client and the coach together identify areas in which the client needs help and which the coach might be helpful.  A mutually acceptable plan and approach is created as to how to tackle the big issues, over what timeline and with what desired (and hopefully quantifiable / measurable) outcomes.

Third, the actual process of coaching begins.  Coaching most often consists of regular periodic interchanges - either in person, or more commonly by telephone with perhaps email or other support.  Key to effective coaching is good chemistry, for a successful coaching experience is built on trust.  My coaching sessions are confidential and I never share with anyone the substance of our process without the client’s express permission.   In all cases, the person being coached is the client and it is that person’s growth and welfare as the same pertains to the integrity of the organization that comes above other considerations.  The client must feel able to open up and not hold back if the process has any chance of making headway into improving the client’s game.  For the client, having an independent and trusted place to sound off, rant, consider new ideas and thinking, effectively and accurately evaluate and consider various situations and scenarios and to just think out loud is of enormous value in getting from one point to another.  The process involves building on the client’s strengths and is guided by personal values and ethical guidelines.  Coaching is not about judgments, its about facilitation.  Contrary to what some might believe, it is decidedly results oriented.

A truly effective coach must know how to listen to the client.  This is critical because much of coaching has as its objective changing and building on certain thinking and behavior, and that can really only originate in the client.  Coaching normally involves asking a lot of questions as a means to bring clarity to a client’s thinking; it is a dialogue. Coach and client are partners in digging deeper into issues and identifying new paths to address those issues.   And that can only happen if the client not only comes to conclusions for themselves, but also sees a path or paths they feel comfortable adopting to effect the desired change.  The approach is more: “Have you considered this variable in your decision making” than it is: “That’s wrong.  Do it this way.”  An effective coach is part teacher, part mentor, part guide, part expert, part sympathetic listener and always the cheerleader and optimist. A good coach cares about improving the client’s understanding of their own situation - their strengths and their weaknesses, and how to improve themselves, and a good coach needs to be candid, frank and honest with the client.  The goal is to help the client reach their maximum capabilities as effective leaders and managers by considering new ways of looking at things - in a safe, confidential and nurturing environment.

A Coach / Client relationship is highly unique.  The Coach’s first job is to actually “hear” what the client is saying so that the clients needs can be identified. Not infrequently the client may not always be sure (or correct) in knowing what they need.  Again, it is the process of exploring those needs and the ways those needs can be met, that is key to success.  Rapport and mutual respect are critical. The coach brings relevant experience, and knowledge based on that experience, to help to guide the client to specific and positive ways the client’s game can be improved.  The client brings an openness to exploring and finding new ways to improve their game. But it is the client that determines for him/herself what will work for them and what will not.  A good Coach helps the client choose that right path, and then gets them started on their journey.  That journey is a partnership between Coach and Client.  As long as the client is willing to invest in the process and reasonably believes something good and positive can come of it, all coach / client relationships have the chance to succeed.

There are all kinds of situations and circumstances that give way to the coaching alternative.  Some client relationships are initiated by the client because s/he perceives that they could use some help in some particular area of their professional being, or with some specific project or program.  Sometimes that need is because the client is unfamiliar with new territory, or even admittedly seemingly lacking some attribute that would make them a more effective manager or leader.  Sometimes unprecedented organizational change or complexity demands new skills and performance from an executive.  Sometimes it is because of a major organizational transformation somewhere in process - including a leadership succession issue as one moves up the ladder.  Sometimes it is because of some crisis that has arisen or there is some internal conflict in the organization.  Sometimes it is purely to devise a new tactic to deal with a long standingchallenge.  Sometimes it is foisted upon the client by a Board or outside organization or source.   The needs of each client is vastly different from the others and there is no cookie cutter approach that will work.

To my thinking there are four situations in which coaching can be particularly beneficial to the individual and to the organization: 1) where a new Executive Director comes into an organization; 2) when a newly elected Board Chair takes over; 3) when the organization is facing a crisis or major challenge of some kind; and 4) when the individual has hit the proverbial “brick wall” in terms of their own performance and questions continuing in their role.

Too many people think of the coach alternative as: a) something awful being thrust upon them because they are somehow thought to be deficient.  “A coach?  For me?  I don’t need a coach.  I’ve been doing this for a long time. I know what I’m doing”  They fear the coaching experience as a negative comment on their abilities and as an unwanted and unwarranted intrusion into their privacy.  These people misunderstand a fundamental lesson - that learning and improving is a life long endeavor for all of us.  They fail to grasp that times change, things change, ideas change and that all of us can benefit from help with our game no matter what stage it is at.  Tennis coaches help players from the novice beginner all the way up to the Grand Slam pros and they all benefit from being coached.  b) Still others think it would usurp too much of their time, which time is in exceedingly short supply anyway. These people miss the opportunity for actually saving time that the coaching experience promotes.   c) Some believe that it really wouldn’t do them much good anyway, and that they could probably get the same results on their own.  These people disregard the value of someone outside the situation as an ally who can help to clarify things and offer paths unseen.  Most people appreciate that their own “game’ has weaknesses; that they have blind spots that hold them back.  Coaching helps to improve communication, leadership and people managing skills, while building confidence and awareness.  d)  Some, of course, think it a waste of money - a luxury they simply cannot afford or justify.  Those people fail to appreciate that investing in an organization's people is as, or more important, than investing in any other aspect of the organization. They fail to remember that the "it's a luxury" argument is the same specious argument we hear about support for the arts in general.  e)  Some people think it is too "touchy feely", too much like therapy.  But while coaching helps promote psychological and emotional growth, coaches are not trained therapists or counselors, and the process is nothing like therapy.

Corporations jumped on the Executive Coaching bandwagon a decade or more ago, and indeed coaching at different levels across the corporate bandwidth is now mainstream.  As coaching is principally ‘results oriented’ it is seen as a justifiable investment cost.  The nonprofit field is moving towards mainstreaming Coaching as one of the arrows in its quiver.

Often times our leadership (Executive Directors and Department heads) are already acting as quasi-coaches themselves though they don’t know it, and haven’t given much thought to how they might better execute that role.  One of the benefits of having a Coach is that it improves the performance of later being a Coach.  And Coaching can be taught.

To be sure, coaching may not be for everyone, at least not at all times.  And it is both a cost and time consuming option and so for it to work, there is an investment and commitment that must be made.  My own biased view (as a Coach) is that the money and time spent can more often than not save a greater amount of time and money in the long run.  If we are not interested in investing in our people - our managers, our executives, our board members, our leaders - than we really don’t care much about the organizations for which they work, and the projects and programs they oversee.

Though, as a Coach, I am certainly biased, I urge the field to consider whether a stint with a Coach might be helpful to you or people within your organization - whatever the specific and immediate need might be.  There are increasingly more Coaches operating within the nonprofit sector and even in our own arts field.  Their approaches and charges vary widely.  How much does it cost?  Typical rates range from $75 to $250 per hour.  Corporate rates often double that amount.  Ask around.

And (here’s my shameless plug), if anyone out there is interested in talking to me about coaching, please send an email inquiry to me.  I have some time breaks opening up this summer and fall, and would be pleased to talk to you.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit