Executive Coaching – Another Growth Strategy for Singapore Companies?

Not too long ago, I read a series of discussions on social media among Singapore business owners on the benefits, or the lack of benefits, of executive coaching.  The discussion seemed to be more on the lack of benefits, with some Singapore entrepreneurs even likening executive coaches to frauds at worst, or at best, only skilled in ‘theory’.  As an executive coach representing a business strategy coaching organisation that has helped more than 40 000 companies across the world, I found this discussion very interesting and of course, insightful into the mindset of the Singapore business owner.

Is it true that executive coaching yields no benefit to the Singaporean entrepreneur?

As I followed the discussion, I began to see certain misconceptions held by the business community here, and how these misunderstanding could actually prevent Singapore businesses from unleashing their full potential.

Let me explain why.

Imagine asking an Olympian or a top athlete whether he or she needs a coach? What do you think his or her answer would be? Would he or she say that a coach is only for those who ‘haven’t made it to the top’?

Andre Agassi, a world tennis champion supposedly said that no one ever achieves peak performance without a coach. Sports stars like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps all have coaches.

What about business champions? Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt all have a coach.  An article in Forbes reported that executive coaching grew from a little known industry to a US$1B one over the last twenty years with the majority of the bill being foot by giants like General Electric, Google, Goldman Sachs and other world beaters. In the past, these organisations considered coaching as a performance enhancement measure for failing employees, but now, coaching is the key to helping key executives to lead and win in a world that is increasingly competitive and complex.

And the benefits are evident – a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association Resource Center puts the ROI on executive coaching at an average of 7x, with 25% of respondents saying that the returns could go as high as 10-45x the investment.

The main reason given why executive coaching has risen in prominence among the world beaters is this – the world has become increasingly competitive and complex. And leaders need to change in order to succeed in the ‘new world’. If executive coaching is a key driver of business growth among the commercial giants of the world, could this also be the key to help Singaporean companies breakthrough and scale?

To quote one of my clients from the Philippines, a CEO of a company that I am working with to push through the $1B mark: she said that if we had met 5 years ago, she probably would not have seen the importance of engaging an executive coach for her and the management team, but much has changed in the last 5 years in the Philippines. They no longer compete against local companies but also international ones. And to beat the competition and grow, she thinks it is time to call in the help of a coach to effect lasting change down the ranks, flowing from the top.

So do the changes that affect these countries affect Singapore too? If the answer is yes, then perhaps executive coaching might be an effective tool to help Singapore companies to thrive in this complex environment.

So what is stopping this?

From my experience working with companies in Singapore and SEA, the main obstacle to engaging a coach is the misunderstanding of what a coach does. There are two main misconceptions. The first one is similar to the view held in the west twenty years ago – the coach is like a ‘tutor’.

And in and Asian society, who goes for tuition?

Thus this view tends to limit the role of a coach to one of a trainer. Everybody in Asia wants to learn, that is why they have no qualms going for courses, or hiring a coach to ‘teach’. But few like to be coached towards changing. This is because it implies that they are doing something wrong, and need a coach to correct them and the way they run their business. To illustrate this difference in mindset, two companies I worked with, an Australian and a British, both based in Singapore, were upfront that they want to be coached, not trained. They want continuous engagement e.g. monthly or quarterly follow-ups to make sure the executive team is following the process. They even gave the coach permission to ask direct and harsh questions. But the converse is usually true for Asian companies – they want to be trained, taught the latest techniques but not held accountable over a period of time. Also, the C suites in Asian companies tend to see coaching as something beneath them – it’s for their managers. Thus, change is usually not driven from the top. Whereas there is no such stigma attached with western companies. Usually, it will be the CEO that is at the forefront of the work with the coach and it flows down from there.

This difference in perceiving coaching is why Asian companies usually do not engage a coach to coach, but to do the job of a trainer.

That’s why several of my clients short change themselves by putting a lot of emphasis on what I can teach their teams, but fall short on the coaching process.  In fact, it is the coaching that will bring lasting results to the team, not the initial teaching. After all, only 10% of learning takes place during training, 20% through interacting, but 70% happens through doing. And a coach’s highest effect is when he holds the team accountable for what they do.

What could be the cause of this mindset? One, it could be a misunderstanding between what   training and coaching is? Or a cultural confusion that blurs a tutor’s role with that of a coach.

Or worse, it could be a case of ego. Verne Harnish, world famous guru on business growth, observed after more than 30 years of helping companies to scale, says that the biggest obstacle to scaling up a business is a leader’s ego.

Another possible reason why coaching is not making its maximum impact here could be due to another misconception – Coaching is often confused with consulting. The fundamental difference is a consultant is an industry expert who provides you with an answer that you do not know while a coach is one who helps to uncover issues that hinder growth and co-develop a process with the executive to solve the problem.

In short, a consultant gives answers, a coach asks questions. A consultant finds the answers for you, while a coach walks you towards the answers. The first focuses on the end result only – the answers, while the second focuses on the process you take to find the answers.

Both have their uses for different circumstances. One is about finding answers to complex questions; the other is about growing towards results.

Thus, it is common to hear business leaders say ‘what can the coach tell me about my business since I have more years, more achievements than anyone in the industry’? And this is not an idle boast, since many business leaders are deserving of their success. But that was never the coach’s intention or role in the first place. The coach’s role is to help the executive and his team to go through a process of change to become more effective in scaling, rather than to answer industry specific problems.

One of my clients understood this. Despite being the third generation leader of a hundred year old business that yields billions of dollars in revenue, he initiated a process of change from top down because he knew that the previous ways of running the business, of developing strategy and developing people had to change.  His family business spans seven industries, and I worked with the management teams across these seven industries to implement a process of growth and change, of re-looking at their businesses in a new way for a new phase of growth. As coach, I help to drive a process across the company. I don’t provide industry specific answers.

So how can Singapore company leaders benefit from coaching?

The important thing is to find the right coach.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of coaches that can be found through Google. So the first thing is to know what you want to achieve through coaching. Is it personal leadership change, business strategy change, business processes change, people development change etc?

Every coach may be good in their respective areas, but they won’t be good in everything. The first step is to know what you want to deal with; it will make it easier for your coach and you to lay out expectations.

Next is to see what the coach brings to the table. Here, another common misconception interferes. A lot of people I spoke to do not know the difference between a coach and a mentor. In a nutshell, a mentor has experience, a coach has a method. If you are looking for a guide who has been there, and done that to guide you, you are looking for a mentor. If you are looking for a system or a process that will bring results through various levels in your organisation, then you are looking for a coach.

So the next step after knowing what you want, is to ask if a coach or a mentor serves your needs better. If it is a coach you need, then what methodology does the coach use? Is it proven? Has the method been used successfully across different industries, different countries, different cultures to bring change and results? For example, the 4 Decisions Framework coaching process developed by Verne Harnish has helped more than 40 000 companies across the world in 6 continents. This is what I mean by a system or methodology that stands the test of circumstances and culture.

And the last, but most important question is – how willing are you to change? Coaching is a process of change, not a one-off impartation of knowledge. Find a coach that you are comfortable to work with, with a program you are willing to commit to. A coach’s job is to ask the uncomfortable questions and hold you accountable to implement change. The extent of your success, and the coach’s, is dependent on the degree one is willing to work at change.

As Singapore’s businesses face increasing competition in an increasingly complex environment, perhaps executive coaching could be the answer to their growth woes. After all if it helped the world beaters like General Electric and Goldman Sachs maintain their edge, it should help our business leaders become world beaters too.PG Presskit NOV FLA 2013

What’s the ‘POP’ in your corn? 3 Things you must examine in your strategy if you want to play to win!

How does popcorn pop? Ancient Native American Indians believed that a spirit lives in every kernel of corn. When heated, the spirit gets angry and throws a fit. As a result, the corn pops! However, we now know that the popcorn phenomenon occurs because water trapped in the kernel turns to steam when heated, and like a steam engine, it pushes against the soft kernel, causing it to burst open with a ‘pop’.

Last week, at a business strategy course, I heard a story of a man who turned his popcorn business around by capitalizing on this little secret. This man realized that selling popcorn was a business that did not have much competitive edge. So how do you differentiate yourself when your product is a mere commodity that everyone sells? He started to ask himself ‘who buys popcorns and why?’

His answer – families with young children and the reason they buy is to watch the popcorn go ‘pop’.

So he kinda figured out that the unique selling point of pop corn is the ‘POP’. So he asked himself the next question, how do I make my popcorns pop louder?

After studying and discovering how popcorns explode, he found out that the amount of pop was tied to how much water the kernel had; it will determine how much steam it will produce. He tinkered with various ideas how to increase the amount of water in each kernel, until he was able to produce a type of packaging that allowed the right amount of moisture to be maintained in storage. This allowed him to sell popcorn that gave a bigger POP! Now, his popcorn was differentiated from his competitors in the area that mattered to the client – the POP!

So what can we learn from this story? As the year comes to an end and business planning cycles begin for the next year, what are some areas you must consider in your planning? From this story, there are three things:

First – how well do you know your core customer? Do you know why they buy what they buy? Can you articulate in one sentence who is your core customer, and what problem are you really solving for them? Have you differentiated their needs, fears and their wants? Many businesses have a vague idea about this. And from my experience working with companies worth a few million to a few billion, they usually have little time invested in dissecting this question.

Secondly – Do you know in particular, why they buy from you, and not from your competitor? What makes you different? How does your product or service address your customer’s needs and fears? In a world where everything is becoming more and more commoditized, the need to stand out is critical. The only problem is this – many times, our customers want to ‘commoditize’ us because they want it cheap, but is that the game you want to play? Too many businesses get sucked into this whirlpool of letting your customers, and sometimes your competitors, decide what your business should be. Identify three reasons why people buy from you and focus on making these three things better!

Thirdly – What is the core competency you need that will help you make that special difference? The common thinking is to focus on correcting weaknesses or plugging gaps. However this approach will not help you to scale up. It may solve your problems but it will not help you grow exponentially. Take a step back this planning session and ask this question,

Many of my clients start off saying they don’t know what makes them different; they just try to meet industry norms or standards. Or they list an industry standard as a competency e.g. ‘We have ISO XXXX and this is our edge’.  However, they miss the point that everyone has the same competency as them.

But when we push them harder and help them ask the right questions, they discover that every business has a core competency they can leverage. It is just a matter of finding out, and putting a strategy to enhance it. “What makes us special? What makes us unique in meeting our customers’ needs? What makes it hard for our competitors to copy? These are questions to explore in your planning.

Too many year-end planning sessions go to waste because business leaders ask the wrong questions. Wrong questions lead to the wrong answers, and wrong answers lead to bad strategy. While business may still grow due to various factors, we want to not just grow but to grow continuously. These three questions, when answered well, will lead you to not just profitability but profit-ability – the ability to continuously grow your profits. Happy planning!

Purpose Driven Sales

I’m increasingly intrigued by the impact of purpose on business performance, especially sales performance. Last month, I had the chance to speak with two of my clients, who have been adopting Scaling Up for the last nine months, and both reported a breakthrough in sales after a period of stagnation. Their businesses were not growing, that’s why they came to attend Scaling Up to find an answer. One of them grew 25% in nine months after hitting a plateau. After being in business for seven years; her business stopped growing after the fifth.

So I can’t help but ask – What did you do to turbo-charge your sales?

Both of them, speaking to me on separate occasions, told me the same thing: They chose to focus on Core Purpose.

Both of them spent time to clarify their purpose in doing their business, focusing on answering the questions:

  1. Why did they do this business?
  2. How does this business benefit the client in a way money cannot buy?
  3. Will our customers miss us if we no longer exist? Why?

Once they gained clarity on these three questions, they make every effort to talk about it during their weekly sales meeting. One of the business owners told me she kicks off her sales meeting by sharing how big an impact they are making on their client’s life, and why they cannot do this wrongly, or with the wrong motivations. She shifted the focus from numbers to purpose. They start talking about numbers only after everybody had reflected on how they are doing in terms of fulfilling their core purpose.

And they saw sales increase!

How did this happen? Intrigued, I did more research on this, and found out that studies have shown that when people believe that their work will truly make someone else’s life better, performance goes up by an average of 28%. Adam Grant, Wharton Business School’s professor was talking about this in Linkedin, when he interviewed Jack Welch on why it is important for leaders to provide meaning to the work done by their employees. You can read about it in Jack Welch’s new book The Real-Life MBA. Giving meaning to employees is all the more important, given that world-wide employee engagement towards their work is only at a measly 13%.

So how do you find purpose for your business beyond making money?

One of my coaching clients shared how he found it so hard to relocate to Singapore. One of his biggest problems – finding a home. He then started a company helping people find the right property. The lesson – He could identify with his customer’s pain. He still thinks about it, and constantly asks himself how to lessen that pain. As his business grew, it became more complex, but he did not lose sight of why he started the company – to lessen the pain of relocation as he himself experienced. As a result, they grew beyond the $100m mark and now operate across SEA. Not too bad for a company younger than 10 years.

Selling with the purpose of solving someone’s pain is value creation. Customers pay for value, not for how much work you do. Instilling a purpose-driven mindset in your company will therefore drive value-creation!

So how do you help your staff develop meaning in their work?

  1. Talk about the problems you are solving for your customers. Too many companies talk about how many customers they need without talking about WHY someone should become their customers.
  2. Re-look at how you sell. You can see this in how company proposals are structured – company profile, intro, board member faces etc dominate the bulk of it.

Who cares?

Solutions come after that, and that’s what the customer cares about. Why do you put the part that matters most to the customers last?

  1. Spend time understanding your core customers’ needs and fears, and focus on how to solve them. Demographics will only tell us so much – who will buy, but does not tell us why they will buy. The WHY is the most important question. You need to answer it.
  1. And lastly, develop a compelling long-term goal couch NOT in financial terms e.g. be a $1 billion company in 10 years, but in terms of how much benefit to your core customer. Which do you think engages people more – $1 billion dollars in 10 years or 1 000 000 lives transformed in 10 years? Talk about this big goal frequently and link your employees’ contribution to it. This will motivate them more than money, as most humans want to be intrinsically motivated.

Do you find your business stagnating, or wondering how performance can be better? Perhaps it is time to seriously consider what drives your business.

Core Purpose – The Driving Force that Turns the Ship Around!

Ford-Factory-1903

As a Gazelles business growth coach, I have been helping my clients revisit their company’s core purpose at the start of every planning session. From local businesses to international ones, the question of Core Purpose has always been hazy.

What really is the use of articulating, remembering and living out the Core Purpose? Why is it important, and how should Core Purpose be positioned? At the start of each session, there will be cynicism, as key personnel wonder would Core Purpose be relegated to a poster on the wall, unremembered, unarticulated and totally irrelevant to business the way how Mission and Vision had been for them in the past?

So what exactly is Core Purpose and why is it important?

The founder of Gazelles, Verne Harnish, a.k.a the Growth Guy whose business tools and consulting have helped more than 40 000 companies around the world including some national brands like Benetton International (India), shared an article from Bloomberg on how Ford Motors was turned around from near bankruptcy to its former glory. Always looking for stories to inspire business owners to grow, Verne shared this article on his website www.scalingup.com. The article is called The Happiest Man in Detroit.

3 Things I Learnt from this Article

Purpose gives strength through hard times

Alan Mullaly, the CEO who turned Ford from the brink of bankruptcy to the most profitable auto-maker in US said he derived strength from the Core Purpose of Ford Motors, as envisioned by the founder Henry Ford. Every day, when he walks into the company building, he reads the Ford advertisement published in 1925:

“Opening the Highways to All Mankind”

In his own words, Mullaly said,

“I walk in here every morning [at 5:15 a.m.], and the light comes on, and I stop and read it—to serve all mankind. It makes me cry.”

(Source: Bloomberg Business, Feb 03, 2011, The Happiest Man in Detroit by Keith Naughton)

He believes that his job in Ford is to bring safe and efficient transport to EVERYONE.

Mullaly talks about it frequently. He memorizes it. He begins auto shows with the declaration of the core purpose of Ford. And this belief in the noble purpose of Ford gave him strength to turn Ford around despite the hard times. When we only look at financials and forget why we do what we do, it is easy to forget. Worst, if finances are the only reason we do what we do, we will never have the fortitude to survive a crisis. If we hire people who do not believe in our Core Purpose, they will leave when the company goes through a crisis. Only people who share your Core Purpose will stay and turn the ship around.

Purpose Gives Focus

Mullaly had to make some critical decisions – what should Ford focus on to turn the ship around? They had limited resources; at one time even surviving on a loan while burning $2 Billion a month. Again, the CEO went back to Ford’s purpose – what does it mean to bring safe and efficient transport to EVERYONE?

He returned to Ford’s roots to provide affordable and top-quality cars for the common man. Thus, he sold off the European luxury lines like Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo, and focused on beating Toyota and Volkswagen, two similar brands that targets the man-on-the-street by becoming more fuel-efficient, safer and more beautiful than these two competitors. When the Lehman Brothers crisis was over, Ford showrooms had cars that were nicer, better and more efficient than what car buyers remembered Ford had. By focusing on their Core Purpose, they went back to what they did best.

Purpose gives Clarity

The last thing I learnt from this article if the importance of clarity. In line with Ford’s purpose to bring transportation to EVERYONE, Mullaly asked himself where is the world’s largest population, and what do they need?

The answer – Asia and small cars.

Asians neither need nor idolize gas guzzlers. And Asia’s big population would generate enough demand to lift Ford’s profits. This belief drove him to get his designers to design cars that are good for all markets rather than just regional ones. This led to billions in savings as Ford plants got great economies of scale. He hired the right people to lead the Asia team, invested in plants in China, and set a target that 70% of Ford’s growth must come from Asia. Core Purpose helped him to see clearly where to put his resources to achieve the company’s financial as well as highest goals. Although late to the China market, he believes Ford can make an impact by having cars that are beautiful, high-quality and at the same time affordable – cars that have universal appeal to the man-on-the-street.

Conclusion

Last week, as we celebrated Chinese New Year in Singapore, our company, the Adam Khoo Group held our annual AGM. During our AGM, we reiterated our Core Purpose, which is to Inspire a Better World through Training.

What does it really mean?

For us this year, it means adopting a CSR project that will allow us to use our expertise as a training and education company to create a better world. We decided to work with a school in a slum in Batam, where students can’t even afford to pay $4 a month for school fees.

Why did the management team do this? For publicity, as most cynical people would label CSR? It is because Core Purpose, if not DELIBERATELY lived out, made alive and acted upon, will die crucified upon some poster hung on a wall, unremembered. When purpose is alive and well, it will be like a lighthouse pointing us in the right direction. At times of haze and fog, it will direct us safely through the storm. It reminds us who we are, and where we can be at our best.

Is your company clear about its core purpose? This is how to find out:

Does the Core Purpose give you clarity, focus and strength? Ask yourself, if your company stops its operations tomorrow, will your customers feel a sense of loss? Or will they shrug and go next door to your competitor and life goes on?

Does your company have a clearly defined and articulated Core Purpose?

Are you keeping your Core Purpose alive?

If you need help on how to craft a meaningful Core Purpose statement that will drive your company forward and inspire everyone through difficult times, grab the book Scaling Up or just join us at the upcoming Scaling Up MasterClass with Verne Harnish “The Growth Guru” Live! in Singapore on 27th April.

You can also visit www.scaling-up.sg for more details or contact the team at masterclass@akltg.com for more details.