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.