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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

NOV 2003, Sec. II

Shrink Rap:

[Eds. Note:  This article was recently written for Workforce Management.]

Executive Coaching:  Key Tips and Tactics

Executive coaching has seemingly become a cottage industry attracting all kinds of practitioners, from psychotherapists to personal trainers.  However, coaching in a generic fashion or asking the executive student to conform strictly to a coach's professional framework is inviting not just diminished success, but trouble as well.  Working with an executive means being able to understand his or work world and psyche as well as being able to speak this leader's language.  With these considerations in mind, here are six key tips and tactics for coaching an executive:

1.  Lonely at the Top.
  Executives often have assistants and consultants as sounding boards and idea men.  However, even with insiders some execs are careful as to what data or psychological angst is shared.  Also, sometimes execs feel it's necessary to be discriminating in terms of the troubling questions posed or issues exposed.  There can be a sense of isolation.  Clearly having an objective voice, an "intimate outsider" if you will, a person that the exec can share with on a more personal, intimate level is invaluable.  Also, execs often appreciate a coach that can also interact with and discreetly take the pulse of the front-line troops and officers.

2.  Having to Preserve a Persona.
  A related dynamic involves the exec feeling that he or she may need to present a very confident and "in control" image.  A coach must not just be a good listener, but must create a level of trust in the relationship.  A coach must demonstrate an ability for relating to key issues and emotions in order for the exec to feel sufficiently safe to open that Pandora's Box.

3.  Arrogance, Narcissism and Denial.
  Alas, some execs take their successes too much to heart and head; praise and flattery confirm their uncommon stature.  While the Emperor may have some clothes, he still may need a coach that can empathetically yet strategically dress him down.  While big egos don't take well to being totally undressed, many execs appreciate the coach who won't back down in the face of a leader's aggressive manner or when sensing a self-defeating attitude.  For example, a haughty State Dept. exec once challenged me in a retreat:  "What do you call it if you don't have any stress?"  My immediate reply with a twinkle in my eye:  "Denial!"  His laughter broke the ice between us.

4.  Helping a Leader Ask for Help.
  For many execs, asking for help connotes weakness or perhaps is seen as a negative reflection on their competency, experience or leadership qualities.  So helping a leader understand the toll he or she is taking by not seeking some outside support is critical.  Surely a coach wants to reinforce the areas of expertise of the exec.  At the same time, the coach wants to help an exec understand, for example, that certain kinds of interpersonal tension or team dynamics or morale (if not productivity) issues following a downsizing or reorganizing often require sophisticated intervention.  In today's volatile and uncertain work environment, a coach may often need to be sensitive to, if not expert in, group grieving, team conflict and EAP referral for a troubled employee.

5.  Seeking the Right Kind of Intervention.
  I recall a department executive finally admitting that the level of interpersonal dysfunction in his shop was beyond his comprehension.  He went to his superior asking permission to hire a conflict and team-building coach/consultant.  The entire organization had recently started classroom Covey Training.  This superior suggested holding off bringing in a consultant; he wanted the exec to give the Covey Training a chance.  This was a serious mistake, as the level of dysfunction required hands-on, OD intervention by a conflict specialist.  I was finally brought in after serious mental abuse and sexual harassment charges forced top management's hand.

6.  Using Peer Intervention.
  Sometimes the executive coach also needs to possess humility, that is, he or she must call on others for help:  a coach may need to call on the peers of the executive for a small group intervention.  Some execs need to be supported and/or confronted by fellow execs or friends in order for the exec to "get it."  Clearly, this high-level intervention method must be used with real discretion.  And, of course, when a coach can also ask for assistance, then he's being a role model for that rigidly independent exec.

7.  Coach as Systems Observer/Player.  Unless the relationship must be kept under wraps, a coach should attend at least one executive committee, staff or "all hands" meeting.  First, this helps the coach get an up close look at how the executive interacts with his or her personnel.  Second, a coach may also want to share some observations on content issues and, especially, on the group dynamics of the meeting.  This gives other group members an opportunity to evaluate the personality and competency of the coach.  People want to know that the coach is not a Svengali, manipulating or controlling their leader.  (Along this line, an executive coach might consider brief one-on-one meetings with management, supervisory and/or department personnel.  This step helps folks get to know the coach and may also dispel some concerns regarding mission and motivation.)

Finally, having some active presence at systems meetings, a coach may model skills for effective leadership and interpersonal communication as well as for the art of navigating group dynamics.

An executive coach able to recognize these seven coaching issues, and to design and implement congruent strategies in partnership with his client, is a professional who truly has earned his or her coaching fee.

Heads Up:

1.  SAP--Human Capital Forum & ASUGS.  October Keynote with 300 IT and HR folks in Orlando; partnered with Smith Bucklin, the largest conference planning company in the US; "awesome" feedback.  (SAP is a major software company that helps large companies manage data, e.g., payrolls.  ASUGS are the SAP User Support Groups.)

2.  EAPA in New Orleans.  Nov 22nd major breakout session in New Orleans (Yum!) on Nov 22 for the Employee Assistance Professionals Assn.  The topic:  "How to Become a Great Presenter."  (My original title was "How to Give Dynamic and Engaging Presentations."  EAPA changed the title. Talk about performance pressure for yours truly.)  For more info:  703-387-1000

3.  NAWBO.  Nov. 17th after dinner talk in Timonium, MD at the Turf Inn Restaurant on "Practicing Safe Stress:  Creatively Managing Stress & Building Team Work & Play through Humor."  For more info:  410-876-0502

4.  SHRM--Frederick County, MD.  Testimonial re; my after lunch keynote for Human Resource managers/professionals.  Here's the letter from Sophia Dobransky, President, Frederick County SHRM:

P.O.  BOX 1516
Frederick, MD  21702

October 23, 2003

Mark Gorkin
1616 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC  20009

Dear Mark (AKA "Stress Doc"):

On behalf of the Frederick County Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, I want to thank you for presenting the program "Humor in the Workplace-- Practicing Safe Stress" at our September, 2003 professional meeting.  It was the one of the most dynamic, engaging presentations I have personally seen in years, and that includes presentations at several SHRM national conferences!  

We had a record attendance at the meeting which signifies that HR professionals are seeking methods of addressing stress in the workplace, as well as managing their own stress. By the nature of your interactive presentation, you provided a brief escape for all of us while presenting ideas for building teamwork and managing conflict and stress!  The feedback from our members has been outstanding. You received one of the highest ratings ever from our members' evaluations and the most frequently used descriptors were "excellent" and "fun"!  The only constructive feedback we received was that the time allotted was simply insufficient!  Many have suggested having you back for an extended program, so we will have to discuss that.

Thanks again for an enjoyable, dynamic and relevant presentation!

Warm regards,

Sophia Dobransky
President - Frederick County SHRM

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, training consultant, psychotherapist, syndicated writer, and upcoming author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression.  Mark, recently interviewed by BBC Radio, has a multi-award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature.  As AOL's "Online Psychohumorist," ™Mark runs his weekly Shrink Rap and Group Chat.  Email for his monthly newsletter recently showcased on List-a-Day.com.For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2003

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