Here’s how to do business coaching in the right way


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It is well known that social media alters brain chemistry. This distorts reality and confuses the frameworks by which we understand concepts.

Business coaching, as a concept, has been distorted by social media, specifically, by life coaches on LinkedIn. Instead of an objective, hard science, akin to sports coaching, it is now perceived as an arcane art at the intersection of mysticism, self-help jingoism, and pop psychology.

To be fair, the criticality of intrinsic motivation in complex, life long endeavors such as one’s career, is beyond debate. The science is overwhelming: In complex activities, in the long run, intrinsic motivation trumps all forms of extrinsic rewards. However, intrinsic motivation is not the same as motivational exercises. More importantly, business coaching involves, in a large part, building specific skills, capabilities, and behaviors to achieve defined business goals. No amount of intrinsic motivation can substitute for the lack of goals and capabilities.

Understanding real business coaching starts with three insights: First, business coaching is akin to sports coaching—it must focus on building targeted skills and behaviors to achieve well-defined goals. Intrinsic motivation is critical, but it must be channelized towards the desired result. Second, coaching is not a stand-alone, HR-driven activity, but an integral part of the strategy-planning-governance process.

Third, somewhat contrary to the first, business is a wicked problem. Unlike kind problems (eg, chess), the rules of business are not always well-defined; they change over time and often unexpectedly, the definition of “winning” is ambiguous and the consequences of actions taken are often delayed and poorly correlated. Business coaching must therefore enable high-potential leaders to thrive in such dynamic environments.

Once these three insights are internalized, business coaching can be leveraged through five steps: The first step is strategic alignment: Define the meaning of “win,” within a manageable duration, say three years. For sure, the goalpost may shift owing to business realities, but it will define the general direction.

The second step is critical: Define the future organization that will enable the win (eg, if the aim is to double revenues in three years, what will the organization look like then?) This needs to be done in four dimensions: Organization design ( the critical building blocks of the organization, whether functions or business units,) organization structure (the critical roles,) required processes and capabilities. When this future organization is benchmarked with the current one, the gaps will become obvious, and the way forward will emerge.

The third step is identifying the coaching candidates. The benchmarking in step two should identify which leaders fit into the future organization. Among those who fit (and external recruits to fill the gaps,) there will be those who are already performing at potential and those who require support. Both types benefit from business coaching in different ways: the first by honing and the second by first learning and then practicing the required skills.

The fourth step is building the customized coaching agenda for the identified candidates. This is a detailed exercise that lists the specific skills and behaviors that need to be developed, how they must be learned, by when, and what metrics will be measured. The last step is the execution of the coaching agenda. This is where the unglamorous hard work is done, often through direct interventions by the coach over multiple years.

Two questions remain: Who is an ideal coach, and should she be internal or external? The ideal business coach is an ex-business leader who has faced similar challenges and achieved similar business goals. Whether she is internal or external depends on bandwidth and the extent of internal complexity in the company.

One thing is for sure: She is not a motivational speaker or a life coach.

Abhisek Mukherjee is the co-founder and director at Auctus Advisors.

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