Shape up your career with an executive coach

Shape up your career with an executive coach BOSS Magazine
December 2002

Is executive coaching the latest in a line of management fads or does it actually yield results?

By Linda Muldowney

Meet the new Godfrey Chu.  Confident, motivated – it is hard to believe that just six months ago, this Hong Kong executive was preparing to throw it all in.  Fractious, frustrated, Chu says he was lost, with no idea where he was heading, or indeed, where he wanted to go.  His relationship with his boss was on the slide, as was his self-esteem.  In short, Chu felt miserable.  But that has all changed.  “I’m a new man”, says Chu.  He credits his transformation to the new woman in his life: Angela Spaxman, his executive coach.

Chu is one of a growing number of executives in Asia to enlist a coach.  A mix of motivational speaker, strategist and trusted shoulder, a coach now ranks with a Palm Pilot on the list of must-have executive accessories.

The reason? Coaches aim to help executives get where they want to go – faster.

Coaching is neither a training workshop nor an imparting of wisdom.  It is a collaborative, ongoing relationship between a coach and an individual that aims to foster personal growth as much as career development.  Whether it is time management, leadership skills, career transition or work/life balance, goals are set and actions are agreed upon.

Just ask Chu.  A senior consultant with Hong Kong-based information security company Alliance Management Consulting, Chu says he saw how coaching helped his wife with stress management, and although he was a little skeptical, he thought he would give it a go.

“I always thought I could handle everything in my life,” he says.  “But frankly speaking, I was under a great deal of pressure at work, and I just wasn’t coping.  Coaching helped me to work out my priorities.”

“I’m a new man,” says Chu, who credits his transformation to the new woman in his life – Angela Spaxman, his executive coach.


Emerging about a decade ago as a new management initiative, coaching is one of the fastest growing industries in the US.  It is becoming big business in Asia, too.

The US-based International Coach Federation reports that of its more than 5,000 members worldwide, around 400 work in Asia.  And the number is growing.  Coach training company Coach House Asia, with its head office in Singapore and branches in Hong Kong and Shanghai, has certified around 150 coaches in its two years of operation.

“Coaching is not as big here as it is in the US,” concedes Henry Yue, Coach House Asia’s director of human capital development, ” bit it’s certainly growing.”

Spaxman started her own coaching company after working in corporate training for seven years in Hong Kong and Canada.  “I found corporate training frustrating because it was difficult to help people make real, long-lasting changes.  Coaching is done in private with very high levels of trust between the coach and the client.  As a result, the learning is much deeper than in most training and much more personal issues can be addressed and changed.”

Executive coaching is usually done one-to-one.  While it is common for executives to meet with their coach, Spaxman coaches most of her clients by phone.  She says it is more efficient for busy people and it is easier to maintain a regular coaching schedule to avoid long gaps between sessions.

Chu speaks to Spaxman for one hour, three times a month.  In the beginning, Spaxman would suggest topics to discuss, such as Chu’s relationship with his boss – the main source of insecurity at work.  She would ask him to describe how he saw the relationship and what he could do to improve it.  The key was to keep Chu in charge.  Chu notes: “Sometimes, she gave guidance, but most of the time, I knew what I should do to turn the situation into a positive.”

Chu says he is now more comfortable with the coaching relationship and so the sessions have become more structured.  “I have assignments to work on.  For example, I take a test to think about my needs and strengths based on a structured approach and we discuss it during the next session.  And now in some cases, I lead the discussion when I’m interested in certain topics.  Most of the results of coaching are related to a better understanding of myself and improvement of relationships with my family, co-workers and peer group,” Chu says.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A COACHExecutive coaches do not come cheap.  While many consider them an asset in a fast-changing business environment, the results of coaching are often hard to quantify, so it can take some effort to help you help yourself.


Bobette Reeder, president of the International Coach Federation (ICF), a US-based non-profit organisation, says you should always try to seek referrals from coaches.  “If not, do some homework,” she says.  “Check out coach referral service listings of coaches and look for credentials.”


ICF-accredited coaches, for example, must meet requirements that include coach-specific training and accumulated hours of experience.  Reeder also recommends checking their coaching style and philosophy to find one that suits your needs and your personality.


“Interview at least two or three coaches on the phone before deciding,” suggests Reeder.  “You are seeking a great fit, so you need to listen to your gut a bit on this one.  You will know when someone resonates with you.”



Warm and fuzzy feelings aside, coaching does cost, and usually individual executives seek out a coach at their own expense.  “In Asia, more clients are prepared to pay for the service themselves since the results give them the competitive edge over others, or help them to be better managers,” claims Martin Ross, founder and managing consultant of Singapore-based coaching company Worklife Asia.

A coach usually charges an executive between US$100 and US$400 an hour, but Ross says the rate depends on the client’s needs and status and the experience of the coach.

The cost can jump significantly, however, when a company recruits an executive coach for its staff.  In this case, it is usually the company that picks up the cheque.  The findings of a recent survey by an international human resources consultancy, The Hay Group, show that between 25 and 40 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are enlisting coaches for their executives.

Companies such as Motorola and IBM offer coaching as part of their executive development programs, paying as much as US$750 an hour.

Executive coaching makes up around 10 per cent of The Hay Group’s practice, according to its Asian regional director, Tharuma Rajah, coaches are called upon because more companies recognise the need for greater emotional intelligence among their staff.  He says this can include effective communication skills and even respect for diversity in the workplace.  “This can be achieved through personal development, and coaching promotes this.”

He says coaches can help executives on every rung of the corporate ladder: “Some of the executives I coach are stars.  My job is to make them superstars.”

Not surprisingly, having superstars on board can have an equally super impact on the bottom line.  Last year,  US-based career management consulting company Manchester Inc. conducted a study into the effectiveness of coaching for executives and its value to companies.  The results showed that companies that invested in executive coaching received an average return on investment of more than 500 per cent.

Yet despite such impressive results, skeptics abound.  Some detractors dismiss executive coaching as just the latest in a line of management fads.  Others question its professional integrity, because there are still few guidelines and rules in the relatively new profession.

Shubha Narayanan, an executive coach and managing partner of Singapore-based consulting firm HR Strategies, says criticism can also exist within company departments.  “Sometimes, HR or immediate supervisors are not supportive of executive coaching [because] they are also supposed to play the role of coach to their employees,” Narayanan says.

Organisations often assume it is safer to adopt internal corporate coaching than to call in an outsider, as the management ideas fostered are more likely to be in line with those of the company’s.  Narayanan says executive coaching is more effective when a company’s HR department is involved in the decision of opting for external coaches.  “It works best when the coach retains his independence and confidentiality, but works with the organisation where required.”

Hilary Davies, a Hong Kong-based coach, says the success of executive coaching depends on one simple equation: “Coaching translates into doing.  Doing impacts a business.”

Organisations can muscle up by hiring an executive coach for their staff.  A Manchester Inc. survey found the average ROI on executive coaching to be more than 500 per cent.


Davies says coaching programs fall into two categories: change-oriented, where the focus is on supplementing and refocusing skills; and growth-oriented, which aims to accelerate the learning curve for recently promoted executives.

“Usually, the executive will have prepared for the session,” she says.  “Time will be spent clarifying outcomes – what they want, and what are issues that they may be having difficulties with.  Then the session will help the executive define outcomes – what will success look like?”

Davies says many executives require coaching in communication and interpersonal skills.  “Personal growth issues often get raised later as the coaching relationship grows and trust is developed,” she says.  “The important point is that executives are individuals too, with a home life and other needs and aspirations.  Addressing work/life balance is often a key area for discussion.”

For Kate Graham, the decision to enlist a coach came when she grew restless in her career as an accountant.  “I was looking for a change, but I didn’t have the motivation or the confidence to make the break.”

Graham says she also found it tough to remain accountable to herself.  She made many personal pledges, but broke them all.  And this is where Davies came in.  Graham recruited Davies eight months ago to support the challenge of a career transition to market research.  “It helped to have someone impartial to answer to if I strayed.”

Once Graham made the move, Davies continued to coach her as she dealt with the challenges that often come with starting a new career.  “Coaching helped increase my self-confidence and I feel more in control of what I’m doing,” Graham says.  “Hilary listened.  She helped me shift my view by asking the right questions.  And I found that I knew the answers all along.”

For Alliance’s Chu, it is this sense of self-awareness that has helped him lift his game.  “Even though I was talking to Angela about my problems, all of the solutions were coming out of my mouth.  I found it very empowering.  And talking to a stranger makes me feel more secure because there’s no expectation and no history, so it’s a lot easier to speak frankly,” he says.  “I might have overcome my problems without a coach, but not within months.  It might have taken years to sort out the root of my problems.”

So does Chu question his return on investment? Not for a minute.  He says communication with his boss has improved and he no longer questions his own worth.  He has successfully implemented a new business service line for Alliance.  And his new, confident outlook has been instrumental in winning several new contracts for his company.  With this boost to the bottom line, one doubts that Alliance would question Chu’s investment either.