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Who is coaching for?

From time to time in discussions with a CEO or board Chair who is considering whether coaching would benefit a senior officer, that person will say “well, X isn’t really in serious trouble so I’m not sure he or she needs a coach at this point.” What a misunderstanding about who can benefit the most from coaching!

When I began as President of Pace University in 2007, I had a great deal of experience as a corporate lawyer, in government and as general counsel and executive vice president of two large financial institutions. I also had broad experience as a chair and board member of a wide range of nonprofit institutions. But I had only three years of operating experience in higher education and that as Dean of Pace Law School, which had 800 students as compared to the university’s 13,000. I was on a very steep learning curve! I knew very little about the rest of the university at Pace and had only a limited understanding of the major strategic issues confronting undergraduate education in America.

Early in my tenure, at a new-book party for Jim Lipton, I was talking to one of the other guests who mentioned that he was an executive coach. I remember saying, “I have no idea what an executive coach does and I feel no need for coaching.” After a little reflection, I decided that if the CEOs of the large companies whom he was coaching thought coaching was valuable, I should try it. That conversation began a multi-year coaching relationship that was enormously beneficial to my growth and effectiveness as a leader and an executive.

I was not at all “in trouble.” I had spent my whole career dealing with new challenges, and I knew what had to be done to deal with the immediate issues facing the university. There were also plenty of people at Pace to fill in the gaps in my understanding of the sectoral and Pace-specific nature of higher education. But the context in which I was operating was wholly new to me.

  • How do I lead change when I do not control the “product” (the curriculum and the teaching and learning process are the province of the faculty)?

  • How do I accommodate the contemporary reality that technology is becoming an integral part of virtually every academic discipline when a high percentage of the faculty is tenured, there is no mandatory retirement age, and many faculty had no interest in changing what they have been teaching for many years?

  • What is the best way for me to relate to the board, which is led by a nonexecutive chairman rather than the President?

  • How do I lead a broad swath of new senior administrators to act as a cohesive team in an organization with a strong silo culture?

  • Most important, how should I measure success and progress?

I didn’t need or want a consultant to tell me what to do. Although it wasn’t clear to me at the time of that conversation, I needed someone who would help me to see my “unknown unknowns;” to formulate bold and attainable goals; to move out of my comfort zone to create new possibilities for the university’s growth in size and stature; and to grow as a leader and an executive in an entirely new world – in short, I discovered, I needed a coach.

Coaching rests on the proposition that the client is in the best position to determine what steps to take to achieve his or her objectives and those of the organization. My role as coach is to ask questions and offer reflections that will deepen a client’s awareness about what is blocking more effective action, about whether the client’s goals could be much more ambitious, and about a new range of possibilities to achieve major strategic goals. That is what my coach did for me.

So, my answer to the person who says “X is not in trouble” is that coaching isn’t about being in trouble. It is about new possibilities and potential, stretching for something you did not know was there or thought was out of reach. Coaching isn’t about saving the Titanic before it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. It’s about seeing the iceberg before the ship hits it.

Can a coach help a leader whose area of responsibility is in serious trouble? Of course. But the coach could have been far more effective if he or she had been brought in when concerns first began to develop.

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I welcome your thoughts, comments and reactions.

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