Tony Samson-125


BEING an “executive coach” is a new profession. There are even certificates to authenticate one’s right to be called one. This is different from a confidant who gets to give solicited advise informally over drinks, and without a fee.

Coaching an individual used to be called mentoring, but executive coaching is a consulting job. This special consultant has for a client not a company but its CEO for “one-on-one” guidance, in private. This corporate trainer watches his client from the sidelines. He may attend some meetings and take notes without speaking up. (Don’t mind the stranger behind me.) He is a father confessor who doesn’t stop his penitent from sinning. He will give his advice later — wipe yourself afterwards.

Like a sports coach, he observes how the CEO undergoes fitness training, builds up team mates, makes foul shots, assists, trash talks, and slam-dunks — basically, how he wins (or loses) the game. Opposition research is part of the service — either the other teams or pushy subordinates. Also, how peers in other companies are making progress. The envy is analyzed.

The executive trainer is not part of the management team. Being in the loop may affect the advice he gives. The ideal coach is a retiree with a successful career behind him, maybe even residing in another country. He has no hidden agenda, has nothing to prove, and is independently well-off. Of course, he still gets paid for the coaching.

The presumption is that the CEO is too close to the game, and so needs the perspective of another person who has played this game, having been a CEO himself, sometimes in different companies.

Like a retreat master, he raises basic questions which the CEO can meditate on. The counseling sessions can take the form of Ignatian spiritual exercises, with a little corporate bent — are you a man for others?

The coach asks questions.

What role should the CEO play? This goes beyond a job description. It’s about purpose and the unique value the CEO brings to his organization. Is he a foreman who gives orders to lay bricks and build walls? Does he direct plays and cast the actors and evaluate their performance? Does he provide time for strategic issues in the hurly-burly of routine? Should the in-box dictate his priorities? What industry does he really belong to? Does he have an exit strategy with a developed succession plan?

Some questions deal with the company. Who does he report to? How much authority does he have? Where does he want to bring the organization in the next three years? What are his “posteriorities” — things he shouldn’t be bothering with?

Since the client of an executive coach is an individual, some questions relate to personal issues. How much time does the CEO devote to his personal growth? Does he read Dickens? Does he have a life outside work? What role does he play in the non-office setting, in his family or community? Who does he look up to?

The final report highlights the client’s strengths (he keeps long hours) and areas for improvement (he is never fully awake). It’s a diagnostic of the patient and what “maintenance medicine” he needs to take — you need to have an hour of non-activity. (Yes, you have to be alone.)

An executive coach is detached. Since he is not out to curry favor, he can tell his client what he honestly thinks. The next month, anyway, he will be taking a plane out, not expecting a job offer to be Chief Coaching Officer. His effectiveness lies in his being outside the loop with no intention of being in it.

The most important advice has to do with managing a life. A CEO needs someone to give unbiased pointers and raise questions subordinates do not care to bring up. Sometimes, a spouse (or mistress) plays this role. But here detachment is not possible. (You need to take more cruises with me.)

In ancient Rome, when a victorious general comes home for his triumph going around the amphitheater in his chariot, his charioteer whispers in his ear — sic transit gloria mundi. And so goes the glory of the world… this too shall pass. (Don’t get used to the adulation, Sir.)

The warning isn’t always heeded. Such whispered advice can be drowned out by the cheers of the crowd. Only afterwards is that voice finally remembered… amid the booing.


Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda