Oil patch CEOs look to executive coaches to boost performance and well-being

It can be lonely at the top. Luckily executive coaches can offer a helping hand

September 09, 2014

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Jan Eden, Calgary-based executive coach
Photograph Bryce Meyer

When CEOs make missteps, the consequences stretch far beyond their reputation. Earlier this year, retailer American Apparel struggled through a spate of bad publicity while trying to oust its CEO, Dov Charney. Charney had been fired as chairman in June after he was faced with a string of sexual assault allegations and lawsuits. Rather than go quietly, Charney went rogue. His multi-decade reputation for lapses in propriety became a stumbling block for the company, which had been losing money since 2010.

“Twenty-five years ago, it was very typical for management training to be institutionalized within the company.”

Actually, 2010 proved to be a bad year for CEO behavior. In November, Jim Shaw, the CEO of Shaw Communications, stepped down from his post after appearing to be inebriated at an investors’ meeting. Attendees labeled him “unprofessional,” and said he was unduly harsh in his criticism at the event. Shaw was known for his colorful personality, which eventually proved his undoing. And earlier that year, BP’s Tony Hayward committed a number of sensational gaffes in his handling of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Perhaps these CEOs just needed someone in their corner – a coach to help them prepare for, and handle, the storm.

 

In an era of relentless publicity surrounding misbehaving CEOs, the extreme pressures of running a multibillion-dollar company can make it hard to find balance at the top. Enter the executive coach – more than simply a helpline during crisis, coaches also offer a kind of therapy to their clients, accompanying high-ranking executives along their career path, sometimes from company to company, providing an unbiased ear and personal insight into what can be a very lonely, difficult profession.

“When I moved to Calgary in the early 1980s, the word ‘coach’ hardly existed,” says David Glassman, a Calgary-based executive coach with clients in the energy sector, who started his career in Calgary as a training manager at Imperial Oil Ltd. These days, he says, there’s a “zoo of names” for what he does, including coach, counsellor, advisor and consultant. “Twenty-five years ago, it was very typical for management training to be institutionalized within the company.” But with what he calls the “phenomenon of individualization in our world,” coaching is now more personal than that.

Coaches now come with preferred counselling styles and executive coaches attend courses in the practice from business schools like the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business and Victoria’s Royal Roads University. Glassman cites Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered psychotherapy and counseling, whose approach emphasizes one human being listening to another “with unconditional positive regard.” And increasingly, they have become an integral investment in a business’s operations, with an International Coach Federation survey of the experience of “coaching ­clients” showing that the ROI for companies that invest in coaching generated a ­median return of seven times the initial investment. It can be hard to quantify exactly what executives are getting for their time and money – to some it may appear simply as the bolstering of “soft” skills, but coaches suggest it’s an invaluable personal loyalty that many executives can’t find anywhere else.

“It seems to be all the rage now, partly because the speed of change in organizations is happening so fast,” says Marvin Washington, a University of Alberta business professor and co-author of How to Create Pack Leadership: Lessons from the Wild Dogs of Africa, a book about strategic management.

“When I moved to Calgary in the early 1980s, the word ‘coach’ hardly existed.”

Washington notes that consumers are fickle and their memories long: “It’s becoming harder and harder to bounce back from a mistake,” he says. “So you need someone to help you anticipate what’s around that corner.”

Depending on your management style, that might require leaving some snap judgments at the door. Coaching can, at times, sound like New Age-y advice, “soft” not only in skills but also its approach. Since the global recession in 2008, says Scott Berry, executive director of the leadership program Empowering Minds, companies have been adopting everything possible to ensure a smooth ride. Part of this entails admitting that, with increasing attention and scrutiny on all aspects of a CEO’s life, preventing mistakes is key.

Glassman says that being a coach is about showing clients how they can see the “game” differently. “Often, you’re not thinking about the game, not noticing how you’re moving. The coach has to know intention and strategy.”

A coach’s effect is, in theory, felt but never seen – they are the quiet ear behind decision-makers. Usually this means meeting regularly to discuss work, with more frequent meetings during high-stress or decision-making times. In the 2009 report The Realities of Executive Coaching, the Harvard Business Review listed three reasons for using a coach: developing high potential, acting as a sounding board and addressing derailing behavior. Ideally, coaching focuses enough on the first two so that the third diminishes in importance.

Within an industry as constantly changing as energy, executive coaching “is often seen as part of a wider talent strategy approach,” says David Ramsey, an executive coach. After years working as a consultant with companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte, Ramsey eventually set up his own coaching company in St. Albert, Alberta. His clients span several sectors, but include provincial government agencies and small- to medium-sized energy companies. “Oil and gas firms come to the coaching table with a huge amount of global challenges that are transferred to a local level,” he says. “It’s a safe space to actually talk these things through, and to use role-playing to test out options that might work for them.”

 

Jan Eden worked with the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts chain for years before transitioning to advisor roles – she got her start by helping her neighbors grow their businesses. Now she works with small energy firms, developing their executive teams and working to position them for growth. Eden’s strategy is less therapist couch and more idea implementer – she offers much more than just an unbiased ear. “I’m a silent partner in the group,” she says.

“When people are making money, they think they’ve arrived,” she says. “But it’s just one part of the process. It’s just an outcome.” Eden’s clients find her via word of mouth, or she approaches executives who have just been promoted, or may be reaching a ceiling in their company, and offers to help them figure out where they go next. This doesn’t always mean moving or leaving companies – it means devising a strategy. She notes clients that were seemingly stuck at mid-level positions until she helped them devise a plan for promotion.

Coaching styles are often split between project-based and relationship-based styles. Eden and Washington are both similar to personal fitness trainers – they push their clients to reach specific goals regardless of background. Glassman forges long-term relationships that continue regardless of project – often, this means helping CEOs identify their values and true leadership style.

And then there is Hitendra Wadhwa, a spiritual-guru-trained MIT scholar who hosts conferences that profess the importance of inner life to big business leaders. At his events, executives learn the importance of sitting up straight so that their curved spines don’t inhibit energy flow.

“In oil and gas, often those at the top are scientists or geologists, and haven’t been trained on the people side.”

Organizations like TEC (The Executive Committee) Canada and Platinum Roundtable also run retreats that take a roundtable, collaborative approach. These involve groups of executives, often at the same stage in their careers, who gather to share their challenges and concerns. It’s a non-competitive atmosphere (executives from competing firms won’t be seated across from each other) where the topic of conversation is around how to work effectively with CFOs or how to help the board understand one’s decision-making process.

Todd Millar, a former senior executive at Turbo Resources and the Yellow Pages, is a chair at TEC Canada. He says his experience of isolation while in top jobs led him to search for people with whom he was free to bounce ideas off. Despite his own long-term coaching experience, Todd still has two coaches that he uses today, “to be a better leader of leaders.” At TEC, he facilitates 48 members across three roundtables. They meet once a month, and take a retreat in the winter each year. They also bring in speakers. “The focus is about dealing with change constantly,” he says.

Oil and gas presents its own unique challenges to coaches, as well. It’s highly integrated into the political and international environments, but is nevertheless often insular in its management style – something Millar says should be swapped in favor of adopting strategies from other sectors. “Those are life skills,” says Berry, of Empowering Minds. “In oil and gas, often those at the top are scientists or geologists, and haven’t been trained on the people side.”

This, says Sloane Dugan, a human resources professor at the University of Calgary, is what many executives can’t get past. Many have carved out high- profile careers through hard work and determination, and haven’t considered that this might not prepare them for executive positions. In Calgary, he says, where breakneck expansion often hides increased inefficiency, this needs to change. “A mentor can save you six months of time and massive amounts of money,” he says. “Just because you’re a CEO doesn’t mean you have the capacity to deal with the challenge you’re facing. You have to develop that.”

More posts by Lyndsie Bourgon

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One Response to “Oil patch CEOs look to executive coaches to boost performance and well-being”


  1. Philip Uglow says:

    Thanks for an interesting article Lyndsie. Coaching has become much more involved over the years to the point where it is now a standard tool in many leaders and management consultant toolkits. Executive leadership coaching is beneficial but to produce sustainable change it must be combined with all aspects of management. Engagement, financial controls etc.