Executive Coach and Author James Scouller on the Importance of Executive Coaching
James Scouller spent nearly 30 years in the corporate world before becoming an executive coach. In that time he worked in engineering, fast-moving consumer goods, fashion retailing, packaging and wallpaper. In his last 11 years he held three international CEO roles. After the third, he left to set up The Scouller Partnership, an executive coaching firm, in 2004.
James coaches leaders and their teams – his clients are CEOs, heads of divisions and subsidiaries, MD-owners of smaller private firms, other senior executives and younger high-potential managers. Their age range is typically 35 to 55.
James is also author of The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow and Skill, a critically acclaimed book which has received international recognition for its new ideas on growing leaders.
Why do you think executive coaching has become so popular?
Put simply, because it works.
Traditional training is great if you want to learn technical skills and absorb theory, like law or accounting. But as most of us have noticed, it’s not so good for transferring interpersonal skills.
Think of the people you know who’ve gone on expensive leadership courses. Did they behave any differently on their return to work? For almost everyone I’ve talked to, the answer is always ‘no’.
Why didn’t the training help? It’s because if we’re trying to learn and apply new behaviour that clashes with powerful limiting beliefs and the habits they create, the old beliefs and habits triumph every time. And that blocks the learning.
For example, imagine you’re teaching senior executives to handle difficult conversations better. They may hear what you’re saying, but deep down they often believe it’s risky to open up and say what they’re really thinking and feeling about the other person’s attitude or performance. This is because they’re often afraid of conflict or coming across as a nasty person. Those fears – which stem from limiting beliefs – will easily overwhelm an embryonic new behaviour. So under pressure they won’t change their behaviour even if they’ve practised several role-plays.
The only way to build and apply new behavioural habits in the face of powerful limiting beliefs is to surface and examine them. But I don’t know any executive who’d open up to the rest of the group on a training course and admit private stuff, especially stuff they are uncomfortable with. It’s not going to happen.
But it can and does happen in private, with a skilled executive coach they trust and respect. The coach can help the person let go of the old belief and build new habits that persist even under pressure.
In other words, the coach can go to places that the trainer can’t. That’s why I think executive coaching has grown so quickly in the last twenty years.
So what kind of results can clients achieve with good coaching?
It’s no exaggeration to say the effects of executive coaching can be transformational.
Let me show you two typical examples of before-and-after coaching profiles. Both clients scored themselves on 32 qualities – 10 focused on their mental performance state and 22 on their ability to choose their behaviour skilfully under pressure.
To make sure they weren’t kidding themselves, we also interviewed their colleagues at the start and end of the coaching assignments. In both cases, the observers’ comments backed up the clients’ own ratings.
The important thing to note is the dramatic change in both clients’ overall profiles.
As you can see from the first example, over 13 months the client achieved a huge change in her overall profile, with feedback from colleagues confirming she had become ‘much more effective … with greater leadership presence.’ You can see she changed all of her negative scores into positives. She’s since been promoted to a Managing Director role.
The second client’s challenge was to become a more skilful leader of organisational change. After 14 months’ hard work, he achieved a remarkable change in his overall profile. Feedback from his six observers confirmed the shift. His mental state changes laid the foundations for his improved ability to connect with and influence others while displaying greater leadership presence. He has now adopted a much more personal touch when communicating with both board colleagues and everyone else in his firm.
How does this kind of individual transformation benefit an organisation’s performance?
The major mental and behavioural shifts that you can achieve through good coaching always translate into performance gains for organisations – sometimes very quickly.
Nine years ago, I coached the engineering director of a £5m engineering firm in Scotland. His boss was the Managing Director and owner of the business. He’d hired the engineering chief three years earlier to help him win more business in four ways. First, by inventing new products. Second, by raising on-time delivery of customer engineering projects (as too many had been arriving later than promised). Third, by delivering the projects faster. Fourth, by responding quicker to customers’ requests for quotes.
The engineering director had been given money and three new engineers to support him. In all, the investment had added hundreds of thousands of pounds to the firm’s cost base.
After three years, there’d been no invention. On-time delivery of projects to customers (which was the most important metric of all) had worsened. Engineering projects were taking longer – so long they were now behind the industry average. And customers were receiving quotes even slower than before.
The Managing Director had done everything he could to help this man improve his performance. He was a fine engineer, but nothing worked. Unsurprisingly, relations between the two were tense.
I was hired to help the engineering director turn his performance around. With the Managing Director’s input we agreed three coaching goals to be achieved within seven months:
(1) Improve project on-time delivery from 40% to 80%.
(2) Cut project lead times from 11 weeks to 9 weeks.
(3) Raise the percentage of customer quotes answered within 5 days from 42% to 60%.
After seven months the results were staggering. The client had raised on-time delivery from 40% to 93%; well beyond the 80% goal. He cut lead times from 11 to 7 weeks (the best in the industry) and 2 weeks better than target. And he boosted the percentage of customer quotes answered within five days from 42% to 63%, just ahead of the 60% target.
The firm’s sales and margins soon increased and the ROI from coaching was clearly visible.
What is the key to getting results like these?
You won’t be surprised to hear there’s no single key, but certain basics must be in place. Yes, the coach must be well-trained. But more than that, coach and client must build a strong relationship based on two-way respect and trust. Clients must feel their coach knows what they’re doing, understands their challenges and that everything they discuss remains confidential. That’s the first thing.
Second, clients must be serious about growing as a leader. Clients have to put work in if they are to change their behavioural habits under pressure. The clients who get the best results with me are the ones who do what they said they’d do between meetings.
It’s important too that the whole process is measurable. After all, companies are paying for clients to be better executives or leaders than they were before the coaching. In other words, clients and their sponsors want to see positive change.
It’s essential to set measurable goals at the start, with feedback from the client’s colleagues, and measure progress as you go. At least halfway through – and certainly by the end of the coaching – the client and sponsoring firm should be able to see what change there’s been with measurable data. I don’t think coaches can forget that companies want a return on investment. You’ve seen how we can measure results from the earlier examples.
I’d say the fourth key is the coach’s own experience as a leader. Too many people approach leadership as an intellectual concept. To some degree it is, but as seasoned leaders know, it’s also a felt experience. Coaches working in the leadership field need to have experienced the pressure – the difficult times – of having to lead, of having to connect upwards, sideways and downwards. My own first-hand experience as a leader means I can understand other leaders’ personal challenges and emotions – plus the wider pressures on them coming from the rest of the company.
There’s a fifth key. If clients want transformational results, it means they’ll be working on their inner limiting beliefs, feelings and perhaps their values. Here it’s not enough for coaches to rely on tools and techniques. In my view, they need to be working on their self-mastery – that is, mastery of their minds and habits. Why? Because clients will have to work on self-mastery if they want to achieve transformational outcomes. Coaches must walk their talk and show their own commitment to self-mastery so they can act as models for their clients.
The final key is a clear coaching process that’s grounded in sound, powerful ideas around leadership and personal growth. Coaching shouldn’t jump around from session to session in a random way.
You mentioned powerful ideas so let’s talk about your book, The Three Levels of Leadership. Who is it for and why has it sold so well?
The book is a practical manual for leaders and people aspiring to be leaders. This is regardless of their field, whether it’s business, military, education, charities or whatever.
I think it’s sold well because it has new ideas and tools to help 21st century leaders meet their greatest challenges. It has probably the most compact, complete learning model you’ll find for executives wanting to grow themselves as leaders. I compare the book to a Swiss army knife – it gives you all the key ideas and tools you need in one unified, compact master model.
So much has been written about leadership already. Why do we need new ideas?
You’re right – the market for leadership books is saturated. But so much of what’s out there is either academic or based on personal experience. So it isn’t intended to – or able to – help leaders grow.
Meanwhile, all the data shows that business leaders are struggling to engage employees. And research shows repeatedly that the higher your people’s engagement, the higher your margins, innovation, customer service, growth and shareholder returns. The biggest survey I saw showed that only 13% of employees feel fully engaged and nearly twice that number are actively disengaged, meaning they’re prepared to commit hostile acts. The rest, just over 65%, don’t care at all. That’s not the only problem. Belief in business leaders’ competence, trustworthiness and honesty is 20% at best.
In short, leaders are struggling to lead. That’s why we need new ideas and that’s what I aim to deliver.
Could you give us a quick summary of the book’s main ideas?
The book provides an in-depth, easy to read collection of models and tools which I call the Leadership Mastery Suite. Keeping things simple, it has three learning blocks.
The first is mental model mastery. It’s about surfacing, unpacking and replacing your old mental models around leadership and being the leader to help you pay more skilful attention to what matters most.
The big idea here is what I call the four dimensions of leadership.
Let me explain. Without realising it, pretty much every leader I work with, holds unhelpful ideas (mental models) around leadership and what it means to be a leader. These ideas usually cause you and others serious problems. For example, they increase leaders’ sense of inadequacy. This magnifies your tendency to be too task-focused (and ignore the need to connect with and influence people) or be too relationship-focused (and ignore the need for clear tough choices and decisions).
Mental model mastery is about uncovering these unhelpful ideas, challenging them and then replacing them with something far more useful and practical: the four-dimensional view of leadership. Once that’s done, it’s about helping you understand the four dimensions in detail and the specific aspects you need to focus on in your role right now. This is the foundation stone for the other two learning blocks. Without this foundation, I’ve found most leaders find it harder to succeed.
Historically, I’ve used confidential one-to-one coaching in this learning block. However, I’ve recently introduced a one-day intensive for those who want powerful experiential learning in a group setting. I also offer an enterprise diagnostic to help leaders understand which of the four dimensions they need to focus on right now and which aspects within that dimension need action.
The second learning block is self-mastery. This is the most transformational of the three learning blocks. It’s about helping clients handle the four dimensions of leadership with more skill, presence, flexibility, energy, resilience and genuineness. This enables you to connect with and influence people better.
Self-mastery is where we get into limiting beliefs and the tools – especially a technique I call 4R – for helping you change your behavioural habits even when your hot buttons are pressed. The results you saw in those earlier diagrams came from self-mastery coaching. Most of my client work is in the self-mastery zone, although I expect my assignments in the other two learning blocks to grow in the next five years.
The last block is knowhow mastery. The aim here is to help you gain the technical knowhow most leaders lack in addressing the four dimensions of leadership, which was the big idea in the first learning block. If you set aside the question of seniority and sector, there are only four knowhow areas all leaders should master. They are:
- Time management: personal goal-setting and using your time well under pressure.
- Motivation: how to mobilise your colleagues’ intrinsic motivation.
- Leading wide-scale change: what research tells us about organisational change, how to create and put across a vision and how to apply my new Spiral-Waves change model in your company.
- Group psychology and team-building: my Dual Force, 3C and 7P models and how to use them to create and maintain teams.
For knowhow mastery, I combine one-to-one coaching with group coaching, team coaching, workshops and enterprise diagnostics.
What should readers do if they’re interested in learning more?
The ideas and tools I’ve touched on here are explained in the second edition of my book, The Three Levels of Leadership. If you’re interested in exploring coaching or any of my other services you can email me at email@example.com and ask for a free “How to lead change” extract from the book. Or you can call me on +44 (0)1525 718023 to explore the Leadership Mastery Suite and discuss how I might help you or your organisation.
The Scouller Partnership
Telephone: +44 (0)1525 718023