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the sociology of executive coaching

As you may know, executive coaching is an increasingly common phenomenon, particularly in some sectors like tech. This is how Eric Schmidt and his co-author describe the necessity of it in How Google Works loc 2440:

Whenever you watch a world-class athlete perform, you can be sure that there is a great coach behind her success. It’s not that the coach is better at playing the sport than the player, in fact that is almost never the case. But the coaches have a different skill: They can observe players in action and tell them how to be better. So why is it that in the business world coaches are so unusual? Are we all like Eric when he started at Google, so confident of ourselves that we can’t imagine someone helping us to be better? If so, this is a fallacy. 

As a business leader, you need a coach. The first ingredient of a successful coaching relationship is a student who is willing to listen and learn. Just like there are hard-to-coach athletes, there are hard-to-coach executives. But once they get past that initial reticence, they find there are always things to learn. Business coaches, like all coaches, are at heart teachers, and Bill Campbell, the best coach around, tells us he believes that management is a skill that is completely learnable.

This is something which suggests an obvious comparison to sports, not just in terms of the language used to describe this relationship. James Surowiecki, author of Wisdom of Crowds, draws out the connection in an interesting essay about the increasing competitive advantage accrued when performance is already at a top level:

The key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same timeline.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/10/better-time

But can managerial performance really be measured in these terms? I don’t think it can and the belief to the contrary strikes me as a really interesting conceit, reflecting interestingly on the culture of managerialism: a kind of moral athleticism amongst prominent CEOs in which they aspire to be all that they can be

If we look at the same phenomenon further down the organisational ladder, we get to enforced performance reviews and sanctions ensuing from a failure to meet imposed expectations. We get to sleepless night and diffuse anxiety saturating into everyday life, all generated by concerns over ‘performance’. Coaching still exists but it becomes a very different phenomenon, as this interview I did about the sociology of work-life coaching suggests:

Coaching usually consists of individual or group meetings that continue for a few months. In the beginning of these meetings, a goal is set for the whole coaching process, and then the process continues with for example personality tests or exercises that the clients do in order to achieve the set goal. The coaches that I interviewed were often a bit vague in their answers when I asked about the specific practices of coaching. They would rather talk about ‘realising the inner potential of the individual’, though what this means specifically is rather unclear.

In general, it seems that coaching is for most part about discussing one’s hopes and realities with the coach and getting feedback for both the exercises and tests and for the plans that one has and the actions that one takes. The focus on ‘potential’ is telling of how coaching is quite oriented towards the future but at the same time relies on something that is thought to already exist within the self. As it happens, coaching concentrates on the individual. This means that all the work that is done in coaching centers on changing oneself in order to achieve the goals that one wants to achieve. 

This is reflected in the practices of coaching in the sense that they demand self-reflexivity and focus on getting to know oneself and reflecting for instance on one’s personality with the help of tests and exercises. In terms of employment, this means that questions that concern wider social structures or even organisational structures are left outside the scope of the things one needs to change. It thus begins to seem that change always starts within the individual self – and also that if there is a need for change it is the self that is at fault. In the case of unemployment then, for example, the structural reasons for unemployment are not accounted for but rather it is thought that if the individual just works hard enough to change themselves then they will also find employment – and if one is unemployed it just means that one has not yet found the ‘true self’ and the right goals that would solve the problem. In other words, if one does not find work, it is implied that this just means that one has not worked hard enough on improving oneself.

http://www.thesociologicalreview.com/information/blog/working-life-coaching-and-the-individualization-of-class.html

As a relational technology of the self, work coaching has to be read against the background of metricisation. It naturalises metrics and their attendant apparatus of control, scrutiny and intervention. The issue becomes a narrow one of ‘performance’ rather than one’s place over time within an organisation.

I’ve nonetheless become a bit obsessed with Bill Campbell. He turns up time and time again in business books about Silicon Valley. It also turns out he was actually a football coach originally:

 Son of a local school official, Campbell was born and raised in Homestead, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He attended Columbia University where he played football under coach Buff Donelli from 1959 to 1961. In his senior year, he was named to the All-Ivy Team. He graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1964, he obtained a master’s degree in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.[2] He was head coach of Columbia’s football team, the Columbia Lions from 1974 to 1979. Prior to this he was an assistant at Boston College for six years. He met his first wife, the former Roberta Spagnola, while she was the assistant dean in charge of Columbia’s undergraduate dormitories.

He joined J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency, then Kodak where he rose to run Kodak’s European film business. Hired by John Sculley he became Apple’s VP of Marketing, then ran Apple’s Claris software division. When Sculley refused to spin Claris off into an independent company, Campbell and much of the Claris leadership left. Since 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, Campbell has served as a corporate director on Apple’s board of directors.

Campbell became CEO of GO Corporation, a startup pioneering a tablet computer operating system. After successfully selling GO Eo to AT&T Corporation in 1993, Campbell was CEO of Intuit from 1994 to 1998. Campbell announced that he would be retiring as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Intuit starting January 2016.[3]

Campbell is an adviser to a number of technology companies, and was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Columbia in 2005.

According to CNN Money, he is worth $200 million.[4]
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Campbell_(business_executive)

To what extent is it a marker of prestige to be coached by Campbell? Is it still a status symbol for lesser executives to be coached by lesser coaches? Do these celebrity coaches and celebrity clients underwrite the demand elsewhere? Do all these coaches have top level business experience?

Categories: Corporate Culture, Elites and Their Self-Understandings The Intensification of Work

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Mark