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Coaching the Coaches

Who will coach the executive coaches?

The popularity of short-term, results-oriented executive or lifestyle coaching makes traditional psychotherapy look like a cruise to the inner psyche on an ocean liner. Why take a boat when you can fly direct in a fraction of the time? But in the rush to improve leadership and communication skills, untrained coaches may overlook deep-seated psychological problems.

Executive coaches can make upward of $300 an hour working one-on-one with troubled (and sometimes just coddled) managers. But most coaches don't have backgrounds ministering to CEOs and administering the MMPI (a classic personality test).

Sports psychologists, athletic trainers, academics, lawyers and self-help gurus represent the majority of the 10,000 coaches in America today. Only about 40 percent of these coaches have training in clinical psychology, according to the International Coach Federation.

"There are lots of businessmen and attorneys who call themselves coaches, but they're lacking in a knowledge of interpersonal relations," says Gene Ondrushek, Ph.D., chief psychologist at the Scripps Memorial Hospital Center for Executive Health in La Jolla, California. "And then there are therapists who want to reinvent themselves as coaches, but they lack the corporate skill set."

On the one hand, this trend leads to diagnostic mistakes such as confusing the symptom with the problem. Many coaches who have never studied developmental psychology or psychopathology rely exclusively on symptom-oriented intervention such as assertiveness training, according to Steven Berglas, M.D., a psychiatrist and instructor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. They ascribe an employee's inability to delegate tasks to a lack of assertiveness, when in fact the person may cling to an untenable workload to avoid confronting personal issues.

Then there are coaches lacking in business acumen. In an article published in The Harvard Business Review (HBR), Berglas describes a coach who worked with a senior manager at an athletic-shoe company. The coach proved so effective that the dazzled CEO authorized him to make sweeping personnel changes based on a personality profiling system that generated suggested career trajectories for employees. The coach's free reign, combined with the narrow constraints of the profiling tools, led him to select second-rate managers against whom other employees rebelled. Coaches who are given too much leeway, often due to their initial competence, may be the greatest threat to a corporation, according to Berglas.

Both coaches and the companies that snap them up are fueled by the bottom line. Employees at Nortel Networks estimate that coaching earned the company a 529 percent "return on investment and significant intangible benefits to the business," according to calculations prepared by Merrill C. Anderson, a professor of clinical education at Drake University.

Psychologists-turned-coaches admit that a managed-care-free environment is the main draw. "Most of these coaches aren't whores, they just don't like the job market," says Berglas. Case in point: When HBR published Berglas' article, forebodingly titled "The Very Real Dangers of Executive Coaching," Berglas was inundated with calls from therapists asking how they could break into the business.