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Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart - A Book Review

Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart" written by Mary Beth O'Neill was first published in 2000, where she shared her unique process for coaching senior executives. Mary Beth has been a practising coach for over 25 years, coaching leaders at senior executive and CXO levels, including in Fortune 500 companies. I found her book to be an excellent resource for coaches who work in the field of business leadership.The book explains the concepts and the process followed by the author in an easy to read style and with real life examples. In promoting these concepts, described below, she shows her own unique presence, through the idea of creating synergy between relationships and results in a corporate environment.

The author brings out three key aspects of executive coaching, very relevant and essential in the context of an organisation, whether for-profit or not-for- profit. These are

    a) Self-management by the coach with a balance between 'backbone' and 'heart',
    b) Systems perspective to consider all interacting elements of the environment
    c) The coaching process with focus on results in business targets as well as in relationship goals which support these targets.

The author recommends a strong signature presence of the coach as a critical element to be a contributing partner with the client. The coach must bring into play her own individuality, her values, passion and discerning judgment in the coaching sessions. The author emphasises that the coaching sessions are not about the client only, but the presence of the coach too needs to be clearly visible as well. 'Backbone' represents the perspective the coach brings into play, which is balanced with 'Heart' which signifies empathy, understanding of the situation and connecting with the client. Too much tilt to the backbone will bring in rigidity in approach while too much of heart will mean that the coach does not bring her own presence into account.

Systems perspective takes into account all the forces that prevail in the environment of the coachee and consequently affect the results that he has to deliver. The total system comprises (a) the intrapersonal elements - the leader and his system of values, beliefs, motivations, challenges, etc., (b) the interpersonal elements where the leader interacts with others in the organisation, his team, other departments, vendors, and customers, and (c) the external environment comprising the industry, the economy etc. All the elements interact with and affect each other, as in a feedback loop. System perspective helps to evaluate the challenges on a holistic basis rather than focusing on a single element and opens up opportunities to improve the outcome of coaching. System approach is my recommended route too.

The third key aspect in Ms. O'Neill's coaching framework is the focus on business results and the leader's need to create organisational alignment for the purpose. She suggests identifying three key factors, around a specific business challenge, - (a) the business results the leader wants to achieve, (b) interpersonal behaviours that the leader needs to demonstrate in his key work relationships and (c) the team interactions necessary to attain the target business results. By interlinking these factors to each other, with each having its own set of defined and measurable objectives, the author recommends a result-driven approach to coaching. Such a method, in my view, also provides a good selling point in corporate situations where bottom line deliverables are high on priority.

The other interesting feature is the author's bold approach in applying "live-action" coaching. Live-action coaching is when the coach is physically present, observing the leader in real time interactions with her team. The coach intervenes only at the right time in an appropriate manner, without adversely affecting the effectiveness of the leader in that meeting. This is a true reflection of leadership and mastery by a coach. To know more on this and other special concepts in executive coaching, you will need to read the book. Overall, Mary Beth O'Neill's systems driven and results focused coaching process is a very useful framework for coaches and executives, applicable for personal development and team performance in the corporate sector.

Ujjal Gupta is a chartered accountant with more than 30 years experience in the corporate sector, having worked in companies like Hindustan Unilever Group, WPP Group and RPG Group in senior management positions. He is also a certified coach with niche in Business and Executive coaching and a member of ICF Global and its Mumbai Chapter.
Ujjal believes that the SME sector will be the real drivers of growth and prosperity of the people of this country. Sharing his knowledge, experience and commercial acumen with such entrepreneurs, and through result-focused coaching cummentoring, he intends to help create a prosperous business environment with a professional culture within the SME community.

This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Ujjal Gupta: ujjal.gupta07@gmail.com

Disclaimer The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). This article on the ICF Mumbai website does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.