Coaching in Russia is asserting itself as a new leadership tool and represents a major shift in business thinking in Russia and throughout eastern Europe today. Marilyn Atkinson, one of the pioneers of coaching, shared with Daniil Silantev her views on how this approach is taking roots in Russian business management and leadership circles.
What is Executive Coaching?
For the last 20 years coaching has been spreading widely across western corporate management; Jim Collins’ early studies and article with Harvard & Harvard Business Review began to uncover ‘learning organizations’ as companies that created individually focused learning plans and devoted significant effort to aligning job fit with a person’s true potential and passion. In subsequent books such as “Good to Great” Collins’ Hedgehog Concept has become popularized as a key factor identifying and working to individual strengths. Coaching skills are now required for many senior managers in American corporations.
The key difference between classic command and control management and the coaching paradigm is in the ways that a manager influences subordinates. Since the 1990s, Russian and Eastern European nations have followed the trend towards management styles that employ more emotional intelligence to access employees' true potential and less directive command & control approach.
Russia has seen demand for coaching and executives seeking coach training take off in the past decade, as managers grapple with old habits and challenge themselves to improve their leadership skills. The foundation of management coaching is creating conversations with subordinates in order to help each employee define their own understanding of their tasks in alignment with corporate strategy. When each employee is aware of their role in the company, this grows the overall company’s performance. This is a special feature that coaching as a consulting technology brings to life: the trainer-coach keeps working with a client until the client actually starts using their new skills.
There are many schools and hundreds of coaching trends around the world. By the early 2000’s the coaching business could be only compared to the dot-com explosion. Marilyn Atkinson is an internationally recognized trainer, consultant, coach and master trainer of NLP. In 1985 she established Erickson Coaching International, which provides special programs for the development of solution-focused coaches, consultants, and counselors, and has partners and subsidiaries in 36 countries. Erickson's Management Training Programs can be found here.
This interview has been adapted from an original interview in Russian by Russian Journalist, Danil Silantev.
Who Can Teach Us How to Be Authentic?
Q. Can you single out business tasks that can be easily solved using coaching? Where is coaching the most effective?
Marilyn Atkinson: That’s a good question. Coaching helps to set priorities, arrange them and then work with detailed plans. You can learn how to be persistent in developing schemes that can channel the changes to the whole company.
Another area is working with new initiatives. This is a very important element since competition is extremely high nowadays, and change management in companies requires that big scale changes happen every six months. I mean those companies who are on the Fortune 1000 list. But the same applies to entrepreneurs at all levels.
Coaching adds value, if an executive wants to bring business into a new level of development. For the majority of executives it is not just good will, but a question of survival: either the business reaches the next level or it dies. The companies that survive are the ones who will align all efforts towards company goals and who will create sense of joy at the workplace. And the easiest way to create all that is coaching.
Q. Is coaching a homogeneous profession or does it have different streams?
Marilyn Atkinson: Nowadays there are many different methodologies in coaching that didn’t exist before. All of them are developing based on high-efficiency technologies. At Erickson Coaching International our focus is high-end professionalism and systems thinking. We call our coach approach Solution-Focused Integral Coaching.
Q. Are there any areas where coaching competes with traditional consulting?
Marilyn Atkinson: There is no competition. Corporations require mentoring, expert mentoring, consulting and, of course, coaching. All of these simply provide different ways of looking at the same problems.
Q. European consulting services have distinct, although quite conditional, distribution of duties. For instance, Germans are stronger in production, while the British are strong in finance, etc. Is there a similar pattern in coaching?
Marilyn Atkinson: There is a specialization to some extend: some coaches work with clients in the education field, some in the health industry, and others in business. Up to 75 different niches. My personal preferences influence me to work more with leaders; I am helping them to develop their own expert skills, especially in managing teams and developing company procedures. But all these skills and niches are available to different coaches around the world: we can say that all coaches are specializing. So you see, there are no regional distinctions.
Q. How important is it for a coach to have practical experience?
Marilyn Atkinson: Past experiences and personal history shape a lot of the specialization and the style of a consultant’s work. But the coaching practice stays free from that. A coach primarily focuses on his client’s ability to become an expert in his field, on how to assist the client in developing systemic thinking. A coach works with individuals, helping them to develop their skills, rather than with the whole industry, and that’s a major difference. A consultant comes to tell the client what needs to be done to achieve results, while a coach finds out what really works for the client. Coaching values every employee’s capability to learn how to generate their own creative solutions aimed at supporting the whole company’s development.
Q. Is coaching more of an Art or a Science?
Marilyn Atkinson: They both go hand in hand. Both sides are important.
Q. Coaches often talk about coaching culture. What is that?
Marilyn Atkinson: This is a culture of dialogue: asking questions and listening to answers. We need questions addressed to oneself and also questions addressed to the environment. For the last few centuries, we have been living in a world of prevailing directive orders. People give each other advice. Coaching says that we need to focus on listening, thinking, and getting interested in the person next to you. Then people and their abilities will be perceived in a different way, and leaders emerge.
Q. After a few decades of coaching history, can we say that by now it has reached it's prime?
Marilyn Atkinson: No, it is a development in progress. For example, about five years ago a new niche emerged: leadership coaching. That’s what brought me to Ekaterinburg in Russia. Leadership skills and their development remained outside the specialists’ focus because executives tend to have little time for executive practice. But nowadays whole executive teams are looking for growth and development. And they gradually cultivate this interest of self-development in their companies by bringing into the corporate culture all those things they learned from coaching practice.
Dell Corporation, one of the biggest computer producers in the world, is an example. Its owner, Michael Dell, who is much spoken about in the business press, has started introducing coaching in his corporation. Now we can see his managers setting new standards aimed at the complete change of Dell’s inner environment. Coaching has become a powerful management tool in the modern world.
Coaching In Russia
Q. What characterizes the level of coaching development in a given country? Is it the number of companies that have implemented coaching?
Marilyn Atkinson: I attend many coaching conferences around the globe, including in Western Europe. For the last three years, the number of coaches has increased from 500 to 2000, business coaches being in the majority. In Russia, the first conference brought together 200 people. You can make your conclusions from these facts. But many Russian coaches are strong professionals working with very big corporations.
Q. You have been training in Russia for quite a long time. Do you see any difference in participants, teachers, coaches?
Marilyn Atkinson: This difference is not as big as you may think. But Russia has its own way of developing the coaching practice: more focus on business, on working with entrepreneurs, building teams. Less attention is given to coaching aimed at an increase of competency level. However, the development vector is the same everywhere.
Q. European consultants, especially those, who worked in Russia, tend to give quite unflattering feedback on the qualifications of local consultants. Looks like in coaching that’s not an issue …
Marilyn Atkinson: Nowadays coaching in Russia is following the same development path as it did before in Western Europe. Companies need time to try on this new product – if it is going to work out. Moreover, while introducing coaching into a corporate environment it’s necessary to change thinking habits and patterns. Coaching is an advanced management style, that is why it takes time to accept and use it.
Q. Does coaching in Russian business focus on the same objectives as in the West?
Marilyn Atkinson: I think Russia has an intense entrepreneurial culture. In such cultures, different executives may have tasks and challenges that are very diverse. But Russian businessmen, now more than ever, need team management and prioritizing skills. Businessmen in Russia need these skills now, to free up their time for other issues. They don’t need to juggle several balls in the air.
A Place for Failure
Q. What difficulties do a coach face? Can it happen that results are not achieved?
Marilyn Atkinson: Depends on the skills. We are working to help coaches develop the most comprehensive set of skills so that they can create maximum flexibility in their practice. The Art & Science of Coaching is created to practice all necessary skills.
Q. What requirements and expectations are a coach expected to meet?
Marilyn Atkinson: Genuine interest and readiness to discover every human being that the coach works with. Communication with a person brings up a feeling of joy in coaching. And also, big picture thinking and design of long-term sustainable systems.
Q. In other words, not everyone can become a coach?
Marilyn Atkinson: To my mind only very benevolent and kind people can become coaches. Coaches emerge from many different areas, not only from psychology, as one might think. I’m sometimes surprised at who finally becomes a very good coach. There are many who have a business background, almost every third coach has a degree in social science or psychology. At the same time coaching is very different from psychology. A psychologist focuses on the causes of problems, while a coach focuses on developing the skills that individuals already have. A coach treats every person as a genius, but one who does not know that he is a genius.
Q. Are there any cases, where a coach is not able to help?
Marilyn Atkinson: Sure, there are. That’s why coaches work in teams. If one coach didn’t find the key, another coach may find it. We have a network of Erickson Coaching graduates. In every situation, our coaches know who else may have the required skills to work with different individuals.
Bet on the Outcome
Q. In a tight economy, is there a return on investment in coaching for corporations?
Marilyn Atkinson: At least five large-scope studies have been carried out in the West to explore this. Huge statistics have been collected. Consistency in measured results allows us to talk about 6-time increases in effectiveness as a result of coaching. Myself, I was amazed to hear these statistics, verified many times. And there is no difference where the company is located: in the US, Canada, Russia or Western Europe.
Q. How can a coach’s effectiveness be verified?
Marilyn Atkinson: If you look for leadership coaching you can always count on getting several specific and easy to describe results. A leader can get access to new ideas, and he can create a clear vision of his own priorities and team. As a final outcome, coaching brings more joy to the whole process of leading & managing than ever before. One more indicator of coaching success is reduced stress.
Q. If an executive adds an internal coach to his team, what results he can expect?
Marilyn Atkinson: In other words, you are asking if we can rely on coaching in a long-term perspective? A big company can have a team of 30 coaches. Their work impact can extend to all areas of company performance. Coaches assist executives, and they, in their turn, teach their subordinates. A lot of negative thoughts disappear, and we can say that new communication lines open within the company. Through coaching people create a clear vision; they clearly see what they really want and how they can achieve it working as a team.
Q. How can one evaluate the effectiveness of an internal coach?
Marilyn Atkinson: I think that evaluation criteria should be defined at the beginning. We can use what we call 360-degree feedback: collect feedback from employees evaluating a manager (superior, peers and subordinates) before the coaching training starts, and do so again after the training. And again, as the executives who follow through individual coaching. And then compare three months or six months results to where we started. In this way you will see at once if there is any result.
Q. How can society benefit from coaching?
Marilyn Atkinson: Coaching “humanizes” business. Executives develop their unique contribution personalities while developing their business. It makes our society a better place to live in. The other thing is that it’s not possible to have one single opinion about this. Everyone is looking at coaching through different glasses. The only thing I can say is that you should give solution focused coaching a try, use it for yourself and see if any positive changes happen.
Marilyn Atkinson is an internationally acclaimed leadership coach trainer, licensed psychologist, and founder of Erickson Coaching International, a school for training professional coaches located in nine countries. She has been working in the field of organizational development for over 20 years. Marilyn is known around the world as a key developer of Ericksonian and Solution-Focused methodologies for coaching, including systemic integrations and NLP applications. She has developed and delivered hundreds of innovative coaching programs throughout Europe, Russia, Australia, and North America, and she now coaches some of the world’s top business and political leaders. She has developed a series of Managerial and Executive Coaching Programs, now provided by other Erickson Coach trainers and professional instructors, persons trained by her around the globe.