Of Conferences and Coaches

A survey released earlier this year, entitled “A Study of Nonprofit Leadership in the US and Its Impending Crisis,” should be considered required reading for everyone involved in the philanthropic sector whether as a professional, a board member, a volunteer, or a donor. The primary focus of this analysis pertains to issues of succession planning and executive transitioning; on that basis alone it should be scrutinized carefully. But one small section of the study that addresses the issue of professional development constitutes a serious wake up call and should not be missed.

More than 1100 respondents were asked to describe the leadership development opportunities afforded them by their nonprofit organization. The findings reveal a startling imbalance. While 76% of employees reported they are provided with the chance to attend “leadership events or conferences,” only 30% are provided a leadership coach. This is an astounding and telling discrepancy made that much more significant by the fact that when researchers asked individuals to identify the thing they needed most to enhance their work and enable their development, coaching was the number one response.

To be sure, professional conferences have value as instrumentalities of networking, camaraderie, job seeking and informational exchanges. I, myself, speak at multiple conferences a year and would like to believe that those sessions can provide worthwhile training and important ideas that redound to the benefit of participants. To be absolutely clear, however, as vehicles of leadership training and development, conferences pale in comparison to the long-term value of working with a coach. No conference, however well run, can be expected to grow the individual skills or enhance the performance of aspiring leaders the way coaching does.

Of course, from the perspective of the participant, coaching is far more demanding, and that is, well … the point. To begin with, there is a financial investment required. While coaching is not inexpensive and circumstances will vary, I am not completely convinced that providing a meaningful coaching experience for a highly promising individual needs to cost that much more than sending her to a week-long conference across the country, when all related expenses are included. Beyond funding, however, being a “coachee” requires a much greater commitment than being an attendee. As an executive coach, I can tell you that my clients work hard. It is not easy examining and challenging deeply held beliefs and practices, particularly when compared with sitting in a hotel conference room along with dozens of colleagues before heading to the bar for “networking.”

It bears repeating that I do not discount the upsides of conferences, seminars, or workshops. I do, however, take issue when organizations conflate conference participation with leadership training and development. Managers would do well to examine the return on organizational investment each time colleagues attend a conference compared with the long-term value to the agency from those who work with a coach. Of course, coaching is not for everyone. Only those employees in whom we are prepared to make a long-term investment and who are willing to do the hard work of engaging with a coach should be considered. But consider them we must.

Beyond management, governance should know and care whether their senior executives and high-potential employees are provided with the most effective forms of professional development. Their job as fiduciaries obligates them to take the long view when assessing the future leadership of the enterprise. Further, employees themselves, who desire to step up their training and growth, are not powerless. They have an obligation to put coaching on the agenda during their annual reviews or whenever the discussion turns to their professional development. Particularly in organizations with tight budgets, offering to forego the next round of conferences in favor of securing and working with a coach may not be enough to change people’s minds, but it just might plant a seed. In their now slightly-dated but still resonant analysis of Jack Welch (former CEO of GE), Noel Tichy and Stratford Sherman said it best, “Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will.”

For years, well-intentioned philanthropists have insisted that the nonprofits in which they are involved should “operate more like a business.” While I would take issue with this assertion in many areas, in this regard, they are completely right! The best businesses and corporations have long understood the importance of investing in key people, insisting that the most promising individuals have the chance to grow their potential by working with a coach. As a field, we should seek to emulate this example. Conferences surely have their place, but they cannot be allowed to supplant the need for executive coaching in those instances when it is warranted and likely to support and transform the next generation of leaders.

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