E-Coaching: Using New Technology to Develop Tomorrow’s Leaders

by Marshall Goldsmith

A technological breakthrough is occurring that will dramatically change leadership development. Within the next twenty years, instant download, television quality, audio-video transmission will be commonly available to leaders around the world. People will be connected, synchronously and asynchronously through both wired and wireless networks.

Tomorrow’s leaders will have the opportunity to learn in ways that could not be imagined in the past. They will tap into a vast network that connects almost all accumulated human knowledge. This network has been called the global mind. When everything works, leaders will be able to learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, from the source best able to teach it! The executive coaches of the future will be the people who can help leaders find the knowledge they need. They will be e-coaches.

Unfortunately, as the amount of information in the global mind increases, the challenge of accessing meaningful information grows. E-coaching will require a balance between appreciating the potential of an incredible vision and recognizing the challenge of turning this vision into a practical reality.

To understand the future of e-coaching, it is important to realize that the development of the global mind may produce both extremely positive and extremely negative consequences for leaders. The challenge of the e-coach will be to recognize the realities that exist, maximize potential benefits and minimize potential costs. We will begin with a brief analysis of how the global mind can become both a “fantastic opportunity” and an “incredible annoyance” for leaders. We will then discuss how e-coaching can be used to develop the leaders of the future.

The Global Mind: A Fantastic Opportunity 

Accessing the “Best in Class” Thought Leaders

The executive of the future will be able to readily access thought leaders who are the world’s experts on almost any relevant issue. As of this writing, many of the world’s greatest thought leaders are available through video conferencing (on an ISDN network).

Within a few years thought leaders will be available for high-quality video conferencing that is streamed to the desktop. A library of audio and video “wisdom bits” will be available so that executives can get answers to frequently asked questions without having to directly access a thought leader. Text will be categorized so that executives can review books and articles that are aimed at their specific needs. All of these tools can help leaders learn in a very efficient way.

E-coaches will be the personal learning consultants who can access these resources (without having to be the “expert”). For example, if I have a coaching client who needs help in strategy, I can have her access Jim Belasco. If I have a client who needs advice in developing alliances, I can have him access Larraine Segil.

Getting Help When and Where It Is Needed

Traditional courses can be a very inefficient method for learning. They may not be designed to fit the leader’s specific need. Everyone in the room has to hear the same content, delivered in the same way, at the same time. The leader of the future will be able to take online courses that are tailored to specific developmental needs. Parts of the course that are less relevant can be “skimmed” or skipped entirely. Research has shown that course material that is quickly applied (on the job) is much more likely to be retained than course material that is not applied for long periods of time. E-coaches can help leaders find relevant information on an “as needed” basis. They can also help leaders design a customized curriculum that meets their unique learning needs.

Learning from Around the World

Traditionally, almost all training or coaching has been done by professionals or co-workers who live in the same country. In fact, in most cases professionals who live in the same region of the country have done this work. New technology will enable expertise to come from around the world. Geographical boundaries will no longer be a constraint. As organizations become increasingly multi-national, the “globalization of learning” will become increasingly important. Asynchronous learning will mean that time zones will become less and less of a constraint to development. E-coaches will be able to help find diverse resources to deal with cross-boundary issues (that experts from one country might not understand).

Using “Push” Technology to Help Leaders Change

Research on behavioral change for leaders has shown a clear pattern. Leaders who identify desired behavior to change, involve their co-workers in the change process and follow-up are much more likely to demonstrate long-term improvement than those who don’t. “Push” technology can be used to give leaders an ongoing stream of reminders and ideas for change. This type of reinforcement has been shown to dramatically increase the probability that leaders will “stick with” their change effort.

Traditional, people-centered techniques for follow-up and reinforcement tend to be very expensive and time-consuming. Technology based tools for follow-up and reinforcement can be both more efficient and more effective. Measurement tools such as 360ç feedback and Mini-Surveys can be administered online, at low cost and whenever needed. E-coaches will be able to use tailored reminders, measurement tools and reinforcements without having to be physically present.

Coaching for Many Leaders, Not Just the Privileged Few

Traditional coaching is very expensive. In most cases the coach has significant in-person interaction with the leader being coached. Even in cases where the coach is local, travel time can exceed the actual time spent coaching. New technology will allow leaders to receive asynchronous coaching that is much more efficient. Coaches can work from one location and communicate with leaders from around the world. One coach, through using many of the tools mentioned above, could work with many leaders (as opposed to the few that are possible in traditional coaching).

The Global Mind: An Incredible Annoyance

Drowning in a Sea of Information

Almost all of the executives that I work with report:

1) a dramatic increase in the number of e-mails that they receive per day and

2) a dramatic decrease in the percent of these e-mails that are actually important. A common concern is “too much information, too fast”

Asynchronous communication, rather than leading to more “free” time, has led to a “24/7” lifestyle where executives feel they are almost always “on call”. One great challenge of the e-coach will be to help leaders sort out what is most important and help them “let go” of the rest. The last thing that most executives of the future will want is more e-mail with “To Do” lists!

Accessing Relevant Information Is Becoming More Difficult

As the total amount of information available through the global mind increases, the amount of useless information is growing much faster than the amount of useful information. Search engines are becoming increasingly irrelevant. For example, I looked up the term “coaching” on one search engine and found 1,920,000 references. Almost none of these would have any interest for any executive. I looked up “marshall goldsmith” and found 6,650 references about me. Most of these references were not even interesting to me! Getting to the useful advice and avoiding “noise” can be a real challenge. The e-coach of the future will need to be able to quickly find the relevant information that can help the leader being coached.

Finding High-Quality Leadership Development Tools Is Not Easy

Many e-learning organizations have made the mistake of trying to transfer traditional learning methodologies (e.g. classroom training or video) directly into e-learning. Unfortunately, this seldom works. Many existing e-learning tools for leaders are poorly designed. They are often too long, slow, awkward and boring. They have not been developed with the insight required to take advantage of new technology. Leaders will not use them for any extended period of time.

The Internet does not have a “quality control” function. The “good news” is that anyone can put anything into the global mind. This is also the “bad news”! E-coaches will not only have to help leaders find relevant content, they will also have to help the leaders find development tools that have a real impact. The theory of doing this will be much easier than the practice!

Maintaining Attention Span for In-Depth Learning Has Become More Challenging

While short “bytes” of information can be highly efficient in helping leaders solve specific problems, they may be dysfunctional for dealing with long-term issues requiring deeper analysis. In many cases leaders need to improve long-term interpersonal relationships. This can seldom be achieved in a short period of time, no matter how great the advice. New technology increases the danger of reinforcing a “quick fix” mentality for development. Access to the same information can lead to homogeneity of thought. It can tend to create “McLeaders”. This type of training may not prepare leaders to handle deeper, more diverse or novel issues. E-coaches will need to help their clients know when immediate, focused information is acceptable and when longer-term, deeper understanding is needed.

The Role of the E-Coach

The e-coach of the future will be an individualized learning consultant. The e-coach will not have to possess the knowledge that is needed by the client. The e-coach will need to help the client find the needed knowledge. The process of e-coaching will involve:

1) Helping clients diagnose their developmental needs,

2) Assessing the resources that should be expended to meet these needs,

3) Analyzing the range of learning options that are available to help meet these needs,

4) Connecting leaders with the highest value-added coaching and learning opportunities (given their unique needs and resources) and 5) providing ongoing support to ensure results.

Diagnosing Developmental Needs

The e-coach will need to know the unique developmental needs for each client. For example, some leaders may have the need to change behavior; others may need development in strategy, while some may need functional training (e.g. marketing or finance). Each of the developmental needs listed above requires a very different learning strategy.

Along with understanding the need for learning, the coach will need to understand the depth of learning that is desirable. In some cases general knowledge may be very sufficient (e.g. “finance for non-financial mangers”). In other cases very specific deep knowledge may be needed. In general, a learning strategy aimed at deeper knowledge will require interaction with a thought leader. The person being coached will need to be able to ask specific questions and have a dialogue. A learning strategy aimed at more general knowledge may just require information.

A third factor in diagnosis is urgency. If decision time is now, an immediate response may be required. If the need is long-term and developmental, a “quick fix” may do more harm than good. A longer-term strategy that may involve asynchronous communication could be optimal.

Assessing Resource Allocation

Before designing a learning strategy the e-coach will need to understand the client’s optimal resource allocation. The first factor to consider is time. Most executives that I work with today feel busier than they have felt in their entire lives. There is little to indicate that this trend will be reversed in the future! E-Coaches will need to do an analysis to determine the benefit of the learning as compared with the cost in time for learning.

A second factor to consider is money. E-coaches will need to be able to assess learning options and weigh trade-offs. For example, would the leader be better off with a shorter video conference with the world’s leading authority or a longer in-depth intervention with a consultant who has less expertise. The number of options available to leaders will increase dramatically. As the number of options grows, the e-coach will need to gain increasing expertise in evaluating these options.

A third factor in resource allocation is bandwidth. If the leader has access to very high bandwidth, learning options that involve full-motion video may be very desirable. If bandwidth is restricted, technological difficulties can make full-motion video more of an annoyance than a value. While access to high bandwidth is increasing rapidly, bandwidth concerns will continue to be an issue for the next several years. Anyone in the e-learning field knows that there is often a huge gap between what should work at a certain bandwidth and what does work

Analyzing Learning Options

On one hand, leaders of the future will have more learning options (by far) than leaders of the past. On the other hand, it will become increasingly difficult to understand and evaluate all of these choices. The e-coach will need to have a broad understanding of what the learning options are and how these various alternatives can help their clients.

To illustrate this point, let us assume that our hypothetical leader of the future has decided that she needs to learn some important concepts that are best taught by (my friend) Jim Belasco. She will be faced with a vast array of learning alternatives. Following are a sampling of her possible choices and some of the trade-offs involved in each.

– Jim as a personal coach

This provides a great opportunity for in-depth learning that is suited to her needs. Unfortunately, this is very expensive and time consuming. Jim may be too “booked” to be able to make this type of a commitment.

– Jim as a consultant

This is more reasonable, but still very expensive. She has the advantage of in-depth, in-person dialogue. Travel time scheduling problems have to be considered as potential issues.

– Jim in a videoconference dialogue

This is much more accessible and less expensive. She has the advantage of dialogue that is aimed specifically at her needs. She loses some of the in-person “touch” but has much easier access.

Jim in a wireless “instant message”

This is an option that will become more common in the future. It provides the opportunity for an immediate idea, in specific situation at a specific time. The closer the requirement is to “real time”, the more expensive this option will be.

Jim in a satellite broadcast

She gets to hear Jim at far less cost (because there are many other people hearing Jim at the same time). Although these claim to be “interactive”, she will be lucky if she gets to have one question answered.

Jim in an Internet course

The value of this option will vary widely based upon design and technology. She might get to look at pre-packaged, “frequently asked questions” that could meet her needs. She may have the option of sending an e-mail to Jim. She could have the chance to replay various components of the course that she needs and to skip components of the course that do not add value.

Jim in text (either online or in print) 

This “generic” option can be excellent for stimulating thinking and giving ideas. It is often not useful for answering unique questions based on specific circumstances.

Jim in a “wisdom bit” or “push” reminder

This can be an excellent, low-cost option for reinforcement or encouragement. It can help her “stay on course” when attempting to change. It will seldom solve in-depth problems or meet long-term developmental needs.

This illustration addresses only some of the learning options for the leader of the future. However, this shows both the opportunities and challenges faced by the e-coach. As a personal learning consultant, the e-coach will need to have a trusted network of advisors who can recommend the highest value-added resources.

Connecting Leaders with Learning Opportunities

The e-coaches of the future will be “match makers”! They will be the personal learning consultants who can help leaders diagnose needs, assess resource allocation, analyze learning options and then connect leaders with the best value-added resources.

In this chapter we have made the assumption that e-coaches are humans. Given the complexity faced by leaders and the primitive nature of the field, this is probably a safe assumption for the next several years. Ultimately, e-coaching will become much more virtual. Trusted panels of experts and clients will assess learning options. Options will receive ratings on content, quality and resource requirements. Clients will be able to share their need and resource profiles with their virtual coach. The virtual coach will then assess learning options and recommend the highest value-added alternatives. Human e-coaches will learn to work with virtual assistants who help them better meet client’s needs.

Providing Ongoing Coaching 

The field of executive coaching is experiencing huge growth. It is highly unlikely that this trend will reverse in the next ten years. Leaders will have greater and greater needs to learn. Coaching (when done well) has been shown to be a very effective way to help leaders learn and (more importantly) to help leaders achieve positive long-term change.

As the world has become more complex, it has become increasingly obvious that no leader can “know it all”. The same is true for coaches. One of the greatest challenges faced by the human e-coaches of the future will be “letting go” of ego. Traditionally the “coach” has been thought of as a wise guru whose personal counsel will help clients achieve their goals. The e-coaches of the future will be successful because of their ability to match client requirements with the resources available in the global mind. This involves a transition from “being the expert” to “finding the expert”. It also means that more of the coach’s time will be spent on “learning” than on traditional “teaching”.

Leaders are much more likely to change if they have ongoing support and encouragement from someone who cares. This has always been true and will probably always be true. This is one role that human coaches will continue to play. Leaders will probably be busier than ever. Competition may get even tougher. Free market capitalism is evolving into the knowledge economy. Leaders need to learn more and more, but have less time to learn it! The e-coach of the future will combine “high-tech” and “high-touch” by using technology to help find knowledge and using their humanity to provide support and encouragement.





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