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Meet The CEO Coaches

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For six months, Rajeev Dubey, the president of Mahindra and Mahindra, spent one-hour sessions with his coach. He was learning to say no. "Earlier, I would always try to accommodate people but now I know how to say no without being disagreeable. I learnt to say ‘no' after being coached," says Dubey. His coach, 56-year-old Anil Sachdev, also encouraged him to take more chances. "He showed me my own behaviour through the eyes of others and made me realise what was good and what was bad for me," says Dubey. The result: Dubey is ready to risk being wrong and venture into a challenge instead of playing safe always.

What Harish Natarajan, Bausch + Lomb's managing director for India and Thailand, learnt is to be more aggressive, thanks to his US-based coach Felicity McRobb. In July this year, he presented his strategy for emerging markets before a team of experts in Hong Kong with a new-found confidence. "It was after I was coached to come out of my subdued self and be more forceful in my approach that I took this initiative on my own," says Natarajan.

Anil Sachdev CEO of School of Inspired Leadership The 56-year-old is based in Gurgaon and has worked with more than 20 heads of organisations He is advisor is ISB's Centre for Leadership, Innovation and Change There are many leaders in corporate India who attend personalised sessions with coaches in order to be able to move to the next level. The numbers may not be big yet, but the graph is headed north.

The Gurus
But who are these people who make the CEOs what they are or what they want to be — confident, assured, poised? Meet the CEO coaches.

They are the impartial observers who push the CEOs to exploit their potential. They don't pass judgements; only point out strengths and  weaknesses. They help others understand how things can be done differently. Ask them what they do and the most common reply is: "Hold up the mirror to the CEO."

Their guiding principle is: "Ask, don't tell." They help the CEOs understand problems rather than give solutions. By asking open-ended questions they facilitate the process of self-discovery and self-motivation.
"A good leader needs to use 16 colours, but is stuck using just two or three where just one side of the brain is utilised. A lot of coaching is to  develop colours," says 55-year-old Arun Wakhlu, founder chairman of Pragati Leadership Institute, which he set up in 1986 in Pune to provide team building solutions to companies. "One of my IT clients was stuck with analytical thinking. So I worked on his creative and emotional side. He became a better listener; his teams got more inspired. He closed more deals and his stress levels came down," explains the IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus.

Though their work appears to be more psychological than strategic, only a few have degrees in psychology. Kolkata-based, 63-year-old Zahid Gangjee, who started HR consultancy firm Zahid Gangjee & Associates in 1995, is one of the few; he has an M.Sc in applied psychology. "Coaching," he says, "is a small part of my overall work, which includes advising MNCs and family-owned businesses in managing change."  

 Noida-based, 43-year-old Santhosh Babu, specialises in team building and runs Operational Development Alternatives (ODA). He, too, has a degree in psychology. But he is also a trained hypnotherapist and sports long hair, a full beard, a kurta and a jhola, and does mass hypnosis sessions with students besides training dogs. He calls himself hypnobaba (also his e-mail ID). Babu works with CEOs but likes to involve the entire team in motivational exercises. He helped Ram S. Ramasundar, now the chief of  Jindal ITF, an O.P. Jindal Group company, build the team of Hilton Hotels when it was in the process of setting up a 25,000-room infrastructure. Again, when Electrolux entered India and had to take on established players such as LG and Samsung, it was Babu who was brought in to help the newly set-up team overcome their fear of failure.

US-based management guru Prasad Kaipa, 54, comes to India periodically to teach the leadership course at Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business (ISB). He also does one-on-one sessions with CEOs. Kaipa is deeply religious and was exposed to the rituals of sadhus and saints early in life, which was when he also learnt Sanskrit. The influence later saw him move from physics to leadership. "It was during my research at Apple Computers that I realised that innovation and breakthrough learning was going to take place in soft areas," says Kaipa. Arun Jain, CEO of Bangalore-based Polaris Software; Partha Sundararajan, former CEO of another Bangalore-based firm Aztec Software; Sudhakar Ram, CEO of Mastek; and State Bank of India chairman O.P. Bhatt, have all been under his tutelage. "I help them make strategic and people decisions," says Kaipa. He also helps them "think through their next steps for themselves in the company."

Three peculiar habits of CEOs
  • Starting a learning programme for senior executives with the words: "You all know training does not work, however…" and then walking off
  • Speaking 90 per cent of the time in a meeting
  • Pretending to be a benevolent Gandhian while being a real-life Shylock

In the US, the fountain head of coaching, top names in the field include Marshall Goldsmith, Mike Myatt, Robert Hargrove, Kathy Strickland, Paul Rich and Jeremy Robinson. Indians in the top league include Ram Charan and C.K. Prahalad. While Charan is a US citizen, Prahalad was a frequent visitor to India before he passed away earlier this year in the US.

Certification Or Experience
While coaches guide CEOs in various spheres, from decision making to leadership, very few, such as Chennai-based Gopal ‘GD' Shrikanth, 47, are certified to do so. The suave and soft-spoken Shrikanth, who is ex-IIT-Madras, ex-IIM-Bangalore and a Wharton Fellow, has a certificate from Columbia University's coaching programme. He is the founder CEO of GD360.Net, a company focused on leadership and business transformation.

Arun Wakhlu Founder chairman of Pragati Leadership Institute 55-year-old Wakhlu is based in Pune and has a core team of nine His institute provides team-building solutions to companies "A good leader needs to use 16 colours but is usually stuck using just two or three where just one side of the brain is utilised. A lot of coaching is to develop coloursAllahabad-born Christopher C. Doyle, 44, an IIM-Calcutta alumnus and the MD of Dynamic Results, has his certification from the Mumbai branch of Australia-based Results Coaching.

But apart from certification, there is little else in the way of a formal structure, say, a regulator, in this field.  "Anybody can call himself a CEO coach without fear of being sued, unlike a doctor or an engineer," says Shrikanth.

Many of the top coaches, though uncertified, are brand names in themselves and run their own certification programmes. Gangjee, for example, is a Fellow at Bangalore-based Coaching Foundation of India (CFI), while Kaipa is the executive director at ISB's Centre for Leadership, Innovation and Change, which he set up.

Opinion is divided on whether certification is essential or not to become a CEO coach.

G. Ravindran of Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) feels it is necessary because "it is criminal to offer intervention at a behavioural level without being properly equipped to do so." On the other hand, HR head at Fullerton Securities and Wealth Services, Suresh Ramasubramanian, says, "Having a certificate does not mean anything. It only certifies asset capability whereas in coaching what counts is your experience — who you have worked with and how well you have worked."

Gangjee sums it up: "Coaching is part-science and part-art, and a lot depends on the emotional intelligence of the individual coach, including his or her values."

To Be Or Not To Be Coached
Santhosh Babu MD of Operational Development Alternatives 43-year-old Babu not only holds a degree in psychology, but is also a trained hypnotherapist. He is Noida-based He works with CEOs but likes to involve the entire team in motivational exercises "Though a new phenomena by that name now, CEO coaching has existed in India for the past 30-40 years," says Shrikanth. Earlier, there were strategic advisors who were essentially management gurus and expat professors who, having spent their formative years in India, would combine a trip to India once or twice a year with some professional linkup with their former batchmates.

It is only now that CEO coaching in its present avatar is slowly becoming popular. But what's ironic is that the CEOs don't actually want to be seen as being coached. Which is probably why coaches want to keep the names of their clients confidential. There is still a negative connotation attached to it, admits Sachdev, who is himself the CEO of Gurgaon-based management institute School of Inspired Leadership (SOIL) and has helped more than 20 heads of organisation. By one estimate, there are about 50-60 coaches undergoing training at present. Coaching, says Sachdev, still smacks of remedial action. But that's changing. Earlier CEOs used to recommend coaching for their juniors, but today they want to equip themselves better.

One of the reasons behind asking for external help is age. CEOs today are no longer old men who have spent decades in the industry and learnt through experience. Instead, they are young, mostly in early-to-mid 40s, have all the right degrees and management jargon to spew, full of energy and positive attitude, but often lack the sheer gravitas needed to make the cut.

Gopal Shrikanth Founder CEO of GD360.Net 47-year-old Shrikanth is based in Chennai and has certification from Columbia University's coaching programme He feels CEO coaching has existed in India for the past 30-40 years in other avatars Moreover, expatriates posted in India as well as Indians dealing with foreign bosses now need to understand a lot of cross-cultural nuances. "The most common issue I have dealt with is helping Indian CEOs understand cross-cultural pacing differences. The US and European markets take decisions on very complex matters very quickly, and often very informally compared to how Indian CEOs prefer to operate," says Myatt, an American coach who has done a lot of work with Indian CEOs. Natarajan of Bausch + Lomb recounts that he learnt through his US-based coach that Indian presentations tend to be subtle and understated. Indians are also very sensitive to reaction whereas people overseas are more direct and straightforward.

"In startups," says Shrikanth, "young technocrats need to be coached right before the initial public offer because if they do not transform themselves into business leaders, the shareholders would not repose faith in them."

Sachdev says, in Delhi, most issues come up in family businesses while in Mumbai it is more to do with alignment with global trends. In the south, the focus is on management and strategy.

One-Man Army
Christopher Doyle MD, India, Dynamic Results 44-year-old Doyle is certified to be a coach. He trained at the Mumbai branch of Australia-based Results Coaching He is based in Gurgaon Since coaching is all about the rapport that the coach shares with the CEO, most coaches work with minuscule, boutique teams and are largely a one-man army. For instance, Babu's ODA works with eight, while Wakhlu's Pragati Institute has a core team of nine. CEO coaches are high-flyers who often visit a city or a country just for a half-day session with a client. The rates charged are therefore on a per-hour basis and normal sessions rarely go beyond one hour. At the CEO level, the rates range between Rs 50,000 and Rs 2.5 lakh per hour with expats and global coaches commanding a fee which is on the higher side.

The duration of the training and the length of the sessions also vary from level to level. At the CEO level the engagements are usually for a year and there are one-hour sessions once a month. Some, like Shrikanth and Babu feel the ideal gap between two sessions is two weeks where one of the sessions could be on telephone and the rate is half that of a face-to-face session. Skype sessions are also common.

Be it a face-to-face meeting, a telephone call or a Skype session, an increasing number of CEOs are looking for a friend, philosopher and guide, in short, the CEO coach.


An MNC had three redundant project teams around the world. Finance advisors recommended that the teams be merged. At that time, Dynamic Results (DR) was doing other work for the company. Overhearing the discussion, they asked if any cultural assessment was done as the teams were based in different parts of the world. The company's response was: "This is not what we hired you for. We can handle this."

Two years later, DR got a call from the same company saying the merger was not working. When DR started work with them, it became apparent that there were direct cross-cultural challenges. One leader was a woman who refused to acknowledge or discuss any emotional issue, focusing only on science. The next was an openly gay person, while the third was a devout Muslim who did not respect non-Muslims or homosexuals.

Christopher Doyle and his team looked at only the cultural perspective; they did not look at operational issues — the three leaders were experts in running the projects. Doyle worked with them for 18 months to overcome the differences. The goal was to help the three come up with an operating agreement — one that they themselves would follow. This would make it easier for them to opt in or leave the organisation after assessing themselves against the criteria they had set. The outcome was that one of them could not meet the criteria and left the organisation. One criterion, for instance, which they had all agreed to was: assess your partners based on performance and not personal lifestyle. Leader 2 could not adhere to this functionally, and left the company. Eventually, the two remaining leaders matrixed out into different teams within the same company.

When DR had started, the three leaders did not like each other. In the end, after selfassessment, two were able to adjust to each other, while the one who could not, left.

(Handled by Christopher Doyle of Dynamic Results)

Experts on traits of Indian CEOs

  • High energy and confidence
  • Fondness for travel and meeting people
  • Narcissistic
  • Vision, passion and high stamina
  • Lonely. Cannot share everything with board members or their teams and few have mentors. Do not share all professional issues with families. But most are able to overcome negative emotions with positive energy
  • Limited risk-taking ability. They agonise a lot about the fall in ethical standards in India and also feel guilty about their inability to make a difference to major social issues such as poverty
  • Surround themselves with business heads who are unlikely to challenge their views; engage highprofile consultants who are willing to rubber-stamp their preconceived notions
  • Have a quiet confidence; are competent but unassuming
  • Slow at taking decisions compared to counterparts in other countries; need a lot of data to arrive at a conclusion
  • Comfortable seeking advice at the tactical, implementation level, but not at strategy and leadership levels

With inputs from Gauri Kamath