The pressure on today’s executives is immense, coming from all directions: board members, shareholders, subordinates, competitors, economic forces, etc. Executives have little choice but to push forward. For newly minted executives, pressure to perform is high, but the behaviors that earned them a promotion may not help them succeed in their new role. When their old behaviors don’t work well anymore, it’s because they are usually ingrained at a deep level, and efforts to change them are met with resistance. What to do?

Consulting psychologists are experts in systematic behavior change. Their understanding of human behavior allows them to take on tough clients at any career stage. Consulting psychologists choose their interventions by gaining deep knowledge of the executive’s internal world and the external world of the company. Then, they leverage this information to help the executive adapt to his or her environment.

Exploring the process of consulting psychologists can help you to think like a psychologist in your own coaching or training work. This article offers concrete points and a case study illustrating how coaches can help executives reach their potential.

5 Skills of a Coach

The essence of coaching is to narrow the gap between knowing what to change and making that change happen. How do consulting psychologists accomplish this goal? Through five essential skills, they…

  • Support by providing an encouraging, adaptive approach that emphasizes strengths and coping strategies to facilitate effective problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Challenge, as a “sounding board” who questions assumptions, beliefs and expectations, including the ones that are firmly held but unvalidated.
  • Confront by bringing the leader’s attention to and directly identifying stumbling blocks and minefields as well as overused strengths and cognitive-emotional obstacles to optimal performance.
  • Advise by suggesting alternative actions based on knowledge of best business practices and a deep understanding of the meaning and impact of human behavior.
  • Teach by training leaders on how to use new skills and different frameworks to help them achieve their goals and succeed in new situations.

Case Study: 5 Skills in Action

Danilo was a computer software engineer with degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He built an innovative educational software platform that generated $75 million annually in bookings in only a few years. A visionary leader, he saw how his technology could transform critical aspects of the entire educational system. Danilo focused on meeting his investors’ expectations and communicating his vision to potential customers, leaving the significant manufacturing and operational details to his team members.

They sold the company to a global education company 50 times their size, earning Danilo approximately $30 million, contingent on meeting two-year sales projections. Now, instead of being accountable only to venture capital partners, Danilo was a business unit head, reporting to the senior vice president of education, who reported to the chief executive officer of the acquiring company.

His visionary style and aggressive, high-risk approach were very much in contrast to the acquiring company’s risk-averse nature. He was one of more than 80 executives at his level of the company, many of whom were operationally focused and politically sophisticated. He had to work through investment committees and bureaucratic processes, building alignment with other vice presidents at the company. In sum, the skills that made him one of the richest people in the acquiring company were contraindicated for success in that company.

In his work with him, Bill, his coach, provided support by empathizing with his difficulty transitioning from being the king of his own jungle to one of many in the new one. At the same time, Bill repeatedly challenged his style, which suggested he knew better than anyone else. He knew he could be arrogant but had no idea how to manage it. To help him manage his emotional state, Bill taught him methods of self-control, such as slowing his breathing, altering his body posture and reframing others’ intentions as supporting the larger company.

In one recurring pattern, Danilo was accustomed to shifting resources unilaterally to solve a problem; now, this approach affected not only his business but other businesses as well. Bill advised him to consider alternatives to his usual style of pushing his agenda. For example, they debated the pros and cons of taking the time to build alignment for a cloud-based solution across the whole division rather than just pushing ahead on his own. He struggled with the idea, knowing it would take time and patience, but eventually saw it was the more effective approach.

Bill also confronted Danilo with the fact that he had never run a company with multiple products, global offices and thousands of customers in order to help him realize there were other skills and experiences that were as important as his visionary talents.

This cycle of support, challenge, advise and confront helped Danilo slowly see how he interfered with his own success. Once he understood this reality, he was able to change his behavior, and he became successful in his new role for much longer than most founder-CEOs of acquired companies.

Build a Skills Toolbox

To begin thinking like a consulting psychologist, consider the five essential skills outlined here: support, challenge, advise, confront and teach. At any point, an executive might benefit from one, two or all of these approaches. Consider the executive’s internal and external environments, and select what’s necessary for his or her success.

A thought: Consulting psychologists give their clients tools. Help executives become self-sustaining by helping them build a robust toolbox. For particularly hard-driving and perfectionistic executives, helping them reframe situations more optimistically can relieve stress and provide perspective. For anxious or insecure executives, challenging their catastrophic thinking and helping them learn mindfulness can help them relax and imagine new creative possibilities. Help executives with effective and realistic goal-setting and identifying underlying assumptions that are in conflict with their current situation. Doing so will give them the tools to think more clearly, manage their energy more efficiently and leverage their greatest strengths to create a strong working environment.

To add value to your organization by helping executives survive — and thrive — under pressure, consider these different types of coaching interventions used by consulting psychologists. These professionals are also available as resources to support and complement your own coaching efforts, providing bottom-line benefits and helping foster long-term, positive results.