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Executive Coaching: Tackling the Iceberg


Any professional athlete will tell you about the difference made by having an excellent coach. For working professionals, the same holds true. A coach's critical distance can help you identify and overcome your shortcomings, harness your strengths and prepare you to overcome challenges, rather than let them derail you, and help you realise your potential when opportunity knocks. The challenge for executives is to be willing to engage in the sort of reflection required and realise that in order to get the best out of coaching, they need to be willing to identify and confront their failings. 

"Coaching bridges the gap between your current reality and your future ideal," says Michelle Moss, Assessments Director at Johannesburgbased Talent Africa. "Good coaching is about how to get you to where you want to be." Moss says there's no onesizefitsall approach when it.comes to leadership development and coaching. "It has to be personalised, otherwise it doesn't mean anything," she says. "A blanket approach simply doesn't work." 

While management development programmes at business schools will teach individuals various crucial management skills, Moss says they aren't designed to cater for individuals and the challenges they may face once they're actually in a management position. "They don't address individual concerns, which is what good individual or even team coaching will do." 


Whether Moss is conducting a multimonth coaching programme (which is the norm) or an express session (as she did for this story), the starting point is the same. Candidates are required to.complete assessments, which resemble the psychometric tests many employers now require of applicants. 

Candidates are encouraged to be as frank as possible and not overthink their answers, particularly as the assessments don't ask the sorts of questions for which there are right or wrong replies. Instead, they're designed to assess frame of mind, personality traits, response to stress and interaction with their colleagues. "The best way to make coaching worthwhile is to make it as real as possible for the candidate," Moss explains. "The assessment is to help me understand a bit about the candidate before he or she.comes in. Thereafter, we would usually have a feedback session to create a set of objectives WRITTEN BY CRAIG WILSON focused on what the candidate wants to achieve." 

In our case, the feedback session and coaching were rolled into one, with our candidate having.completed a series of assessments online prior to his session. 


Bhekizulu Mpofu is Group Media Relations Manager at Barclays Africa. He's previously worked for the likes of Business Day, Nedbank, DBSA, FTI Consulting, Magna Carta and Independent Newspapers. His colleagues describe him as a "unbelievably helpful" and someone with a "problemsolving mentality" and a "cando attitude". 

When we meet at Talent Africa, Moss begins by asking him to describe himself. He tells her about his current role, lists the places where he's worked and adds that he's married with three children. 

"You've told me about where you've worked, but I don't feel as if I know any more about you as a person or what you're like at work," Moss says with a smile, before directing Mpofu's attention to a set of questions on a whiteboard. 

What do you stand for?
What is your purpose in life as a leader?
What is your unique value proposition that you do better than anyone?
What are you.committed to delivering that the world looks up to you for?

Moss explains that the questions and the presession assessment are to "help start the conversation about who Mpofu is, how he likes to do things and how that might affect him when coaching or leading others". 

She adds that the intention is not necessarily to teach Mpofu how to be a coach himself, but instead, to identify his biases and make him aware of them, which could avoid pitfalls when he is leading others. 

Responding to the first question, Mpofu says it talks to his values. Those that he holds dearest are fairness, justice, excellence and integrity. "I like being of service to others and I value stewardship," he adds, explaining that he hopes to leave things "better than I found them". 

After some thought, Mpofu says his purpose as a leader is "inspire others to do better" and to bring out the best in them. "I want to be exemplary and to lead by example, especially from a family perspective." He adds that his unique value proposition is his work ethic, his conscientiousness and his.commitment. All of these.comments align with the picture of Mpofu put forward by his employers when they recommended him for the coaching session and with the results of Moss's assessments. But these are only the positive traits of his personality. While coaching seeks to harness them, it's the potentially derailing aspects that offer the most room for development and growth, says Moss. 


Moss asks Mpofu why the questions were tricky to answer. "It's difficult to judge and assess yourself," he says. "I'm quite coy when it.comes to talking about myself. I want my character and work to speak for itself. That's the kind of person I am. Talking about my skills feels like bragging." 

Nodding, Moss says these sorts of exercises are difficult because they force us to be vulnerable. "But that's really important, because it's at this level that change happens," she says. 

Returning to the whiteboard, Moss shows Mpofu a drawing of an iceberg, where a small portion of it is visible above the surface and the bulk lies beneath. "This is the Iceberg theory," she explains. "Things above the surface include the sorts of things.companies and managers like to talk about: structure, policies, procedures, strategies, goals and plans. Below are things like culture, habits, values, fears, beliefs, feelings, aspirations and attitudes. 

"It's getting to grips with the ones below the surface that allows for change in the toplevel ones," she says, "whether individually or when leading others".


 The precoaching assessments were used to produce three "insight reports". The first looks at the light side of Mpofu's personality — his general state of being, both at work and socially. 

The second looked at the dark side — those traits that usually manifest under extreme pressure or stress. Moss explains they may even be things like "overusing a particular strength in a way that can limit growth or negatively impact relationships". 

The third report looks at Mpofu's values and motivation. The findings, Moss explains, can be used to see how well a candidate matches their organisation and how to get the best from them by ensuring alignment. 


An accredited coach will usually hold a degree in industrial psychology or a qualification from one of the following bodies:

  • International Coach Federation 
  • Coaches and Mentors of SA 
  • Health Professions Council of SA 
  • University of Cape Town Business School Centre for Coaching 
  • The Coaches Training Institute (UK) 


While each report reiterated Mpofu's conscientiousness and amenable nature, it also highlighted his potential weaknesses. Mpofu's admirable sensitivity to those around him also means he tends to avoid confrontation wherever possible, tends be riskaverse and analyse them at length before acting, and — while he can be quite.competitive — by his own admission, he's not particularly open about his ambition. 

"When it.comes to office politics, I'm not interested at all," Mpofu says. "I'm aware of it, but I usually remove myself and let it play itself out." He adds with a laugh that he's "just not very good at playing Moss suggests that when politics are at play, there might be "informal ways of getting things done, reaching your expectations and delivering" without necessarily engaging with them. "One of the things great managers are able to do is what we call 'situational leadership'," she says. "That's being able to adapt your skills to the circumstances." 

To many, these weaknesses may not seem particularly troubling, but they can lead to problems. For example, Mpofu says "people always want to bask in the glory of a successful project and claim credit, but want to distance themselves when things don't go as planned". His avoidance of confrontations could see him overlooked when he's due credit, or worse, unfairly blamed for someone else's failure. 


"Good coaching gives you practical things to implement," Moss says. 
"There's no use telling Mpofu to play politics all the time, because that doesn't align with how he conducts himself in the world." 

The first step, Moss says, is reflection. The next is finding solutions that are practical for the individual, which allow them to make "small changes, rather than sweeping ones". It's these changes which are most likely to stick. 

In Mpofu's case, that means looking for ways to contend with office politics and confrontation without.compromising his integrity. The day after the session, Moss sends Mpofu details of two recommended reads: Survival of the Sawy by Rick Brandon and Marty Seldman (Simon & Schuster) and Enlightened Office Politics by Michael S Dobson and Deborah Singer Dobson (Amacom). 

Mpofu's take on the session? "It was extremely helpful," he says. "It's given me a perspective on who I am. It's shown me I need to find practical solutions to dealing with things, rather than merely saying: 'There's a challenge." 

Perhaps most pleasingly, Mpofu says it's left him "wanting more". Which is probably as it should be, given that Moss says "coaching isn't just an event — it's a process". 

To enlarge theis image, please click here.

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