By James Warner, PhD

Despite the global pandemic, business in China continues to grow at a faster rate than in almost any other country globally. Despite verbal sparring between Washington and Beijing, Chinese businesses continue their growth within and outside of China, while Western multi-national companies across many industries, including manufacturing, technology, and health sciences, continue to invest in Chinese operations to tap into this growing consumer market. 

Business leaders in China realise future success will require talent with different skills and leadership abilities than what made them successful in the past. They recognise that to close the talent gap – just like these same leaders adopted different manufacturing and business approaches from the West over the last 20 years – they now need new and accelerated approaches to creating a pipeline of talent to meet future growth needs. 

Like many Western companies, business leaders in China are eschewing traditional leadership and talent development. While valuable in the long term, using only approaches like EMBAs and internal leadership development training programs to transfer knowledge about core business principles is proving not to be adequate given rapid change in the China market. These approaches do not provide direct application to resolving day-to-day problems and immediate business needs. As a result, more and more business leaders in China are choosing to use a practice that has been proven highly effective and used in an expanding number of companies – Executive Leadership Coaching. 


Executive Leadership Coaching Provide Higher Short-term ROI

While they recognise the cost per person is higher than sending people to cohort-based programs, the benefits of executive leadership coaching to the participant and the company are much greater and provide higher short-term ROI. Business leaders also recognise that to hire talent away from Western companies where leadership coaching has been used for high potential leaders, they must provide development opportunities which are enticing to candidates. In the past 20 years, incentives such as an ownership stake in the company as well as higher starting salary was sufficient. Today, as more companies offer these packages and fewer companies reach the desired levels of valuation or growth, a growing number of savvy high-potential Chinese job candidates realised there are greater long-term benefits to be gained by being offered coaching and opportunities to take on challenging assignments with support from an executive leadership coach.

Opportunities for Executive Leadership Coaches

This trend offers substantial opportunities for executive leadership coaches who can match the needs of leaders in China. This may be through some of the multi-national companies that offer coaching services in China, such as Korn Ferry, Right Management or Keystone Group, or it may be by taking advantage of recent changes in China’s policy and starting their own small business. 

The requirements for obtaining executive leadership coaching engagements in China are very similar to those found elsewhere globally. As with other geographies, there is an increasing requirement in China for coaches to have prior business leadership experience in a large MNC or Chinese organisation and evidence of successful coaching capability and experience – including a credential such as a PhD or training certification from the International Coaching Federation or other accrediting organisation. 

In addition to these qualifications, as Hasenfratz and Newmark point out in Fielding University Press’s new book, Leadership Coaching in China, those who can convey they will follow a strong, coherent coaching process are likely to win more engagements. Hasenfratz, a freelance executive leadership coach in China, and Newmark, an Asia HR Business Partner for Marriott International, describe 6 essential criteria organisations consider when evaluating coaches, and which coaches must be prepared to implement to ensure an organisation’s future leaders will develop effectively and quickly.

6 Essential Criteria Organisations Consider When Evaluating Coaches

1. Set clear expectations for the coaching engagement. 

Change takes time and deep change requires effort and commitment on the part of the organisation sponsor, the coaching participant, and the coach. The coach who believes they can provide value and is willing to be clear about the number of sessions, the length of each session, the frequency of sessions and the total length of engagement are more successful than those that focus on topical coaching. 

2. Set relevant coaching goals

Coaches who use a combination of psychological assessments, interviews of the participants boss and coworkers, and dive deeply into the participants interests, self-perceptions and help arrive at clear goals for the individual and that are in alignment with what the organisation needs to the coachee provide a convincing starting point for the engagement.

3. Clarify what will be shared and who will be involved

Success in executive leadership coaching includes a partnership between three parties: The coachee, the coach, and the organizational sponsor. Success is also dependent on trust and clarity between these parties about what information will be shared. While not sharing specific coaching session content is a standard in most Western companies, Chinese companies often seek more detailed information which can lower trust between the coachee and coach if not clearly agreed upon in advance.

4. Coach to the plan

Successful coaches must be able to describe how they use different coaching approaches, e.g., CBC, TGROW, Narrative coaching, role play, Development coaching, as well as an understanding of human development theories and how to use these to develop skills and coachee’s internal capabilities. 

5. Plan and check the progress

It is critical the coachee understands that the company is investing in their development and that the sponsor, in return for that investment, should participate in gauging progress toward goals. This builds a partnership between the coachee, sponsor and coach and periodic checks should be part of the plan.

6. Celebrate success and plan for ongoing support

The conclusion of a successful coaching engagement should include a heartfelt and honest discussion of what has changed for the coachee and their future development focus. This may be the end of the current engagement for the coach, or it may lead to another engagement to prepare for other challenges facing the coachee.

James C. Warner, PhD, is the CEO of Keystone Group, one of the first coaching training organisations in China.  He is a co-editor to the book LEADERSHIP COACHING IN CHINA.