The movie, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” starring Johnnie Depp as Gilbert and Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie, is an excellent analogy to executive coaching. As executive coaches, it is vital to understand that to help or coach someone, one must have the precise ability to be helpful for the leader to be coached. In this movie, the oldest sibling, Gilbert, struggles to help his bedridden mother and mentally challenged younger brother, Arnie. After the father, Mr. Grape, commits suicide, Gilbert becomes the patriarch, surrounded by family members with situations beyond his control. What’s eating Gilbert mostly relates to Gilbert’s growing frustration caused by his inability to help his mother overcome her morbidly obese condition.

While many leaders can be successfully ‘developed’ through coaching, some cannot be ‘fixed’ if deeply broken in areas in which a coach may not be an expert. Here’s an example:

Years ago, I was asked to coach a leader. Let’s call him Dilbert. When I first arrived at the threshold of Dilbert’s office, he motioned me into his office while screaming strings of foul obscenities at his suppliers through the phone. His words would make a sailor blush and take cover. Once Dilbert hung up on the first caller, he would chat a few minutes with me and then call another vendor and continue his insults; one vendor after another.  About an hour passed. Dilbert politely asked me to follow him into adjoining offices as he wanted to introduce me to his family business associates. What I witnessed was similar to my experience in Dilbert’s office. It was more alarming to witness Dilbert’s stream of obscenities aimed at each family member.

Later that day after learning about his business challenges, Dilbert asked me if I would coach him. I told Dilbert I would get back to him. I returned to our headquarters in Lincoln and discussed the opportunity with my team. What Dilbert needed was a medical psychologist and executive coach whose medical expertise related to stress relief. Of course, I could have agreed to coach Dilbert but that would have been a lose-lose proposition for both Dilbert and Talent Plus. We are executive coaches, not medical psychologists.

What the movie and this example bring to light for me, and I hope for you as well, are some of the pitfalls an executive could fall into if they believe an executive coach can solve interwoven personal challenges of any type. That is not the goal of executive coaching. What I do know is that executive coaching can be a valuable, transformative process, especially for high-potential leaders who want to stretch themselves with new habits and greater goals. Consider this example:

When the fit between a coach and the leader coached is ideal, great outcomes can be realized.  I have coached a senior vice president in the hospitality industry who was soon after promoted to president of a hotel group. Similarly, within the health care industry, a high-potential health care president’s talent and fit with me was also ideal. This leader is now a group president of several hospitals. When the leader’s talent or potential to lead is strong and the fit ideal, the coaching effort is most likely to succeed. It’s all about developing one’s areas of greatest potential or talent.

Rather than attempt to change one’s negative engrained thoughts, feelings and behaviors, Talent Plus first identifies a leader’s natural strengths or areas of high-potential leadership talent and develops those through The Science of Talent. Those who have abundant talent are more coachable and capable of achieving high levels of success through strengths-based coaching. Keep in mind, a leader uses a small percentage of his or her talent or potential. A talent-based coaching experience achieves success by increasing one’s use of their gifts that are either dormant or underutilized.

Spoiler alert: Back to the movie... Ms. Grape, the morbidly obese mother, passes away in her upstairs bedroom requiring a platoon of people to remove her to the awaiting ambulance. Her demise symbolizes the elimination of Gilbert’s greatest burden. Afterward, the family burns down the house, eliminating the memories of the Grape family’s unfortunate past. Gilbert and Arnie remain together. As Gilbert smiles, he tells Arnie, “We can go anywhere now.” Ms. Grape had lacked the aspiration to get healthier and Gilbert never had the expertise to help her overcome life-threatening health challenges.

When you hire an executive coach, ensure he or she has the type of expertise and talent to coach you. This will require the identification of the desired coaching outcomes and determining whether the candidate and coach represent an ideal fit. These steps represent due diligence that better ensures your identified coaching outcomes are achieved.

Mark Bertsche
Senior Leadership Consultant
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