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The Black Hole

The benefits of hiring an executive coach

Rarely leveraged at academic institutions, executive coaches can provide invaluable insights and advice to principal investigators.

BY JONATHAN THON | MAR 18 2021

I would like to pick up on something David Kent noted in his post last week highlighting gaps in early career training:  “Nobody is born knowing everything.”  It is worth emphasizing that this is generally true for management and leadership skills, and especially true for professional functions such as principal investigator, director, or executive officer, for which most of us receive no formal training.

While the metrics by which we gauge a manager’s success in these roles are  based on the execution of deliverables, on time and preferably under budget, these outcomes depend on a distinct set of soft skills – like  sensitivity; passion; the ability to define a vision and instil trust; the capacity to remain calm under pressure, to communicate priorities and to regulate the emotional tone across the team.

This is where bringing in an executive coach can be extremely helpful. They are a qualified professional that acts as an objective sounding board when issues inevitably come up. But more fundamentally, the coach works with managers to help them develop self-awareness, clarify personal and professional goals, achieve their development objectives and become the best possible versions of themselves. Executive coaches are sometimes brought in for a specific purpose, such as to help prepare a leader for a more demanding role, or to address behaviours or challenging interpersonal issues that are weighing an organization down. Conversations between a coach and a client are always confidential, regardless of the employer. And the executive coach’s role is not to give business advice or solve their clients’ problems (they are not strategy consultants), but to test assumptions, offer perspective, and provide an anchor to help centre their clients so they are best equipped to handle the challenges of the job.

Curiously, while executive coaches are commonly employed in the private sector, they are rarely leveraged at academic institutions or by principal investigators. The irony here is that the role of a principal investigator is not all that different from that of a CEO at a small- to medium-stage biotech company, and the demands on leadership at a university are no less significant than in any private business.  A research program is only as good as its people, and competitive institutions will invest in their leaders to get the most out of their teams.

There are many ways to find an executive coach, but I recommend word-of-mouth referrals.  The relationship between coach and client is a personal one, and you should be prepared to interview a few before finding one that you trust and with whom you can speak freely.

However, there are some caveats to this advice:

  • Executive coaches should not be employed if: the employee is too junior to justify the financial investment in coaching.
  • The client does not believe they need coaching, is not interested in feedback or receptive to change.
  • It is a token attempt by an organization to “fix” a strained relationship with between two parties who do not recognize that both are at fault.
  • The executive’s directors or board is attempting to offload or otherwise outsource their management obligations.

It is strange that those of us who have employed executive coaches don’t talk openly about it, but I, for one, fully appreciate the tremendous value they can bring to a team. If there are any concerns over the optics of employing an executive coach, I want to dispel those now.  I use an executive coach, and we make one available to our executive team members at STRM.BIO. Most high-performing leaders in biotech employ executive coaches as well, as do many successful principal investigators. The most experienced directors will make an executive coach available to their executives early in their tenure, and managers should be encouraged by this demonstration that their organization is prioritizing their professional development.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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