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Coaching in the Land of Gurus and Soothsayers

By Gopal Shrikanth

Take the highest per-capita ratio of gurus and soothsayers; add a liberal dose of retired corporate honchos who love to give free advice; spice it up with availability of cutting-edge gizmos for professionals; stir it up with families that determine financial priorities and you are very brave to call yourself a coach in a society where "coaching" is normally prescribed for drop-outs!

As in ancient Greece, Rome and China, India had its share of historical "royal coaches" like Krishna and Chanakya, whose wisdom is enshrined in the Gita and Arthashastra. These ancient "case studies" are still analyzed by MBAs and corporate leaders at business schools and research institutes.1

The ancient system of higher education across all trades was a form of apprenticeship known as the "Guru-Sishya" model. The philosophy behind this concept was that "nuances and finesse" were learned by patience, listening, observation and practice. There has been a systematic exchange of ideas between East and West on psychology, sociology and related topics at least from the 19th century. My grandfather, who graduated from Oxford in the 1920s, left behind a library of Western literature on such topics.

I'm not sure whether there is widespread awareness in the West that India has made such rapid strides over the last two decades in adopting and propagating Western management practices. Developed over the course of its quest to cater to global clients, India now boasts some of the world's highest concentrations of International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Capability Maturity Model (CMM), People Capability Maturity Model (PCMM), Six Sigma, Certified Quality Auditor (CQA) and Project Management Professional (PMP) certified trainers and professionals. Global organizations such as Franklin Covey, the Goldratt Institute, and the de Bono Group have a significant presence, offering certifications and training at local prices.

Executive Coaching in India

Let's now move on to the current status of executive coaching across different groups in India.

For decades, multinationals have leveraged their global learning programs, delivering from regional hubs such as Australia and the UK to develop local leaders. Development programs for teams were led by line- and human-resource managers who had attended a train-the-trainer program. In the recent past, the trend was to send high-performing executives to open-enrollment executive education programs at business schools in the US or to custom programs at business schools in India. In-house programs by Covey, de Bono and Bullet Proof Manager were organized for mid-level executives. Interestingly, multinational corporations (MNCs) currently rely on their global coaching partners to roll out executive coaching in India, who in turn engage Indian coaches! I would therefore encourage international coaches to leverage their contacts in India to explore local cost-effective solutions.

On the other hand, founder CEOs of family-owned corporations have for decades leveraged their alumnus links with global management gurus of Indian origin, such as Ram Charan, C.K. Prahalad and Vijay Govindarajan, while leveraging annual visits to India by gurus such as Marshall Goldsmith. Having gained from such interactions, most of these founders have sent their children to Ivy League business schools in the US to earn MBAs. Such companies will probably largely leverage professors from both US and Indian business schools for cost-effective and just-in-time solutions. Executive coaching assignments for direct reports (or even the next level) to CEO are likely to be won by established local experts with a business track record. Given that there are very few local coaches who are credentialed, this presents a huge opportunity for global English-speaking coaches who are willing to travel to India for short durations for organization-wide rollouts. Needless to say, the compensation for mid-level coaches is likely to be on par with US rates!

Entrepreneurs, supported by private equity and/or venture capital, often realize the need for trusted advisors (to serve as sounding boards) and an executive coach (to help them handle day-to-day challenges in finance, marketing and human resources, and to regain control of their start-ups as they grow rapidly). Although this appears to be a clear case for local experts, there is a significant opportunity for global coaches as these start-ups expand into other geographies. For instance, web/tele-calls and face-to-face meetings in the US and Europe are likely to become the norm in the near future.

As for self-driven high-potential executives, they are likely to seek out specialized coaches to help them fill gaps, and may be most open to web/tele-coaching. Given the time difference between the US, UK, Australia and India, global coaches may be able to supplement their income from the comfort of their own homes. It is not uncommon to find such executives often missing company-sponsored group sessions deliberately.

Executive coaching seems set to boom in India over the next few years. The million dollar question: Are you getting ready for it?

Disclaimer: These are solely the personal views of the author and are not the findings of any scientific study.


1 See the Vedanta Cultural Foundation, page 3, Section Corporate Guru.

Gopal "GD" Shrikanth is Columbia University's first "Advanced Coach" from India and was initiated by Marshall Goldsmith. An alumnus of Wharton and IIM-B, Gopal has a leadership track record across IT, financial and manufacturing multinational corporations. Find more about Gopal in the WABC membership directory and www.gopalshrikanth.com. Contact Gopal.


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