Contributed Column

The Manager's Corner

Executive coaching: alchemy or enhancement?

Frequently I’m invited to coach an executive or professional who is viewed as having great potential that is not fully actualized. The expectation is that I will be able to “fix” the situation and that, as a result of the coaching, the employee will “change” to better meet the needs of the organization and those within it.

Such invitations cause me to reflect on the notion of “change” in the context of human beings in the workplace. Consider the difference between alchemy (“a philosophy having as its aim the transformation of base metals into gold, the discovery of the panacea”) and enhancement (“to make greater, as in value, beauty, or effectiveness; augment”).

Alchemy never worked; it was based on the flawed assumption that one could change the essential character of a substance. Enhancement, however, happens all the time when one works with another’s essential nature and builds on the best of it. It may not be possible to turn base metals into gold, but it is predictable that, in the hands of a skilled craftsman, one can make beautiful and functional objects out of base metals.

This, of course, ties in with the question of the extent to which we are the product of nature or nurture. I’ve come to the conclusion that about 50 percent of human behavior is the result of nature — our essential temperament hardwired into our DNA. The other half is nurture, the ever-changing result of our many lifetime experiences. Generally I find the nature part can be enhanced but not changed in fundamental ways. The nurture part is endlessly malleable, and that is the focus of much of my coaching work.

Take for example, the case of Betty, a highly trained professional with outstanding technical skills. She was finding it increasingly difficult to cultivate and attract new clients during the current economic downturn despite her networking efforts and strong desire to succeed. Betty is by nature introverted, detail- and goa-oriented, concrete in her thinking, and logical — she seeks closure in her work. She can present as being somewhat two-dimensional, inflexible, lacking in personal warmth and imagination, cerebral, and uncharismatic. Betty once said to me, in a moment of poignant candor, that she admires those of her partners who easily “pull other people into their slipsteam,” despite the fact that these partners lack her technical skills.

During our coaching work, Betty was able to articulate that, despite her strong goal orientation, she lacked a compelling vision for herself as a professional and for her practice. In addition, she was not confident in her relationship-building skills. Without these she could not easily attract clients and new business. Doing the “vision thing” and expressing her emotions were difficult for her.

In the context of our coaching relationship, she began to identify the critical elements of enhancing her relationship-building skills: to be more flexible, a better listener, less critical of others, more “fun,” and generally to lighten up. She also began to ask co-workers for feedback on changes they had noticed in their interactions with her. Despite her busy schedule, she also committed to building in more time to spend with her children, focusing on the sheer joy of being with them.

Betty’s approach to personal/professional change was very consistent with her intrinsic nature as a person: focused, concrete, goal-oriented, and logical. However, she began to nurture other previously dormant aspects of herself and encouraged those around her to do the same. The results were clear and quantifiable. Not only did Betty enjoy her work more and experience less stress, but her practice also grew and her professional revenues increased. She had effectively created her own tailored slipstream into which others are now being pulled.

Betty and I did not perform alchemy in our work together. However, Betty now functions as a more enhanced, amplified version of herself and enjoys reaping the personal, financial, and professional benefits of those subtle but powerful changes. That may not technically be alchemy, but it’s not far off, either! •

Emily Morrow ( of Shelburne, provides tailored consulting services to business owners, professional practice firms, executives and HR personnel. She can be reached at

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