Can integrity, character, and values be a lucrative coaching practice?

These days, character, values, and integrity are hot topics. There have been so many corporate scandals in recent years that employees, investors, and the public are more cynical than ever about executives.

The question is: Can this be good business for the executive coach?

Integrity is a tricky field for coaches, for a few reasons:

First, it is hard to measure integrity objectively. You can pick one or two behaviors to track, but a couple of behaviors rarely covers the gamut of integrity. You can ask colleagues for their subjective opinion, but that is hard to track over time.

Second, few people are willing to tolerate attacks on their integrity, even if these attacks are well-founded with evidence. If I told you, "You have low integrity," would you even be open to that conversation?

Third, it is hard to make a case for Return on Investment based on integrity, assuming we could measure integrity in the first place.

For these reasons, unless you specialize in ethics, it is difficult to lead with integrity, values, and character in your executive coaching practice. However, once you develop trust with your client, that’s a great time to go deep into issues of integrity.

There are many levels of integrity, from keeping your word to actively seeking out injustices in the world and taking personal risks to correct them (per Steven Carter’s wonderful book, Integrity). In my coaching practice, integrity issues are much more practical:

– Executives not showing up for meetings.

– Entrepreneurs not paying their bills, or defaulting on loans that they have promised to repay.

– Managers verbally abusing employees.

– Companies not walking the talk when it comes to their stated values (e.g., "People are our most important asset").

– Officers of public companies doing things to increase their bonus or personal wealth, even if that’ not in the best interests of shareholders (e.g.,conflicts of interest).

For me, integrity is best evaluated in three situations:

One: When temptations are great, for instance, where the opportunity to earn huge wealth is available. We learned a lot about the integrity of executives during the recent housing and mortgage boom.

Two: When there is social proof, for instance, when everyone at an investment bank looks the other way while pumping out securities products that they know will burn their clients while they earn big bonuses.

Three: When things are going poorly. It is easy, in theory, to keep one’s word when everything is great. True character emerges when things aren’t so good. For instance, one member of the Center for Executive Coaching faced a serious health crisis in her family. The crisis really strained her finances. Rather than default on her monthly payments with the CEC, she called me, told me the situation, and we worked out a payment plan. She could have defaulted, but worked in good faith to keep her word. I was so impressed with her — because her actions are different from how most people behave in a difficult situation — that I send her referrals whenever I can. I know I can trust her with the people in my network.

If a client fails to keep his or her word when things are going well, that’s a true problem of character! We are all busy, and bound to be late for the occasional appointment. When we are, hopefully we call ahead and apologize without making excuses. However, clients who constantly break their word, just because they can or feel like they work under a different set of rules, have serious character flaws. Only a coach with strong presence, data to back up his observations, and a trusted advisor relationship, can break through to such a client.  

In the other three situations, a coach can be a welcome breath of fresh air, keeping clients grounded and reminding them of who they are and can be.

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