Ravila Gupta is the president and legal counsel of Umicore USA, a global materials technology group headquartered in Brussels, which has 16 sites in North America. I asked her what she has found to be especially helpful in her leadership role, and her answer surprised me. According to Gupta, receiving a certificate as a business coach has been the key to excelling in leadership.

JATHAN JANOVE: What is your background?

RAVILA GUPTA: I spent the first 15 years of my career as an engineer. After becoming intrigued by the legal regulatory aspects of engineering work, I enrolled in an evening law school program where I became fascinated by the law. After graduating, I practiced for five years in Ogletree Deakins’ Raleigh office.

However, I missed the technological side of work, and I later accepted an in-house counsel position with Umicore USA where I could apply both aspects of my professional expertise. Two-and-a-half years ago, I was promoted to the positions of president and legal counsel of Umicore USA.

JJ: What led you to executive coaching?

RG: When I took on my new role, I was given the opportunity to have an executive coach. I did not know what to expect as I thought an executive coach was more like a sports coach—someone who would analyze me, tell me what to do differently, and hopefully motivate me to do it.

JJ: What happened?

RG: My coach didn’t tell me what to do or give me solutions. Instead, she asked lots of questions to draw the solutions out of me.

JJ: How did this lead you to enroll in an executive coaching program?

RG: I became fascinated by a coaching process that doesn’t advise or instruct you but holds up a mirror so you can really see yourself and find answers from within. I attended a presentation on executive coaching at a local university. Although I hadn’t intended to become an executive coach, when alumni spoke about how the program changed their conversations at work and their own style of leadership, I was inspired. I didn’t want to be a “command and control” leader; I wanted to be a developer of people. So I enrolled in the full 10-month program.

JJ: What key concepts did you learn?

RG: Through course work and practice sessions during which I coached others under supervision, I learned what constitutes true active listening. I also learned the skill of formulating and asking questions that encourage others to dig inside themselves. The program also taught me not to rely on words alone but to listen for and seek to understand—on an emotional level—the values hidden beneath what people say.

As an engineer, lawyer, and company president, my inclination is to jump in with solutions. I learned to catch myself before doing so.

JJ: How has becoming an executive coach impacted your role as president?

RG: From observation and feedback, I believe it has led to more trust, engagement, and team spirit. Employees feel that I am trying to help them as opposed to commanding over them. They share information more readily, including all news, not just the bad news.

JJ: Are there times when you don’t wear the coaching hat?

RG: Yes, of course. I don’t practice executive coaching with everyone, all of the time. Rather, I consider it a valuable tool to be used when appropriate.

JJ: What coaching techniques or approaches seem particularly helpful?

RG: Get clear at the outset of a discussion as to what the desired outcome is. For example, you might start out by saying,“We have one hour. What do we want to talk about and what do we want to accomplish?” At the end of a meeting, check in and provide a recap of ideas or participants’ conclusions: “What have we accomplished? Did we meet expectations? What’s going to happen between now and our next meeting?”

JJ: What would you recommend to executive leaders who are intrigued by your experience?

RG: I would invite them to consider using executive coaches. For a leader, a good coach is a worthwhile investment. Get recommendations. Interview prospective coaches and get a sense of their coaching philosophies and what a typical session would look like.

JJ: What about using executive coaching techniques in interactions with subordinates?

RG: If you want to use these techniques on subordinates, start by applying what you learn from observing your own coach and from how he or she interacts with you. Develop structured listening skills and learn how to ask questions that encourage people to self-reflect and search within.

Executive leaders should understand that what got them promoted to their current positions is not necessarily what they currently need. They likely excelled at coming up with good solutions.  Now the challenge is enabling others to come up with their own solutions that will help the organization. That challenge is harder but much more rewarding.

Ravila Gupta is president and legal counsel of Umicore USA and can be reached at ravila.gupta@am.umicore.com.

Jathan Janove, a former Ogletree Deakins shareholder and Director of Employee Engagement Solutions, is the Principal of Janove Organization Solutions (www.jathanjanove.com). Through consulting, executive coaching, and training, he helps organizations maximize the human potential within. He can be reached at jjatpdx@gmail.com.

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