ONCE UPON A TIME, kings had the likes of Krishna, Kautilya or Birbal to advise them—the fabled mantris. The kings have vanished, but the counsellors appear to be making a comeback. The rulers of corporate India call them CEO coaches.

First adopted in the U.S., CEO coaching is gradually becoming a part of Indian corporate culture. A CEO coach is an outsider hired by a company to advise the brass and their direct reports. The need for such advisors is an imperative—there are big improvements in productivity, relationships, teamwork and quality.

“Life in the top positions was getting shorter. Leaders were pushed to change from a command-and-control style to a consensus-building one, and they needed help with the transformation,” says Ram Charan, a prominent global management consultant. All of this is true in a rapidly globalising India.

This is why managers across sectors, from FMCG to health care, are seeking advice on issues like succession planning, prioritising tasks and honing interpersonal skills. For instance, Abhijit Pradhan, an adman-turned-coach, helped Divya Radhakrishnan, president, Rediffusion Y&R Public Relations, make peace with the CFO, who had a different management style.

“The coach can give ruthless, unbiased advice because he has the advantage of seeing things with a fresh perspective and at face value without being bogged down by situational politics,” says Shailesh Rao, managing director of Google India, who has had an ex-MIT coach over the last two years.

However, CEO coaches are still not as popular in India as in America. P. Vishwanath, partner and process consultant at Human Endeavour, a niche consulting firm, says: “The familiarity of the concept among Indian MNCs is currently 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 5. It is yet to gain traction among large firms and small and medium enterprises, though queries from CEOs and Level 1 or 2 executives have gone up.” One reason for the slow acceptance is that the very notion of relying on someone else for advice is counterintuitive to Indian corporate culture, which censures weakness. “In India, coaching someone means that something is wrong with him or her and needs to be fixed,” says Andreas Gellner, managing director of Adidas India, where coaching is part of the company philosophy.

“In the West, coaching is seen as improving individual brand proposition. In India, it is often the network that we are born into that defines our brand, and thus the notion that coaching can’t do much,” says Ash Mathradas, who had a coach during his stint as Dell’s corporate director in the U.S. With group learning imparted by elders during social gatherings of Indian business communities­—Mathradas cites the example of the Marwaris—the perceived need for expert opinion is further reduced.

Costs are another big deterrent. Globally recognised coaches cost between $120,000 and $150,000 (Rs 55 lakh to Rs 69 lakh) per person annually for C-level executives. Local coaches are cheaper, though not cheap enough, at Rs 3-4 lakh.

However, this hasn’t deterred large Indian groups like Marico and Piramal Group from using coaches. For example, chairman Ajay Piramal was coached by Nitin Nohria, the Harvard Business School dean. “It really boils down to how acceptable the coach is to the executive,” explains Harsh C. Mariwala, chairman and managing director of Marico, who has hired coaches for many of his top executives. If that’s an indicator, the cabin plans on the top floors are sure to change soon.

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