Executive training, once restricted to the western corporate world, is gaining popularity among Asian corporations and executives. A global consulting firm focusing on organisational psychology, Personnel Decisions International (PDI), has a large team of full-time coaches serving senior and middle-level executives in progressive corporations. According to the managing director of PDI for Greater China, Paul VanKatwyk, 'executive coaching has its highest receptiveness among western corporations'. 'This is due to their experience of using coaching for developing leaders,' he says. 'But these days, more Asian executives realise the value of coaching and understand how it can help them cope with the challenges they face.' A coaching programme can range from three months to a year and cost from US$7,500. To start, the coaches and executives will talk through the immediate challenges. From this, they will identify the skills the executives want to develop and formulate the coaching plan. Usually, coaches and executives will meet twice a week for sessions lasting from two to four hours. 'Strong coaches are those who really understand how people change, Dr VanKatwyk says. 'It is good if the coaches have knowledge about the industry concerned, that they understand its jargon or language, but it is not essential for them to have real experience of the industry.' What they need to do, he says, is ask the right questions to get the executives to think effectively. They also have to provide the tools to help executives 'learn how to learn'. Diverse topics cover the challenges executives face these days, such as how to create successful joint ventures, how to influence a matrix organisation, how to be more strategic and how to become a better leader for the team. 'Coaching is not teaching. We help the executives to reflect, to think through, to get better insights and to identify the development areas,' Dr VanKatwyk says. 'Most executives treasure having a few hours to step back and re-appraise the situation, to see the different approaches or tools that they would use for real business situations.' In addition to coaching sessions, PDI offers tools such as personality psychometric tests to help executives gain clearer insights. The coaches also will do role playing with executives, rehearsing the solutions they might adopt. Over the coaching period, the executives apply what they have learned, collect feedback, rethink and rework approaches, and learn new skills - until the behaviour becomes second nature. 'Most of the time, executives need to unlearn habits in order to learn,' Dr VanKatwyk says. Coaching might sound expensive to corporations during tough economic times. But Dr Katwyk believes it is money well spent. 'Coaching will add value in difficult times because it is dealing with people who have significant impacts on key decisions,' he says. 'Coaching helps improve the quality of decisions. The outcome of better decisions definitely exceeds the investment in coaching.' He says coaching should be focused on executives who are key to an organisation's success. In PDI's experience, 30 per cent of coaching is targeted at high performers during challenging times, 10 to 15 per cent of coaching is for problem performers and about 50 per cent is specifically for star performers preparing for more senior roles in an organisation. Some organisations use a mentoring system to develop their high fliers. Dr VanKatwyk says the approaches and benefits of mentoring and coaching are different but complementary. 'Mentors are usually the very senior managers,' he says. 'They are good at sharing knowledge and experience, opening doors and introducing networks and relationships. But their secrets of success might be different from what is required now. 'The beauty of coaching is to create the lasting change within an individual.' To find the right match, it is important for executives to meet two or three coaches before choosing one. A good coach must be able to make executives feel comfortable and talk openly and directly. Dr VanKatwyk advises human resources professionals who help identify and assess the coaches in the preliminary stage to act like a broker for the executives. 'Besides the calibre, philosophies and approaches of coaches, they need to look at their diversity and adaptability. Based on their different coaching experience with different levels of executives, HRs need to evaluate if they have the ability to handle the type of challenges that the executives are facing.' In the end, coaches and executives are going to form a buddy system - a harmonious relationship that builds on trust. As a psychologist who is well trained to understand people and how they change, Dr VanKatwyk can also draw on PDI's global experience. The firm conducts research, organises worldwide conferences to exchange ideas and shares best practices. After years working in cities such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Dr VanKatwyk still enjoys coaching assignments. 'Coaching is like going on an unknown journey. We are there to provide guidance to discover solutions. It is exciting and rewarding when you see the enduring changes.'