This article addresses two important questions about executive coaching and the actions that contribute to successful (or unsuccessful) outcomes.
- Where are the largest opportunities for coaching to become derailed or disconnected?
- What can organizations do to help prevent coaching disconnects, and make sure their coaching resources are being used as effectively as possible?
These coaching tips are based on factors that contribute to coaching disconnects, failures or wasted resources. A brief discussion of the following factors will be provided.
- Organization sponsorship and support
- Executive clients
- Coach characteristics
- Executive client and coach relationship
- Coaching program and process
Human Resource executives will benefit from this knowledge in a variety of ways. Use this information when initiating and or sponsoring the executive coaching process and to evaluate current business practices.
Executive Coaching Overview
Executive coaching has become an established business practice, although is defined in many ways depending on different perspectives and underlying philosophies. Executive coaching involves practical, goal-focused forms of one-on-one learning and behavioral change. Coaching has become a significant part of organizations’ learning and development strategy.
When coaches work well with executives, the results tell the story. Executives like the confidentiality and personal attention; they like what coaching does for their careers. It is highly rated by participants as a very satisfactory process for self development.
Organization Sponsorship and Support
If an organization doesn’t keep track of who is participating in coaching, coaching programs may get off-course when certain reporting relationships shift. The sponsorship of an executive’s coaching program changes if the executive’s manager changes, if the executive is moved, or if the HR sponsor changes. The coaching agreement needs to be revisited to ensure commitment. Conversations need to occur with the new parties to inform about objectives, establish roles and responsibilities and discuss accountability.
Not being interested in the executive’s objectives or progress can provide a significant disconnect in the executive coaching. Executives can be left in the lurch if the new HR sponsor and/or new manager don’t become engaged in the agreement and fulfillment of their roles. If these parties don’t demonstrate interest in the executive’s development program, those behaviors can deliver divergent messages to the executive.
Organizations should have a clear understanding about client confidentiality boundaries within coaching engagements. It is often appropriate to share the coaching program goals among the executive, his/her manager and HR sponsor, while the specific details and content of the conversations would remain confidential. Have a specific written agreement about how a coach will work within an organization and what will or will not be shared with the client’s manager and HR sponsor. This is a useful tool to encourage honesty and help the executive get the maximum benefit from the coaching. Agreements that specify checkpoints with progress updates bolster accountability and foster trust. Acting differently from the agreement diminishes the integrity of coaching.
Some women may need more support in their coaching objectives from others. One large coaching study found that men and women experienced coaching differently. While there were no differences between the types of behavioral change, women rated all coaching factors and all items associated with the value of the coaching experience significantly higher than men did. The only two areas that were not rated higher by women were related to support from the individual’s boss or organization—which were rated significantly higher by men.
Executives participate in coaching for a range of reasons. They represent talented individuals who are in danger of stalling their careers or losing their jobs because of a particular defect. They also encompass “diamonds in the rough” who need to soften the edges and get polished. Other groups of individuals may be high potential executives and managers who need additional development to advance to the next position. And some organizations have recently added executive coaching as a perquisite.
Let the executives know that being selected for coaching is an expression of the company’s positive regard for their potential. The executives are worth developing—or saving, depending on the performance.
Readiness and willingness is critical. Executives who don’t have a strong learning or goal orientation or who aren’t interested in personal and professional growth, aren’t open to feedback or aren’t willing to change, are not good coaching candidates. The executive owns his/her growth process and needs to do the work in order to reap the rewards.
A coach who doesn’t know what they’re doing has a big impact on the coaching process and its success or failure. While universal credentials that demonstrate an individual is competent do not exist, important coach characteristics include coaching experience and academic background. Screen coaches for credentials and their approaches. Verify whether the individual has undergone professional training to become a coach, and whether the program was accredited by the International Coach Federation, the coaching profession’s oversight organization. In addition, a background in human resource development, adult development, career development or psychology contributes to a useful skill set.
Generally, the competence of an external coach is considered a given by the executive, particularly if referred into the organization. When the coach has knowledge and credibility, executives have confidence in the coaching. Sharing the coach’s professional credentials and experiences can help lay the ground for a trusting relationship.
In addition to credentials and experience, the most important qualities for a coach are character and insight. The characteristics to look for are integrity, confidence, experience and a well-developed human being. Beyond these qualities, much of the coaching process’ success depends on the fit between the executive and the coach.
A coach who is not business savvy or doesn’t possess at least a general understanding of the executive’s context are not perceived as very helpful. Organizations might consider hosting a brief orientation session for its “preferred provider” executive coaches. This session would overview important aspects and emphasizes particular areas of interest to aid coaches in their contextual knowledge, while clarifying expectations and program goals.
The role of the coach is critical in the coaching process. Coaches are development professionals, not counselors conducting therapy nor are they mentors providing advice. Individuals performing therapy or giving advice under the guise of coaching can derail coaching programs.
Executive Client and Coach Relationship
The process works best when there is a perceived good match or fit between the client and coach. There is no individual differences data that point to what makes a good match. General liking is important. A feeling of connectedness may help the coaching relationship and outcomes, but not necessarily. Gender is not important. Adapting what we know about interpersonal relationships and social styles to this phenomenon makes sense. It is incumbent upon the coach to be able to “speak to the style” of the executive rather than the other way around.
The executive should carefully assess what the recommended coach has to offer. Be assertive in learning about what the coach will do, how s/he works, etc. Be comfortable with the individual and with the approach s/he will use. Many executives have no interest in packaged programs, or may not be philosophically aligned with a psychoanalytic approach to life, or strictly behavioral approach.
Generating trust is probably the most complex issue for coaches. The ability to generate trust and operate within a trustworthy relationship is the most important aspect of coach and client fit. The executive needs to be open to the coach and the process in order for trust to be developed, and the fit to be perceived as good.
If an executive wants mentoring and advice in a particular area, e.g. “how I built my business” rather than coaching, then building trust and matching executives with coaches isn’t going to meet the perceived needs. Use a different development intervention.
Coaching Program and Process
An organization might prevent some potential disconnects and may facilitate better outcomes to the organization and executives by separating coaching services from consulting services. An executive might not be completely candid about his/her development needs, issues or concerns when the same coaching firm is also engaged in additional consulting work where different assumptions guide that agreement. In executive coaching there is no ambivalence that the executive, not top management is the client. In coaching, the coach is in relationship with the individual executive. Coaching is an intimate experience, and being objective with consulting could be problematic; some coaches won’t do both with the same client or team of executives.
For executives, two primary factors in good coaching are honest, reliable feedback and good actionable ideas. The executive must recognize in order for change to happen, s/he must do the work. The executive should keep a journal of the different learnings. One of the goals of coaching is for the executive to learn some things that will be useful. Learning and remembering them happens better when you “log” those lessons by writing them down. This makes it easy to refer back to them and use them later.
Clarify coaching program purpose up front, and make sure what is advertised is what you want. Be aware the underlying philosophy of the coaching approach will influence what coaching focuses on and how coaching is conducted.
Be clear about the desired learning and development to be achieved. Coaching programs that produce results begin with clear goals and measurable outcomes, which increase the likelihood that those areas will be improved. Coaching programs with broad agendas and no success markers tend to meander for long periods of time with questionable results.
Custom one-on-one coaching programs are able to fit the needs of the individual executive. Coaching programs that identify clear objectives and outcomes are the best way to set up the learning and ensure the executive is obtaining desired results. It is an optimal way for executives to meet some of their learning needs and is an effective way for organizations to use its resources wisely. With the help of the coach, the executive should identify what s/he wants to achieve within a particular timeframe.
While pre-packaged coaching programs are convenient for the organization to purchase and oversee the control, they may not facilitate the real work that needs to be accomplished. An alternative to the pre-packaged approach while retaining quality controls may also be accomplished instead by allocating a budget and an amount of time in which to accomplish the objectives. Accountability is helped by stipulating that the HR/organization sponsor should be informed of program goals and objectives that have been established, without disclosing the confidential content.
Use caution when selecting pre-packaged coaching programs that begin with a set collection of psychological assessment tools. Often mid-level managers and executives already have a high degree of self-awareness and have previously completed many of the assessments that explore their personality profile and styles. Administering and debriefing multiple upfront assessments may not be directly related to fulfilling coaching program objectives, is time consuming and a waste of resources. The assessment instruments may be irrelevant to the presenting issues for the coaching work. Using multiple, up front psychological assessment tools can deflect the focus of the real work and distract the client from digging in to the development work that brought him/her to coaching.
A sparing, selective use of individual assessments may be helpful in executive coaching programs if the information gleaned will be relevant to achieving coaching outcomes.
Assessments may be useful to springboard conversations between the coach and client. 360 feedback tools are an example of an assessment where actionable coaching goals and specific outcomes can be identified as a result of the information.
The ground covered in coaching are a range of important issues for executives and organizations—which are often overlooked in the throes of business activities. Good coaching increases executives’ self-knowledge and provides them with new perspectives which can translate to improved adaptability and better performance. The best coaches are good listeners and they give honest, challenging feedback and provide new perspectives on situations. They help “teach men to fish rather than give him a fish.”
Being aware of coaching factors and areas that can derail the process or cause disconnects are important. The main areas explored in this article are within the areas of organization sponsorship and support, executive client readiness, coach characteristics, coach and executive client relationship, and the coaching program and process itself.
However, coaching can grow beyond the control of top management. As the demand grows for coaching and having a “personal trainer” coach, many managers are initiating their own ongoing and expensive relationships with external coaches as a career survival strategy. This adds a considerable cost to doing business, but also risks external coaches who do not really understand the business intervening in ways that may result in negative consequences.