The Right and Wrong Ways to Use Executive Coaching

Executive Coaching

Executive coaching has become an explosive field.  I’ve seen examples of highly successful coaching and also witnessed extremely poor practice. Making an investment in executive coaching requires significant time and resources for any individual or organization. Given that investment, here are some thoughts that will help maximize your coaching benefits.

Start With The Right Assessment

Most coaching engagements begin with a 360 assessment. Usually, colleagues complete some form of online survey asking them to apply a numerical rating to various aspects of leadership. Only a few questions ask for comments. Without exception, my clients feel this method wastes their time and their colleagues’ time. The resulting report yields lots of charts, graphs and numbers, but very little context. I usually get comments like, “What am I supposed to do with the fact that I’m a 3.8 on empowerment with a .3 standard deviation?” Over the years I’ve found when you make the interviewee do the work, the resulting data isn’t very rich. Everyone is extremely busy, so they quickly complete the instrument, providing very few verbal comments and little context in order to get back to their “real job.” Colleagues are often asked to complete surveys on multiple people at once, further pressuring them for time and compromising the richness of data provided. The client and coach often end up with more questions than answers. Even worse, the organization often “checks the box” and takes credit for developing their leaders.

For these and other reasons, I use an interview-based method to collect impressions of a client’s leadership. With this method the interviewee does not have to do the work; they merely answer my questions. The interviews provide rich data that typically coalesces into 3-5 major themes we focus on in our coaching. We begin our engagement with a full and complete understanding of how the individual is perceived as a leader rather than a bunch of charts and graphs.

Don’t Confuse Development With Performance Management

There are two practices I’ve seen that can sabotage a coaching engagement before it begins. One is having a 360 assessment administered internally by the HR department. The department collects the data and an internal HR representative reviews the report with the executive.  Here’s the problem: The more senior the individual, the less likely they are to be honest on a peer assessment administered within the company. This is true even if the internal HR professional is highly regarded. I once coached an executive team that was required to undergo individual 360 assessments administered by the HR department. One of the team members confided, “If you think I’m going to be honest about my colleagues with results going to HR, you’re crazy.” This is not a negative commentary on HR departments. In fact, I work closely with HR departments in practically all of my client companies. I view internal HR representatives as valuable collaborative colleagues. It is simply the case that senior executives are reluctant to offer constructive criticism about their peers when they know the assessment information will end up in an HR file.

I’ve also seen companies use 360 assessment processes as data for performance reviews. I once spoke with an internal Talent Management professional who was very proud that their company often referred to 360 results in succession planning and promotion decisions. This confuses performance management with development. In order for development to be successful it must feel safe for the client. Interviewees must know that any constructive criticism they offer will not be used to prevent their colleagues from receiving a promotion or moving to a different position.

Use Coaching For The Right People

Coaching can either be used as a tool to allow high-potential talent to maximize their effectiveness, or as an instrument to prod problem children into shape. Organizations use coaching very differently and not always in the proper context. I’ve seen organizations bring coaches in even though they were fairly certain an individual was on a termination track, often under the guise of “doing everything we can” to help an individual improve. Some organizations believe providing coaching to an employee offers some form of protection if the employee becomes litigious after termination.  Individuals with significant problem behaviors need to be approached directly by their supervisor rather than farmed out to a coach. Some supervisors use coaching to shirk their managerial responsibility.

When coaching is used properly in order to help talented individuals advance, it signals to those individuals that the organization is committed to them. Honest, organic feedback diminishes with each step up the corporate ladder. Many successful leaders have no idea how they are truly perceived in the organization or how they can best polish their edges to become even more successful. A thorough assessment process should remove blind spots, indicate to employees they are valued, and allow them to improve as leaders.

When used correctly, executive coaching can be a powerful tool for individuals and organizations. Frequently when I conduct an initial assessment with a new client, the interviewee asks me how they can receive a coaching process as well. That’s when I know an organization “gets it!”

Effective coaching uses in-depth assessment, separates coaching from performance management, and offers it to the right people. Keep these principles in mind and watch your organization flourish!

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