Should You Hire an Executive Coach?

Linda, HRBP at a Fortune 500 company, asked that I meet with Tim, VP of Finance, saying: “Tim is very talented but he is rough around the edges, doesn’t know how to motivate his team and is losing people. He is too focused on showing how smart he is. Tim needs to develop his emotional intelligence skills or he may not be able to move up in this company.” In response to my question, Linda shared that Tim has already been made aware of these shortcomings. I asked Linda if the company has already given up on Tim. She replied that was not the case.

A week later I met with Tim at his office. From the get go Tim shared he was not happy about how the coaching idea was presented to him (“they want to fix me”). He opened up about his frustrations with his boss who “doesn’t seem to fully grasp my major contributions to the company.” He also shared that he wasn’t sure he had the time for coaching given the many other important things on his plate. He added that didn’t believe in 360 assessment because “people are biased here.” Many of his peers grew through the rank and, according to Tim, they didn’t look kindly at his ivy-league credentials.

After spending some time together I sensed that Tim was not ready for coaching and that he might have already decided to explore career opportunities elsewhere. I asked Tim point-blank if he wanted to have a coach, giving him an opportunity to show some interest. Tim paused before saying he was too busy doing what he was hired to do, that is serving the business, and that he wasn’t sure he could commit the time for coaching. With that in mind we both agreed that coaching wasn’t right for Tim at that point and that I should follow up with Linda to let her know where we netted out.

My years of coaching experience have taught me that certain ‘ingredients’ must be present in order for coaching engagements to be successful. Both the Coach and the Leader (the client) should give thought to several considerations before entering a coaching relationship. When I decide whether to coach or not coach a client, I pay close attention to the chances of success. If chances are low, why coach? There are various parties in any coaching engagement and each has a role in creating a successful outcome. The parties include the Leader (i.e., the client), their Manager, the Organization, and the Coach. Here are some things to look at when considering a coaching engagement:

  • THE LEADER – It starts with the Leader and I personally look at several things. Is the Leader motivated to develop herself professionally? Will she show up regularly and keep appointments? Will she be willing to explore new ideas and question his actions? Will she be willing to be “stretched” and try new ways of thinking and doing things? Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s most accomplished executive coaches, says he only coaches leaders who want to become more successful. Marshall’s AIWATT stands for “Am I Willing At This Time,” reflecting the leader’s readiness to change (e.g., AIWATT to listen with open mindedness & humility; to be courageous & try new things; to have the discipline to do the work & follow through).
  • MANAGEMENT SUPPORT – I look at two things here. First, is the organization sincerely interested in investing in the Leader or do they consider the coaching remedial where the Leader by large has been “written-off” by the company? Marshall Goldsmith offers an interesting perspective. Over his many years of coaching experience he learned that a hard-working, motivated client is more important than a brilliant coach and that involving key stakeholders in the Leader’s organization trumps everything else. So having stakeholders around the Leader who want to see him/her succeed is an important factor in the overall coaching success. Second, I look at whether the organization has realistic expectations from the Leader in terms of speed/scope of change and whether there is an alignment between the organization & the Leader on developmental areas. Real change is not easy and organizational support is key. The Coach can play an important role here as an advocate for the Leader, so that he/she will have the final say on both, choosing their developmental goals and crafting a realistic action plan.
  • The COACH – Certain coach qualities and experiences facilitate positive coaching outcomes. First, the coaching presence is key. That means the coach’s ability to ‘be’ with the Leader and meet them where they are–notice, sense and hear what they are saying/not saying so that the Leader can feel heard and understood. Second, the Coach should be able to help the Leader hone on the most important developmental areas where they want to see the biggest positive change and then set clear goals for the engagement to help keep the coaching on track. Third, the Coach should be willing to stretch the Leader, even if it is uncomfortable and the Leader pushes back, to help him/her see things in a new light. Fourth, the Coach should be able to offer a clear coaching process along with measures to monitor progress and evaluate the coaching success (leadership guru Peter Drucker is credited with saying “If you cannot measure it, you can’t improve it”). Finally, the Coach’s credentials and experience also matter. For instance, the Coach’s approach and areas of expertise may make him/her more suited to some engagements than others. Business experience is often also important.
  • THE LEADER-COACH CHEMISTRY has a vital role in coaching. We don’t always know why we have chemistry with some people and not others, though we typically know when we have it. Chemistry may be based on the Coach’s communication style or humor; a reaction to the Coach’s voice; similarities in backgrounds, and so on. Although chemistry is difficult to define, at the core it is the ability to connect with the Leader and develop a foundation of trust. Holding chemistry meetings before selecting a coach should be an integral part of the process.

To sum up, executive coaching engagements can and often do produce significant and sustainable results if the right ingredients are in place. Reflecting back on Tim, my assessment of his (lack of) readiness for coaching was not a blank statement about his general suitability for executive coaching. At another time and place Tim could become a good candidate for coaching if/when the above ingredients are present.

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