Key Ingredients for Successful Coaching Engagements

Linda, an HR Sponsor at a Fortune 500 company, asked me to meet with Tim, a VP at their IT department, saying: “Tim is very talented but he is rough around the edges, doesn’t know how to motivate his team and is losing people at a record number. He is too focused on showing how smart he is. He needs to develop his emotional intelligence skills quickly or else he may not have a future here.” Linda’s tone was impatient. I asked her if they have already given up on Tim and are looking for coaching to validate that decision. She replied unconvincingly that was not the case without adding any further details to explain or support that statement.

A week later I met with Tim at his office. Tim wasn’t happy 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.” He also shared that didn’t really have the time for a coaching engagement given the many other important things on his plate. Tim added that didn’t believe in 360 assessment because “people are biased.” Many of his peers grew through the rank and, according to Tim, they didn’t look kindly at his ivy-league credentials.

After spending 45 minutes together I sensed that Tim wasn’t ready for coaching. I asked Tim directly if he wanted to have a coach, giving him the opportunity to show some interest. Tim paused before saying he was just too busy doing what he was hired to do, serving the business and that he wasn’t sure he could commit the time. We decided to put this on hold and agreed to reconnect with Linda to discuss this. As I left, I felt a mix of emotions. First, some relief because it felt right not to move forward at that point with the coaching. But I was also concerned for Time because I could see how he was trapped in a narrative that “being a high achiever is enough,” not willing to consider another way of doing things even when the stakes were high.

My years of coaching experience have taught me that certain ingredients must be present for coaching engagements to be successful. There are various parties to any coaching engagement, each has a role and all ‘ingredients’ must be present to create a successful outcome. The parties include the Leader (i.e., the Client), their Manager, the Organization, and the Coach. Here are some of the things I look at in the Leader and their organization when I first engage with clients and assess the chances for success.

  • The Leader – Is her/she motivated to develop themselves professionally? Will they show up regularly and keep appointments? Will they be open and willing to be “stretched” and try new ways of thinking and doing things?
  • The Leader’s Manager & the Organization – I look at two things here. First, is the organizational sincerely looking to invest in the Leader or is the coaching considered remedial where the the Leader must show progress or face negative consequences? Are the stakeholders around the Leader want to see him/her succeed? Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s most accomplished executive coaches, offers an interesting perspective in this regard. Over his many years of coaching experience he learned that a hard-working, motivating client is more important than a brilliant coach and that involving key stakeholders in the Leader’s organization trumps everything else. Second, I look at whether the organization has realistic expectations from the Leader in terms of speed and scope of change. Real change is not easy and organizational support is key. The Coach can play an important role here as an advocate for the Leader, pushing back if the organization identifies too many goals for the Leader and doesn’t allow him/her to “own” their goals. Research has shown that the key reasons why Leaders do not “stick with” their action plan is lack of ownership, over-commitment and too many goals.
  • The Coach – The Coach Presence is key. By that I mean 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. Knowing what the overarching goals are helps to keep the coaching on track while tending to the daily challenges as needed. Third, the Coach should be able to offer a clear coaching process along with measures to evaluate the coaching success. 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.
  • The Leader-Coach Chemistry has a vital role in coaching. Chemistry includes various aspects that are not always so easy to define. Chemistry can be based on communication style or humor; a reaction to the Coach’s voice; similarities in backgrounds, and so on. Yet at the core is the ability to connect with the client and develop a foundation of trust.

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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