Executive Coaching – Keys to Success

Executive Coaching – Keys to Success

Michael Couch
Michael Couch and Associates Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA


Executive Coaching is one of the fastest growing offerings by consulting firms and independent consultants and is popular with companies of all sizes. At a recent meeting of solo-practitioner consultants in southwestern PA, more than half indicated that coaching was part of their practice. An informal survey reported in the 2008 HR Trend Book from the Society for Human Resource Management indicated that, of 382 reporting companies, 41 per cent used coaches or mentors.

Companies and employees are relying less on skills-based training and trainers for career development and, instead, are relying more on formal or informal coaching relationships. This may in part be due to the growing perception by employees that their careers are not benefiting from the support typically provided by companies. In a global survey completed by the consulting firm Blessing White, 70% of nearly 1000 respondents either were indifferent or felt that their company’s career development efforts failed to support their individual needs.

The growth of Executive Coaching has generated some tough questions about the effectiveness, applicability, and ethics of the approach that have so far been answered by mostly anecdotal evidence. The DDI Global Leadership Forecast reported that executives felt that Coaching was effective only 15% of the time.

There are clear benefits to a properly designed and implemented coaching experience. But, as with any developmental tool, there are keys to assuring a return on the time and money invested.

Five Keys to Effective Coaching

  1. Coaching Is Focused On The Right Players

    The best opportunity to achieve a payback to a coaching investment is with high potential or high professional employees, managers, and executives. Helping these “game changers” at critical junctures in their careers usually has a quick and sustained payoff. Coaching challenges are different based on the employee’s career level, but the objectives are similar – tweaking an already top performer or assuring that a high potential employee achieves that potential.

    I have often seen coaches being employed to assist an employee that is perceived to be “broken” and the goal of the coaching assignment is to “fix” them. The coach is imposed on the reluctant employee, a lot of personal and organization stress ensues, and the usual result is that the employee disengages (retires on the job, quits) or ends up being terminated (which probably should have been the action in the first place).

    This is not the optimum use of coaching resources. The “broken” employee most likely has a history of blocking or barely supporting critical change initiatives, has a reputation of being a “people eater”, or has a history of poor performance. They are typically low learning-agile people who have already derailed and getting them back on track is a high risk, low benefit proposition.

    My perspective – If you have $100 to spend on development and want to get the biggest bang for your buck, spend $70 on increasing the impact of high potentials, $20 on maintaining the capability and competitiveness of high professionals (technical leaders, seasoned pro’s), and $10 compassionately getting the “show stoppers” out of the way.

  2. Coaching Is Applied In The Right Situations

    Coaching is not a panacea for all development needs. There is a limited number of opportunities where experience has shown that coaching can make the biggest difference. They tend to be areas where specific improvement goals and clear benefits can be identified and are not broad “finishing school” kinds of challenges.

    1. Transitions

      Starting a new position with a company, moving to a new role within a company or taking on new broader responsibilities are critical junctures in a career. Providing a coach to design and facilitate a transition process can have substantial benefit. These are stressful times when previous weaknesses become highlighted or over-used strengths come to bear. An effective coach can help assure a smooth transition for the employee and their new stakeholders, create confidence by building quick wins, and create effective feedback so that learning gets locked in.

    2. Preventing Derailment

      The causes of career derailment are well known. Even high potential employees fail, most often due to over-use or over-dependence on a strength. Coaching can help prevent derailment by helping the employee identify potential failure modes and by developing specific preventive and contingent action plans.

    3. Address a specific problem

      This is the more typical coaching situation. We’ve all seen it – an otherwise promising employee lacks a specific skill or exhibits behaviors that impact his relationships with others. These can be derailers but are more often opportunities to coach good performers with a blind spot into well-rounded, great performers.

    There are specific situations where coaching should not be used.

    • Unethical or illegal behavior is the issue and the coach is really meant to be a detective or a buffer between the employee and others.
    • When the target employee is not really a high potential or a seasoned pro. There’s really a long term performance problem that should be immediately confronted by the employee’s manager.
    • When HR has decided that the employee needs a coach, without the buy-in of the employee’s manager.
    • When the coach is expected to create a case to terminate the employee.
    • When the employee has psychological problems that should be addressed by a medical professional. A good coach should be able to quickly identify the warning signs and make a referral. Coaching is not therapy and should not be an intervention going after deep psychological issues.
  3. The Right Coach Is Used

    Not every consultant or HR professional is cut out to be a coach. An effective coach doesn’t need to be a board certified psychologist but the skill set is unique. Here’s a short list of critical coaching competencies.

    • Business Acumen Coaches need to be good business people first. They must be able to understand the market challenges and business priorities that their clients face. They need to be able to understand and use the language of executives.
    • Expert Facilitation
      Effective coaches are often top-notch facilitators. They understand group processes and process consulting and can guide individuals and teams through effective questioning, analysis, planning and decision making processes. They can read individual and group dynamics quickly and respond appropriately.
    • Credibility
      The best coaches have had business or other experience that can allow them to maintain a perspective. They build credibility quickly by showing that they have “been there, done that”. Credibility does not come from a bag of tricks. Beware of a coach who only has a “one-size-fits-all” technique or instrument that they apply in any situation.
    • Interpersonal Savvy
      Being able to relate to all kinds of people, build rapport and relationships easily, listen, use tact and diplomacy, and diffuse high tension situations are all hallmarks of an effective coach.
  4. Coaching Is Integrated

    Coaching should not be designed and implemented outside of the company’s strategy, culture and existing business processes.

    The business case for coaching should develop from the company’s strategy. The need is best identified from a review of talent, driven by the strategic needs of the business. Coaching should not be a one-off tool. It should be applied where it can best improve a strategic capability of the organization.

    If the organization already has a well designed competency-based HR system, those terms and concepts should be integrated by the coach. Introducing a whole new language only complicates an already complex situation. In addition, the coaching may end up creating new skills and behaviors that do not really drive results. If the coach has their own assessment tool, make sure it matches the values and key competencies of the company.

    Once new behaviors and capabilities are created, it is often important to sustain them through the company’s existing performance planning and review process. The employee’s manager can help reinforce the work of the coach through regular coaching and feedback.

  5. The Proper Coaching Relationship Is Established

    The coach’s client is the employee being coached and not the manager who may be paying the coach’s tab. This is not the typical consultant-client relationship with the economic buyer so it needs to be managed differently. Once the coaching relationship is established, all feedback and communication should go to the coached employee. Any communication with the manager should occur from the client after discussion and agreement with the coach. To do otherwise would jeopardize the coach-client relationship.>

    The one exception to this would be the case where the coach uncovers unethical or illegal behavior on the part of the employee. The coach is obligated in these situations to terminate the relationship and inform the manager.