Is It Time for an Executive Coach?
6 reasons to bring in an expert
Executive coaching used to have an image problem. It was seen as a one-foot-on-a-banana-peel-last-straw intervention to “fix” problem leaders. In the last decade the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, with celebrity coaches making headlines working with high-flying business leaders. For a while it appeared that every leader who was anyone had a coach on retainer.
The reality of executive coaching is less dramatic, but more powerful: It’s more than problem-solving or a high-level perk. Executive coaching can play a strategic role in creating a high-performance organization and developing a successful leadership pipeline. Andrea Robb, senior manager of leadership development and people strategy at Lucasfilm Ltd., concurs, “Executive coaching still has a place in this economy, even as our eyes are on the bottom line. Despite its expense, coaching is often the more targeted development solution for senior leaders and delivers a higher return than, for example, in-class training and conferences.”
External coaches can bring objectivity, fresh perspectives, expertise in assessing sensitive issues — along with the benefit of high levels of confidentiality. They also bring a breadth of experience in different organizational cultures, industries and business environments. The following situations might warrant a call to a coach.
1. You’re implementing strategic leadership development.
BNY Mellon Asset Management uses executive coaches as part of its Emerging Leaders program as vice president of learning and organizational development Dave DeFilippo explains: “We strive for a balance of 50% group learning and networking activities and 50% individualized coaching on the job. Leaders work with a coach and their managers on personalized, systematic development plans.” Lucasfilm incorporates coaching in some of its development initiatives as well. “We often take advantage of the relationship that facilitators build with groups in the classroom and schedule one-on-one coaching sessions as part of that experience.” says Robb.
2. You realize it’s lonely at the top.
Senior leaders often have (or feel they have) no one capable and trusted enough to share their challenges, aspirations and insecurities. Employees crave security and decisiveness in the face of an uncertain business environment. Leaders are more in need of a sounding board for testing ideas and communications before they go live, says Volini: “An external coach can provide a trusted advisory relationship that allows absolute candor and sensitivity.”
3. You want objective insights.
An outsider can help your leaders cut through the “organizational noise” and cultural do’s and don’ts when they face particularly challenging business decisions. A coach brings a variety of experiences and expertise through which to view your organization’s situation, strengths and weaknesses in a different light. As DeFilippo explains, “There’s a difference between what your manager tells you and what your coach says. Even if it is the same message, the coach has the added advantage of relative ‘independence’, as well as the experience of working with other organizations.” Robb agrees on the value of an executive coach’s outside perspective: “Objective insights are really big here. We tend to get enmeshed in our own world, our own ecology.”
4. You want to ensure successful leadership transitions.
Research by Michael Watkins of Harvard indicates that it takes, on average, 6.2 months for new managers to start adding value. Few organizations have time to wait for that payoff today. As a result, BNY Mellon Asset Management is discussing plans to bring in executive coaches to help leaders in new roles avoid common pitfalls and succeed sooner.
5. Stress is taking its toll.
Robb describes another reason to consider bringing in a coach: “During this economy, leaders can get stressed. Teams that were high-functioning sometimes struggle to work effectively or adopt bad behavior under stress.” According to Robb, an executive coach can help high-performing leaders and teams get back on track.
6. You need to build a solid leadership pipeline.
Our Coaching Conundrum 2009 report indicates that 55 percent of vice presidents do not get coached by their boss. And today in even the most evolved coaching cultures, it’s likely that the CEO and board members are consumed by other priorities. Executive coaches can help provide targeted leadership development for high-potential leaders and ensure a successful succession plan.
Consultants tell you what you need to know. Coaches ask you the questions you need to answer for yourself.
Whatever your reasons for bringing in an executive coach, the following two elements will ensure that your organization benefits from your investment.
Shared expectations and context: Robb and DeFilippo emphasize the importance of educating executive coaches on organizational culture and politics — to ensure that these outside experts fully understand “how things work around here.” As HR leaders, they also establish a close partnership with the executive, his or her manager, and the coach. They also establish a clear understanding of the process. DeFilippo describes the need for an “individual approach in the context of organizational goals” and provides a six-month road map with milestones for coaches supporting the Emerging Leaders program. Robb makes sure there is a kick-off meeting, agreement on goals and check-ins along the way to “calibrate” the goals of the coaching work as dynamics change.
An end date: Every coaching engagement must come to an end, a point that Robb underscores as well: “It’s great when coaches become part of the organizational fabric, but it’s important to make sure leaders aren’t tempted to abdicate their management responsibilities to the coaches. It can be tempting. People management is hard and leaders are busy.”