Executive Coaching Questions & Answers

While each coaching assignment is highly specialized according to the type of coaching, the requirements of the individual and the organization, as well as the interaction between the executive and the assigned coach, we recommend the following basic framework for the coaching process:


1) Pre-Program
The first stage is the Pre-Program or preliminary data-gathering phase.   The coaching company representative meets with HR and the leader of the executive to discuss:

  • The reasons for hiring a coach for this executive at this time
  • Background on the executive being coached:
    • length of service
    • reputation
    • strengths/weaknesses
    • role/value/contribution to the organization
    • potential
    • specific expectations for the coaching assignment
    • willingness to being coached
  • Background on the leader:
    • feedback given to the executive being coached
    • expectations regarding the executive and the business unit
    • leadership style
    • communications style
    • his/her process for measuring success
  • Expectations of HR:
    • Can they be an internal resource in gaining perspective?
    • How should they “partner” to feedback ongoing perceptions of change as the assignment progresses?
    • How will he/she measure success?

The executive is informed of the decision for coaching by his/her leader. Prospective coaches are screened and interviewed and a final choice is made based on profile, experience and location.


2) Contracting
The second stage is the Contracting, during which the executive, the leader (manager), HR and the coach reach agreement on confidentiality, desired outcomes and measurement.   Upfront contracting outlines key duties and responsibilities of all involved in the engagement.

More specifically the following occurs during this phase:

  • The coach or coaching company representative drafts a letter of agreement for the engagement, indicating the scope of work and financial terms of the assignment.
  • The assessment process is determined and tools chosen.
  • Agreement is reached between the executive being coached, his/her leader, HR and the coach regarding:
    • The roles and responsibilities of each party
    • The desired business impact from the coaching
    • The developmental goals for the executive
    • The frequency and length of meetings
    • How and how often progress will be measured
    • Expectations around reporting and confidentiality
    • The start and end date for the coaching
    • The process for wrapping up and evaluating the success of the coaching.

It may take more than one meeting between the parties to reach agreement on these topics.  Each engagement is unique and the coaching contract should reflect the actual assignment.   Some items, such as the developmental goals, may be modified during the coaching process as the need arises.


3) Assessment
The third phase of the coaching initiative is the Assessment, during which the coach determines the magnitude of the gap between the current and desired level of performance, and the client’s overall pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

However, before an assessment of the executive’s performance occurs, the coach should do an assessment of the executive’s “coachability” to help determine whether or not the project can be successful and worthwhile for all parties involved.

Issues to consider include:

  • Existence of psychological issues
  • Openness to feedback
  • Whether it is “too late to change”
  • Desire to grow or change
  • Enthusiasm regarding the opportunity
  • Chemistry with the coach
  • Willingness to commit time and effort
  • Level of support from the leader(s)

Assuming the executive is coachable, a subsequent assessment is conducted to help identify what has to improve or change in order for the executive to meet the company’s objectives.
Areas of measurement may include:

  • Fit within future corporate culture
  • Management style
  • Leadership ability
  • Interpersonal effectiveness
  • Technical development needs

This data, preferably collected from multiple perspectives via a self-rater instrument and 360° interviews, is critical to identifying and prioritizing goals for job performance improvement.   The list of raters to include in these interviews should be agreed upon by the leader and executive and should preferably include 6-12 managers, peers and subordinates.  This “multi-rater” survey provides more balanced feedback than the opinion of a single leader; no matter how objective the leader tries to be and can bring out viewpoints that might otherwise go unnoticed.  Also, because the feedback is so broadly based, it is difficult for the executive to dismiss negative comments.

The assessment and feedback can be critical for the executive, who may rarely receive candid feedback day-to-day, in gaining greater self-awareness.  This information also helps the coach to understand behaviors that may have a long history.  Interviewing or surveying the executive’s leaders, peers and subordinates can also help the change process by giving notice to the raters that the executive is undergoing development and helps secure their support of the initiative.  It is important that the raters understand that the 360° interviews are being done for developmental purposes, rather than for appraisal or compensation, as this may affect the objectivity of the responses.

Assessment Tools
In many cases the coach may feel that his or her observations of the executive and the feedback from 360° interviews still fall short of providing a full picture of the executive’s developmental issues.  Often this information should be supplemented with the use of various assessment tools.  An empirically valid assessment tool that measures abilities, aptitudes, skills, interests and/or personality can provide a useful framework for organizing and discussing behaviors the coach has observed and the feedback received from others.   The tool provides a highly objective source of information that the executive will probably not resist since they themselves provided the input for the test.  Also because there are no right or wrong answers and no judgments attached to the results, when presented properly, formal assessment tools can provide a less threatening form of feedback.  Some assessment tools must be ordered and administered by a licensed psychologist.

When to Use Assessment Tools:

  • The executive is having difficulty performing the job and it is difficult to tell why.
  • The person is being considered for another position and the leader is not sure if the executive is well suited for the job.
  • The leader is having difficulty motivating the executive.
  • The coach and/or leader does not have a good grasp of the executive’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • To determine the best way to talk to and coach the executive.


4) Feedback and Action Plan
The fourth phase is the Feedback and Development of Action Plan.  This stage involves the coach reviewing all relevant data with the executive (assessments tools, 360° surveys and interviews) and then working with the executive and the his/her leader to create a developmental action plan, which leverages strengths and addresses the executive’s developmental opportunities.

The feedback of the data from the assessment may require more than one session between coach and executive as there may be a great deal of information contained in the feedback and the executive should be given sufficient  time to absorb and reflect upon any surprises contained therein.  In order for the feedback to be helpful, the coach should:

  • Focus on the specific and the behavioral, rather than the general and judgmental.  For example, “you work later most days than the rest of your team”, instead of “you need to be tougher on your staff, you work harder than they do.”
  • Avoid drawing inferences about people’s feelings. For example, “Joe says you need to improve delegation skills before being promoted.”, rather than “Joe thinks you’re not ready for promotion.”
  • Concentrate on the future, rather than rehashing the past.  For example, “Next time you give a speech, leave your pen on the table because it can be a distraction”, rather than “You played with your pen the whole time you gave that speech.”
  • Include a “behavior + impact”.  For example, “When you ask subordinates for their ideas, they shared a lot of good information.”
  • Provide insight into positive, as well as negative behaviors.

Now that the initial goals and ground rules for the coaching have been set, and the coach has had the opportunity to become familiar with different aspects of the executive’s behavior from the assessment results, a developmental action plan can be created to guide the coaching process.  This written report should summarize the findings of the assessment and oral feedback, as well as re- confirm or change the developmental goals identified during the upfront contracting.  People who write their performance goals down are more likely to act on them.  It may make sense to revisit these goals at this time in light of the assessment results to see if new ones should be added or if existing ones need to be re-prioritized.

The development plan should contain 2 or 3 short-term, actionable items to assist the executive in meeting their developmental goals.  These action steps should be tangible and achievable in the short-run.  This plan will guide the coaching over the assignment and be used to track progress.  Long-term development steps beyond the coaching time can be sketched out here for further refinement later.  This can serve as preparation for future roles and help the client to avoid backsliding once the assignment has ended.  Depending on confidentiality rules laid out during contracting, this report may be shared with the leader and/or HR after initial approval from the executive.

Best Practices
Some best practices for the executive around creating and using the developmental action plan include:

  • A maximum of 3 key developmental goals.  Any more is usually overload.
  • Tying coaching goals to desired business outcomes, rather than just the behavior to be changed.   For example, “improve personal productivity and morale, and strengthen organizational talent by delegating authority rather than just tasks”, instead of “Be less hands-on, delegate more”.
  • Identifying 3 to 6 very specific activities, with due dates, for each goal.
  • Practicing reaching developmental goals outside of work.  For example, taking a leadership role in a community committee, church, co-op board, etc.
  • Enlisting a trusted colleague to help the executive remember to practice the developmental activities.
  • Making a habit of soliciting feedback from leaders, colleagues and reports.
  • Keeping the development plan nearby (not collecting dust in a file cabinet) and reviewing it once a week.
  • Working on an activity every day, even if it is for just 5 or 10 minutes.
  • Celebrating accomplishments, even minor ones.


5) Coaching
The regularly scheduled developmental sessions make up the Coaching stage of the process.   These meetings between coach and executive typically occur 1 to 3 times per month over the course of 3 to 12 months, depending on the nature of the assignment.   These sessions should be predominantly face-to-face.  However, depending on schedules and location, supplementary communications by phone and email may also occur.  The coaching method and interactions that occur will of course vary by each situation, the style and philosophies of the coach and the chemistry between the coach and executive.  Despite these variations, the following are some themes that can be addressed during these sessions:

  • Ideas for improvement - reviewing assessment feedback, discussion of past successful or unsuccessful efforts for improvement and providing support for exploring new behaviors.
  • Role-playing - practicing and experimenting with possible responses to anticipated situations to polish skills and build comfort with new behaviors.
  • Solving problems - stimulating creative problem solving by asking probing questions and partnering in brain storming solutions to real work challenges.
  • Visioning - helping the executive envision what successful behavior looks like.
  • Strategies for building support - increasing chances of success by identifying ways of enlisting support from colleagues regarding desired change and continued feedback as new behaviors are put into practice.


6) Closure and Evaluation
The last stage in the coaching process is Closure and Evaluation.  In this stage, the executive, the coach and HR meet with the leader to evaluate developmental accomplishments against agreed upon objectives.   Although the content of the coaching sessions should be kept confidential, the developmental action plan and key progress should be discussed.  An effective approach to closing the coaching engagement helps make certain that the executive will retain the support from the organization to sustain the positive momentum of the coaching and provides valuable measurement of the success of the coaching against identified goals.

Steps in the closure process may include:

  • A meeting between coach and executive to review the program.  This debrief should include discussion of how effectively goals were achieved, what the executive is now doing differently and the business impact from these changes.  Again, having well-documented coaching goals at the onset of the coaching provides a good foundation for the final coaching discussions. This is particularly valuable if “scope creep” ensues over the course of the coaching (i.e., “she delegates a lot better, but now she needs to be more strategic.”).
  • A discussion and written plan for sustaining gains.  This should focus on what actions the executive will be taking after the coaching ends to ensure that he/she continues new behaviors and may include identifying action steps to continue building certain skills and selecting training programs to attend or initiatives in which he/she should participate.
  • Enlisting the leader in arranging for the support.  This includes the feedback mechanisms, resources, responsibilities of the leader, etc.  The executive needs from within the organization for continued success.  This might include selecting an internal mentor, or having the leader “pave the way” for a new assignment.
  • Completing and providing evaluation of the engagement to the coach and/or coaching company representative.
  • Follow up conversation between executive and coach.  Three months after completion of the program, the coach and executive should discuss the executive’s status, questions, suggested next steps, etc.

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