During the past 23 years, WJM Associates has delivered executive coaching for over 4,000 executives at over 500 organizations around the world. We’ve seen tremendously positive outcomes from coaching, as well as instances where it has failed to meet expectations. Here’s why coaching sometimes falls short.
1. Organization is not a safe place to take risks/fail.
Developing new behaviors is hard. But it can be utterly impossible when surrounded by indifference, skepticism or even hostility. Coaching enjoys a much greater chance of success when the organization itself exhibits what Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset, meaning it believes that skills are learnable with coaching and practice and there is institutional openness to giving and receiving feedback. At a growth mindset company, managers are there to guide talent, not just cast judgment upon it. It is largely up to the boss to create organizational space for the individual to stretch, experiment and sometimes fail as he or she iterates towards their coaching goals.
2. The executive doesn’t want it.
A successful coaching engagement is more dependent on the quality of effort by the client than the coach. The executive must be passionately committed to the hard, day-in, day-out work of development. Real progress doesn’t occur during the coaching sessions, but rather in between them when the executive is learning to adopt new and often uncomfortable behaviors, continually collecting and carefully considering feedback and avoiding falling back into easy habits. Coaching only works when the client believes it can, and commits effort and their schedule to the process. If he or she is being forced into it, or adopts a passive or resistant attitude, not even the greatest coach in the world can “move the needle”.
3. The boss isn’t engaged.
The executive’s leader plays a central role in the coaching process. We have seen over and over that when the boss is engaged in the coaching, the odds of success increase dramatically. He or she should weigh in on the client’s development objectives early and clearly describe the consequences of reaching or not reaching these goals. The manager must be comfortable that the improvements are achievable and that the coaching is a worthwhile investment, and should be willing to help pave the way for success for the executive by removing organizational obstacles. There should be productive, three-way dialogue between the client, coach and boss throughout the engagement around any issues that influence the coaching process and the executive’s progress. Providing feedback, both positive and constructive is critical. The frequency of this feedback can be just as important as the content. Without the leader’s attention and involvement, the client and coach’s efforts will be for naught. Like the proverbial tree in the woods, if an executive develops and no boss notices, has the executive improved?
4. There are no clear and measurable goals (or the goals are not what the client passionately wants).
It is hard to tell if coaching is helping an executive achieve their goals if those goals are ill-defined to begin with, or if they shift every other week. An effective coaching process begins with the coach and the client working together to clearly identify a limited list of developmental objectives (think 2 to 3) and then working full-bore to accomplish them. While it is critical to have the boss weigh in the selection of these objectives, the client must passionately agree that these are the correct goals in order to ensure effort. Findings in the field of neuroscience tell us that continuous and repeated attention to the desired change strengthens the hard-wiring of newly created habits. New behaviors are developed over time with regular reminders and frequent feedback. This type of sustained focus, by the coachee and those around him or her, is impossible if the goals are fuzzy or diffuse to begin with.
5. The coach isn’t qualified.
The barriers to becoming a “coach” are famously low. The executive coaching field can attract self-anointed practitioners with little experience working in a business context or senior-level position, as well as ex-C-suite leaders who have the experience, but may view a coaching practice as a way to “semi-retire”, something akin to a hobby. The coach’s professional background is important, but no particular resume guarantees that a coach is any good, or that the coach is right for a particular executive or organization. For example, a clinical background in psychology might be instrumental for some situations, while others may require more significant “been there, done that” business experience in order to gain the trust of the leader being coached.
Today there exist many excellent coaching certification programs that teach skills and best practices, and provide a safe and supportive environment to rehearse the delivery of services. Of course, joining and completing a particular program does not guarantee a coach will be excellent, any more than taking painting classes would ensure that a student is an exceptional artist.
Rather than insisting on a particular resume, degree or certificate, it is important to select coaches who have already had significant success coaching executives similar to the client. We believe that the best predictor of future success is past success. It is also useful to screen for specific attributes that are critical to effective coaching, including high competence in such areas as business acumen, strategic and organizational agility, interpersonal savvy, the ability to inspire and motivate others, and of course integrity and trust.
6. The coach and client don’t click.
The coaching results will only be as good as the chemistry between the coach and executive. In fact, research suggests that the top criteria for a successful engagement are the levels of trust, respect and rapport between coach and client. The leader has to be comfortable opening up to the coach regarding sensitive matters. This is not necessarily about how much they like each other. In fact, if things become too cozy, the coach runs the risk of inappropriately advocating for the executive in the organization. Plus it is critical that a healthy level of friction is allowed into the relationship. The coach must be direct and sometimes tough in his or her observations and counsel.
Finding a coach who has the necessary expertise and compatibility with the executive may not be easy. Whichever coach is chosen, the executive should participate in the selection process. Once Human Resources has ensured their qualifications, the executive should have the chance to conduct “chemistry” interviews with 2 or 3 coaches. This reinforces the executive’s buy-in to the coach and the process. Whereas simply assigning a coach provides the executive with an excuse to disengage should they not click.
7. Data is missing.
Coaching works best when the client and coach have assessment data, preferably from multiple sources and observers, and from various points in time if possible. Multi-rater (360°) feedback provides the client with insight into how he or she is perceived by others; and unlike a psychometric or personality test, undesirable results cannot be explained away as inaccurate or invalid. The feedback does in fact describe how other people are experiencing the individual’s behavior. This is invaluable to developing accurate and heightened self-awareness - critical to coaching success. Pairing 360° feedback with a tool like the MBTI or Hogan makes sense. While 360°s and past performance reviews explain the “what” regarding behavior and leadership style, a well-designed personality inventory can help explain the “why”.
8. Confidentiality is not safeguarded.
In order for the relationship between coach and executive to be effective, the executive must be able to openly discuss personal feelings and concerns regarding their jobs, their leaders and colleagues, the organization and its strategy and many other issues. Without confidentiality, which is a necessary precursor to trust-building, the coach will be unable to understand the executive's challenges with sufficient complexity. Therefore, it is paramount that clear ground rules regarding confidentiality are agreed upon between the executive, coach, leader and HR/Talent Management during the contracting process.
9. The coach gives advice, but doesn’t coach.
People learn best through self-discovery, not from being told what to do. When the coach gives advice, no matter how brilliant, it will most likely make a mild impression, result in resistance or defensiveness, or lead to a sense of dependency. However, when a person discovers something for themselves, it’s much more likely to have a profound and positive effect. The coach’s job is to help the client connect to a path that will take him/her to the answer, not hand it to them. Like good parenting, good coaching fosters independence.
10. Coaching is used to “save” an executive.
If people are only coached when they do something wrong, then the point of coaching is missed. The focus should be on what people are capable of doing or being and then working toward that end. When an organization invests in coaching, it is a recognition of an individual’s potential for growth. Using coaching as a last ditch effort to save a derailing executive usually results in a case of “too little, too late”. Often the executive is unable to change a consensus already reached or secure forgiveness from key stakeholders.
11. Client is in the wrong job.
The executive must possess the required competencies, experience and education to succeed in the role. Some situations require reassignment and may call for the services of a career or outplacement counselor rather than an executive coach.
12. Coaching ends and old habits return.
Coaching engagements are typically capped in time (3, 6, or 12 months, etc.), whereas development must be ongoing. By the end of the formal coaching, the hard work of change is just beginning. Learning new habits/behavior can be very difficult, even with the help of a professional coach. Findings from neuroscience tell us that the human brain is malleable and changes with experience. In order to make desired, new behaviors stick, they have to be practiced, deliberately, in different contexts and repeatedly. Continuous and repeated attention to the desired change strengthens the hard-wiring of newly created habits. But this takes time. The coach and executive must create “practice” strategies for keeping attention on these new behaviors long after the coaching engagement has ended. This includes continuing to collect regular feedback from others regarding the specific behaviors. Tools like the WJM Development Tracker™ smartphone app is one way to easily collect this type of ongoing feedback, as well as receive regular behavioral reminders to support this ongoing practice of desired behaviors.
Tim Morin is the President & CEO of WJM Associates, Inc.