News & Insight
August 2005

The Role of the Boss in Coaching (Part 2): Creating an Environment Conducive to Change

Ed McDougal

Last issue, we talked about the important role the boss plays in successful coaching by providing informed feedback to both the coach and the executive who is being coached. This time, we look at two more critical responsibilities: creating an environment that fosters development and change, and providing ongoing feedback.

The most accomplished executive coach in the world could not achieve results if the environment in which executives operate did not accommodate change. Unfortunately, in some organizations, senior executives who try to correct deficiencies are sometimes perceived to be weak. To avoid this situation, two things must happen:

1. People who want to change must be willing to experiment with behaviors that take them out of their comfort zone, and

2. There needs to be institutional space for change to occur.

Expanding the Comfort Zone

Let's say an executive is overly verbose, to the point that he finishes other people's sentences. It's not intentional; it's just a habit that has developed over the years out of enthusiasm for the subject being discussed.

If that executive tries to change, and begins to make progress, but then falls back on his old habits, the organization must be willing to cushion the fall. There must be room to accommodate the efforts to change, even if they're not always successful.

The boss can help create institutional space for change, even if people go "two steps forward and one step back," by acknowledging their progress and encouraging others to do the same. At the same time, people can help their own cause by acknowledging their attempts to change, even when they are not fully successful.

In our example, the loquacious executive can tell his colleagues, "I know one of the habits I've got is that I finish people's sentences, and I just want to let you know that I'm really going to work on that and try to change it. If I do that with you, or you see me doing it with somebody else, I'm actually asking you to let me know when I do it again." By giving people permission to interrupt the behavior he wants to change, the executive has managed to create more institutional space for his personal development.

Providing Ongoing Feedback

Coaching will not succeed if the individual who is being coached does not believe that the coach will maintain confidences.

Whenever a boss asks me, "So, how's it going?" I simply reply with another question: "Well, you tell me -- how it's going?" If a boss cannot observe behavioral changes, does it really matter what the coach thinks? What is important is for the boss to be paying attention to the executive who is being coached and give that person regular feedback.

Thus, the boss in our example might say to the talkative executive, "I've noticed how hard you are working at not finishing other people's sentences, and I think it's great. I know you're not going to be perfect at it. That's okay. The effort is clearly there and I just want to let you know I'm seeing some results. And, quite honestly, other people have noticed your efforts, too. Keep up the good work."

The boss cannot "outsource" this feedback to the coach. It's got to be direct and genuine. Delivered sincerely, it goes a long way toward reinforcing the behavior the executive is trying to improve, and helps create a positive environment for developmental change.

Ed McDougal is a member of WJM Associates' executive and organizational development faculty.

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