News & Insight
March 2004

Coaching in Context is a Team Effort

Effective coaching never takes place in a vacuum; it always takes place in the context of an organization and its culture, and that context requires active participation by the people who can offer the individual who is being coached feedback, encouragement and support.

Typically, participants include the individual’s boss, colleagues and direct reports. Some of our most effective coaching assignments were successful because the boss took an active role in the process. And some of the least effective sessions have been those where the boss played only a limited role.

In one case, we were asked to work with an executive whose interpersonal style was creating a lot of friction within an organization; part of the problem was his boss, a passive manager who avoided confrontation at all costs. In this case, the context required that we eventually work with the boss to help him become a more active manager, which, in turn, helped our initial client.

In the movie “A Few Good Men,” Tom Cruise, who plays a military prosecutor, asks witness Jack Nicholson, a Marine general, if his instructions to his troops were clear. “Crystal,” is Nicholson’s brusque reply. The same holds true for expectations for coaching: they should be crystal clear.

When we were working with the company in the previous example, we had a meeting with the manager’s boss and their chief executive to review the goals of our assignment. We asked, “How serious is this situation? Suppose the individual doesn’t improve?” The CEO said that if the manager didn’t shape up, he wouldn’t have a future with the company.

After that meeting, the boss became noticeably more assertive in his management style. The expectations were made crystal clear. And once again, the context of the situation called for an additional participant, the CEO in this case, to have a role.

Coaches also recognize the importance of “EQ” over “IQ,” a significant cultural issue in most companies. We once were asked to assess and counsel a hard-driving executive, a man with a national reputation in his industry as a successful, but tough, negotiator. The problem was, he treated his direct reports and colleagues with the same steely demeanor that he used with vendors.

While this executive had great functional intelligence that resulted in significant savings for his employer, he had a very low “emotional quotient.” He paid little attention to others’ feelings and was unaware of the adverse impact he was having on the organization. He shrugged off any attempts to change his behavior within the company. “My financial results speak for themselves,” was his motto. Apparently, they did not speak loudly enough, for within a few months he was gone. The culture simply would not tolerate his behavior.

Whatever the individual’s opportunities for growth or improvement, they’re not in isolation from the rest of the people or the culture of the company. Coaches need to approach these opportunities in the context of the organization and use that context to help the individual. When coaching becomes a team effort, it also becomes more effective.

Based in Atlanta, Bill and Linda Tiffan are members of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and assessment faculty.

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