How the West Is Won

As someone who works with clients ranging from midsize companies to large multinational corporations, I’ve had the opportunity to witness firsthand how businesses handle a wide variety of executive development opportunities and challenges.

Some companies deal with their human resources situations better than others. In a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Wild West of Executive Coaching” (HBR, November 2004), Stratford Sherman and Alyssa Freas present a compelling case for the need for structure, direction and goals in an industry where anyone can print a supply of business cards that declare him or her to be an executive coach. “For coaching to command serious attention from the busy executives it aims to help, it needs top-level support and visible links to business imperative,” say the authors.

One assignment we recently handled had all the elements of a “Wild West” coaching engagement, including unstructured goals, initial skepticism from the chief executive officer (CEO), and the prospect of coaching someone who some thought could not benefit from coaching.

The calming influence throughout the process was the HR executive, who provided continuity and was receptive to WJM Associates’ suggestions to do the right thing for both the organization and the individual. An important component in the entire process was gaining buy-in from the CEO.

Following are four steps that worked effectively in taming this potentially Wild West engagement into a valuable lesson learned:

1. Gather the Facts. When beginning a coaching assignment, you can never have too much information about the individual and the situation. Through initial conversations with the HR executive, we were able to gain firsthand perspective of the executive’s developmental opportunity. The candidate in question was a valued member of the management team for a number of years, but had recent difficulty completing projects and was alienating other employees. In fact, management initially considered separation, but the CEO valued the executive’s talent and wanted to explore other alternatives.

2. Set Up Appropriate Face-to-Face Meetings. The most valuable meeting occurred when we met with the CEO and the HR executive. Through candid conversations with both of them, we were able to understand the CEO’s reluctance to let the executive go. The two executives had worked well together when the CEO had joined the company several years earlier; as a result, he had a certain loyalty to this individual. While the executive’s skills were technically sound, the lack of interpersonal, leadership and communication skills were undermining this person’s authority and damaging the company. Understanding this key underlying issue was critical.

3. Help the Client Make an Informed Decision. Through conversations with the HR professional and the CEO, we were able to understand the executive’s key development opportunities. This dialogue was beneficial in helping the CEO, in particular, gain a better understanding of our approach to the assignment. We recommended starting with an executive assessment comprising two personality assessment tools (MBTI® and 16PF®), a personal interview with the executive, and 360-degree interviews with eight peers, supervisors and subordinates. In the end the CEO and HR executive appreciated our frankness and agreed with the approach.

4. Base Recommendations on Feedback. WJM Associates communicated the key assessment findings in a Leadership Proficiency Evaluation (LPE)™ to the executive. This report captured the varied assessment instruments and helped the WJM Associates’ executive coach in making some critical determinations based upon solid data. Although it was recommended that the executive and company would both benefit by parting ways, the HR executive and the CEO decided to grant a three-month coaching window to provide room for the executive to demonstrate developmental progress.

Eliminating a Wild West coaching situation in your company begins by establishing the appropriate structure through education and communication, followed by understanding the key developmental issues. Once the developmental opportunities of an individual have been outlined and agreed upon, the coaching engagement can commence with better results. This is how the Wild West is won.

WJM Faculty Cabinet

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