News & Insight
March 2014

How to Make Executive Coaching Stick

Executive coaching works best with adequate follow up. Without it, long-term commitment to personal change can be short lived. The effort to find just the right coach is wasted if insights gained do not lead to sustainable change.

Some executives know what they should do differently without coaching but their motivation to change doesn’t last longer than their New Year’s resolutions. The key to successful change is to support coaching with essential follow up processes.

Tom was a successful advertising executive recently promoted to his first senior executive role. To help Tom realize his full potential the business engaged a coach to work with him during his first year in his new role.

Unfortunately, Tom tried too hard to prove himself. He had learned some effective leadership skills along the way but, in his new role, he fell back on his core strength: his industry knowledge and professional expertise.

In meetings with colleagues and team members, Tom was aggressively argumentative, thanks to his all-encompassing need to be right. More often than not, he was able to come up with the best solutions to the issues under discussion. This success bolstered his confidence and made a strong impact on everyone working with him.

After a few months, however, Tom’s colleagues started criticizing him down behind his back, complaining that he didn’t respect their views, that he constantly scored points by putting them down and making them feel incompetent.

The rising dissatisfaction soon reached the ears of Tom’s boss and this was the main reason that a coach was engaged to help Tom.

It didn’t take Tom’s coach long to get to the heart of the matter. Tom agreed that he needed to work at being more engaging. He accepted the conclusion that he should try to draw more ideas and solutions out of others and do more building on their ideas instead of just promoting his own thoughts.

The coach recognized that Tom was hooked on scoring goals; it made him feel superior, like a hero in the stories he loved as a child. To help Tom change and make the coaching stick, the coach got Tom to agree to 5 steps:

  1. First Tom needed to change his motivation. His coach got him to recognize that he had more to gain through engaging others than by being the lone solution generator. Tom came to accept that he was operating as an individual contributor rather than a leader.
  2. It was also essential to devise a new reward system to help Tom sustain the changes he was making. Scoring goals by offering the best answers to problems was, for Tom, intrinsically rewarding. Tom agreed to share his development objectives with his team members. He began to end each of his team meetings by asking his team members what he did well to engage them and what he could do better. Making a public commitment keeps change moving, especially if progress is reviewed regularly.
  3. Tom was encouraged to work with a learning partner. Another executive in the business who was working on similar development needs was identified and he and Tom agreed to meet regularly to help each other keep moving forward.
  4. Celebrating success with his boss on a monthly basis was another key to making coaching stick. Tom reviewed what positive feedback he had been given since their last meeting and what negative feedback he had received. His boss also shared any additional feedback he could give Tom.
  5. Once the coaching ended, Tom continued to meet occasionally with an internal mentor who he felt accountable to and who he wanted to impress by showing that he could make good on the investment the firm had made in him. The mentor also helps Tom think through how to further build on, or enhance, the progress he has made thus far.

A review with his coach two years later demonstrated that Tom’s coaching had stuck and his leadership style had evolved in line with expectations.

Another option would be to use a before and after 360 degree feedback tool. The “after” 360 can be very brief, as short as one page focusing on the areas the person is seeking to develop. The “after” questions can ask what change others have noticed in two or three behaviors with a rating scale that ranges from “got worse” through no change to slightly better or significantly improved.

So, making coaching stick is about creating mechanisms to foster accountability. That means regular measurement, rewards, monitoring and effective follow up. Motivation is critical. It starts with establishing that a new way of behaving will lead to greater rewards than the old way. Then it is a matter of regularly celebrating success as well as discussing what further fine-tuning would help.

Accountability works best if multiple stakeholders are enlisted to review progress. In this case, Tom held himself accountable to his boss, a learning partner, a mentor, his team members and other participants at an annual leadership conference.

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