Who’s Who in Executive Coaching

This article is an excerpt from WJM Associates Inc.’s Q & A About Executive Coaching, to be published in December 2006. For a free copy of this informative booklet, please email Tim Morin at tim@wjmassoc.com with your name, job title, company, address, and phone number.

While the primary relationship in a successful executive coaching process is between the coach and the individual executive, this is not the only important one. Executive coaching should be systemic - other key stakeholders in the results of the coaching, such as the executive’s manager(s), peers, reports and Human Resources, should all be included in the process.

Listed below are guidelines for the manager (supervisor), the executive being coached (coachee) and Human Resources during executive coaching:

The Manager

The coachee’s manager or supervisor plays a central role in the coaching process. Often the coaching is initiated by the manager who has identified the need. It is often up to the manager to ultimately define success from the coaching and to reward progress made by the executive being invested in.

The manager is responsible for clearly communicating to the coachee what the developmental needs or opportunities are and describing the consequences (good and bad) of success or lack thereof. He or she should also work with HR and the coach to determine whether the individual and the situation are amendable to coaching. The manager must be comfortable that the improvements are achievable and that the coaching is a worthwhile investment.

In the supervisor’s discussions with the executive and coach, he or she should acknowledge and address the systemic issue that exist within the organization by:

  • Creating a dialogue around the organizational issues that may influence the coaching process such as business-related issues (poor department results), financial constraints, cultural tendencies (poor conflict resolution skills), and organizational changes.
  • Being willing to discuss ideas generated by the coaching process related to improving the organizational system.
  • Guiding the coach regarding organizational influence that may affect the coaching process and/or results.

A development plan is created during the coaching with agreed upon goals, due dates, and measurements. The manager should focus on helping the executive achieve the stated goals by:

  • Providing feedback, both positive and constructive, on a regular basis to enhance progress. The frequency can be just as important as the content.
  • Holding the executive and the coach accountable to the agreed upon goals set forth in the development plan.
  • Paving the way for success by removing obstacles and barriers, and opening doors.
  • Preserving confidentiality and building trust with self-disclosure and personal insights.
  • Following through with commitments the manager has made as part of the coaching process (attending meetings, introducing the executive to others, etc.).
  • Ensuring clarity around the manager’s own expectations using clear, specific examples.

The manager plays a key role in making sure the coachee’s developmental plan is correctly aligned with the organization’s business by:

  • Whenever possible, informing the coach of changes in the organization that may affect the executive including mergers and acquisitions, restructuring or downsizing, changes in leadership, or future business initiatives.
  • Incorporating the key business metrics relative to the executive’s performance and results, where applicable, into the coaching process.
  • Informing all parties of changes to the goals or if information previously provided changes significantly during the course of coaching.

Successful executive coaching requires constant evaluation of the progress being made. Along the way, unpredictable challenges, conflicts, and opportunities can arise. The manager can help ensure the success of the executive’s development overall by:

Remaining open-minded and considering all available information before making a judgment. 
Being flexible with change requests keeping a focus on the executive’s development and organization’s needs.

Executive Coaching is an active, on-going process that requires attention and monitoring. Issues the manager should watch for include:

  • Constant rescheduling of coaching appointments (not a priority)
  • Lack of feedback exchange (coach and/or executive)
  • Failure to execute on the development plan (talk, no action)

The Coachee

In order for the coaching to accomplish its critical objectives, the executive being coached must be willing and able to learn from the experience and make the necessary adjustments in behavior. This requires an “active learning” approach where the executive makes considered choices about the actions they take, reflects on the results and the impact of their actions, identifies key learnings, and targets what they will do differently in the future.

The beginning of a successful coaching intervention starts with identifying areas for personal development. This involves the executive being coached asking such questions as:

  • What challenges am I facing in my role and what are the skills and behaviors that will be critical for success?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses in relation to these critical areas?
  • What are the strengths I want to enhance and the changes I want to make?
  • What are the specific actions I will take to accomplish these goals?
  • Whose support do I need to implement my plan?

Once the executive is clear about development goals, action needs to become intentional in support of that development. Questions the executive might ask are:

  • How can I work on my development goals in situations I am currently facing?
  • How can I create situations where I can work on my development goals?
  • How can I get feedback as I try out these new behaviors?

After action has occurred, the executive with a focus on self-development will reflect on the impact of their actions. Reflective questions might include:

  • What was the result of my actions and how does it compare to what I wanted to achieve?
  • What were some results that I did not expect? Which were pleasant surprises and which were unpleasant surprises?
  • What were the reactions and perceptions of others? What feedback did I receive?

Reflection lacks power if someone does not know what has been learned. Key questions to ask:

  • What did I learn about the impact of my actions in a particular situation?
  • What did I learn about myself in this situation? What did I learn about others?
  • What will I do differently in the future as a result of what I learned?

Human Resources

Human Resources plays a critical role in a successful executive coaching process. The HR executive oversees the organization’s overall coaching program, acts as a “gatekeeper” for the evaluation and hiring of coaches and manages and supports the individual coaching assignment.

Overseeing the Organization’s Coaching Program 
At some companies, line executives take the initiative to arrange for the coaching of themselves or other members of their divisions or teams. When HR is excluded and fails to coordinate this process, the company may lose a valuable opportunity to formulate an executive coaching program or framework that is strategically aligned with the organization’s goals and overall training and development objectives. Also, when different coaching assignments are occurring haphazardly throughout the company without HR oversight, it is likely that no consistent evaluation of the initiatives is occurring. The company thereby loses an opportunity to accumulate critical intelligence regarding lessons learned about the use of coaching at the firm and information regarding which coaches have proven effective and why – data that is invaluable in making other coaching interventions throughout the company more efficient and successful.

In this role, HR must clearly answer the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of coaching in the organization?
  • How does it link to business strategy?
  • How will coaching be used to reinforce lessons learned from training or development programs underway?
  • Is coaching perceived at the company as a remedial, “last ditch” effort or as a positive developmental tool?
  • Under what circumstances should a coach be brought in?
  • Which employees or groups should receive coaching? Should coaching be restricted to certain levels of seniority?
  • How is the organization assessing the need and readiness for a coaching intervention?
  • How is the scope of the coaching assignment defined? What is the time limit on an assignment?
  • How can the organization use coaching to provide developmental opportunities as a way to retain valuable employees?
  • How will the success and bottom-line value of coaching be measured?

Acting as Coaching Gatekeeper
As the need for coaches at the organization develops, executives will depend on HR to maintain a pool of coaching professionals. Through experience and networking, HR is responsible for defining the skills and abilities needed in a coach for success at the company and which coach is best suited for any given situation, type of challenge, personality, level, etc. To build this coach bench strength, HR is counted on to run a rigorous coach selection process and assist in the coach/coachee matching process. HR should also serve as gatekeeper in the sense of developing the criteria for determining when coaching is needed and ensuring that a problem is not best fixed with another tool. HR must also make sure the coachee is ready and has a desire to commit to the coaching process.

Managing the Coaching Assignment
During a coaching assignment, HR acts as a primary information source for the key participants – the coachee, coach and manager, and needs to understand the needs of each of these parties.

HR “orientates” the coach with the organization, providing the external coach with an understanding of the business, including the structure of the firm or division, the strategic business objectives and the role of the coachee in these plans. HR should also familiarize the coach with the company culture, including how influence is exercised, how decisions are made and how people succeed in the organization. HR should share with the coach all relevant data regarding the client, including his or her perceived potential and developmental goals. Observations regarding the coachee’s performance, including results from 360º interviews and other assessments and surveys should be provided. HR should also discuss confidentiality rules pertaining to the coaching and when and how information will be shared, and with whom.

HR must also serve as an information resource to the boss or manager and work with this supervisor to secure his or her “buy-in” of the coaching process to help ensure its success. HR should also coordinate the involvement of other people at the organization required to support the initiative. HR monitors the coaching to make sure the coach and client are staying on track and that objectives are being met, or evaluating whether these objectives need to be adjusted mid-stream as issues are uncovered during the coaching.

Finally, HR plays a key role wrapping up the coaching assignment and evaluating its impact. This may include examining changes in the executive’s behavior or performance, which may entail follow-up 360º feedback or other surveys, as well as measurement of operational or business improvement. By gathering this information, HR can distill lessons learned from the coaching and make suggestions for improvements to the process going forward.

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