5 Ways Organizations Can Get the Most out of an Executive Coach
The benefits of executive coaching are well-documented — as are the pitfalls. Once you’ve retained a coach to work with members of your senior team, what can you do to help people get the most out of the experience? Of course, the success of the engagement rests largely on the coach’s skill and the executive’s willingness to learn and grow. But the sponsor (whether a CEO, an HR leader, or another senior executive), also plays a vital role.
As an executive coach with over 25 years of experience, here are five ways I’ve found for an organization to set up both the coach and the client for success:
1. Provide access
While coaches are sometimes forced to make do with limited access to the organization (for example, when an engagement requires a high degree of discretion and sessions are held off-site — or for that matter, during a pandemic), a more immersive experience tends to yield the best results. Whether this access is via a formal interview-based 360 or a more ad hoc series of meetings, it’s in everyone’s best interest to provide the coach with as much access as possible.
The better a coach understands the organization, its history, values, leadership models, and current challenges, the more effective their feedback will be. This is especially important when the coaching is focused on developing leadership capabilities, communication skills, collaboration, and self-awareness. A window into the client’s conversations with coworkers allows coaches to see firsthand how the executive relates to and is perceived by different groups, enabling them to better support the executive and the organization.
Specifically, greater access to the organization helps both the coach and their client in a few different ways:
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If coaching is focused on an executive’s relationships with his or her peers, the sponsor might not have all the background information that’s needed to understand and improve those relationships. In talking with my clients’ peers, I will sometimes discover that a coworker who both the coachee and the sponsor view as an ally is actually less supportive than they seem, and is just doing a good job of hiding negative opinions. Only by interviewing all of the relevant parties can the coach get a read on what’s actually happening.
If the coach’s work includes helping the executive develop alliances within the organization, meeting with some of these potential partners will enable the coach to more effectively help the client build those relationships.
Sometimes, coachees’ problematic behavior results from misreading their peers, superiors, or direct reports. When coaches have met the individuals in question, they can help clarify any miscommunications and provide specific advice.
2. Reinforce credibility
You’ve brought in a coach because you believe in their skills and integrity. Although it is ultimately up to the coach to win the organization’s trust, you can make it clear through your words and actions that you are treating them as a true partner for the course of the engagement.
For example, when you introduce the coach, don’t just make a pro forma referral or generic announcement — say something specific and positive about the coach to illustrate your confidence.
3. Set clear expectations
No matter how good the coach is, setting clear expectations is key. I learned this the hard way early in my coaching career. After a CEO brought me in to coach several of her direct reports on the executive team, she began to expand the scope of my work to include advancing her plans within the organization, which unintentionally aligned me with one faction.
It came to a head when I made a major presentation on behalf of the CEO, where I shared a proposal that had not yet been approved by the executive team. The team was taken by surprise at how my role had morphed seemingly overnight from coach to key CEO advisor, and some of the team felt betrayed, as if I had chosen sides. This seriously impacted the executive team’s trust in me — and that trust was hard to rebuild.
In hindsight, I should have either stayed in my lane as a coach, or, with the CEO’s support, taken more time to socialize my expanded role. Coaches are often well-positioned to play an advisory role by raising questions, pointing out additional factors to consider, noting whether the proposed actions are aligned with corporate objectives, and helping them to see the fixed mindsets that might be limiting their effectiveness. But if the decision is made to have the coach go beyond their initial scope of work, it’s essential that this expanded role be carefully defined and communicated to stakeholders in a way that doesn’t compromise current or future coaching relationships.
4. Keep stakeholders from meddling
If coaches are evaluating coachees in order to determine the best opportunities for their development, some stakeholders may attempt to influence the process inappropriately. For example, if another executive is competing with the coachee to lead an initiative, he or she may attempt to convince the coach that the coachee is lacking in relevant skills, in order to gain the stronger position.
While navigating these sorts of interactions is part of a coach’s job, sponsors can help by setting clear boundaries and asking executives not to interfere with or attempt to manipulate coaches’ evaluations.
5. Avoid power struggles
Although close relationships between coaches and their clients are in everyone’s best interests, you do need to be cautious when navigating the power dynamics that can emerge between different internal stakeholders.
For example, in conversation with a coachee or another executive, I may mention talking with the CEO as a shorthand way of indicating that I’m up to speed. But I try to do this as little as possible to avoid being seen as flaunting my connections. The coach is fundamentally an external partner, of course — but I will sometimes try to preempt concerns with a simple statement such as, “I have no illusions regarding my power in this room. I am simply here to ask questions, make observations, and support your development.”
While it’s primarily up to the coach to tread carefully here, it also helps if the sponsor can avoid creating the perception that the coach has special status. Yes, introducing the coach as a credible partner is important, but it’s also important to avoid over-promoting the coach in a way that makes people feel threatened.
No executive operates in a vacuum — so their coaches shouldn’t either. Though it will take some extra work, providing a solid foundation for coaching engagements is worth the effort for everyone involved.
I should note in closing that the pandemic has only heightened the need for skilled coaching. The outside perspective of an experienced executive coach can be really useful in the current climate, as many companies are restructuring their long-term plans. Coaching — and the support structures that make coaching effective — is more important now than ever.