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Coaching at the Executive Level:
How to Coach the Coach

(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)


by Fred Friend

Introduction

In our work with organizations to train leaders to be effective coaches, we are almost always targeted to the first line supervision up through middle management and at best senior managers. Typically, we have to address the issue of "rolling up" this training to the executive and senior management levels. There are some noteworthy exceptions, but many of our client’s training departments are not focusing on the senior levels for this type of training and support.

A survey of consultants and upper-level executives reported in Training and Development magazine, found that 90% of executives resist coaching. The reasons why fell into three categories:

1. They did not feel comfortable with their skills.
2. They have too many demands on their time and felt development was a low priority, or not even their job.
3. They did not value the development of others - "They should be able to figure things out for themselves."
Our own experience, and the experience of clients we interviewed, supports and amplifies these findings. Here is a more detailed table of barriers and possible strategies to address them:

Barriers

Strategies

Some perceived issues that act as barriers to executives being coaches Some possible strategies to address these issues.
Executives and senior managers are just too busy to spend time on development and coaching.
  • These are competitive and successful people, their nature guides them to be successful at those activities that are valued, and rewarded, by the organization.
  • Development and coaching must be positioned as an important, if not critical, leadership responsibility that is formally part of their own performance assessment.
  • This will the most difficult issue to deal with unless the very top person is willing to clearly, unequivocally, make it a leadership priority.
  • Unless it is a clear expectation and priority it will not survive the competition for their time and attention.
Performance feedback is not wanted or needed by senior managers, so it is not critical to spend time on it.
  • Almost every executive and senior manager we have interviewed said that they DID want to know if what they were doing was working. Again, these are competitive and successful people and they want to know that they are on the right track.
  • The feedback must clearly be positioned as an asset to the executive so they can make their own self-corrections to be successful.
They have blind spots concerning their ability to coach others, or find it too revealing to admit to a need in this area.
  • You must find an objective, non-threatening way to assess their effectiveness.
  • The most likely method is to survey their current and past direct reports, and current and past supervisors about the leader’s developmental contribution. To be successful, these need to be objective and candid. Often they are most valuable when supported by a skilled developmental resource person (coach-consultant) who can also interview the respondents, then coach the executive in evaluating, interpreting and responding to the information.
  • Another method would be critical incident analysis by a skilled interviewer, but this depends upon a worthy incident existing that would be meaningful to re-visit and highlight success / non-success factors.
  • Leadership assessments instruments are another method to assess their interpersonal dynamics, but these need to also show a connection between their "style" and real-world results and often need a resource person to help interpret the results into actionable feedback.
  • Leadership assessment centers and scenarios are another approach. Again the key is to produce insights that clearly translate to success in their real world environment.
Executives and senior managers don’t want to attend formal training on coaching.
  • One strategy for addressing this is to gird up and do battle on the issue of leadership responsibility; of "walk-the-talk", "leading the way", and "it’s got to start at the top!". Buenos Sortie, Don Quixote. Sometimes it works, but usually the windmills win.
  • Here is another approach. The senior levels need to experience this process because: (1.) they need to know what to expect from the people who report to them (the ones they think really need this training); (2.) it will also help lead the way if they role modeled the process themselves; (3.) and, they may find it helps them be personally more successful in certain leadership areas.
For executives and senior managers, formal group training is too uncomfortable, perhaps unsafe, and takes too big a chunk of time.
  • Many of their concerns can be dispelled by giving them a pre-training briefing on the workshop process and content. By discussing what the training does and does-not do and answering their questions so they feel informed (senior levels hate feeling "unknowing"), you increase the chances of them actively enrolling.
  • An alternative to formal workshop training is assigning them a resource person for one-on-one coaching and support to learn this process. We, and some of our clients, have had good success with this option - especially where the senior person is not likely to attend formal training.
A lot of what senior managers do (use of intuition, dealing with ambiguity, etc.) is hard to capture via formal performance appraisals so developmental coaching doesn’t happen.
  • The production and financial records information systems usually generate adequate "bottom line" information to assess the actual results. The nature of their work, (often unstructured, uncertain, and ill-defined) means they can usually benefit most from feedback and coaching on their leadership process and behaviors they use to produce those results.
  • In a classic study by the Center for Creative Leadership, four enduring themes for why executives derail reoccurred over time and across countries: (1.) they have problems with interpersonal relationships; (2.) they fail to meet business objectives; (3.) they fail to build and lead a team; and, (4.) their inability to change or adapt during a transition.

In the Center for Creative Leadership study, three out of four of these reasons for derailment deal with leadership style and personal behavior, not with making their numbers.

Okay, making the numbers is a critical priority in any organization. But relying solely on these numbers to evaluate executive success is ignoring the rich developmental opportunities for communicating, team building, mentoring, coaching, visioning and leading change. As one of our executive clients said, "results evaluation is easy; it’s also a cop-out".

Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, perhaps one of the most numbers driven CEOs of the decade, is quoted in Built to Last as recognizing the need for balance between numbers and values. "People who make the numbers and share our values go onward and upward. People who miss the numbers and share our values get a second chance. People with no values and no numbers - easy call. The problem is with those who make the numbers but don’t share the values . . . we agonize over these people."

Coaching is a critical processes to address this need for balance.

Summary

Development and coaching are critical leadership skills that can easily take a back seat to "making the numbers" unless a conscious effort is made to position them as a priority. It is needed and beneficial and achievable if you will adjust your strategy to address the particular barriers at the senior levels.

There are several key factors that need to be addressed to get more coaching at the senior levels. The strategy and approaches for making this happen must be adjusted to their specific concerns.

The approach taken must use a proven, successful process that focuses real-world results.

One-on-one coaching and support is a valuable alternative to formal training at the senior levels if you have skilled, experienced, resource people.

 

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Contact Matt Starcevich at matt@coachingandmentoring.com
Copyright 2009 Center for Coaching & Mentoring, Inc.