Are your executive coaching relationships set up for success? To be sure, you need the relationship between the individual and the coach to be built on trust and focused on results. In this blog post, I'll talk about why executive coaching for results is critical. I'll also talk about the different situations for executive coaching relationships and give tips for making sure they're driven towards results.
What's behind the door: The lady or the tiger?
This old and rather bizarre story by Frank Stockton got me thinking about how executive coaching relationships often begin. The story starts with the following question: "What’s behind the door: The lady or the tiger?"
It's the tale of a fictional king who would decide whether a suspected criminal was guilty or innocent of a crime by letting the person choose one of two doors. Behind one door was a tiger, and behind the other was a woman who was chosen as an ideal match for the accused. If the criminal chose the door with the tiger, he was presumed guilty and would be eaten. If he chose the door with the woman, he was believed to be innocent and would immediately marry her and begin a happy new life.
Many executives approach a coaching relationship cautiously. They may even feel a bit like they’re on trial.
Has a coach been assigned because they're not performing, and their job is threatened? Or, is the company providing the exec with proactive support to find greater success ahead?
In other words, when the coach comes through the door, the executive wants to know: Are you the lady (or in my case, gentleman), or the tiger?
But, it does makes sense why executives may feel like they're on trial when they get assigned an executive coach. Let's talk about where this anxiety comes from.
Executive coaching for results: it's about fitness, not just fit
Executives have good reason to be anxious about their roles. In recent years, executive tenures have grown shorter, particularly at the CEO level. One reason that’s happening is the demands of executive jobs change rapidly in today’s unpredictable business environment. Companies haven’t necessarily caught up to hiring, development, and coaching practices that enable executive success.
At DDI, we talk about this issue as the difference between fit and fitness. Often, companies focus exclusively on hiring executives who are a good fit for the job. This means the individuals hired have the skill set, experience, competencies, and personal attributes to succeed.
It’s a good thing to make sure an executive is a good fit for the job. But, this is only the first step in the process. As the demands of the job change, executives need to rapidly adjust, which is what we call executive “fitness.”
Executive coaches can be used in situations related to fit for the job and fitness for the future. But, one approach and, therefore, one type of executive coaching, is more promising than the other.
Coaching for fit: Reactive Coaching
An executive coach is often the first person the CHRO calls when there’s an executive with a performance issue. Perhaps the executive doesn't have an important, yet hard-to-develop skill like shaping strategy. But often, the issue centers around lower levels of interpersonal versatility or emotional intelligence.
These reactive situations aren’t really about a surprise issue that has popped up. Rather, they're related back to fit with the company's culture.
For example, I was brought in recently to help redirect an executive-level sales director’s disruptive behaviors. These behaviors were generating problems for his firm’s culture. Some of this executive’s team even left due to his disruptive nature. However, the company valued him because of his relationships with key clients, his tactical intelligence, and his shrewd commercial business knowledge. Because of this, they hired an executive coach to help him correct his problem-areas and create a long-term development plan.
As it turned out, while we made some progress through our coaching relationship, this executive ultimately wasn’t the right fit for the role. While he had been put in the role based on his past success, he had difficulty driving strategic change. He was also showing stress-induced derailing personality traits, which is common for executives.
For this highly valued executive, the best choice was to move him into a role where he still contributed his sales expertise and business savvy, but had less direct personal impact on others.
Of course, not all reactive executive coaching relationships uncover that someone is the wrong fit for the job. In other cases, the executive might have had a few early missteps representing skill gaps in some competencies needed for the role. But, a coach can work with an individual to overcome those challenges by applying new habits.
In these cases, an executive coach is an objective mirror. The coach helps the executive see the changing demands of the new role and helps the executive to think and act differently to be successful through the transition. With reactive executive coaching, execs can quickly overcome obstacles that prevent them from being a good fit.
In either type of reactive executive coaching, it’s important to note that many of these issues can be spotted upfront by using an executive assessment early on in the selection process.
No executive is ever going to be the perfect fit for the role. But, assessment can help the organization find out if the executive’s shortcomings will make him or her unfit for the job. Or, whether the shortcomings are things that can be overcome with executive coaching for results.
Coaching for fitness: Proactive Executive Coaching
A proactive coaching relationship isn’t about correcting a performance problem. Instead, the relationship is focused on the continual development of already high-performing executives in anticipation of changes to the scope of their role.
For example, proactive executive coaching for results might help a lower-level director transition into a higher-executive position. Or, this type of coaching can provide support for a new CFO preparing for a merger.
I liken proactive coaching to going to the doctor for a check-up. You can catch early signs of problems and make minor adjustments to ensure those problems don’t escalate into full-blown emergencies.
It’s about helping executives maintain their fitness for the future. And in an age where 40 percent of new executives fail within their first 18 months, executive coaching for results can be your organization’s insurance policy. It can ensure the person you hire can tackle the challenges brought on by changing demands.
My work with one hospital’s newly appointed chief nursing officer is an example of a proactive executive coaching relationship. My task was to get her up to speed quickly. She’d been promoted from a lower director-level role and I worked with her for several months to close skill gaps. Our goal was to get her ready to make a big impact right away. The result? The hospital reaped big business benefits.
In another example, we worked with a manufacturing organization whose CEO was planning to retire in a few years. Several potential candidates went through an assessment. The top few candidates were given executive coaching to help them grow for the potential future role. I call these classic “horse race” scenarios. In these cases, executives are supported with resources to help them accelerate growth in a fair and paced manner.
One executive lacked experience, yet he had high indicators for entrepreneurship, creativity, and driving change. While he didn’t initially perform as well on the assessment as some of his counterparts, by working with one of my coaching colleagues, he was able to prioritize his growth areas and then develop them.
Over the next two years, this executive quickly mastered every stretch assignment he was given. He showed his “fitness” to constantly adapt and grow to meet new demands. He eventually went on to become CEO of the organization and flourished early in his tenure. How? It was a result of working with the same executive coach he worked with during his selection process.
Many organizations don’t think to use proactive executive coaching for results, especially when their top-level leaders are already performing well. But a proactive executive coaching engagement can be the edge an organization needs. It has the power to push executives to pivot and effectively and quickly lead transformation.
The make it or break it factor: Commitment
Regardless of whether executive coaching for results is proactive or reactive in nature, there is one factor that matters most: commitment, both from the executive and key stakeholders.
Commitment to the coaching process can be harder to achieve in a situation where the coaching scenario is more reactive in nature. It can also be harder to achieve if stakeholders have lost trust in the executive because he or she failed to keep commitments. Derailment often leads to situations where expectations for change are high while stakeholder confidence in the executive’s ability to change is low.
Let’s go back to the reactive coaching example I touched on earlier. This is the one about the executive-level sales director that was causing retention problems. One of the most significant signs that coaching was not going to solve the issue was that he still hadn’t really committed to the coaching process six months into the relationship. As a result, he hadn’t made much progress.
Together, with his leader and HR advisors, we mutually decided to end the coaching relationship. This executive moved on to a different role in the organization. This was a role he was much better suited for.
In situations where coaching is successful, commitment comes early. It’s up to the executive coach, and other key stakeholders (typically the sponsoring manager and/or HR partner) to create an environment of psychological safety. This is an environment where the individual receiving coaching feels valued.
In return, the individual needs to trust in the coach and commit to the process. This happens when the individual applies what he or she learns and tries the tactics suggested by the coach. As the executive begins to see positive results, the levels of trust and commitment grow, and progress begins to accelerate.
Executive coaching for results: the coach is never the "tiger"
The coach is never the “tiger" if he is introduced properly. Instead, an executive coach represents the best possible avenue for success.
And, in some cases, coaching may uncover a fundamental issue of fit for the role. But the reality is that no one benefits when an executive is placed in a role where he or she is a poor fit.
When an executive and coach build a trusting relationship, the coach can help ensure that executive coaching for results is the main focus. But the coach can also help the executive gain the skills to be a better fit for the role and develop ongoing fitness to keep tackling every new challenge.
A coach can be the door that leads the executive and the company to much better things ahead.
Discover how DDI’s executive focus coaching can help to accelerate the performance of your senior leaders.
Marty Factor, Ph.D., is an industrial psychologist and an Executive Consultant in DDI’s Executive Services group, where he provides innovative solutions to address his clients’ most pressing executive succession, selection, and development challenges. Marty is the proud father of two amazing teenage daughters and a cute Aussie Shepard. He loves to write poetry, hike, and play the piano and guitar.