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Executive Coaching for Fit and Fitness

By Marty Factor, Ph.D.

executive coachingWhat’s behind the door: The lady or the tiger?

It’s the question asked in an old story published in 1884 by Frank Stockton. The story tells 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 he 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.

While it’s a rather bizarre story, it reminds me of how executive coaching relationships often begin. Many executives approach a coaching relationship cautiously, feeling a bit like they’re on trial.

Have they been assigned a coach because they’re not performing, and their job is threatened? Or is the company providing the proactive support required to find greater success ahead?

In other words, when the coach comes through the door, the executive will want to know: Are you the lady (or in my case, gentleman), or the tiger?

In this blog post, I’ll talk about some of these different situations for executive coaching relationships, and how (hopefully) you can ensure that none of them are about opening the door with the tiger.

But first, let’s talk about why executives may feel like they’re on trial in the first place when they get assigned an executive coach.

Executive success is 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 that the demands of executive jobs change rapidly in today’s complex and unpredictable business environment, and 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, meaning 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 that’s 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 a performance issue with an executive. While issues around fit could be attributed to a lack of an important, yet hard-to-develop skill like shaping strategy, 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, but rather are related back to fit with the organizational culture, where the repeated interactions with key stakeholders represent a chronic problem that requires an intervention.

For example, I was involved in a recent executive coaching relationship in which I was brought in to help redirect an executive-level sales director’s derailing, disruptive behaviors. These behaviors were generating problems for his firm’s culture. Some of this executive’s team left due to his disruptive nature, but the organization valued him enough because of his relationships with key clients, his tactical intelligence, and his shrewd commercial business acumen to hire an executive coach to help him with his problem-areas and correct them, as well as to create a long-term development plan to improve effectiveness.

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 track record of success, he had difficulty driving strategic change and was showing stress-induced derailing personality attributes, which is common for executives. For this highly valuable executive, the best choice was to move him into a role in which he still contributed his tactical sales expertise and business savvy but had less direct personal impact on others. As a result, the stress and pressures he was experiencing before were alleviated.

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 catalyzes growth to overcome those challenges in the real-time application of new habits.

In these cases, an executive coach often serves as an objective mirror, helping the executive see the changing demands of the new role and how the executive needs to think and act differently to be successful through this transition. Reactive executive coaching can help the executive quickly overcome the obstacles that were preventing his or her from being a good fit.

In either type of reactive executive coaching, however, it’s important to note that many of these issues can be spotted upfront by using an executive assessment early on in the executive selection process. No executive is ever going to be the perfect fit for the role, but assessment can help the organization pinpoint whether the executive’s shortcomings will make him or her fundamentally unfit for the job, or whether the shortcomings are things that can be overcome with the help of an executive coach.

Coaching for fitness: Proactive Executive Coaching

A proactive coaching relationship isn’t about correcting a performance problem but is instead focused on the continual development of already high-performing executives in anticipation of changes to the executive’s role scope. For example, proactive executive coaching might help a lower-level director transition into a higher-executive position or provide support for a new CFO preparing for a merger.

I liken proactive executive coaching to the process of building resilience buffers, as one will do by going to the doctor for a check-up. It’s at this point that you can catch early signs of problems and make minor adjustments to ensure those problems don’t escalate into full-blown emergencies.

In other words, 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 can be your organization’s insurance policy, ensuring that the individual you hire can tackle the challenges brought on by changing demands.

One example of a proactive executive coaching relationship that first comes to mind is my work with a hospital’s newly appointed chief nursing officer, to get her up to speed quickly in her new role. She’d been promoted from a lower director-level role and I worked with her for several months to close skill gaps, so she was ready to make a big impact right away—and 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, and the top few were given executive coaching to help them grow for the potential future role. In these classic “horse race” scenarios, executives are supported with resources to help accelerate growth in a fair and paced manner.

One executive lacked experience, yet he had high indicators for entrepreneurship, creativity, and agency to drive change. While he didn’t initially perform as well on the assessment as some of his counterparts, by working alongside one of my colleagues as a coach, he was able to prioritize his growth areas and created a plan for development.

Over the next two years, he quickly mastered every stretch assignment he was given, showing 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, as a result of working with the same executive coach he worked with during the CEO-selection process.

Many organizations don’t think to employ proactive executive coaching, especially when their top-level leaders are already performing well. But a proactive executive coaching engagement can be the edge an organization needs to push its executives to pivot and to effectively and quickly lead transformation.

The make it or break it factor: Commitment

Regardless of whether executive coaching is proactive or reactive in nature, there is one factor that proves to be the strongest for success: 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 and 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—the one about the executive-level sales director with disruptive tendencies 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, and as a result hadn’t made much progress.

Together, with his leader and HR advisors, we mutually decided to end the coaching relationship, and he moved on to a different role in the organization for which he was better suited.

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 in which the individual receiving coaching feels valued. In return, the individual needs to trust in the coach and commit to the process by applying what he or she learns and trying 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.

If an executive coach is introduced properly, the coach is never the “tiger.” Instead, an executive coach represents the best possible avenue for success, moving forward. In some cases, coaching may uncover a fundamental issue of fit for the role, but the reality is that neither the company nor the executive will benefit from keeping an executive in a role for which he or she is a poor fit.

When an executive and coach build a trusting relationship, the coach can help the executive gain the skills to be a better fit for the role and develop ongoing fitness to keep tackling every new challenge that arises.

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. 

Posted: 05 Jun, 2019,
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