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What Is Executive Coaching?

November 7, 2019

Marty Factor


What is executive coaching? At heart, it’s a partnership designed to deliver thought-provoking insight, feedback, and suggestions that help executives perform at peak potential.

Woman conducting Executive Coaching

“Exactly what is executive coaching? And why do I need it?”

It might seem like an elementary question. It’s coaching for executives! But it’s one I wish more executives would ask.

Because there are a variety of executive coaching offerings, it’s important to appreciate the differences in purpose, process, and payoffs. Especially in the current market, where there are new, more streamlined coaching alternatives—even virtual offerings.

Some think executive coaching is a luxury perk, much like a personal therapist or life coach. Others assume coaching is only for low-performing executives. Still others worry coaching is a waste of time against other competing priorities.

In the best cases, executives view it as a powerful opportunity to grow not only as leaders, but as human beings. They also view it as a chance to sort through complexity, achieve breakthrough performance results, and gain relevant knowledge and skills.

The perception of coaching sets the tone for the success or failure of the relationship. We find each leader brings her or his own unique perspective about what will happen in a coaching engagement. That’s why it’s so important to set expectations about executive coaching and its benefits to key stakeholders in the process.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the distinction between reactive and proactive executive coaching. In this article, I’ll focus more on defining what is executive coaching, and why it matters.

The definition of executive coaching

So, what is executive coaching? At heart, it’s a partnership, nestled in the executive’s ecosystem, designed to move, stretch, challenge, and engage the executive in a process to drive positive shifts in performance. The coach guides with thought-provoking insight, feedback, and suggestions to help the executive perform at his or her peak potential. At DDI, we take that a step further with what we call “executive focus coaching.”

Note the use of everyone’s favorite F-word: Focus. No executive is perfect, and there are always opportunities to develop. But the question is, what is executive coaching for? How will it help the executive drive the results that will make them and the business more effective? That’s why we focus our coaching on the areas that fall in the intersection of three areas of need—where there is the greatest payoff potential: the business, role, and self.

DDI’s coaching process brings together these three categories with insights about the business context and the individual and his or her ecosystem. And often, very rich, in-depth data can be gathered from simulation-based assessment immersions that help leaders and their coaches explore the details of how to tackle some of the most daunting executive leadership assignments.

Most coaching engagements include personality testing as well as input from the executive being coached, which helps round out priorities for “self.” This allows the coach to personalize the coaching while also considering enabling and derailing personality characteristics.

It’s important to note that executive coaching is systematic. DDI incorporates the system into the process whereas most other solution providers do not. If they do, they do not maximize the integration. A key aspect of this integration includes stakeholder input and involvement in the process.

A story of stakeholder alignment

To show how important stakeholder involvement is to the coaching process, I’ll share a story of an executive I coached. This executive (a COO) was brought in from the outside to run a large-scale healthcare system struggling to attain profitable growth. He was also struggling to manage the scope of his role.

Relying on skills and approaches he had leveraged in prior roles, he was trying to tackle issues directly, by “getting close,” and holding an “on the field position” versus orchestrating efforts from an appropriate distance and getting things done through his leaders. It’s often the case with executive transitions that a leader is “directing” tactical action over “presiding” or guiding strategy execution.

Bear in mind, this executive was a highly intelligent and passionate leader. He had effectively managed operations in a range of settings. However, he just wasn’t getting the results needed across the system of several geographically distributed settings.

In an update conversation with the CEO, he shared with me the outcomes of his most recent goal-setting conversation with the executive. The CEO shared the KPIs for the executive’s role and feedback about his impact and gaps. In turn, we intentionally aligned our coaching activities to focus on these targets. We also focused the coaching on addressing the gaps to ensure alignment and success.

I wouldn’t have known to do this so specifically if I didn’t have firsthand stakeholder input from the CEO. While I would have heard from the COO about what his manager clarified, ensuring the CEO’s direct input gave us the opportunity to align and address concerns with more direct and immediate impact. At the same time, I advocated for the executive. I provided the CEO with tips for how to most effectively engage and support the COO. It's very often the case that managers need to be coached for how to coach.

Without stakeholder input, I might have only had the COO’s side of the story. If the CEO had not been direct with him, then we may have missed the root of understanding his skill gaps. It could also be that the COO didn’t “hear” the CEO. Or maybe he didn’t buy into what the CEO had told him about his performance. He may have chosen not to share that information with me.

A key part of the stakeholder alignment step in our coaching process is to gain the perspective of the manager and HR sponsor for what the situation presents, both in terms of the role challenges and the current level of impact of the executive. We engage these stakeholders with informed consent and well-defined boundaries around what types of data we will and will not share.

DDI routinely conducts stakeholder interviews during the initial phase of the engagement to appreciate others’ perceptions of the leader’s capabilities and impact. These extend beyond the manager and HR sponsor, most often including direct reports, peers, and other key constituents. The coaching plan will then include the right measure of response to what is surfaced during these interviews to ensure the focus and payoff promise is kept.

3 types of stakeholders

While there are generally three main categories of stakeholders we typically work with, often the stakeholder disposition is a blending of the categories listed below:

Believer: Stakeholders who are believers are highly supportive of the coaching process. Leaders who have believers backing them have the highest likelihood of accelerated growth from the coaching. Believers have positive regard for the executive and believe they fit for the purpose and have the right stuff to get the job done.

One caution to being too strong of a believer is that believers may think the person being coached is flawless. Believers consider any gaps are mostly attributable to others or the environment. Because of this, the job of the coach is to help the manager understand how the executive can grow to reach peak performance.

Skeptic: Skeptical stakeholders are often the norm if the executive is struggling. The stakeholder may not believe the person can adjust and make the needed changes. In their conversations with the coach, skeptics often amplify the weak points of the individual. They often fail to see their strengths. They may feel impatient if results from the coaching process don’t come quickly. The job of the coach is to help the executive and provide legitimate proof of progress to the executive's manager.

Avoidant: Avoidant stakeholders are usually neutral about the process but provide little input. That may be because the stakeholder doesn’t know much about a new executive or the focus for the coaching. Further, they may feel coaching is a private matter. They may even be conflict averse or have difficulty providing candid feedback. The job of the coach is to move the avoidant stakeholder towards belief. The coach does this by helping the individual engage the manager in conversations of development and support.

My experience with the healthcare COO worked because the CEO was a “believer/skeptic” stakeholder. With a supportive bias, he believed success was possible. Yet at the same time, he saw the gap that needed to be addressed and was concerned for how long it would take for payoffs to show.

A crucial part of the coach’s work is to calibrate with key stakeholders and share the progress of the executive through the process. The stakeholders can then continue to shape the role and deploy the leader against the best business situations that capitalize on their talent and give them the greatest opportunities to grow through the application of new skills.

Executive coaching is more than you think it is

So, what is executive coaching? The coach, organizational stakeholders, and the individual make up a triangle of collaboration. In this triangle, expectations, needs, and concerns are anticipated and balanced to maximize the chances of a significant payoff.

The power of the coach is in his or her ability to synthesize these perspectives into an aligned path forward that has benefit for all, and for the business. Part of understanding the needs of key stakeholders is to appreciate both their position and their disposition.

It’s in this coach-stakeholder collaboration that that the coach can tailor actions to achieve measurable results, while building a foundation of trust and balancing the needs of individual.

Great executive coaching cultivates an ecosystem of reinforcement and positive growth tension. In your search of the perfect executive coach, look for one who thrives on collaboration. Find a coach who doesn't underestimate the level of managerial involvement, input, and support that will be needed.

Don't forget that your business goals and coaching outcomes should be tightly linked. An executive coach who talks about this from the start is on the path to accelerate the growth of your executives. 

Learn how DDI’s Executive Coaching can sharpen senior leader performance.

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.

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