Executive Coaching – a 6 part series

First appeared in Training and Learning’ (U.K.)

1. EXECUTIVE COACHING – The Map

“I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum potential.” Bob Nardelli CEO, Home Depot

“I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process to draw out the skills or talent that was previously hidden within an individual, and which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought unsolvable.” John Russell, Managing Director, Harley-Davidson Europe Ltd.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article it was estimated that over $1 billion is spent annually on Executive Coaching in the United States alone. It has become the recent ‘key initiative’. It also goes under the guise of business coaching, corporate coaching, executive mentoring, leadership consultancy or career coaching. It also seems to be working. In a study by Right Management Consultants they found that when executives were asked to assign a monetary value to the coaching they received, 70 percent of respondents estimated that the return on investment on their coaching was $100,000 or higher.
Well, OK, it’s hardly surprising that “the world’s largest career transition and organisational consulting” organisation would uncover this statistic, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this can be a very effective process for executives.
So, exactly what is executive coaching? Well first some things that executive coaching isn’t. It isn’t therapy. It isn’t just counselling, although there are elements of counselling involved. It isn’t just coaching for C.E.O.s in large Organisations.
Some useful definitions;
“It’s a professional relationship between a coach and an executive, or an executive team”.
“The essence of executive coaching is helping leaders get unstuck from their dilemmas and assisting them to transfer their learning into results for the organization.”
“Executive Coaching is aimed at inspiring executive leaders to make behavioural changes which transform themselves and the people around them thereby increasing business results and performance.”
All of these are useful and add insights. However the definition that works for me; “Executive coaching is defined as a helping relationship formed between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant who uses a wide variety of behavioural techniques and methods to assist the client achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal satisfaction and consequently to improve the effectiveness of the client’s organization within a formally defined coaching agreement.”

It’s vital to understand exactly what you mean by executive coaching. Like so many elements of training the clearer you are at the beginning of an intervention the easier it is in the long term. Once you’ve a clear understanding you need to ensure your client, coachee, executive understands it also. (I will use the terms coach and executive throughout).
Once you and the client you’re working with has a solid idea of what you can supply you need to set up the coaching. This needs to be managed carefully to get the best use of the time. The setting up can be an administrative nightmare if the coaching is for more than one person. There is a move that is gaining credence these days for executive coaching to be carried out within the Organisation. The benefits of this are fairly obvious;
For the Organisation; generally cheaper than external coaches, coaches know the Organisation, problems, easier to control and evaluate process;
For the executive: coached by someone that knows the Organisation;
For the coach: satisfaction helping another, increased left awareness, development of skills;
There are some disadvantages of this internal approach in that there could be relationship / authority problems with people being coached by colleagues, they may not have the skills required or more importantly may not be able to bring an external perspective and best practice to the executives.
For an external consultant this can still be is a useful opportunity to get involved at some level. There is an opportunity to transfer skills to coaches in workshops. This may well not be as ‘pure’ as we would like it, but there is an enormous payoff for the Organisation. The coaches do become a team and if they are carefully managed they can share experiences and become quite a formidable learning group in themselves.
The real dangers of this approach however are in the uncertain levels of skill demonstrated by the coaches. They will have different degrees of empathy, communication skills, etc. so, to some extent, the experience for some executives may not be perfect (There will be the argument that external coaches will also have a broad spectrum of skills as well. You can however choose external coaches based on experience whereas internal coaches will invariably be carrying out the process for the first time).
The other problem is in the administration of the project. Finding time for one busy executive can be difficult. Multiply that by a dozen coaches and a dozen executives and it can become a nightmare. It can work but there needs to be strong leadership from the centre that supports the process and gives the administrative team the power and authority they need to ensure things happen.
For trainers the practical elements would be;
Initial meeting with key administrator, project leader to determine exactly what needs to happen – numbers, culture
Design of first workshop for coaches to start equipping them with knowledge skills for coaching process. This will need input from administrator to deal with the ‘who/what/when/where” questions that inevitable rise.
Design of second workshop for coaches prior to their initial meeting with executives. This should focus on contracting, more skills, questions that will occur.
Design of short workshop for executives informing them of the overall purpose, aim, what will happen (again with input from administrator).
Design of follow up workshop(s) building on coaches experiences. Encouragement of shared experiences – what did you learn, etc. Input appropriate skills based on experiences.
Eventually the trainer will withdraw to leave self managed group to continue sharing experiences, etc..
This approach is equally valid for an Organisation’s mentoring programme where partnerships are encouraged between senior executives and ‘new’ executives with the potential to develop. This can be an extremely effective way of developing both sets of people in an Organisation, relatively cheaply, and as a trainer is a useful service to offer. It consists of a number of workshops, as outlined above, where the skills should be familiar – communication, managing relationships, etc. The key is in the relationship with the mentoring project leader – determining what they want, how they’ll get there and ensuring they will take responsibility for the every day administrative problems that inevitably crop up.
Returning to external coaching. You’ve had the invitation. You need to talk to the executive to determine if you are willing to accept the assignment. Depending on the set up of the Organisation you may have to negotiate with others to agree a contract – duration, cost, outputs etc… This is a good opportunity to discover the culture of the Organisation you will be working in. At this stage note everything. When you are first contact what approach is made? Is there one person in control or are you sent through a series of hoops? When you visit the Organisation (if you visit the Organisation) what are your first impressions? Are the posters up to date? Are security / reception helpful? Are they anticipating you? How are you treated on the first visit?
It’s vital to have an initial discussion with the executive and find out, in very general terms, what type of person they are and what approach works for them. Perhaps you could use MBTI, TMI or some other personality profiling instrument to get some idea of what approach they are most comfortable with.
Depending on this there will be a range of options you can use as a coach. Remember you adapt to their approach not the other way around. If they are structured, organised (thinkers in MBTI terms) the likelihood is that they’ll prefer lots of discipline, organisation, etc.
If they are more ‘N’ (intuitive) they may well be more comfortable with more creative, more flexible approaches. One such approach could be a symbolic representation – To the Lighthouse. This gives you a frame of reference to discuss.
Imagine the coaching is designed to help the executive complete a journey. This is a sea journey and the end point is the lighthouse. (I know you wouldn’t normally aim for a lighthouse on a sea journey – but it’s an end point – a beacon, if you like).
Your executive is in a boat and has to get to the lighthouse. There are some useful analogies you can use during the coaching process.
Firstly, as with any journey, you need to determine exactly where you are now. Frequently this isn’t given as much time as it should. People assume they know where they are. One of the early coaching sessions will be a challenge to the executive in this area. There are a variety of methods to use such as 360 degree feedback that we’ll look at in detail later.
The journey itself will never go in a straight line. In nautical terms you will encounter obstacles; rocks, islands, other boats, the elements; wind, tides, rain. So you will need to tack. To do this you need to know where you are, where you are aiming, and the current conditions in order to calculate your direction. This course may not be aimed directly at the target. You may need to allow for the wind, take advantage of some favourable tides to move you in a certain direction. The real learning here is about setting realistic directions and acknowledging factors around you.
If the executive buys into this approach of using analogies this can be a rich tool to build the relationship and share a common language. One client would always begin a session describing the past month in terms of the weather – “stormy”, “calm”. This throwaway line really helped build the relationship.
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2. EXECUTIVE COACHING – The Contract

The most important, perhaps the only, piece of documentation you will use in this process should be the contract drawn up between the coach and the executive. This should be the document that spells out exactly how you will work together. There should be a copy for both parties and should be available and open to amendment at each meeting. They really should be a working document.

There are many examples of this available and each has a slightly different focus. Do a little research. Compare and contrast and choose which works for you. For example…

• What type of assistance does the executive want from the coach?
• What expectations does the coach have of the executive?
• What expectations does the executive have of the coach?
• How often will you meet?
• When and where will you meet?
• For how long?
• Who will be responsible for scheduling your meetings?
• What will be the ground rules for your discussions?
• If problems arise, how will they be resolved?
• Any concerns the executive wants discussed and resolved?

These questions will allow the executive to think about the sessions and their responsibilities. There should also be an understanding that either party can terminate the arrangement if it’s not working for them.

On a pragmatic level you need to arrange your first meeting. Send the executive the contract and ask them to jot down some thoughts, anything about the coaching process they would like to discuss. Choose somewhere with no interruptions, set a time period and do it.
In essence the contract helps in setting up and establishing the initial relationship. It will also help define how both parties will work together. This will, of course, vary a great deal according to the relationship the coach has with the executive. Even if the coach knows the executive well I would still encourage them to go through a structured approach. If the coach doesn’t know the executive it is absolutely vital.
When a coaching situation goes wrong it takes a lot time and a lot of energy to regain the trust. If the relationship has broken down the damage can be permanent. Frequently the reason this happens is because both parties have different objectives from the situation. These objectives or goals needn’t be identical but they must be agreed and complimentary. For instance, as a coach Arsene Wenger’s objective will be for his team to win. Thierry Henry may have a personal target to score 30 goals a season. Both objectives are complementary – unless it gets to the stage where Henry tries to score at the expense of the rest of the team. Here we have different agendas and the coaching relationship is almost certain to fail unless the objectives are re-aligned.

When a coaching contract is set up, it really does pay dividends to go through a strict process. This process may seem too structured, laboured and painstakingly slow at the beginning. It will take a fair amount of time initially but when the coach gets into the habit it saves so much time and anxiety. Like most good habits the more it is used the easier it becomes and it will save time in the longer term.

A great amount of time and effort can be lost in the coaching process because the parties haven’t had a meaningful discussion. Both parties involved need to have effective ‘wanted and needed’, and ‘willing and able’ conversations. This is the key to a successful coaching relationship. Each person needs to establish exactly what output they want from the situation, by when, by whom and where the responsibilities lie.

Skilled coaches need to learn to handle this part of the conversation extremely effectively. They learn how to communicate skilfully by talking and listening and ‘staying in the conversation’ until they are totally sure of the goal. This can be difficult. How often have you been introduced to someone and not caught their name? Do you ask them to repeat it? How often? A skilled coach will ask for as long as it takes – we all know the problems if we don’t do this – We spend the rest of the evening avoiding the person, or feeling embarrassed when we talk to them. This can go on for weeks. I’ve known people that didn’t catch someone’s name on their first day at the office and as the weeks have gone by have become too embarrassed to ever ask them. A skilled coach is willing to ‘stay in the conversation’ even though they may feel uncomfortable. They may be tempted to back off and say “I understand” before they absolutely do, but will hang in there until it’s crystal clear.

The wanted and needed conversation allows the coach to establish what the executive truly needs, not just wants. The player may want to be better at everything – don’t we all. The coach needs to establish exactly what needs to happen for that to be possible, or get the executive to set more achievable goals. It’s a skilful and subtle conversation. It forces the executive to be precise and focused. There needs to be a great deal of skilful communication to tease this out. This starts with lots of open questions. These questions move from the general aspects to the specifics and will help engage the other in taking responsibility. A side-effect of this process is that it helps build and strengthen the relationship. In very general terms the questioning process may start with ………….
“How do you feel your career is progressing?”
“What are the most serious challenges you face?”
“Are there any particular problems you need to overcome?”
“What will happen if those problems aren’t addressed?”
“What do you need to do?”
“How can I help?”

Obviously it won’t be as simple as asking six questions. This is only the start of the process. These are the types of questions the coach is aiming to get some understanding about. The coach asks questions and listens to the replies. Invariably what the executive needs doesn’t match with what they think they want initially. The coach needs to keep questioning and listening until what the executive wants and needs completely overlap. At the end of the conversation the coach needs to be as specific as possible about the problem and ensure the executive is clear about the problem and what they truly want and need. Now there is something tangible to work with.

The next part of the discussion is about the coach’s willingness and ability to meet that request – a “Willing and Able Conversation.” The coach needs to honestly ask themselves whether they are willing and able to meet the request. They need to consider whether they have the necessary skills, knowledge, attributes to make it work. If they haven’t, then say so and try to work out a way to still help – suggest others, look at different approaches, but again they need to ‘stay in the conversation’. The really skilled coaches don’t stop and walk away until they are absolutely 100% sure they know what’s expected of them. They have learnt from experience that unless this happens the coaching won’t work as effectively as it could. Skilled coaches know that the ‘problem solving fairy’ won’t miraculously appear and sort things out when the problems are ignored. The problems just stay there and grow and grow. It’s a bit like the washing up you meant to do yesterday, or the day before – it won’t wash itself. It’ll just get a little harder to deal with each day. Coaches need to have those difficult conversations as soon as they arise – before they arise even.

So, the best coaches deal with these problems as they arise. They stay in the conversation until they’re happy and the executive is happy. This all seems so clear and sensible I know, but it can be difficult. The good thing though is that it does get easier. The more you do it – the easier it gets.

This initial discussion and the contract mustn’t be rushed. It is the cornerstone of the relationship. If it’s completed carefully and completely it gives the coaching process a far better chance of succeeding.

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3. EXECUTIVE COACHING –Coaching Skills

The first meeting, after the exploratory one, agreeing the contract should focus on the executive’s aspirations. This will focus on three basic questions;
Where are you now?
Where do you want to be?
How will you get there?

This could be attacked in a number of ways but the basic coaching process will revolve around these three questions. The approach of the coach will rely to a great extent on the learning style and personality preference of the executive. This is where the personality profiling you may have set up before hand will help. If the executive is more creative or intuitive (in personality type parlance) they will be more willing to buy into the approach mentioned in part one (The use of analogies or metaphors to help crystallise the process). Here the image of the lighthouse as the end point and the boat will work extremely well. They can identify where they are in terms of the skills, knowledge and attitudes they have and the challenges they face.

If the executive has a more practical or pragmatic preference they may not feel drawn to this approach and would prefer working with real, tangible data and less abstract concepts.

For whichever approach you choose it is important that the executive collects as much evidence about their current strengths and weaknesses. This can be carried out in a variety of ways. These are basically self assessments and other assessments. The executive should carry out some self-assessment using a variety of approaches. For example TMS, MBTI, or similar personality typing tools will give an insight into their particular preferences or manner of working.

As a coach it is useful to have a range of tools, techniques available as each coaching situation will produce a different challenge and a different range of skills and attitudes. For instance if the executive wants to work on improving their communication and presentation skills it would make sense if the assessment tool used is based around this particular aspect of their personality profile.

Whichever element, or elements they are keen to develop will inevitably involve some feedback from their peers, staff, customers and managers. This would indicate that a 360 degree feedback tool would be necessary.
360 degree feedback has been defined as “a process involving collecting perceptions about a person’s behaviour and the impact of that behaviour from the person’s boss or bosses, direct reports, colleagues, fellow members of project teams, internal and external customers, and suppliers. Other names for 360 degree feedback are multi-rater feedback, multi-source feedback, full-circle appraisal, and group performance review”
Which just about sums it up perfectly. This process may well trigger some initial resistance in the executive, especially if they haven’t encountered it before. There are anxieties around the people supplying the feedback, the use it will be put to, confidentiality aspects, etc. It is a very vulnerable situation the executive is being put into and you need to be aware of this vulnerability.
To help allay these fears you must convince the executive that the information, and the entire process you use, to gather and analyse it will be totally confidentially. It is also vital that you allow the executive to have as much control over the process as they can; they will agree the questions with you, they will choose the people for feedback themselves, and only you and them will have access to the results.

The question selected will be entirely relevant to the coaching. The executives will help select the questions with you and will work through these questions as they self assess themselves. In terms of the people they choose to ask for feedback, they are again in control. The executive will choose who they trust to give them the best feedback. It has been a myth that people involved in this process invariably choose friends, or people they feel will be ‘easier’ on this. This rarely proves to be the case. Perversely, executives tend to over compensate and fail to choose these people. As a coach it’s an interesting starting point for a discussion if there are obvious gaps in the people they choose to rate them. If it is because they are choosing the more ‘difficult’ raters encourage them to select others for a more balanced approach. If, on the other hand they are avoiding the more ‘difficult’ raters then encourage them to select others for a more balanced approach. If they have particular relationship problems with people they choose not to ask for feedback this is an area that could usefully be explored at a later stage.

It is important to continually emphasise that this process is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It is a tool that will allow the executive to get a snapshot of where they currently are.

As a thought on evaluation, when the whole coaching process nears its conclusion it may be worth considering repeating the 360 degree process to determine what progress has been made or if there are further areas for development.

Carrying out 360 degree feedback can be quite time consuming, demanding yet ultimately incredibly rewarding in terms of helping the executive. There are a number of ‘off the shelf’ versions available that can cost a great deal of money. However, if you have the time, and hopefully some administration support it would be well worth your while devising your own form. This will be based on an amalgam of other forms and should be adapted to the individual, the organisation and the coaching situation.
The questions will be related the specific aspect you are working with. It is usual that there is some standard scale for the answers, i.e. from 0 to 5 where 0 = ‘not at all’ to 5 = ‘perfect’, or similar scale. When asking these questions it can be a useful strategy to have 2 scales – one for competence and the other for importance.

For instance if you are looking at effective relationships and one section looks at communication, a set of questions could be;
“How effective is X at cascading information?“
“How important is it to you that X cascades information?”
This is particularly relevant when dealing with staff / management issues. It can also be extremely useful in the feedback session to challenge assumptions about what is important and what isn’t.

The 360 feedback process should be carried out and analysed by you prior to a meeting and the results sent, or ideally given, to the executive a day or so beforehand to allow them to prepare. The scorings will, of course, be made totally anonymous and the average ratings calculated.

The interview with the executive relaying the 360 degree information is important. The preparation must be as perfect as possible. There must be no way the executive can identify individuals. They may ask about individual scores, infer and look to you for confirmation or denial, but you cannot divulge this confidential information.
The emphasise must always be on looking at the scores and looking for what can be learnt and improved on. This involves a fair degree to active listening. It is a useful technique to focus on a few areas for development and a few areas where there appears to be little development needed. It is vital a sense of balance is maintained throughout the feedback process.

Once the executive has a sound understanding of where they are the next stage is generally a good deal easier; where they would like to be. The executive usually has a good understanding of where they would like to be, in vague terms. As a coach it is your task to help turn this nebulous concept into a reality.

Questions that will help should encourage the executive to focus on specific areas to improve within specific time frames. A very general thrust of a discussion would go;
So where do you see yourself in 1/ 2/ 5 years time?
What skills do you need to achieve that?
How can you acquire those skills?

This should help the executive gain an understanding of building a career plan. You can develop this conversation looking at how the skills will be acquired then focus on some practical issues ;who will help, how will they acquire these skills, in what time frame, what barriers could there be, how will they know when they have been successful, etc..

This process will form the basis of the executive coaching timetable. Each session after this will look at aspects relating to the information brought out here. Having a vision can be incredibly motivating for people. Especially for an executive who has found themselves trapped in the day to day routine and forgotten where they are going.

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4. EXECUTIVE COACHING – Softer Skills – part 1

Throughout the coaching process there are a number of skills the coach needs to be able to demonstrate for the process to be successful. These are often referred to as the ‘softer’ skills, although as you’re probably aware, there’s nothing easy or weak about these skills.

The coach will be continuously navigating the spectrum from INSTRUCTION at the one end to COUNSELLING on the other. The coach must adapt their style and approach to meet the needs of the executive.

There are a number of skills the coach must possess to enable them to build and maintain an effective relationship with an executive. The following is a list of techniques the coach should have mastery of;

1. establish empathy and rapport
2. actively listen
3. summarise
4. use questions extensively
5. encourage executive to reach conclusions themselves
6. allow mistakes
7. give feedback skilfully
8. when in doubt tell the truth

1. Establish empathy and rapport

You need to work with the executives to enable them to achieve their goals. There needs to be a rapport, empathy and mutual trust between you. It is very difficult to demonstrate how this works in practical terms. It is however incredibly easy to tell when they’re going wrong. When it isn’t working there will inevitably be some level of upset in the executive.

This level of upset will vary considerably. However there are basically three likely cause of any upset;
A broken agreement. This can be written or unwritten, formal or informal, spoken or unspoken. It will include lies and perpetrations. Once the agreement has been acknowledged as broken it must be discussed and tidied up. If this isn’t managed the likelihood of the relationship getting back on track is remote. For instance it could be that you, as a coach, have unintentionally discussed some aspect of the coaching with another party, or it has been perceived that you have. This is obviously bad news and should never have happened – however things happen so how do you recover? To recover you need to make an effective apology. This consists of an acknowledgement that you have broken the agreement and a commitment to address the problem proactively; “So what can I do now that will make this work?” In this case it may be an explanation of your actions, your understanding of the situation as it stands now and an assurance that this won’t happen again. In all aspects it comes down to a sincere acknowledgement and then a discussion of the way forward. It doesn’t help to wallow in guilt and self blame. You need to find a way to move on. If this isn’t possible it may be a time to terminate the agreement.

The other cause of upset that is likely to affect the relationship is unfulfilled expectations. This would be the situation where the executive expects something from you that you don’t fulfil, or the other way around. As a coach you will have a certain level of expectations from the executive in terms of behaviour, attitude, etc… For instance you would expect them to turn up on time for the arranged meetings, behave in a civil manner toward you, maintain confidentiality, etc… The executive would have a similar understanding of your behaviours. Again this could be write or unwritten, verbalised or implied. If possible talk about the behaviour you expect of each other – it could save some time and grief later on. It would be extremely useful for the initial discussion to address some of these issues.

The third cause of upset which could affect the coaching indirectly is blocked goals. If the executives fail to achieve any of the goals they have set they will experience some level of upset. This will have an effect on the discussions. They may well look to blame external factors – such as you for their failure and this is where you need to use some of the further skills to address this.

Avoiding these upsets will go a long way toward building and maintaining an effective relationship. If the relationship is failing look for causes of upset and address them. One way to establish if the executive is experiencing some degree of upset is to listen. This doesn’t just mean hearing the words.

2 Actively listen

Listening is an active not a passive process and is a skill like any other. The more you practice effective listening the better you will become at it. Below is a checklist that demonstrates what effective listeners do;

Effective listeners
pay attention to detail
listen completely first and reflect
show interest
seek clarification

Pay attention to detail

Effective listeners are awake to differences in the behaviour of the other. In an obvious example if an executive is usually lively and talkative but at one particular meeting is quieter, note it. Pay attention to the body language. There are a whole host of books out there analysing and dissecting body language. For me the main aspect is how you, as the observer, feel about it. If the executive is talking about how positive the next phase of a particular project will be, yet there’s something in their mannerisms, posture, eyes, that tell you otherwise – address that. This doesn’t have to be carried out in a threatening way;

“When you were enthusing over the next phase I had a feeling that that’s not exactly what you were thinking. Am I wrong?” Would lead to a discussion. It could be that you were wrong and they can convince you otherwise. At least in this way you’ve discussed it and satisfied yourself. As you get to know the individual you can look for more subtle differences. Again look and discuss.

Listen completely first

However tempting it is to offer advice and solve the problem – don’t. Listen, listen, listen. It involves a great deal of effort not to complete the story after you’ve heard the opening few sentences. This is a little like stereotyping. You get a few pieces of information and then fill in the rest of the picture based on your experiences, prejudices. Listen to the whole story and then think about what you’ve heard, what you’ve not heard, the gaps and how the information has been related to you.

Show interest

It’s not enough to be interested you need to show how interested you are. You mustn’t be so involved in the process of listening that you forget to show how interested you are. A useful technique to help this is to paraphrase and reflect. When you paraphrase you repeat what the executive is saying in your own words to show you understand and to show that you’re interested. Don’t paraphrase continuously – you’ll sound like a parrot. Paraphrase when appropriate, e.g. If there’s been a particularly technical explanation then check for clarity. Above all – listen to yourself – if it feels the right time to check out, check out.
Reflecting is an advanced form of paraphrasing. When you paraphrase you echo the words. When you reflect you echo the feelings. For instance of you ask how the other is and they say “OK”, but in a subdued manner the reflecting response may be; “Well you don’t seem all right. Are you sure?” Reflecting is a difficult skill that involves paying attention to small details. It over all the other is a skill that is learnt with experience and courage.

Seek clarification

If you don’t understand – ask. This ties in nicely with the paraphrasing. Make no assumptions. Even if you feel it sounds a ridiculous question ask it. You need to stay in the conversation until you really, truly understand. Don’t be tempted to feel that you’ve nearly got it and you can work out the rest.

These techniques are to use in your toolbox. Use them when appropriate – but the key is to have the right attitude. If you do make a mistake but your intention is to be helpful the other will be more inclined to forgive you. If your intentions are less than helpful it doesn’t matter how good your technique is it will be difficult to maintain the relationship.
There’s the story of the manager having attended a week long training event on just this and coming back determined to get the technique right. On his first day back one of his salespeople lost a big order. The manager asked to see him in his office. Usually this would mean a shouting and a firing. On this day he applied these skilful techniques. At the end of it as the salesman was beaming and ready to go back out and do anything for his boss when the boss said “Oh one more thing. You screw up again you’re fired!”

Ensure your intention is right before anything else.

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5. EXECUTIVE COACHING – Softer Skills – part 2

3 Use questions extensively

Questioning skilfully is a major element of coaching. To question effectively you need to listen skilfully and process information efficiently. The one overriding element is to be absolutely open and honest. Ask yourself why you are asking the question? If you are asking for any other reason than to help the other then it simply won’t work. People ask questions for a number of wrong reasons; to show off, to give a false impression, to try to put people down, etc… When asking questions the focus should be on what’s going to help the executive. Asking questions to establish empathy, to gain knowledge, help the executive think about their actions are valid reasons when coaching.

So, as tempting as it may be to show off it doesn’t add any value and ultimately will detract from the relationship. As a coach your role could be a counsellor or simply a blank wall to bounce thoughts off. Whichever role you are in you need to really understand. Asking questions will support this.

For instance in a counselling role you would use questions around the 3 stage counselling model – “Where Are You? Where Do You Want To Be? How Will You Get There?” to help the executive establish as clearly as possible where they were. This is a difficult role as you really have to trust that this process works. The executive does have that information somewhere in them and you are just there to bring it out. Questions really do help.

The other time you ask questions is to challenge the executive. You may need to determine what their reasoning for some action is or trying to find why they have chosen a particular option. You will be skilfully challenging and supporting their actions. This will happen when you’ve built a strong rapport and trust with the executive.

4. Encourage executives to reach conclusions themselves

The challenging and support skills will help the executive to reach the conclusions and actions they need to take themselves. A useful technique you can use involves questioning the executive in a structured manner. This is a technique that encourages the executive to take ownership of the problem;
You begin the process with a general discussion on the current situation; what is happening now? What’s likely to happen in the future? This may well arise naturally in the opening few minutes of a session. It will be for you to focus the discussion on the executives’ goals. What is happening at the moment that affects them?
Once you have established the context you can probe a little further and determine what the particular difficulties are; what will prevent them reaching their goal? What skills don’t they have at the moment? Which areas do they need more knowledge about? Ask the executive these questions. They should then begin to identify the key problem areas.
The next stage asks them to think carefully about this and what would happen if these difficulties weren’t assessed. This is an important stage as it helps make the problem real. It helps clear the ‘magic thinking’ people sometimes have when discussing problems. Once this is determined they should have a very clear idea of the importance of the problem.
Finally you need to ask them what they need to do to address these issues: This will form the basis of an action plan. It is important that you ask what they need – they need to own this. Perhaps you can help but it is for them to negotiate this with you. A danger if you take ownership is an increased element of reliance on you.

5. Allow Mistakes

Mistakes will happen. You are human and you will make mistakes. So will the executive. It is important that you build a strong relationship where they feel they can take risks. An important aspect in building this relationship is how you manage mistakes. They will happen and the focus must be on what you need to do to rectify the error not ‘whose fault was it’.
The vital element to this is speed of recovery. For instance in a commercial sense mistakes can often yield unexpected bonuses. How often do you remember a company that made a mistake and recovered by rectifying that mistake and offering you extra to compensate? You’ll tell ten people. They’ll tell another ten and so on. Similarly you need to deal with mistakes in a blameless way looking for ways to turn potential disaster into a benefit.

6. Give feedback skilfully

“Give feedback with love and without compromise” was a maxim I have been familiar with in recent years. If ‘love’ seems too strong a word for this then substitute ‘respect’. For me it’s comes down to looking at the intention behind giving feedback. If your intention is not to help the executive then you can’t give it. Don’t be tempted into the ‘looking clever’ route. You should give feedback to someone because you want them to do something differently, or want them to keep on doing what they’re already doing. This must be your sole intention.

Feedback used to be very ‘technical’ with a list of rules – It must be specific, it must be observed, it must be something the other can do something with, etc.. – all admirable qualities. I would suggest that in this coaching process it needs to go further.

I would suggest that feedback has to be intuitive as well as specific. If it isn’t you loose a great deal. For instance it could be that you just have a feeling that the executive isn’t comfortable giving presentations. It may be nothing you can point to – just a gut feeling. In traditional feedback terms you would have to ignore that feeling. I suggest you give that feedback; “I have a feeling that you’re not comfortable giving presentations.” You can then discuss this and if you’re correct maybe look at ways to help.

7. When in doubt tell the truth

The final aspect could well be part of the feedback mechanism but as it’s so intrinsic to the whole process I’ve treated it as a separate entity.
When in doubt tell the truth, when not in doubt tell the truth. This, again, is to do with listening to yourself and your intuitions. This needs experience, courage and a certain amount of self-confidence. It involves listening to that little voice in your head. If you’re not sure about something say “I’m not sure about this.” If you don’t understand say “I don’t understand”.
It works especially well giving feedback. Often you will need to know what was going on in the executives mind when they asked a particular question, or described a certain event. Ask them what their thought process was. It really does work.

These are the softer skills that will be at play in every situation you are in with the executive. You need to be flexible and use each technique when appropriate. You need to be alert, listen and react. It is a dynamic process. There will be times when you will be a counsellor, an instructor, etc. Whichever role you happen to be in these skills will help. The aim of these skills is to get clarity about the situation. Your aim is to get the executive to see exactly what they want. Help them to be clear about their problems, their future, their aspirations. Then get them to be as precise as possible about their vision and goals. Then they need to have a precise plan about how they will achieve their vision. It’s a selfless task and often you won’t get rewarded for it. “I did all the work myself” they will say. It’s just you doing your job.

Above all don’t forget “When in doubt tell the truth. When not in doubt, tell the truth.”

***

6. EXECUTIVE COACHING – Blockages, Endings and Evaluation

Blockages


Throughout the coaching process there will be times when the process seems to loose momentum. However well prepared the method is there will be times when there will be blockages. The process stalls and you need a new approach. It will be useful if you have a few techniques ‘up your sleeve’ to kick-start the process. The following two techniques are simple, straightforward and involve little preparation;
The first technique involves using Kaufman’s Organisational Elements Model. This is a very simple, clear process that allows you and the executive to step away from the detail for a little while and make sure you’re still on track. It’s too easy to get drawn into the detail. This allows you to take a step back, take your nose out of the puddle and see the pond.
Kaufman uses a familiar model, used in many computing, engineering or social science processes to describe a way of working;
INPUTS – PROCESSES – PRODUCTS – OUTPUTS – OUTCOMES
These are the stages involved in any process. Traditionally people start at the beginning and work their way through. Kaufman urges people took look at it differently. Kaufman suggests that working backwards through this model can give a totally different view of the problem. For instance if there is a problem where the executive finds promotion impossible this can be analysed by working backward through the model.
As a coach you will need to question all assumptions. If the executive sees the Outcome of the coaching process as promotion, ask why? Ask what promotion will give them? By challenging and asking the executive to define and refine their outcome they may arrive at some surprising conclusions. Perhaps promotion is important because it will provide more money. This could be important as the executive has ambitions for a bigger house, or to retire early, or feels they need the prestige. Try to find precisely what the OUTCOME is. There may well be other ways of achieving more money, early retirement, more prestige.

This then is the real outcome, not the promotion. The promotion would be an Output, or even a product.
Once the executive has determined the real Outcome move backward through the model to determine the Outputs needed to achieve this. Continue to work backward and define the products needed. These products could be qualifications, training events, etc… Then the processes required, and finally the inputs. This should be a challenging discussion and force the executive to take a different look at their problem. This often gives people a different perspective on the difficulties.
The second technique can be used if the executive feels they are stuck. This is a way of identifying and breaking down the barriers the executive perceives are stopping them achieving their goals. Often these barriers aren’t physical or tangible. Frequently these barriers are psychological – “I can’t do this because we’ve never done it before”.
A way of enabling the executive to overcome these barriers is to make them explicit and movable. The following process also shows the executive that they have far more control over their situation than they think.
Work through the following process with the executive;
– Ask the executive to list the barriers to them achieving their goal.
– List these on a flipchart – aim for 200 (you won’t achieve 200 but by saying this you’ll allow the executive to put down more thoughts than they would initially).
– Go through the list one by one marking each barrier with a C (Control) an I (Influence) or nothing. Explain that if they have total control over a barrier you should mark it C. If they can influence it in any way at all – an email, a discussion, any influence at all – they should mark it as an I. Anything else is blank.
– Cross out all the barriers without a C or I (there will usually be none, or very few). Of the remainder ask the executive what are the three barriers that would have the biggest effect on them achieving their target?
– Identify these three and plan what they can do to break down these barriers.

Endings


To ensure the best possible ending both parties need to be prepared for it. It needs to be talked about in terms of what happens next, how the executive’s development will be maintained, etc… Endings can frequently be messy and cause a great deal of unease if they are not managed effectively. In psychological terms there needs to be ‘closure’ and a clean ending. If there isn’t and there are incompletions this will have an effect on the energy and commitment of the executive to move on.
A useful model that explains this is William Bridges transitions model. Transitions are inevitably messy and can lead to a fair amount of unhappiness and difficulty. Bridges argues that the challenge is not so much the change itself but the unknown factors surrounding the change that causes the upset. He describes the three stages as; endings, the neutral zone and new beginnings. It is important to recognise that every new beginning has to have an ending. The new beginning for the executive is the continuation of their development without the coach. To achieve this there is a need to recognise and celebrate the old way and the ending of the involvement of the coach. Perhaps this analysis tends to over dramatise the situation but there will be elements of this in all change, and there are potential dangers if these aspects are not addressed.
To ensure the transition is carried out effectively a timetable should be set and a plan for ongoing process agreed. Hopefully there will be another person who can continue the support (perhaps the executive’s manager). In practical terms you need to implement a structure that will cover the transition. This structure should be straightforward and based on the initial contract. Elements of this will come out during the evaluation process described below.
Evaluation


Depending on the individuals and the Organisation there could be a formal or an informal assessment of the coaching process (I would guess in most cases some formal record would be required). As the coach there are a number of areas to explore;
In terms of the learning throughout the experience – What has been helpful? How will you be able to apply this?
In terms of the process – What worked well? What not so well? What could be done differently?

In terms of outcomes, agreements and the learning plan the focus will be on the three step process described before; where are you now? Where do you want to be? How will you get there? The difference now is describing how this will happen without the support of the coach.
Where you are now is a great indicator of where the executive is in terms of the goals agreed in the initial contract. This is where the real value of this document comes into play.
Are the goals different now? If the goals set initially have been reached or surpassed then what next? What are the new challenges for the coach? This may incorporate some feedback they have received from the coach in the final few sessions.

In terms of how to achieve these new goals – what support mechanisms will there be now for the executive?

Another aspect of this – one which should be separate from the previous assessment is an assessment of the effectiveness of the coach by the executive and anyone else involved in the process, line manager, etc. If possible it would be useful building this into the contract at the beginning otherwise this aspect could get neglected. A short basic form should be designed to look at aspects such as; what did they do well? What worked what didn’t? What would they do differently?

There should also be some self-assessment by the coach. The coach should address the following questions;
– reflecting on the coaching process;
– what worked?
– what didn’t?
– what could they have done?
– are there any gaps they’re identified in their knowledge?
– what did the feedback reveal?

On the completion of the coaching the coach should discuss all aspects with their manager (if they have one). If the coach does not have a manager it would be a useful process to meet with coaches in a similar situation and work through this process.
There may be some development needs that come out of this that the coach may want to address; Are there any areas of interest to pursue? Are there any particular challenges they would like to face? Any training needs they may have identified?

Finally – update your c.v…

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One thought on “Executive Coaching – a 6 part series

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