Devil's Advocate: Executive Coaching

Another article in the 'Devil's Advocate' series, this time focusing on Executive Coaching. The purpose is not to discount or discredit the approach - it is, of course one of the services offered by HBC - but to highlight some of the issues to think about when considering its use.
This month I provide an introduction to the topic of Executive Coaching, and in next month's article I will examine the potential pitfalls and the role of HR.

What is Executive Coaching?
A personal one-to-one development service completely tailored to the needs of the individual. It usually takes the form of a series of meetings over a several month timeframe, but can also be offered on an ad hoc basis to provide coaching in relation to a particular challenge. Some coaching is now offered by telephone, either as an alternative or a complement to face-to-face sessions. Executive coaching usually refers to support provided by an external coach.

Is it only for Executives?
Obviously coaching can be of potential benefit to anyone in the organisation, but there are particular characteristics of Executives that mean that coaching, especially coaching by someone external to the organisation can be particularly appropriate to their needs.

  • Firstly Executives are typically highly time-constrained. Finding time in their agenda for off-the-job development can be difficult. Because coaching sessions are in several 'chunks' of a few hours each, they can more readily be fitted in. Coaching is also time-efficient in that the session is entirely focused on the individual's needs, so there is no time wasted on irrelevant topics.

  • The nature of development at senior levels tends to be more about behaviour than knowledge or techniques - much of which will have been covered earlier in their career. Behavioural change takes place over time, and so is better supported by a process of continuous development over a several month time-frame, than by a 'one-off' activity such as a course.

  • Executives are often surprised to learn just how 'observed' they are. They are highly visible in the organisation and many people take their cue from the behaviour of senior leaders and are impacted by their decisions. It follows that a small improvement in their performance can have a significant impact on the organisation, which helps cost-justify the high price tag of a customised individual service.

  • For similar reasons, executives can feel quite sensitive about exposing their development needs to others - after all, they are 'supposed to know'. Even when coaching skills exist in the organisation, say in the HR department, executives are often reluctant to bare their souls to someone with whom they will have to work afterwards, and who is often junior to them in the organisation.

  • Finally, executives can often feel particularly isolated. Much of their agenda is confidential so there are few people with whom they can discuss their work. Coaching from their own manager may be in short supply and direct reports may be too mindful of the power relationship with their manager to give honest and direct feedback. Too often promotion to a more senior role means that the challenges increase while the support falls away

What is it used for?
There is a range of potential applications of Executive Coaching. It can be used to:

  • Accelerate the development of high-fliers

  • Help an executive get to grips quickly with the demands of a new role

  • Rethink and redirect a career path - this includes individualised outplacement support

  • Work with executives who have few other sources of support available e.g. those who are remotely managed, or those in sole charge of a venture.

  • Bring about across-the board performance improvements

  • Improve performance in a specific area eg. team leadership, personal impact

  • Address a problem area eg. a difficult relationship

  • Support an executive during a particularly challenging period eg. an overseas assignment, a merger

  • Prepare an executive to take on a new activity eg. Media handling

  • Provide a confidential sounding board to discuss sensitive or strategic issues

  • Respond to an ad hoc requirement - although some would exclude this from the definition of Executive Coaching, it is a customised, confidential, one-to-one service, simply shorter term than the typical assignment. Examples might include helping an Executive prepare for a promotion interview, or 'rehearsing' a particularly important presentation or negotiation.

How does it work?
Although there can be some exceptions, coaching usually takes place in several sessions of a few hours each over a several month time-frame. Often a coach will use some diagnostic techniques such as 360-degree feedback, psychometric instruments, direct observation or interviews. For some needs, videos or role-plays may be appropriate.
However, the whole point about Executive Coaching is that it is designed to meet specific individual needs, so the precise approach can vary. Also, very diverse individuals offer coaching services and their personal style and particular repertoire of skills will colour their approach.

    Next month:
    When to use a coach.
    How to choose a coach.
    Why is Executive Coaching so expensive?
    What can go wrong with coaching - at the individual level and at the organisational level?
    What is the role of HR?
    How can HR ensure good professional practice?

Published on HBC Web-site 04/2000

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