“Every famous performer, every famous athlete has someone who is a coach“
said Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Chairman of Alphabet, famously in a Fortune interview.
Compared to the sports world, the business world has still some catching up to do when it comes to coaching. However, increasingly business leaders understand the benefits of working with a personal coach, too. And whilst the effectiveness of coaching has been proven in numerous studies , not every executive coaching assignment turns out to be successful.
If executive coaching does not work as expected, it is frustrating for the leader, their coach, and for the organization that pays for the coaching. So watch out for these three common pitfalls when starting your executive coaching engagement.
Executive Coaching Pitfall #1: Unclear Expectations and Objectives
With your decision to invest in executive coaching, you have decided to invest in your leadership development. That’s great. But what do you actually want to get out of the coaching? How will a great (or at least a good enough) return on investment for the coaching look like?
- “I want to improve my leadership skills.”
- “Alan needs to manage his team more effectively.”
- “Mary has been identified as a high potential, and we want to make sure we utilize her full leadership capabilities.”
These are great and well-intended objectives which executive coaches hear very often. But none of these goals is specific enough. A professional coach will probe further:
- What does improved leadership skills, effective team management, or fully utilized potential look like exactly?
- How will we know that we have achieved this?
There is nothing wrong with not having all the answers immediately. In fact, may be part of the purpose of the executive coaching is to actually help you identify your specific goals. Perhaps you start your coaching journey with a thorough 360 degree feedback, stakeholder interviews, or assessments like Hogan or MBTI®, and only after you have received the results from these assessments, you will understand what precisely you have to work on.
However, some people do not want to “go there”, and they are just looking for a quick fix. “Oh, I’ll know it when I’ll see it” is my worst case scenario when I ask about how to measure the success of the coaching. Sorry, answers like these are not good enough and only sets you/your leader up for failure.
A gut feeling approach does not work. At the end of the day, you do not measure your business results based on your gut feeling either, do you? Your business deserves to be monitored by “hard” KPIs, and so does your leadership development.
Executive Coaching Pitfall #2: Lack of Buy-In/Lack of Will
Executive coaching is a positive development tool, not a last resort to “fix” derailing behavior. However, whilst most leaders will feel honored when their company invests in their development, not everybody gets overly excited about working with a coach. And it is a perfect recipe for disaster to assign a coach to someone who does not want coaching, or is not willing to do what it takes to make a coaching assignment successful.
Let’s say Tony has been identified as high potential in your organization. Senior management has complete trust in his capabilities, but senior management is also convinced that for Tony to take broader responsibilities, he will have to further polish his communication skills when dealing with key stake-holders.
In a kick-off session Tony, Jane, the external executive coach, and John, the company’s CHRO, discuss and agree on specific objectives for the assignment. So far so good. The coaching starts out well initially, but after a while Jane notices that Tony is not very responsive to her emails, and he keeps postponing coaching sessions. At first she attributes this to Tony being simply super busy with a capacity expansion project which he is leading.
Three months into the coaching though, Jane realizes that Tony is not making the desired progress, and she invites Tony for some ‘truth talk’. In a frank and candid conversation, Tony admits that he never really believed that coaching would help him, but he also felt he could not say ‘no’ to senior management who had apparently made the decision for coaching already without him. Both conclude that it will not make sense to continue the coaching under the current circumstances.
Such a situation is frustrating for everyone: the coachee is not making progress, the coach, whose success is often measured by the progress of their clients, is at risk of losing their good reputation, and the company which pays for the coaching is wasting money.
I have seen companies trying to tackle this issue by monitoring the coaching hours of their leaders in the coaching program. In my experience, this is not helping: someone who needs the external pressure or control as motivator to show up for coaching sessions is not really ready for coaching.
So how do you avoid this pitfall then?
By simply having an open and honest discussion upfront. Create an environment in which the potential coachee is offered the opportunity to work with a coach — without feeling forced to do so. The coachee should have a chance to say ‘no’ without any repercussions.
In addition, your leaders should have a say in the selection of their coach. Coaching can become very personal very quickly, and if the chemistry is not right, the coaching will not get results. Just being “assigned” a coach rarely works out. You can shortlist some qualified executive coaches for them, but in the end the individual leader should make the final decision about who they want to work with.
Executive Coaching Pitfall #3: Under-Estimating the Time Needed
If only leaders could be more like children. Children seem to naturally understand that learning takes time. A toddler can’t be bothered with the fact that learning to walk on two feet seems incredibly difficult. Instead, the toddler keeps practicing baby steps (literally), and along the way he/she utterly enjoys even the smallest progress made.
Adults tend to forget that learning takes time. Initially, leaders may not know what they need to do to become a more effective leader, but once they do, they want to master any new skill overnight.
No matter how smart you are, you have to face the reality that there is not short-cut to learning, and improving as a leader with the help of a professional coach is a learning process. Becoming the best leader you can be requires developing new, more productive behaviors, and abandoning unproductive habits. And for most people that is more difficult and takes more time than they think. They do not remember how long it took them to walk on two feet.
So knowing what to do is not enough. You need to practice, practice, practice, and you need to receive candid feedback along the way. You’ll need to reinforce what’s working, and develop new strategies for whatever it is that’s not working.
Executive coaching will only work for you and get the results you desire when you invest sufficient time. Unfortunately, 100% of my clients have one thing in common: they are extremely busy, and probably so are you.
Thus, before you embark on a coaching journey you have to ask yourself honestly if you are willing to invest the time needed too succeed. Because if you want to add a few hours of coaching every month to your already busy schedule, you will have to do some serious re-prioritization. Are you ready for this?
If you want executive coaching for yourself or for others leaders in your organization to be successful, you need
- to be clear on what you expect specifically as a result of the coaching
- to make sure that the coachee fully buys in into the coaching and is willing to do what it takes to make this endeavor is successful
- to make sure that everybody involved understands that for most people change requires more time than they think, and make sure that people are able and willing to invest the time needed.
 see e.g. Peterson, D. B. & Kraiger, K . (2004). A practical guide to evaluating coaching: Translating state-of-the-art techniques to the real world. In J. E. Edwards, J. C. Scott, & N. S. Raju (Eds.), The human resources program-evaluation handbook (pp. 262-282). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
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