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5 steps that make Executive Coaching a performance tool (and not a luxury item)!

A recent conversation with a friend and senior HR leader brought me face to face with the (mis)perception of executive coaching. The upshot of the discussion was that Coaching doesn't fit in when the organisation is in the rough and tumble of business, trying to keep wheels turning. That coaching is like a reward, something that's done when the hard work is over and it’s time to kick back, relax and smell the roses!

This conversation took me back to a time not too long ago when I was part of a team tasked with diagnosing a business decline. To cut a long story short, the results of an otherwise healthy business unit had nose-dived and the debris told a story of CEOs inability to hold their team accountable and manage poor performance. This was surprising as much as it was disturbing. The appointment was part of an intricate succession plan and the person was known for their sharp intellect, business acumen and change skills.

The incident rang a number of alarm bells. Was our talent identification flawed? Are we looking at the right behaviours and in the right places for our leaders? What could we have done differently? More importantly, what can we do for this not to recur? The one that caught our eyes was a deep-seated belief that senior executive appointees were ready now and ‘fully developed’ for what they are stepping into. That they will learn on the job whatever 'soft' stuff the role threw at them. That 'development' was about preparing for future roles than enhancing performance in current ones.

By implication, leaders were expected to walk on water and ‘figure out’, among other things, the bits about leading a multicultural diverse team in a foreign environment as a matter of routine. Obviously, it didn't go that way. The failure was expensive and the organisation lost millions in earnings and an otherwise exceptional talent. Could the situation be averted had we employed a suitable intervention to change leader behaviour? I think so.

As the business environment becomes more complex and challenging, the demands from leadership are of a higher standard than ever before. The risk of assuming that a leader is a fully developed finished product is high and fraught with danger. For us, the learning from this 'hard knock' led to measurable, results based coaching becoming embedded in leadership development and effectiveness programmes as an ongoing element. 

The results were there to see, business performance and leadership effectiveness scores were stronger. The knock on effect on building a high-performance culture and engagement was clear, and the organisation was more capable and ready to take on newer challenges.

There is some real evidence available on how coaching can change behaviour. As per Marshall Goldsmith’s research with 11,000 leaders across 4 continents, 95% of executives who used stakeholder centred coaching improved their leadership effectiveness. Here are some tips to help you achieve the most from your executive coaching investment.

  1. Identify the ‘Big Y’. Hardwire coaching to the business goal. Whether it is to quadruple your revenue, gain market share, develop high-performance products or increase your NPS (Net Promoter Score), work backwards from this goal to define the leadership behaviours that senior executives need to develop to perform to a high standard in their role.

  2. Is the leader 'coachable'? While some resistance to change is natural, it’s not uncommon to find leaders who are too set in their ways. With a clear business goal on the line, the decision point with such leaders isn't so much about coaching but whether they are the right people to start with.

  3. Limit the number of behaviours. Work with 1-2 behaviours per leader. Behaviour change is simple, but not easy. Having more behaviours can derail development and spread efforts too thin. A good coach will help to identify & prioritise these behaviours and break it down into measurable steps to track and improve.

  4. Set targets & measure often. It’s vital to hold the feet of the leader and by extension, the coach, to the fire to make sure that the intended change occurs. As much of leadership is reputation and brand from observable actions, i.e., what others think, the change needs validation and evidence from stakeholders. A mix of informal check-ins and rigour for formal measurement with stakeholders is an essential part of making behaviour change occur and stick.

  5. Hire the right Coach. As an in-house HR practitioner for 20 years, I was constantly on the lookout for Coaches with a business case. Similar to the CEO in the example above, an impeccable corporate career is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for one. Look for professionals who are keen to understand your business and ready to put some skin in the game.

Behaviour change requires humility, courage and discipline. And whilst there is no substitute for the school of hard knocks, the next best (and less painful) way is to have someone who knows how to navigate them effectively.

Lastly, coaching is not an 'interference with one’s time' but a 'must-have leadership skill' to communicate, make decisions, execute, perform and make the leader and the company more successful.

I look forward to your views and experiences on Executive Coaching.

Interim President's Message Dec 2018
Building your inner coach | Brett Ledbetter | TEDx...
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