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Executive Coaching

Executive coaching as a means to improve one’s skills and abilities is a fairly recent phenomenon within organizations as a favorable activity for up-and-comers or personnel in the C-Suite.  In the 1970’s companies rarely talked about coaching for their executives, although it is suspected that the practice occurred, but behind a veil where it was not studied or discussed.  In the 1990’s executive coaching started to receive more attention.  Executive coaching was a tool used oftentimes as a last resort for executives who had behavioral issues or personalities which threatened the dynamics or culture of an organization.  However, since the beginnings of the twenty-first century, executive coaching is being used as a developmental tool for high-potential employees and executives transitioning to new roles, taking on additional responsibilities, or in need of exercising additional influence within the organization.  In the ever-changing business environment it is expected that executive coaching will be needed for many managers and executives as they navigate their road to the C-Suite and within the C-Suite.  A study by Stanford Leadership Development & Research and the Miles Group found that "Nearly Two-Thirds of CEOs Do Not Receive Outside Leadership Advice – But Nearly All Want It".

Elements of a Successful Executive Coaching Relationship

The ultimate purpose of enlisting an executive coach is to assist in improving the personal and professional growth of managers and executives which will positively influence their leadership, co-workers and direct reports.  It is important when entering into a executive coaching relationship that the manager or executive is prepared for the investment (both financially and emotionally) just as in a successful venture.  Therefore, managers and executives should think of success in four major areas of the relationship:

The Executive Coach

The Manager or Executive

The Relationship between the Coach and the Manager or Executive

Organizational Support

The Executive Coach

The Executive Coach should be selected based on their ability to identify an effect approach for coaching.  A Harvard Business Report recommends that if a coach is unable to identify the methodology they will use, then organizations should continue looking for a coach that can articulate their approach for coaching.  The methodology could be through 360 degree feedback or psychological assessment or other reputable methods.  However, they should be able to easily respond to this question.  Furthermore, it is important that the coach is trustworthy.  The coach and the manager or executive will likely share intimate aspects of their professional life, and possibly their personal life, and the coach should be able to be seen as one that will keep the appropriate confidences.  Equally important is the ability of the coach to demonstrate commitment to the employee being coached.  This commitment will help to garner commitment from the employee being coached.  Lastly, the coach needs to be someone that communicates effectively with the manager or executive being coached and should have a way to motivate others to perform their best while overcoming barriers to their success.

The Manager or Executive

It is important when entering a coaching relationship that manager or executive coach is also committed to the process of being coached.  They should “have fierce desire to learn” as stated in the Harvard Business Review Research Report, in order to be open to the feedback given by the assessment methodology.  Finally, the manager or executive needs to have an open-mind to solving problems.  Given the goals of enlisting an executive coach is to prepare for the next position or role, or to be more effective within the organization, it is important that the coached manager or executive can demonstrate an ability to welcome new ideas to solve problems.

Benefits of Executive Coaching

It is said that the explosion of the executive coaching activity occurred because it simply works.  Executive coaches use tools and methodologies such as 360-degree feedback or psychological assessments to guide the coaching relationship.  In fact research shows that executive coaching results in improved productivity and increased leadership effectiveness.  In addition, research found that executive coaching resulted in managers and executives who are more likely inclined to set specific goals, request areas of improvement from their leadership and receive higher ratings from those who reported to them and their direct leadership.  These results come from studies who interviewed the manager or executive who was coached as well as the leaders, co-workers, and staff of the manager or executive who was coached.

The Coach and Manager or Executive Relationship

The crux of success for executive coaching comes through the relationship between the coach and the manager or executive.  The relationship begins with ensuring that the selected coach (either by the client or the client’s organization) is a good match with the manager or executive to be coached.  Based on a Harvard Business Review Research Report, it is not recommended that coaches are selected purely based on reputation or experience.  Instead, the client and the coach need to ensure that an open, honest, and authentic relationship can develop, allowing the client to successfully learn and grow.

Organizational Support

Finally, it is important that the organization of the manager or executive supports the executive coaching experience and relationship.  In addition to financial support, companies may need to avail themselves to providing people within the organization that can respond to the assessment methodology, which usually serves as the basis of the relationship.  Finally, the culture of the organization should support the recommendations of the coach allowing the manager or executive to prepare, learn, and grow.  



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"Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on."   
Maxwell Maltz


Executive coaching is a personalized, informative, and invaluable experience. While as an executive coach we confront many different challenges faced by executives, surprisingly one common issue of executives is that of confidence in leadership. It gets lonely at the top, and opportunities to validate thoughts and decisions with others shrink considerably as they rise.  In one such case, I helped an executive to understand the root cause of the confidence issue. The awareness of the issue, his existing strengths, and goals were used as a strategy for overcoming lack of confidence. Coaching helped this executive receive candid feedback from peers and direct reports, which helped us, to together develop plans to address this issue of confidence. (In this case study, I have oversimplified the coaching process, simply to illustrate the key points).


+ Confidence in Leadership is Key to Success

Senior leaders are expected to display a confident demeanor in their interactions with others. When a leader lacks the ability to display confidence, it can undermine their ability to effectively lead their team. When I recognized that the executive’s lack of confidence was impeding success, I first sought to understand why the executive lacked confidence, and gained a thorough understanding of the executive’s personal and professional background. In coaching we call this process as ‘Understanding the story behind the story’. Finding #1: I discovered that upbringing along with earlier failures contributed in most parts to the lack in confidence. Often times earlier experiences can have a lasting impact. Having unraveled the root cause, various strategies can be employed to overcome or at least limit the impact of these experiences.

+ 360 Degree Feedback

During the Coaching process, it is important for the executive to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and limitations via feedback from other sources. These sources will likely include peers, direct reports and those that the executive reports to. It is important to review this feedback from the context of the relationship that the source has with the executive. The goal of this process is to reveal how the executive is perceived by others in order to provide a view through eyes of others. This is valuable information, as the executive could see where their strengths are within the business and see how their skills and abilities can positively impact others. On the other hand, the revelation of weaknesses or blind spots show the executive how their behavior, attitude, or other aspects of their personality is limiting their opportunities to grow and excel. This information is used to build an action plan for how the client can overcome their limitations, continue to play to their strengths, and set goals that can accelerate their career.
Finding #2: For this executive, the consistent feedback was the ability to build strong relationships with clients, and how the executive’s expertise was sought after in situations where a critical deal was in play. Existing strengths provide great leverage in such situations for building back confidence. Reminder of strengths and memories of achievements can help push away negative thoughts.

+ Goals and Action Planning

Once the feedback is captured, it is time to set goals and a plan for achieving the goals. Coaches encourage executives to think in the long term as well as in the short term. Setting long term plans helps the executive understand the ‘destination’ of where they are trying to get to or what they are looking to achieve. In this case, 'Becoming a confident leader', formed the key coaching goal. The short term plans should support the long term goals. The progress is reviewed and as needed, adjustments are made. However, if the executive is committed to improving and taking the necessary actions to achieve their goals, the experience of an executive coach will be invaluable in advancing one’s career.

+ Strategy used to overcome confidence issues

Increased self-awareness - Various sources like our upbringing impacts our present behavior. Once the executive was aware of this, rather than living in an auto-pilot mode driven by past experiences, he could take charge of his life, and think through his actions, and have better control of the triggers. Understanding and accepting past failure – Reinterpreting past failures as opportunities to improve, how failures have made him smarter, because the knowledge gained through those experiences have brought him a step closer to success, and not the other way round. Upbringing & Background – Accepting that this was a not in any way a personal failure or choice, and not allow it to play havoc on his self-confidence. Fall back on strengths – The 360 offered many strengths, specially fact that the executive was constantly sought after for being a Mentor and also an advisor for managing difficult customer situations. In hard times, evoking memory of strengths and achievement helped him reverse negative triggers.

+ Summary

This case study addressed the process of how a coach can help executive leaders address a common issue faced in leaders – confidence. The study walks through the usual process process of reviewing a executive’s past and current work experiences, requesting feedback, analyzing and consolidating the feedback for goal planning. The outcome of this effort, with commitment from the executive is improved work experience and a fuller understanding of how to be more effective throughout one’s career.