Executive coaching involves one-on-one discussions between an executive and a behavioral science professional on topics involving skills and style in a professional setting. Coaching has several advantages over other types of executive development options, such as class activities, group facilitation, and consulting advice. Convenience, relevance, and the self-directed nature of executive coaching are important advantages that one should consider in deciding to use coaching over other ways of achieving professional growth and greater organizational effectiveness. Central to executive coaching are the notions that the objectives are jointly determined by the executive and the coach, that it involves observation and assessment of behaviors related to these objectives, and that these observations and assessments are shared. Coaching takes place in small increments, often separated by weeks, and must be both intimate and flexible. While coaches may offer perspectives on substantive issues and the coaching agenda, executives must determine learning goals and issues around which they desire to be coached.
Three different perspectives are relevant for an executive coach to consider in conversations regarding executive performance: the individual executive, the work unit, and the organization. An initial consideration is to explore the executive’s self-awareness. A first step is to compare the individual’s self-perception of his or her relevant strengths, weaknesses, and suggested areas of development with the perceptions of those around him or her. These comparisons provide a context and basis for further dialogue and exploration. The agreement of the executive’s self-perception and others’ perceptions on strengths and weaknesses capitalizes on an executive’s established talent and social/professional network. Examining strengths and weaknesses provides insights into the habits of the executive’s business interactions, as most people tend to repeat the patterns of behavior that come most easily to them, leading to both positive and negative outcomes. This repetition is the basis for defining one’s style and exploring whether there is a need for more flexibility in approach. For example, an outgoing and verbally fluent executive may be coached to deliberately hold back in discussions to allow less articulate counterparts to expound on their viewpoints.
The second perspective focuses on the interpersonal interactions of the executive within his or her work unit. A coach must look at the quality and impact of an executive’s interactions with subordinates, peers, customers or clients, and those in more senior positions. The gap between the executive’s intentions and the impact of his or her behavior on others is a key point of analysis. For example, an executive may believe that providing a casual or superficial comment about an issue will stimulate others to think, whereas those on the receiving end of the communication may view the comment as an inflexible opinion. In this case, the gap between the executive and others would result in fewer challenges to the executive’s decision, because others believed that the opinions were less flexible than they were intended to be. Coaches must examine the widely held perceptions about the executive for the purpose of considering the impact of these perceptions on the executive’s effectiveness.
The third perspective assumes a broader, longer-term view as the coach and executive examine the executive’s relationship with the firm over time. Specifically, the coach should guide the executive in addressing issues of fit between the executive and the cultural and political environments within the firm. Differences between the cultural norms and an executive’s style provide a basis for possible misperceptions by those within the firm. For example, in a firm with a strong task focus, an executive who openly discusses emotional issues may be judged to be less effective. The coach’s role is to help diagnose such situations to stimulate the executive’s interest in attending to the issue.
Topics of Focus: Style and Skills
Two topic areas provide a focus for much of the multilevel analysis suggested above: personal style and strategic management skills. Personal style is one’s preferred way of interacting with others or pursuing a goal. One’s style is rarely inherently good or bad. A style may be advantageous or a hindrance when considered in the context of a firm’s cultural environment or the specific expectations and needs of the immediate team of peers, subordinates, and bosses. The norms and values of a firm are reflected in the way business is conducted, and executives are expected to conform to the expected behavioral norms.
One approach to understanding differences in interpersonal styles was developed by Will Schutz, who created the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation Behaviour Questionnaire. The questionnaire, known as FIRO-B, provides measures of the extent to which one expresses and wants from others three interpersonal needs: inclusion, control, and openness. Each interpersonal need is measured on the basis of how likely the respondent is to express this need and how much the respondent wants to have the need expressed toward him or her. The six measures can be applied to many executive positions and often help to explain differing perspectives in situations involving interpersonal friction.
For example, consider how behaviors demonstrating a low need to express inclusion may be interpreted by others with a high need to be included. The executive with a lower need to express inclusion may avoid interactions with others unless there is a defined need for communication. Others may view this task-driven frequency of contact as a sign of lack of interest or commitment to them or to the team. The executive demonstrating low expressed inclusion may be attempting to respect the time of others by limiting interaction to only the most essential issues. An executive with a low need for inclusion may view the repeated invitations by associates to interact as unnecessary or assess the interactions as superficial if they do not lead to a completed task. In issues relating to style, the role of the coach is to assess the behaviors, challenge the executive to consider alternative patterns of interaction, and help identify and clarify the potential alternative interpretations of personal style.
While style and skills are acknowledged to be distinct and measurable arenas by the research community, the distinctions between style and skill are sometimes not recognized by executives. Identifying the distinction can be an important contribution of the executive coach. The blurred distinction is often a result of attributing skill, or lack of skill, to a preference in style. For example, an executive with a high need to express control may assess another executive who has a lower need in this dimension as lacking “leadership” because of a belief that “leaders provide direction”—when, in fact, the latter executive may think that he or she has already provided direction.
The definition and importance of different skills are determined by the organization with respect to the executive’s position. Many firms have defined skills by level and have performance appraisal systems based on these competencies. The role of a coach is to reach agreement on a defined goal of targeted skills, with measurement criteria that are observable and accepted by the relevant players in the work unit. A plan of action includes advisement on creating opportunities to demonstrate the skill and a plan to seek feedback from colleagues so as to determine whether or not the new behaviors are successful.
The six skill sets identified by Stephen Stumpf are relevant to many senior executives: knowing the business and markets, managing subunit rivalry, finding and overcoming problems, staying on strategy, being an entrepreneurial force, and accommodating adversity. For example, demonstrating the skill set of being an entrepreneur would involve a clear articulation of a vision, communicating the vision with clarity and getting others excited about it, and influencing others to take the desired actions toward execution. The executive and coach would discuss the need for this skill, where it was most needed, and how the executive might proceed to exercise this skill to improve the performance of the unit and organization.
The field of executive coaching is relatively young and just beginning to be broadly accepted as a topic for academic research. Although executives have been “coached” by peers, friends, and mentors for decades, hiring individuals with extensive behavioral science knowledge and experience in working with senior executives is still limited to those firms with substantial resources to fund the effort. One factor that supports the continued growth of this field is that executives want more customized and convenient opportunities for growth. In addition, executive coaching has gained support within executive suites because it is believed to be of significant value by those being coached. Finally, there is a growing body of research to support the relationship between executive coaching and leadership effectiveness.
- Hargrove, R. 2002. Masterful Coaching Fieldbook. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
- Landsberg, M. 1997. The Tao of Coaching. Hammersmith, UK: HarperCollins Business.
- Olallo, J. 2004. From Knowledge to Wisdom. Boulder, CO: Newfield Network.
- Sieler, A. 2003. Coaching to the Human Soul. Blackburn, Australia: Newfield Australia.
- Stumpf, S. A. 1988. “Leadership and Beyond: The Need for Strategic Management Skills.” Advances in Strategic Management 5:245-261.