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What Really Happens in Executive Coaching?

Coaches play different roles for different clients. But in most scenarios, the objective is to build self-awareness, get clear on priorities, and work out how to get things done with and through others.

Elite athletes, dancers and singers all have coaches. It would be inconceivable to expect a person to go it alone in professions like those without one. They require consistently high performance and support. The business world is no different. Executives interact in an equally demanding environment leading people in today’s complex, competitive global marketplace. Therefore, being offered a professional coach is often seen as a perk on most jobs; it’s a sign that an organization is investing in a leaders’ success.

“We offer internal coaching for employees going through the Emerging Leader Program,” said Jill Clark, group vice president of talent management at JDA Software Inc. “[It’s] a combination of internal and external coaching for VP-level executives going through the Fearless Leader Program; and external coaches for executive-level folks who want to be more effective.”

What can organizations expect when their employees receive coaching? Clark, a certified coach herself, said the area that receives the biggest impact from coaching is self-awareness. “Any opportunity for people to understand themselves better is a good thing,” she said. “Our job is to make sure people continue to develop personally as they hone their technical skills. Managers need to understand how they come across to others. Not only do they learn how to become more effective, they discover the negative impact of not changing.”

Clark said that when coaching is succeeding there are observable shifts in the coachee’s behavior. Conversely, people who don’t take coaching seriously tend to give themselves away when they exhibit fewer visible signs of change.

The true value of coaching is difficult to measure, but since JDA added coaching sessions to its Emerging Leader Program, work project quality has been higher and outcomes have improved. Further, 75 percent of folks who go through the program are promoted at least one level or more. Clark is planning to continue JDA’s coaching investment specifically to increase bench strength and to make sure future leaders in the organization are prepared.

Why Coach?

It’s rare for an organization to offer coaching to someone who doesn’t offer enormous promise and potential. For the uninitiated, the resistance to working with a coach is often rooted in not knowing what to expect. So, what should a manager or an executive expect from a coach?

The coach as map maker. Coaching helps people get from point A to point B. It sounds simple enough, but the exact terrain between the two points is often obscure.

Eric Hehman is CEO and principal of Austin Asset, a financial services firm in Austin, Texas. When Hehman was tapped to succeed the founder as CEO, he turned to Larry Fehd of Human Performance Strategies for guidance. Fehd offered a blend of consulting and coaching. As a consultant, he offered a road map for Hehman’s successful transition as CEO and firm leader. As a coach, he held Hehman accountable while offering support and candid feedback. “My coach was always asking me, ‘So what are you going to do?’” Hehman said. “He wouldn’t let me duck when things got difficult.”

The coach as lamplighter. A coach is often the only person in an executive’s life who will hold the lamp high enough for the client to see beyond immediate commitments and goals.

Sloane Perras, chief legal officer for The Krystal Co., has worked with several coaches over the years. “My first coach helped me deal with an enemy at work. I was able to understand my own part in the situation and to mitigate the effects of the drama. I learned so much from that situation that now I use my coach to facilitate and focus me on setting goals. If I didn’t have a coach, I would never take time out to think about my future and navigating my way forward.”

The coach as gap filler. A coach can help identify and close skill gaps. Most people have a sense for where they lack skill, but a coach can quickly get to the pain point. “Our executives ask for a coach when they realize that even though they are really good at some things, they may have a couple of edges to smooth out,” Clark said.

Shawnte Mitchell is general counsel and vice president of human resources, legal affairs and compliance at Aptevo Therapeutics Inc. At her previous employer, she was offered a coach, Suzi Pomerantz of Innovative Leadership International, to address certain internal team challenges. “[Pomerantz] helped me define the things that were contributing to those challenges — and sort out which of those things were mine.”

She also helped Mitchell expand her awareness of how she connected with others. Mitchell learned how to moderate her communication to suit each person, and she said by using a coach she got to the next level more quickly and smoothly.

The coach as context builder. Every environment has qualities that may not be immediately apparent to the client. The coach will have experience from many different environments — and the benefit of an outsider’s perspective.

Dorian Denburg was in-house counsel for a public corporation when she became president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. She said she immediately realized the not-for-profit environment was radically different from what she was used to. She was going to have to make some shifts. Her coach helped her understand the big picture and the importance of context.

“Volunteers are driven by completely different motives than employees are,” Denburg explained. “I had a habit of rolling in and expecting people to keep up and jump into action. With this job, I had to learn to be more intentional about setting the stage to engage people.” She made the shift from leading through accountability and authority to leading through influence.

The coach as mirror. The coach will often be the only one to reflect brutal reality and remind the client who they are and what is most important to them.

Ajay Jagtiani, a principal with Miles and Stockbridge, had just hired a coach to help him navigate the environment at his new law firm when he had a heart attack. He had planned to use the coach to adapt to the new culture, decode political factions and crush it on the way to becoming managing partner. The heart attack changed everything. “I was young enough to survive it, but old enough to appreciate it,” he explained.

His coach challenged him to identify what was important and align his behaviors accordingly. With his coach’s help, Jagtiani redesigned his life. “I’ve been asked to join the senior partner ranks several times, but I’ll only consider it after my daughter is in college, and I have a year to support my wife in finding her next chapter.” For the first time, Jagtiani said he feels aligned. “I can feel the difference in the way clients trust me. They know what they see is what they get.”

Coach as champion for one’s best self. Coaches are trained to focus attention on what is working and on the client’s strengths. They will always challenge the client to go beyond what they think is possible.

Austin Asset’s Hehman said his coach encouraged him to find his own voice, to form his own opinions, advocate for himself, and act on his ideas. “My coach challenged me to play bigger,” he explained. “He gave me permission to shine and step up.”

Where Do Most Clients Need Help?

Out of 40 focus areas for coaching, the same six areas are consistently at the top:

Knowledge and use of self. Topping the list 50 percent of the time, this focus area is defined as a thorough understanding of one’s essential characteristics and qualities: needs, values, strengths, weaknesses, being, identity.

Communication. This area tops the list the other 50 percent of the time. It’s the art and technique of using words effectively and gracefully to impart ideas. An exchange of thoughts, messages or information that is effective and clear.

Impact and influence. This is the ability to define and communicate an objective or idea in a compelling manner that rallies support. The ability to think analytically and communicate effectively with an awareness of context and others’ styles, knowledge, interests and preparedness.

Goal setting. This is about meeting objectives. A goal must have a deadline and be specific, measurable and compelling.

Partnering for performance and clear agreements. Tied for fifth place, which makes sense because they are similar. Partnering for performance is described as: a relationship and agreements among individuals and groups that are characterized by mutual understanding, cooperation and responsibility to achieve a specific goal. Clear agreements are defined as: an understanding or arrangement between people regarding what is going to be done, by whom, how and by when.

These six focus areas clearly indicate that executives and managers who work with coaches spend their time building self-awareness, getting crystal clear about priorities, and working out how to communicate and get things done with and through others to achieve goals.

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