Executive coaching can help new hires and seasoned leaders

Dave Knutson
Dave Knutson

Hiring a leader for any business or organization presents risks. Will the executive work out and operative effectively in a new culture? Will staff get behind needed organizational changes? And what about the relationships between new execs and owners or boards?

The cost of making a hiring mistake at the top level can be enormous. Some new hires fail during the orientation phase. Replacement costs can be as high as a year of salary.

On the other hand, top leaders who have tenure sometimes stagnate in their roles. Complacency sets in and effectiveness suffers. When subordinates, owners and board members hesitate to provide direct and honest feedback, the situation becomes untenable. At this point, the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back often results in termination of the executive.

Proactive businesses and organizations often employ the services of coaches to help with executive development. Executive coaches serve as a sounding board while bringing urgency and focus to a new or seasoned executive’s development. Typically, the coach is an outsider with strong credentials in theory and practice. Many executive coaches engage in a two-year credentialing process. Other coaches have decades of experience or extensive management consulting backgrounds.

For coaching to be successful, executives must recognize the value and potential of the process. In the case of a new executive, the ability to openly discuss the adjustment to a new culture, unique challenges and surprises is key. With a seasoned executive, having a coach to help sort through needed changes in approach, behavior and vision can renew effectiveness and motivation. An effective executive coaching process hold ups a mirror and challenges the person being coached to engage in new ways of achieving results.

On the other hand, coaching fails if an executive doesn’t rank the process as a top priority. CEOs who use the coach as triage for crisis situations or let the daily demands overwhelm their work with the coach might not achieve their full potential. As an added word of caution, executive coaching isn’t therapy or counseling. When such behavioral disorders as anxiety or depression are present, a referral to competent medical and psychological resources is appropriate. Family issues or addiction challenges need attention by experienced counselors.

Typically, the executive coaching process begins with the coach and executive coming to an agreement about expectations. Both the coach and executive are responsible for confidentiality, directness, honesty and follow-through. The scope and planned duration of coaching also are covered. 

An important second step is assessment. Top-performing businesses and organizations use a fully validated and confidential 360 assessment conducted by a third party for their seasoned execs. A 360 assessment solicits feedback from subordinates and peers as well as owners or board members. The competencies of an executive are compared to normative data and a development plan pursued. With new executives, the hiring process provides baseline assessment data and the 360 is planned after a year on the job.

Following the assessment, a development plan is formulated to capitalize on the executive’s strengths. Too often, development planning focuses on weaknesses and results in efforts to “teach this pig to swim.” Effective coaches show how to compensate for weaknesses so strengths can be fully developed. A simple example is the case of a sales leader with poor organizational skills. A coach helps the leader tap resources for managing the calendar and events, freeing the leader to further develop such strengths such as mentoring strong salespeople and building valuable relationships with key accounts.

After working on a written development plan, the executive is coached to meet with those who provided input on the 360 assessment to thank them for the feedback, clarify interpretation of data and discuss the development plan. The coach and executive then team up from this point on to implement the development plan.

Weekly coaching then focuses on actions: what worked, what didn’t and next steps. After six to eight weeks of coaching, expect negativity to emerge as the exec continues to be pushed, questioned and prompted. This is a natural stage in the process, and effective coaches work through the challenges.

The duration of the executive coaching process depends on goals. When a business or organization hires a new executive, orientation coaching lasts from 90 days to six months and focuses on building recognition of competence and support for the leader. Coaching then tapers off to once a month, with a 360 assessment planned for the end of the executive’s first year on the job. Should the assessment indicate a need for more development, coaching then takes a turn toward the seasoned executive model. The duration of coaching for seasoned executives depends on the effort required to achieve results. Some competencies, behaviors or skills constitute quick wins, while others could require coaching for as long as two years.