I’m often struck by the very different assumptions that organizations use when deciding to hire an executive or leadership coach for one of their managers. Over time I’ve learned that these assumptions are usually implicit and thus not apparent to those making such decisions. I sort these differing approaches to utilizing coaching into five categories:
No coaching. Two types of organizations tend not to value executive or leadership coaching as a legitimate form of professional development — the public sector and K-college. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I haven’t discovered any yet. This doesn’t mean that coaching doesn’t occur, but that it isn’t paid for by the organization, so coaching clients must pay out of pocket for it. Some clients are fine with this arrangement because if the organization devalues coaching, the clients may not want their colleagues to know that they are working with a coach. Fortunately, when clients pay directly for coaching it is usually tax deductible as an unreimbursed employee expense.
Reactive coaching. This approach to executive or leadership coaching is in response to a performance deficit, behavior of concern, or both — an incident involving the client’s behavior, a sudden decline in performance, or another negative event. In these cases the client may be given a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP) by HR and/or their supervisor in which finding and working with a coach is one of the conditions of satisfying the PIP. This use of coaching as a form of corrective action can be very challenging for a coach and client alike. The client may feel that she or he must submit to coaching as a form of punishment, hardly a motivating situation. This negative framing can also negatively effect both a coach and the coaching relationship as well, since it can make the coach seem like an extension of HR and/or the supervisor. My approach to such clients is to rewrite the PIP to have positive developmental goals that address the deficits of concern and also allow the client to experience coaching as positive and affirming. Reactive coaching can have good outcomes for the client, but it usually requires mental gymnastics on the part of a coach to reframe coaching as a positive opportunity.
Responsive coaching. This form of executive or leadership coaching often occurs when the client’s organization realizes that one of its managers needs the support of a coach to achieve a certain outcome — developing their leadership skills, assistance in bringing about organizational change, or addressing issues of organizational climate and culture. It’s responsive because the need for coaching isn’t in reaction to a incident or a deficit, but rather in support of an apparent leadership need. The challenge with this type of coaching is that the organization often has not done an adequate job of vetting the appropriateness of the outcome sought through coaching. Consequently, the area identified as the focus for coaching may not be the appropriate one. The result can often be that the coaching may successfully achieve a particular outcome, but that outcome may not address the real issue or opportunity at hand. For example, a coach may be hired to help a CEO improve his communication skills, but the CEO’s real issue is his or her inability to develop and maintain effective engagement agreements with his senior leadership team. Since coaching is used in an ad hoc way, it can seem like a great solution to a immediate opportunity or issue, but often avoids a fuller client assessment that a situation really requires.
Proactive coaching. This type of executive or leadership coaching is personalized professional development that reflects the values of an organization’s senior management. It assumes that effective and successful leaders, through coaching, can become even more effective and successful. Coaching usually starts with a 360 developmental assessment that benchmarks the client’s strengths and opportunities for further development. This assessment is then used as the basis for setting explicit priorities for executive and leadership coaching, usually negotiated between the client, the coach and the client’s supervisor. Other proactive uses of coaching include being part of onboarding activities for new hires, identifying and developing employees who have promotion potential, and generating reliable information for succession planning. Furthermore, when entire leadership teams use proactive coaching coupled with 360 assessments, the general level of performance and behavior usually improves, since these processes provide vital feedback to team members that they address in their coaching sessions. The only shortcoming of proactive coaching is that it is usually reserved for only the top two or three levels of an organization’s management.
High performance coaching. For these organizations, executive and leadership coaching is normative as the primary mode of professional development and is made available to every person who is in a leadership role, no matter their position. In these organizations even low-level managers are eager to engage a coach because coaching is a primary route to professional advancement within the organization. In these organizations coaching has become institutionalized and serves not only as the primary vehicle for professional development, but also as a central element of strategies to attract, recruit and retain top talent.
For a better sense of how the last four of these orientations to coaching relate to specific cultural stages of organizational development, take a look at the Burns and Nelson High Performance Programming framework.