360 Assessments and Coaching

360assessmentWhen employers utilize leadership coaching for their leaders/managers, it’s common practice to conduct a 360 developmental assessment at the beginning of a coaching engagement to identify priority areas to address in coaching.  It’s important to also emphasize that such assessments are developmental in nature and not evaluative (i.e., performance evaluations).

Typically the client invites 10-14 people in their work environment who will be interviewed by the coach to answer two questions:

  • What does the client do very well?
  • What two or three things could the client do to further improve his or her leadership effectiveness and impact?

Interviewees include direct reports, peers, a boss and/or board members and sometimes members of other external constituencies such as customers, suppliers, vendors, clients, or representatives of collaborating organizations.  After conducting the confidential interviews, the leadership coach writes a report that summarizes the client’s strengths and developmental opportunities.  While some leadership coaches utilize paper and pencil instruments or online surveys to collect this information, my experience is that face-to-face interviews generate higher quality information.  Face-to-face interviews allow for critical followup questions and also capture important nuances missed by standardized survey questions, such as the influence of  organizational climate and culture in shaping behavior.

The report is shared first with the client, then with the supervisor (or board members).  Finally, the report is discussed by the coach in a joint meeting with both in order to set goals that will be addressed in coaching.  In my experience, even highly successful leaders are often unaware of how shortcomings in their skills and inconsistent or conflicting behavior makes them less effective with others than they could be.  These shortcomings will be quite evident to others in the work environment, and will emerge as themes when the 360 interviews are summarized.  In this way the 360 assessment provides an initial benchmark regarding important developmental opportunities to address through coaching.

johariThe ability of the 360 assessment to surface issues that are in a “blind spot” for the client can have powerful results.  For example, one executive who was a masterful external communicator for his organization would create problems for himself when under stress and pressure. In these situations he would focus only on the task at hand and forget to communicate with his colleagues whose own areas of responsibility were directly affected by the executive’s activities.  The result was that co-workers felt that they couldn’t fully trust the executive and were put off by his periodic indifference to them and intrusion into their areas of responsibility.  This came as a major revelation for the client who then chose this area as a priority area to work on in coaching.  Part of his response was to put a post-it on his computer monitor that simply asked, “Who else needs to know?” to remind him to continually raise this question.  A subsequent 360 revealed that he was able to entirely eliminate this problematic behavior.

Typically the progress of a client’s coaching is reviewed in a meeting with the client and the client’s boss every three, six or twelve months.  The object of this meeting is to assure that all three are in agreement regarding the priorities for issues and opportunities addressed in the client’s coaching.  A number of companies choose to repeat the 360 assessment every two or three years to reassess the client’s developmental progress.

When 360 assessments are used for all senior managers in a company it can raise the bar regarding desired behaviors like maturity, directness, willingness to ask difficult questions and provide honest feedback.  Since a dozen or more people in the work environment are interviewed for each co-worker’s 360, interviewees quickly realize that they will soon participate in their own 360 and become more thoughtful about their own interactions with others in the workplace.  As the behavior of upper management becomes more consistent regarding these areas, it usually cascades downward throughout the organization, creating desired changes in the larger organizational climate and culture.

The 360 assessment process also has other benefits.  It can also make a manager’s job much easier regarding supervising his or her direct reports, since their 360s often reveal issues or strengths about which the manager may have not been aware.  For example, issues with a problem employee regarding their work performance or relationships with others will surface quickly in a 360 assessment.   Similarly, a 360 assessment will also identify promising leaders/managers respected by their peers and direct reports who have additional leadership potential, providing insightful information that is crucial to successful succession-planning.