Don’t Hire a Leadership Coach Without a 360 Assessment

Leadership or executive coaching can be the most powerful form of professional development because it is embedded in the work life of the client and can immediately address how to approach opportunities and challenges in nearly real time. To be effective and successful, however, coaching requires specific goals for professional improvement. In turn, specific goals require an adequate assessment of what a client does well and those areas needing improvement. This double-barreled assessment is critical because in coaching a leader’s strengths are leveraged to develop needed capacities in other areas. The gold standard for a leadership assessment is a 360 Developmental Assessment or a 360 for short.

The 360 assessment process may vary somewhat from one coaching professional to another, but the basic elements are the same. It is not an evaluation of job performance, but instead identifies a leader’s opportunities for professional development. Typically the client identifies 10-12 people in their work environment and invites them to be interviewed by the coach to answer two questions:

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

Interviewees usually include direct reports, peers, supervisors and/or board members. In some instances they may also include members of external constituencies such as customers, suppliers, vendors, clients, or representatives of collaborating organizations. After conducting the confidential, in-person interviews, the leadership coach identifies common themes in the interviews. Then the coach writes a short report that summarizes the client’s strengths and developmental opportunities, and also identifies recommended areas for coaching. While some leadership coaches utilize online or emailed surveys to collect this information, my experience is that face-to-face interviews generate much higher quality information. In-person interviews capture important nuances that standardized survey questions will miss and also allow for important followup questions and requests for examples.

The 360 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 for the client’s development opportunities to be addressed in coaching.

Why are 360s so important? In my experience, even highly successful leaders are usually unaware of how shortcomings in their skills and inconsistent or conflicting behavior makes them less effective than they could be. These strengths and shortcomings are quite evident to others in the work environment, and will emerge as convergent themes when the interviews are summarized. The power of a 360 assessment is that it almost always surfaces issues that are in a leader’s “blind spot” but are well-known to co-workers. When coupled with coaching, a 360 assessment can reduce the size of a leader’s blind spot and also increase a leader’s comfort with asking for, receiving and processing feedback from others in the workplace.

For example, one executive who was a masterful external communicator for his organization would, when under stress and pressure, focus only on the task at hand and forget to communicate with peers whose own areas of responsibility were directly affected by the executive’s activities. The result was that his peers felt that they couldn’t trust the executive and were put off by his intrusion into their areas of responsibility. This feedback 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. Subsequent coaching revealed that he was largely able to eliminate this problematic behavior.

Using a 360 assessment can be important for a other reasons: starting coaching without such an assessment means that goals for coaching may be inappropriate or off-target. The CEO of a medical practice hired a coach to help him better supervise direct reports. After a year of coaching and the departure of several key employees, it became apparent that the client’s actual shortcoming was that he was actually micromanaging his direct reports. Worse yet, the wrong person can be asked or even required to find a coach. This can happen when Human Resources requires an employee to begin coaching to correct a behavioral or performance shortcoming without adequately assessing the situation. In one case, I was asked to coach an executive because of performance issues. After about six months of coaching, it became painfully evident that the real issues were the lack of adequate staff for the executive and the fact that his supervisor, a new president, lacked basic leadership and management skills needed for his position. In both cases a 360 assessment would have circumvented these errors and saved these companies thousands of dollars in misdirected coaching.

In the event that you are in the process of selecting a leadership or executive coach, make sure to ask what experience the coach has had with conducting 360 developmental assessments for prior clients.