In my thirty years of coaching people in leadership positions, I’ve learned that in order to establish valid coaching goals, a coach must have a dependable method to assess a client’s strengths and areas of needed improvement. With some of my clients, HR personnel have already assessed a client and determined the client’s coaching goals, and then directed the employee to choose a coach to help achieve them. Far too often I would learn later on that not only were the goals poorly formulated, but also in too many cases the actual person needing coaching was the identified client’s supervisor who lacked adequate supervision skills. To avoid scenarios like this one, I favor conducting 360 assessments to identify a client’s strengths, areas for improvement and suggested coaching goals.
In a nutshell, 360 developmental assessments gather information from others who work with the client. Direct reports, peers, supervisors, and possibly others are asked to identify what the client does well and what the client could do to further improve their leadership impact and effectiveness. There are many approaches for conducting a 360 assessment — paper and pencil, online formats, email formats and in-person interviews — and I’ve used all of them at one time or another. Based on my experience, I’ve concluded that in-person interviews represent the most reliable method for generating valid answers to the questions of what a client does well and what areas need improvement. Let me explain why.
The 360 assessments that are based on paper and pencil instruments, online formats, email formats have several shortcomings:
- Completing the 360 instrument is a task assigned by HR, to be completed on one’s own. This situation often results in participants not being provided or not understanding important context and instructions about the 360 assessment. Similarly, there can be a lack of clarity about the confidentiality of their responses and the overall purposes of the 360 assessment. The most common misperception on the part of employees asked to complete such a 360 instrument is that the assessment is a performance evaluation for the client rather than an assessment aimed at identifying professional development goals for the client.
- Misperceptions about 360 assessments and confidentiality can distort the assessment results. For example, those asked to be interviewed in a co-worker’s 360 assessment but lack clarity about the confidentiality of their feedback may fear possible retaliation by a supervisor undergoing the assessment if they provide honest responses. These participants may inflate their assessments of the supervisor’s strengths and temper their identification of needed areas of improvement. It’s also possible that employees who understand confidentiality but think the 360 assessment is a performance review, may think that providing poor ratings for the person will result in their termination of the supervisor. For example, recently I was handed the 360 assessment report based on a paper and pencil 360 assessment for a high level manufacturing manager. He gave himself a “4” (the best rating) on almost all of the 360 assessment instrument’s questions, while all his direct reports, who thought this was a performance review, uniformly gave him “1” (the worst rating) on all questions. As a result, other than learning that the client’s direct reports uniformly disliked him (and wanted him replaced), there was no specific information generated in this 360 assessment that would help establish appropriate coaching goals for him.
- Most instruments used in 360 assessments ask general, fixed response questions about the client that fail to generate detailed information and examples. Most instruments used for gathering 360 assessment information ask generic questions about a client’s leadership, management, communications skills, etc. usually with a four or five point response scale, but fail to include any open-ended questions. Consequently, if a topic area isn’t included in the instrument, there will be no data regarding it. No 360 instruments I have seen include important questions that would identify a client’s unique skills and strengths that are valued by co-workers. Similarly, there are never any questions about #MeToo, gender, racial or other sensitive issues, bullying, troubling disparities between word and deed and so on.
- There is no contextual information about organizational climate or culture. In addition, these 360 instruments never ask any questions about the organizational climate and culture in which the client works, resulting in an assessment of the person that fails to note the organizational context in which they work. For example, if the person being assessed is cited by others for unprofessional behavior (e,g, yelling at people, telling unprofessional jokes about other employees, favoritism, etc.) it is crucial in setting coaching goals to know if these are common behaviors in the workplace or not.
Utilizing ten to twelve in-person interviews for 360 assessments largely eliminates the shortcomings noted above and has other advantages as well:
- Positive framing. This approach makes the 360 assessment and the subsequent coaching a group project rather than an HR exercise. It sends important, positive messaging about the desirability of both 360 assessments and professional development. And finally, after participating in 360 interviews, some interviewees will often ask if they will be able to have a 360 assessment and coaching for themselves.
- Having the client invite co-workers to participate in their 360 assessment communicates that the feedback from individual co-workers will be valued. In the in-person interview approach, the client (rather than HR) sends each participant an email or letter inviting them to be interviewed regarding the client’s strengths and areas of improvement. This open request from the client to participate in her or his 360 assessment is almost always viewed by participants as a welcome opportunity (as opposed as another task to complete for HR).
- Ensures clarity about the process. At the beginning of each interview, the interviewer reviews the purpose of the 360 developmental assessment, its outcomes, and confidentiality guarantees, to assure that the interviewee understands the 360 process and asks if the interviewees have any questions about it.
- Emphasizes participant importance and encourages openness and honesty. The interview process by its nature engages the interviewee and underscores the importance of both their direct role in the assessment process and their honest input regarding the client.
- Open-ended questions combined with the interviewer’s ability to ask followup questions result in very specific information regarding the client. The interviewer begins by asking just two open-ended questions: “What does the client do well?“; and “What two or three things could the client do to improve their leadership effectiveness and impact?“. This in-person interview format invites the broadest range of responses from interviewees and most importantly, allows the interviewer to ask probing followup questions as well as ask for specific examples of the client’s behavior, both positive and problematic. This type of interviewing also quickly surfaces themes regarding positive and negative aspects the organization’s work culture.
All of the 360 interviews are distilled into written summaries within a day of the interview. At the completion of interviews, all the summaries are analyzed for recurring themes (when coworkers are asked to spell out a client’s strengths and areas needing improvement, many of their responses are strikingly convergent). The themes are then reviewed in a short written report that spells out strengths, areas for improvement and then proposes goals for coaching. Usually the report also makes suggestions for improving the organization’s climate, culture and functioning. The report is shared by the coach first in a meeting with the client, then with the supervisor, and finally with both client and supervisor together, who with the coach decide on coaching goals and their priority.
Leadership coaching of a client always takes place within the context of organizational culture and organizational climate, the most palpable aspects of organizational culture. This occurs because an organization’s approach to using coaching reflects an organization’s culture. It also occurs because the goal of leadership coaching to help a client increase her or his impact and effectiveness within a company’s climate and culture. This cannot be done without identifying basic information about the functioning of the client’s organization. In-person 360 assessments assure that the coach, client and supervisor all have access to this important information.