Two Myths About Executive Coaching

Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2006

Executive coaching has become "the" leadership development method for some very good reasons (see excerpt of article from Fortune magazine on the ROI of executive coaching on my “Results” web page). However, there are two myths about coaching that I believe need to be dispelled.

Myth #1: If you fix the individual, the problem goes away.

Sometimes an executive will be labeled as "the problem" when, in fact, their disruptive behavior is often a symptom of systemic problems within an organization. The "problem" executive may not be entirely blameless. However, it's all too easy to blame organizational problems on a "problem child" rather than look at the more complicated and messy issue of how employees and executives relate with each other.

For example, I was asked to work with a senior executive who had been identified as being abrasive, complaining and generally difficult to work with although extremely technically competent. Sound familiar? This, by the way, is the most common reason cited in the research on executive coaching for referring a derailing executive for coaching.

In this case, after I conducted interviews with the senior team, board members, important observers and next level down employees, it became apparent that this executive was outspoken, impatient and could be interpersonally clumsy and rude at times. However, a good deal of her unproductive behavior grew out of her frustration with a lack of "honesty and directness" between members of the executive team. These were a group of "nice" people who were passive aggressive with each other. They had a hard time "telling it like it is." Rather than openly disagree in meetings, executives would simply ignore, stonewall, or use subterfuge to shoot down initiatives they did not support. The so-called "problem executive" would, for example, leave a meeting thinking that she had buy-in only to find out later that her colleagues didn't assign people to support her project as agreed. She would then aggressively confront the offending executive, who would deny and then complain to the CEO about the other executive's rudeness, etc.

You get the picture. Obviously, the problem was bigger than the "identified patient" to use a term from family therapy. Yes, she needed to learn how to be more diplomatic and effective in her communication. And, just as importantly, the executive team needed to learn how to be more direct and honest with each other. If the executive team did not face "their" problem, fixing or replacing the executive would have been a short-term solution only to reappear in the form of another identified patient later on. Or, worse yet, the company could flounder because the executives couldn't/wouldn't come to grips with the issues the "problem" executive saw and forcefully, but ineffectively, communicated.

Myth # 2: Executive coaching is primarily a tool for helping derailing or derailed executives.

Helping derailed executives used to be the primary focus of executive coaching and is still often the first use of coaching for many companies. Most of my calls from companies who have never used an executive coach before are calling about providing help for one of their executives who has derailed. In the past five years or so, however, in Fortune 500 companies and quickly moving beyond those, coaching has moved from a remedial tool to the primary method of developing executives, especially for star performers and high potential executives. Why? Three primary reasons:

1. Coaching star performers is a better and less risky investment. Executives have figured out that by employing the same methods, time and energy that are used to bring a derailed executive back on track to develop star employees, the end result will be that those star employees (proven winners) will end up performing at an even higher level. Think Tiger Woods. Tiger has a coach because he wants to play at the top of his game...all the time. Tiger doesn't rest on his laurels.

2. Coaching embraces the "adult learning model," by providing just-in-time, just-what-I-need, individualized training for very busy executives. Busy executives do not want to spend unnecessary time attending generic one size fits all leadership development workshops where, if they are lucky, maybe 10% of the information they will receive will be relevant to their particular situation and needs.

3. According to the research on employee retention, one of the most important reasons top employees stay with companies is that they are provided with opportunities to learn and grow. Executive coaching is experienced by employees as a terrific benefit with long-term payoffs.

Key take-aways:

> Think of executive coaching as a tool within the broader context of leadership development. It's not the end all.

> Conduct a thorough assessment of the situation not just of the "identified patient" when problems (symptoms) occur before considering a solution.

> Consider using executive coaching as a tool for developing and retaining high potential and star performers. Not only will you get more bang for your buck by lifting good people to a higher level, you will be employing one of the most effective methods for retaining key employees . . . providing them with developmental opportunities. Great employees stay with companies where they can learn and grow.