Over the years, we at CFI have received several hundreds of requests for coaching support for executives.
Most of them are very well intentioned and have helped yield great results for the individual and the organization.
However, there have been a few requests that have revealed to me the shadow side of seeking coaching support from organizations and sponsors. In other words, below the surface, the underlying theme was not really all about helping the executive or the coachee. It was about addressing other agendas.
It would be important for coach providers, coaches and leadership development heads to be mindful about these traps and avoid them as much as they can.
There are four such traps that I can think of:
- We even tried coaching but this person did not change: The organization has almost made up its mind that an executive does not fit and may have to go. Given the seniority he or she is not put on a PIP. Nor does anyone want to be honest with the person and given some clear feedback and outline the writing on the wall. Instead, the sponsors decide that coaching is the most honorable way to pave the way for the person to go. Everyone knows it will not work but they set it up and go through with it. Experienced coaches of course tend to figure this out.
- I am senior and my style must prevail: Many seniors who are sponsors tend to have a certain style of working and find it convenient to have subordinates who mirror that style or “align” with that way of working. This can be about intellectual prowess or social skills or speed or attention to detail or affinity for certain things. These seniors find it hard to accept that others can be different from them or can think and act differently or pay attention to different things and still deliver results. Instead of talking about and engaging these differences, they reach out for a coach and ask the coach to “fix” certain behaviours which will hopefully make the executive more like him and less different.
- Impress the seniors: Executive councils or even boards have seasoned executives who are accomplished, successful and have been there and done that. They are also impatient, quick to judge and have short attention spans or short fuses. It is perfectly possible for an otherwise competent executive to feel overwhelmed in their presence and end up not saying what they wanted to say, or use twice the number of words to say it, or not make eye contact or use too many slides and so on. Instead of creating a welcoming setting to appreciate the talent that is in front, the council or board may ask that the executive be coached to display greater “executive presence”, “gravitas”, “stature”, be precise in communication and so on. I am not saying that these are not valid coaching needs. They are but they must be intended to help the executive realise his or her potential and not merely compensate for the “rough edges” of the people they deal with or end up creating a culture of “impressing”. The consequences of such a culture are all too clear. “Making a good impression” and “competence” do not always go hand in hand, especially when judged in a brief encounter or through an “elevator pitch”
- Square peg in a round hole: Organizations can sometimes get very adventurous in their career development efforts. While it is one thing to give executive diverse experiences, it is another thing to try and fit a square peg into a round hole. There might be a super specialist in a function who may ideally wish to go on in that same path. However, traditional Job Evaluation systems and other considerations might dictate that this person should handle more people, lead a business or manage P&L. The executive reluctantly signs up for this path and in support is given a coach with the hope that the coach will make him or her become the person who that person may not be able to become. After a lot of effort, if the intended change does not happen, there is huge loss of face for the executive and hasty conclusions drawn by the sponsors.
Coaching is certainly a powerful developmental experience and does deliver results. However, it cannot be used to compensate for others’ likes and preferences or policy constraints or sheer inability to speak the truth with the person. Coaches and sponsors can knowingly agree to work with a person who may have many challenges but that must be with due knowledge, honest discussions and clarity about the realistic outcomes that one can expect.
That way, we will be sure that we do not harm the coachee and not earn the coach or coaching a bad name.