Executive Coaching

I was asked by a client, in this case an individual who holds a position of significant responsibility in an organization, what made the coaching I was offering “Executive Coaching”.  I grinned and said, “You’re an executive aren’t you?” But then I went beyond that and I hope my full answer was a bit more helpful.

A client comes to coaching with a collection of needs, dreams and goals. Coaching helps clarify and prioritize those notions and then designs implementation strategies and specific next steps that lead toward the goals.

Effective coaching uses the latest research about the neurobiology of behavior, habits and change. Good coaches will integrate this information, and the client’s requirements, into a series of deliberate and strategic steps that they will discuss with the client as potential ways to accomplishing certain stated goals and behavior changes. For example, “Given that, it might be most effective to try this as a starting point and then adjust our approach as we see how it goes. How do you feel about that?”

Executive coaching follows this same basic blueprint and additionally recognizes that the client is functioning within a particular environment; he or she is a part of an organization with its own goals, strengths and pattern. This business context must be a consideration in any suggestions or implementation strategies that are developed.

In addition, the executive client has the pressures of leadership, managerial responsibilities and team development. Because these clients are or will be attempting to motivate and grow their teams and key personnel as they work to change themselves, they require a deeper understanding of the process than many other clients.

To deal with this mix of requirements, an executive coach needs three areas of experience and expertise: 1) an extensive background in the process, politics and systems of business, 2) expertise and experience in approaches to leadership and managerial development and 3) experience and an appreciation for the skills and nuances of coaching.

There are any numbers of ex-businessmen who look for a second career and simply promote themselves as coaches because of their prior experience. They may bring a significant amount of business experience to the table, but that isn’t enough. They must also have significant understanding, ability and experience in the demands of coaching or they will often just become mere repeaters of consulting platitudes and be ineffective at helping implement sequential actions toward change.

In short, a quality Executive Coach is an excellent coach who really knows the business environment and can design procedures to institute change, which have significant potential to enhance you and your business’s future.

The Magic of Regular Evaluations

A common question from CEO’s and managers that I coach is how they should confront an employee who is functioning at a sub-par level. The answer depends to a great deal on the employee and their history with the organization, but one common denominator that I suggest is to prepare for this eventuality from the beginning of the employee’s employment.

Approaching anyone with your negative feedback is easier if you have already established a structure and pattern for such conversations. You want to introduce topics and processes while cooperation is highest and negative feedback is least expected. During their initial employment period, employees are generally most ready to adapt and try to please and least likely to have established a pattern of missteps. This is the point to begin practicing the style of interactions you expect to have with the employee.

My suggestion is to establish the timing and agenda for regular evaluations that prepares them for discussing continual skill improvement, self-evaluation, goal setting and difficult issues. I introduce the rough outlines of this process during employment interviews to see if I can gauge a candidate’s openness and flexibility around change and professional growth.

In my experience a schedule of evaluations for a fulltime employee might look like this:

  • At the end of the new employee’s first day and each day thereafter for the first four days
    • 10 min meeting
    • “I’m pleased to have you with us.”
    • “How’s it going?”
    • “What are you learning?”
    • “What seems like it might be challenging?” or “Where are you initially going to need to focus your learning energies?”
    • “Is there a way I (we) might make this orientation process more effective or helpful?”
    • “Is there anything I need to know that we haven’t talked about?”


  • At the end of the first, second and third weeks
    • 15 min meeting
    • “I’ve seen you do ___ and I’m pleased.”
    • “Is there anything you’ve accomplished that I might not have noticed?”
    • “What challenges are you dealing with?”
    • (If necessary) “I’d like you to focus a bit more on learning/ doing ___. How might you go about doing that?”
    • “What are your learning goals for next week?”
    • “Is there something we should be talking about that we haven’t?”


  • At the end of each month for the first six months
    • 45 to 60 min meeting
    • “Please share your accomplishments that I might not have noticed.”
    • “Here are some of your strengths I’ve noticed.”
    • “What areas of your professional skills do you see as requiring additional focus or effort from you?”
    • “I want to develop strategies to help you address the areas that need progress.”
    • “What are your learning goals for the next month?”
    • “Is there something we should be talking about that we haven’t?”

A comprehensive review at the end of the first year is a future article.

By following this general process, you have experienced lots of opportunities to discuss ongoing issues, but more importantly you have instituted a style of interaction that welcomes frank talk about strengths and weaknesses, and continually practices those interactions well before there are serious problems.

In addition, your employee is unlikely to be surprised by future discussions about needing to address certain issues, setting goals and planning specific approaches to accomplish growth and learning. Even tough conversations are easier when they are contained within this now familiar process.

Building Better Workplace Relationships

“How can I get my people to play together nicely?” A question I get a lot and its very wording reflects part of the problem; these aren’t children at play but adults we need to respect and have high expectations of. The team relationships we create, and upon which we depend for success, need to be deliberately constructed.

The groups of people we work with can be a slightly strange assortment of personalities, beliefs and quirks. We end up working closely on challenging projects with these people and spending lots of time together, creating the impression we’re close friends, but given a choice or another context, we wouldn’t necessarily spend time together; we may not even share fundamental attitudes about lifestyle, politics or level of emotional transparency.

Because these forced relationships are located in the crucible of workplace politics, high demands and deadlines, it’s not uncommon to end up with interpersonal conflicts and irritants within the team that threaten the quality of services and projects.

As leaders, we ask our employees to work in creative and productive harmony and then hope that some “common sense” will prevail to both smooth out the inevitable difficulties and encourage focus on crucial tasks. These expectations are sometimes based on little else but our unsupported optimism. Our business culture does not advocate cooperative etiquette and manners with the same passion as it promotes and rewards individual competition and accomplishments.

What can a leader to do to foster more agreeable and effective attitudes or behaviors and head off the predictable tangles?

Primarily, we need to model the behaviors we want. Don’t assume that you can “wing it” in your own relationships with co-workers and employees. As a leader or manager, you need to be deliberate, thinking tactically about what outcomes you want from your exchanges with team members and planning how your style and interactions can create the potential to realize those outcomes. As your work relationships come to more closely reflect your professional goals, other team members are likely to begin to emulate your behavior.

Try starting here:

  • Always talk about mistakes or failures without heat, blame or disrespect
  • Always address your concerns and frustrations to the individual – never behind their back
  • Never expect your employees or colleagues to tolerate your irritability. Failures require effective changes to be developed and implemented, not frustration to be absorbed.
  • Always consider whether you’ve made the environment safe enough feeling so that mistakes can be more easily owned instead of defended.
  • Do not passively or overtly accept disrespectful or petty talk about team members by either cliques or individuals. Concerns need to be addressed with respect and an eye toward solutions.

Starting these actions in your relations with others will model what you want and expect. Employees are more likely to follow your actions than vague mission statements or messages that differ from your actions.

Building a safe, productive organizational culture takes consistent modeling, team training and specific suggestions for behaviors in difficult situations. Carefully planned and implemented, all this up-front work eliminates the need for most crisis interventions later.

If you see the need for training or remedial focus on your team’s work relationships, a number of training and coaching approaches have been shown to be effective, everything from individual coaching for managers to regularly facilitated team trainings.

Initiating a Getting Things Done System

David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) is a powerful and effective system for managing projects, tasks and responsibilities. For a detailed look at the system, I encourage you to read his latest book, Making It All Work.

Understanding how to use GTD is a significant task in and of itself, and implementing it is initially beyond most of my clients’ patience. What I’ve found as an effective alternative is to help people start with a sort of “GTD Lite” model and move to the full GTD system when and if they feel ready. For most people the lite version meets the majority of their needs for a long time.

I want to be perfectly clear, I think there are significant advantages to working your way through the entire GTD process of identifying the areas of responsibility in your life, your goals, every project you have agreed to work on or imagine wanting to work on someday. For instance, every time I’ve gotten my inboxes down to zero or helped my clients get theirs to zero a huge feeling of relief flows through.

My experience is that most of my clients won’t invest the time until they have had a chance to try some of the process. So, because I feel that many parts of the GTD system have value even when they’re not a part of the whole method, I deconstruct the system and present these initial steps, any of which may improve your system.

  • List the major areas of responsibility in your life – E.G., Family, Work, Health, etc.
  • Focus on one area of responsibility to initially get under control – usually “Work”
  • List all of your outstanding projects in that area – divide any you want into subprojects
  • List one “Next Step” or task per project or subproject – use verbs and keep them very basic
  • Set a weekly time to review your lists and do housecleaning of completed and not entered tasks and projects – look ahead and behind on your calendar to remember items to note
  • Collect all the papers you still need to act on or decide on in one “Inbox”
  • Collect all emails that still need action or decisions in one file
  • Each day make a short list to accomplish from your “Next Steps” items – optional if you work off a computer list you can filter
  • Use your calendar only for events you agree to do at a scheduled time – don’t just skip an appointment, formally reschedule it
  • Start with current items and fill in inactive projects when you have time – keep cleaning up your desk, files, etc., but get started on creating a task list and accurate calendar.

You can do most of the above on a computer – MS Outlook, spread sheet, notes, email, etc. – or you can do them on paper, or even mix the two.

I want to emphasize two processes that, in my opinion, GTD needs to succeed. You need to review lists or you won’t relax (unlooked at they’re virtually worthless), and it doesn’t help much to make long lists of future steps (they tend to just clutter things up).

I think GTD’s power comes from its flexibility, its intuitive prioritization and the fact you don’t need to “believe” in or buy anything for it to be helpful.

When to Invest in Personnel

Great team members aren’t cheap. We invest time, energy and money to find them, to train them and to retain them through their personal and professional growth cycles and crises. We adjust schedules, projects and even goals to keep them happy. And often, after contorting organizational structures to a breaking point, we lose them anyway.

All of this means that once we have negotiated initial salary and benefits, we will need to have a way to calculate whether we should continue to invest in an employee or cut our losses and try again.

Economically there is solid evidence that once you’ve invested a year or so in a key individual you should do almost anything to keep them. But the real cost of continuing to maintain a problematic employee goes beyond the obvious economics. There is emotional effort, managerial time and organizational culture to consider. These factors create an economic cost or drag, but at some point it becomes important to name the downsides more specifically.

An emotional burden is above all other considerations an emotional burden. It does a disservice to the complex totality of sacrifices associated with the emotional drain of a problematic or underperforming individual to simply calculate them economically. The distractions, opportunities lost, relationships shortchanged, moments bungled, physical health insults accumulated and more that are associated with the continuing emotional effort to manage stress are serious threats to your business.

The importance of the damages caused by shifting attention from top producing employees to problematic ones cannot be overemphasized. It is common for job satisfaction to decrease in many others because a manager’s or leader’s focus has become fixated on problems of the one instead of the successes of the many.

Creative energy and the process of preparing for the changes that are a part of any field become sapped by the need to create solutions for this one issue. It happens regularly that time normally set aside for planning and envisaging a new future get dribbled away with the next iteration of issues attached to this particular irritating employee.

So, to keep or let go? That is the question. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years of assisting numerous companies hire, train, coach and part ways with key personnel.

  • The popular notion that “people can’t change” is wrong. People often don’t change because they don’t know how and aren’t motivated to try, but just as old dogs really can learn new tricks, with support people also can and do change.
  • If you are already deep in the swamp of negative emotions, it generally isn’t worth investing in more than a basic effort to help the individual unless they are exceptionally valuable or difficult to replace.
  • If the employee’s contribution is marginal and you haven’t yet begun to make a significant investment, replace them. I’m impressed how many managers or senior leaders know that an employee isn’t really right, but feel lethargic about starting over or think they’re being compassionate by keeping the employee. The compassion is usually misplaced. If we want to help them thrive they need to be working in a situation that plays to their strengths.
  • It may be helpful to take inventory of the individual’s strengths. Does the position use their strengths? Are they enjoying themselves? Are they above average in their results? If they are using their strengths, then the probability of an investment paying off is much greater.
  • These decisions shouldn’t be either “rational” or “emotional” but rather a balance where the rational tempers the emotional and the emotional informs the rational.
  • If the person has a personality irritant, this is a great time to let them decide whether to go or stay. Lay out the issues (If you are not comfortable with difficult conversations, this can be awkward and a coach can be really helpful), ask the employee to decide if they are interested in changing. If so, agree on goals, decide how you will both know if they’re making progress and set a timetable with as specific benchmarks as possible. This is the stuff that coaches do all day long, so again, it is a great place to seek help.

Be certain to look rationally at some of concrete possible results of keeping or firing the employee, have some confidence that with good support (coaching) change is possible and finally pay attention to your instincts but don’t allow them to discourage you unduly or give more weight to your irritation than it deserves.

Do You Really Want to Hear It?

“Why would I encourage someone to disagree with me? I carefully think through my decisions and what I want is my staff to implement them.”

I found myself hesitating to say it, but I was thinking, “Don’t worry, they won’t say anything, even the truth, if you don’t want to hear.”

Most of us aren’t comfortable having hard conversations. So, imagine if you or a managing partner, senior supervisor or other person with an assured level of authority feels uncomfortable, then how likely is it that a junior partner, team member or administrator will feel at ease confronting you, with facts or ideas that disagree with what you think you know.

What I have to suggest may not seem important if you’re sure you know the truth, all of it. But I doubt you would be reading this if that described you. So I’m encouraging you to learn to invite team members to tell you the truth as they see it.

A couple of quick facts about truth you may not know: 1) people tend to be confident they’re right in inverse relation to actually being right; 2) the subjective filter we necessarily have to look through often changes the fundamental data laid out in front of us; 3) one way to get a better reading on the truth is to view it from multiple perspectives and see what the common traits are. To get multiple perspectives gather the opinions of a variety people, people with a different perspective than you.

You can’t expect employees will tell you what they’re thinking unless you send them a clear, unequivocal message and guarantee their “safety.” Their discomfort with hard conversations is multiplied because you have control over their work life. And of course you don’t have a way to guarantee you won’t be upset except to demonstrate it over and over on small things.

A recent New York Times interview with Dan Rosensweig, the president of Chegg (they rent textbooks online and by mail) discussed an initial strategy we encourage our clients to try. Rosessweig asks employees, “If you had my job, other than giving yourself more vacation time and a raise, what’s the first thing that you would do that you don’t think we’re doing yet?”

He also asks, “What do you need more of from me? What do you need less of from me? What is it that I’m doing that you would like me to stop doing completely? What it is that I’m not doing enough of that you’d like some more of?”

If you respond welcomingly to these general questions, you demonstrate that you’re open to hearing alternatives. Now when you ask about a specific project or issue you’re more likely to hear dissenting voices and other takes on the truth.

Oh, by-the-way, when my client said he didn’t need his staff’s input, I spoke up, politely disagreed and he still calls me in to help him learn how to be a better manager.

A Clear Decision Making Process

Making a decision can stimulate group tension and dissatisfaction in unexpected ways. Before you ask for input, be sure your team has a clear understanding of how a particular decision will be made. Knowing what the process will be upfront eliminates mistaken expectations and the accompanying surprise and irritation at you.

There are four major forms of decision making:

  1. 1.      My Way – “I have made the decision”

With this approach, the buck stops with you.  You feel you have all the information you need and accept responsibility for how the decision turns out.

  1. 2.      Consult with Team – “I’ll make this decision, but I would like your thinking”

The input of others is valued, but you may have other concerns the team doesn’t know about or may not be able to weigh accurately. This decision may be important to the future of the business or to creating a business that reflects your personal style. You alone will be responsible for how the decision turns out.

  1. 3.      Majority Rules – “We’ll take a vote to decide how to proceed”

You’ll do what the majority decides. After listening to all the ideas you’ll vote on the approach that you’ll take.

  1. 4.      Consensus – “We will make this decision as a team and will only proceed when we all agree”

Everyone gets to fully participate and the final decision will more likely be embraced by everyone. This approach takes as much time as it takes – often quite long.


Declare your intentions up front, stick to what you say you’ll do and don’t bemoan the process; it was your decision after all to decide this way.

Emotional Control is Key to Winning

At the top level of sports there is very little difference between competitors’ physical skills; the winning edge is the ability to adapt and control personal emotions to support a top performance. An athlete who can regulate the intensity of his or her anxiety, disappointment and even passion is the one most likely to manage the competitive process and finish in the top tier.

Professionals and business leaders compete in a less obvious arena, but one that also pays dividends to the person who can adjust their emotional pitch and reactions to get the best from themselves and their team. Unregulated and uncontrolled emotions, particularly negative emotions, are poisonous to job satisfaction and consequently productivity.

The primary edge any professional office or business has is in the quality of our people. We cannot compete at the highest levels, let alone “win”, without our pit crew, our sail trimmers, our blockers and tacklers. Teams that have the most experienced, most client-sensitive, most capable people are bound to do better, while also reducing stress for the team leaders.

Unregulated emotions – outbursts or day-long “attitudes” – ruin productivity, demoralize your best people and will destroy your team and business. Take it from somebody with a low frustration threshold, there is nothing effective, nothing justifiable, nothing professional about polluting your team with your emotional garbage.

A possible starting place to help you control your frustration and refocus on how crucial employee fulfillment is to productivity and client satisfaction, might be to strive to be the “Best Place in Your Area to Work”. If you’re not aiming at a goal that ambitious, you’re likely handing some of the best employees as well as clients and their revenue to competitors who are.

Two clear next actions:

  • Either recognize that your people really are your most important asset, or set your best people free to work for a winning team that does realize that. And just maybe think about joining them, you’ll also probably be happier working for someone other than you.
  • Know, learn or remember that most people leave jobs because of the attitudes and style of their direct managers. Make a commitment to become a manager or leader who attracts and keeps the best people you can afford.

To make your office perform at a higher level (be a better place to work) get help learning to regulate your emotional pitch. Don’t allow setbacks or mistakes to turn into excuses to dump your frustrations on team members. Emotional regulation is a behavior you can learn. Every day we teach owners, leaders and key employees simple steps to improve their ability to control their reactions. This isn’t therapy, this is performance coaching, designed to help you achieve your goals.


Don’t Re-decide

It is very difficult to contain our impulsive tendencies when we’re buffeted by short-term conflicting emotions and temptations.

A clear, definite choice made when you are thinking and planning with care and then remade when you’re tired, hungry, feeling sexual appetite or irritated is a setup for failure. This re-choice is highly likely to be a short-term, impulsive reaction rather than based on consideration of your long-term best interests.

In answer to your sleepy self asking whether you need to get up right now or can snooze for 15 more minutes, the only answer you should give is a continually repeated reminder that “I already decided this is the time to get up, so get up!”

If you see the chocolate and think, “I can have one piece.” Start repeating, “I already decided to not have any sweets until after dinner, so keep moving.”

It is important to consciously refute the feeling that there is an opportunity to re-decide. The repetition of the thought “I’ve already decided!” helps to block the insubordinate thoughts, images and feeling that there is in fact an opportunity to re-decide.

The process needs to be very deliberate:

  • Make a clear, conscious and unequivocal decision
  • Think through the likely re-decision points (e.g., when the alarm goes off)
  • Decide what you’re going to say to block the insistent notion that there is an opportunity to re-decide
  • Start repeating the saying you’ve decided to use to block tempting thoughts
  • Act on your decision. Start before the re-decision pressure has a chance to take hold
  • Celebrate your willpower
  • Rededicate yourself to not re-deciding the next time

Re-decisions are a major factor in failure to stick to new behaviors. Any equivocations will sabotage your efforts. Be very clear and definite. Don’t look back!


One Approach to Procrastination

If one of your struggles is that you tend to procrastinate until a deadline is on top of you and forcing you to get things done, and you know this is hurting the quality of your work, causing stress to you and probably to your clients, boss or family, then how do you stop procrastinating about dealing with your procrastination?

This might be a fun puzzle if it weren’t so crucial that you find a way to initiate a change in your approach tasks. One of the common side effects of procrastination is that people in your life lose trust in you and get angry. As you well know, this is usually matched by your own anger at yourself. But even this pressure often doesn’t translate into motivation to get started.

If life were a sport and you were critiquing yourself for missing critical shots because you didn’t keep your eye on the ball, I’d be pointing out that your focus on past mistakes is taking your attention away from the current situation, taking your “eye” off the ball again. Drop the self-critique, get a bit of help with your technique and try again.

The best hitters in baseball look for, and can see, the stitching on the ball as it comes at them at up to a hundred miles an hour. Looking for this detail pulls their attention to the ball; just looking in the direction of the ball doesn’t allow them to see the tiny changes in directions that they need to see in order to connect with the pitch. Golfers watch the dimples on the ball as it sits on the tee.

To get started on a project, focus on the details of getting started. What project will you start? Schedule in your calendar when you’re going to start it. What small, discreet aspect of the project will you do? Define it and plan on doing just that much. What exactly will your next action on the project be? Write it out very simply as a task.

Think about teeing up the project – choose which one you’re going to work on.  Keep your head down, your eye on the ball and hit it just well enough to move it down the course and keep it in the fairway – do a small piece of it.  Now you’re ready for the next shot – concentrate on the new swing no matter whether you’re in the rough or on the course.

For you baseball fans, what you’re looking for is a single, not a home run; don’t over reach. Just connect with the pitch. Basketball aficionados, take one step and move the ball down the court. Every foot closer to the basket increases the odds of a score. Tennis players, make a solid smooth hit and get the ball across the net and into the court. Now set up for the next shot.

What do you need to get done? Right now schedule a time to work on it, and resolve to treat it like an important meeting. What is the first little step to getting the project started or moving it ahead? Write it down on your task list.

Procrastination can be head faked that easily.