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.

Testimonials From Our Clients

We like to let our client’s speak for themselves about their coaching experience:

Individual Couching

“Finally, concrete ideas that help me get things done on time.” – A Sales Professional

“I like the simple, but sophisticated ways I now manage my ADHD.” – A Physician

“My team pays attention and does what I ask, often before I ask, what a relief.” – Exec. Dir. of Small Non-profit

 

Workplace Couching

“Everyone on the team is more relaxed now that we handle tough issues the way you suggested.” – Owner of a Professional Health Practice

“I still find it hard to believe that we fired my two worst employees and neither one created a stink. This stuff works!”  – A Service Business Owner

“I didn’t want consultant talk; I wanted a more productive team. You did it. Complaints are
down, sales are up and I’m spending less time babysitting people.” – Business Owner

 

Couples Couching

“We talk about what to try next; we don’t just keep going over everything that’s wrong.” – A Wife of six years

“When we slow down, checkout our assumptions and discuss solutions, I really like talking with her.” – A Husband of 12 years

“You were right about D… (my husband), he does try to listen if I handle it right.” – A Wife of 12 years