Coaching Senior Executives

What is this thing called coaching?  How can CEOs and business owners tell if they themselves are coachable?  What does it take to successfully coach senior executives?

I asked two returning experts, Susan Steinbrecher, founder of the leadership and coaching firm Steinbrecher and Associates and author of Heart Centered Leadership, and Henry Evans, co-founder and Managing Partner of Dynamic Results and author of “Winning with Accountability: the Secret Language of High Performing Organizations.”

There’s been an explosion of use of the word “coach” — you can find a self-described coach for everything in the world including your relationship with your pet.

My questions were:

  • What’s the essence of coaching?
  • How does group coaching differ from 1:1?  What are the trade-offs?
  • How do you coach a CEO – is it different from coaching someone else? How?
  • What makes a person coachable?

What’s the essence of coaching?
Coaching is one of a set of partially overlapping activities that include:

  • Consulting
  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Therapy

Consulting often involves doing specific tasks on behalf of a client, often supplying a skill not present in-house and creating one or more work products.  Consultants do things for you.

Mentoring is typically between a highly experienced and a new or less experienced person, where the former helps the latter navigate (for example) the unwritten rules of an organization or profession.  The mentor may already be where the mentee is headed.

Therapy involves healing past mental or emotional injuries and is done with a licensed therapist.

Coaching is about improving one’s role performance, usually by the coach helping the coached person to increase their self-awareness.

Susan says that the coach is there to help you not just increase self-awareness, but also to help you change your “mental models” — because those are the things that constrain your thinking and limit your effectiveness.  If you think you’re decisive and other people find you brusque and arrogant, your mental model is broken — it does not adequately reflect the ways you and others interact.  By not seeing yourself as others see you, you are unable to work with those other folks as effectively.

One of the most profound examples in Susan’s experience was a man who had earned five advanced University degrees, and worked as a chef.  Ultimately they discovered together that he secretly saw himself as stupid, and was seeking the outside validation of the degrees.  By understanding this mental model, he became able to choose – rather than feel compelled – to take or not take courses and seek or not seek additional degrees.  He had a greatly increased sense of his choices and options.

I recently spoke with a CEO who had spent over 10 years fighting with his partner in front of his staff, under the mistaken impression he was defending the staff and building their loyalty — only when he was sued by two former employees did he discover that everyone saw him as a bully.  To his credit he is now working with a coach to improve his own self-awareness and fix his corporate culture.

How do you coach a CEO – is it different from coaching someone else? How?
Susan finds that sometimes people resist the idea of a CEO getting coached, because they think the CEO should already be perfect.  This is bizarre.  It may also reflect a certain wishful thinking – we want the CEO to have all the answers and so we may pretend he does, in order to comfort ourselves, and we may then resist anything that might shake that imaginary comfort.
And some CEOs have a hard time embracing the humility that is required to admit that there’s room for growth.  They don’t realize that there is greater strength in humility and vulnerability.
What makes a person coachable?
In her book Susan developed two principles – Know Thyself and Know Your Impact.  In order to be coachable, a person has to be open to learning this information and improving both.
To be coachable you have to take your part of the relationship very seriously.  You have to block out sacred time that is only about the coaching work.  You have to be present, not try to multitask.  You have to want to grow.  You have to be open to new information.  And ultimately you have to do the work.
What makes the coaching relationship unique?
The coach may be the only person a CEO works with whose only agenda is that CEO’s success.  Subordinates are thinking about their own careers.  Investors and board members are thinking about the profitability of the firm.  A spouse wants the CEO to come home occasionally.  The coach has no other goal than to help that CEO become better.
How can I pick a good coach?
Don’t play it safe.  This is someone who will help you grow.  When you’re interviewing potential coaches, look for experience and training and certification, and also look for that spark that tells you this person can challenge you and inspire you to get out of your comfort zone.
Henry was initially unwilling to call himself a coach — because the profession seems over-filled with unemployed and unemployable people who can choose to call themselves a “coach” and start to market themselves that way.
Henry’s organization will ink a contract with a client organization, however individual executives have to apply to be coached.  Then two of Henry’s top people will independently match that executive with a coach in the firm.  Then they compare notes and come to agreement.
Henry believes a coach needs to have the willingness to work on themselves and be coached.  And a coach needs to have enough domain knowledge to understand your issues and experiences.  If you’re a CEO, it makes sense to look for a coach with that sort of experience.  Otherwise you may be getting advice and feedback on an issue from someone who doesn’t really understand that issue.
At the same time, you need a coach with some balance, who won’t get sucked into the details and miss the big picture.
What should a coach do for me?
A good coach will help you prioritize.  Henry helps his clients create three lists:
  1. Key tasks that only they can do
  2. Other tasks that are capable of being delegated
  3. Yet other tasks that you should simply drop
A good coach will typically start with an assessment.  Henry believes you want to have more than just the perspective of the CEO and the coach – you want additional information and perspectives, and a good assessment tool can offer insights and help create a baseline against which to measure progress.
Are you an ass?
Henry got to hear his friend Pat Heiman talk about listening.  Pat is 90 and has been coaching for 40 years.  Pat said, “If you have one person in your circle calling you an ass, ignore them.  If you have two people in your circle calling you an ass, look closely at it to find the grain of truth.  If you have three or more people in your circle calling you an ass, buy a cart, because you’re an ass.”  For Henry the moral of this story is, if you’re hearing the same basic message three or more times, you need to be working on it.
Group Coaching
Henry has deep experience with Vistage, a CEO coaching organization.  He has found that group coaching is less intimate yet can be more useful at helping with organizational structure or finance challenges where your fellow CEOs have specific domain knowledge.  The personal issues are probably better worked on 1:1 with the coach.
Accountability and Coaching
Henry’s book on accountability describes his firm’s accountability model, which is tightly integrated with his firm’s coaching model.
The higher in the firm you are, the harder it can be to get honest information and feedback.  People worry that saying the wrong thing could be a “CLM” – a Career Limiting Move.  Henry says the top people have to strive to “create safety” – to create an atmosphere where your subordinates are very comfortable with coming to you with bad news or difficult feedback.
Henry couples the coached executive’s self-assessment with the external view from the 360-degree assessment.  They quickly see what it’s costing them to continue as they are.  They quickly see the value in changing their interactions.
Henry’s firm offers a free, online self-assessment that tests the a firm’s level of accountability.  One component of that is how easy it is for subordinates to bring up bad news.
Components of Accountability
Accountability is made up of four elements. They are:
  1. A very clear shared vision of the outcome.
  2. A very clear statement of the date, time and timezone when the outcome will be done.
  3. A very clear understanding of what individual owns the responsibility for that outcome.
  4. A public sharing of that individual’s ownership so others are aware, and a reflection of the owner’s understanding of what that shared vision is.
Ensure that you have all four elements, and you are creating a culture of accountability.
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