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When Does Executive Coaching Work?

I just completed listening to a podcast from the Harvard Business School titled "When Does Executive Coaching Work?"  by Paul Michelman and Marshall Goldsmith. In the podcast they cover how and why executive coaching will work and not work. This blog provides a summary of the great insights provided from the podcast.

Executive coaching is proven to be a a great talent development tool. Like any tool though it has to be used properly and will generate sub-optimal results when not used in the right way. Here are the four reasons Marshall Goldsmith lists as being essential for executive coaching to work:

Executive coaching works for behavioral challenges – it is not designed to provide technical, strategy or business acumen expertise. That is the realm of consultants. Coaches that are brought in for a combination of purposes will almost always fall short. 

Executive coaching should never be used for integrity issues. If there problems with honesty or even criminality the person should be terminated rather than coached.

Executive coaching requires openness from the coachee to be coached. The process cannot be forced on them. They have to be willing to learn, try new things and accept the truth – whatever it may be.As Marshall Goldsmith states:

When my book was the number one ranked business book in the United States, the number one ranked diet book sold ten times as many copies. Americans get fatter and fatter and fatter, and buy more and more diet books.

If buying diet books could make you thin, Americans would be the thinnest people in the history of the world. Well, you don’t lose weight by reading diet books. You have to go on diets. And clients don’t get better because they listen to a coach or read a book. They have to work. If they want to do the work, they’ll get better. If they don’t want to do the work, coaching is a waste time.

Coaching works best with high potential people who are willing to make a concerted effort to change, not as a religious conversion activity.

I often ask my clients a question, have you ever attempted to change the behavior of a successful adult that had absolutely no interest or commitment in changing? People raise their hands. I say, how much luck have you had on that process? Have you ever attempted to change the behavior of a husband, wife, or partner who had no interest in changing? How’d that work out for you?

Forbes magazine, in article by Dougless McKenna titled “Who Needs An Executive Coach?” also provided insight on the importance of acceptance from the coaching candidate:

The client has got to want to change. A bright, motivated coaching client can step up to most challenges. A bright, unmotivated one will waste everyone’s time and money. Working with an executive who has been pressured into coaching by his boss or human resources department is an uphill battle, though it’s not impossible.

Coachability is important. Look for a track record of unusual growth under the guidance of teachers and mentors. Coachable executives readily share their experience. They are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses. They learn from others but do it their own way, taking responsibility for whatever happens. They know how to leverage a coach.

Executive coaching also needs an organizational culture and climate that is accepting and willing to allow the coachee to improve. No amount of coaching can benefit someone who is negatively impacted by political or personal barriers within their organization. The coachee will be improving but the stakeholders against them (superiors, peers, subordinates) will refuse to recognize the positive change. If the coachee will not be given a fair chance to succeed the best option for them is to exit the organization.

Executive coaching is a powerful tool that organizations can use for talent development of their senior leaders and high potentials. In order to get the greatest ROI for the engagement the culture and candidate has to be open to coaching and the changes that will result from the process.