Thursday, August 22, 2013

Executive Coaching Under the Spotlight

In certain respects, corporate leaders lag their counterparts in sports organizations.  The latter know full well that coaching is paramount to athletics.  Coaching is built into the very blueprint of the game, so there is no questioning it and there is no worrying about it.  While this is true of team sports, even athletes in individual sports like golf and tennis engage one or more coaches.  

The good news is, these top leaders may be coming around to, and seeing the value of, executive coaching.

Former Chicago Bulls head coach, Phil Jackson, with Scottie Pippen (33) and Michael Jordan (23)

I am a management consultant, executive coach, and clinical psychologist as well.  So you may argue that my views on this matter are slanted in favor of the survey findings that Harvard Business Review and Forbes summarize:  Research:  What CEOs Really Want from Coaching and CEOs Just Want To Get Coached, respectively.

But let's look into these findings further, and dig for patterns that speak to CEOs and their Board vis-a-vis executive coaching.

Why is coaching important?
Blind spots are less obvious when things are going well. It is very easy for executives to become almost strictly inward looking, especially when they have been very successful. But these blind spots can become devastating when performance moves in the other direction. A good, neutral third party assessment is a clear reality check for executives. 
Additionally, every single person inside the company has an agenda of some sort. This makes the coaching environment a rare and safe place to think through various topics against the framework of what is in the CEO's best interest. The coach is only concerned with the CEO's wild success as the leader of the company.
One basic lesson in driving school is to check the blind spot.  Besides checking the side view and rear view mirrors, drivers must turn their head to the right or to the left, before changing lanes.  More recent automobile technology has a specialized mirror, built into the side view mirror, which covers that blind spot.  So drivers don't have to turn their head.  In either case, they avoid one potential driving hazard with an easy enough procedure.

What this means is this:  CEOs who have an ability, willingness and commitment to check blind spots may do just fine on their own.  But if there is any reason to wonder about how able, willing or committed they are, then it makes sense to add mechanisms or procedures to cast light on these blind spots.

This is when technology can come into play, for example, something as simple as periodic text messages to the CEO:  "Think twice," "Think again," "Are you sure?" or "What does your COO think?"  This is also when people in the organization, such as the Board and the executive team, and-or people outside the organization, such as advisers, coaches and mentors, come into play.

A more complex, larger, globalized business may in fact have hordes of blind spots.  So it is an imperative for top leaders have what they need - within themselves and surrounding them - to run their business effectively.

What should coaching focus on?

It's clear from the following bar graph that the largest CEO segment views Conflict management as a development need and that, conversely, the smallest segment identifies Motivation as relatively strong.

(image credit)
I thought there were additional findings from this graph alone, so I re-sorted it to surface crucial patterns and presented it as rank order:

Table 1. Ranked by areas that CEOs think they need to develop
Table 2. Ranked by areas that CEOs are working on
Table 3. Ranked by areas that the Board thinks their CEOs need to develop
Table 4. Ranked by areas in which CEOs and the Board differed

If I've understood the full survey report correctly - 2013 Executive Coaching Survey (PDF) - 67 out of 203 respondents were CEOs (33.2%), and 69 out of 203 respondents were Directors (Board) (34%).  These CEOs and Directors did not necessarily work for the same company.  Moreover, just 23 of the 67 CEOs (34.3%) were actually in coaching, who were thus in a position of saying what they were working on.  So we don't have specific findings on which areas only those CEOs in coaching thought they needed to develop.     

With these statistical caveats in mind, let's dive into what these Excel tables may be revealing:
  • By and large, CEOs are working on competency areas that they believe they ought to work on - i.e., Conflict management and Sharing leadership/delegation (Table 1).  
  • However, CEOs thought Listening was third priority to develop, but this area wasn't necessarily among the top they were working on (Table 1).
  • Mentoring/developing internal talent, in contrast, was among the top three CEOs were working on, although they saw this area only as a moderate priority for development (Table 2).  
  • On the other hand, the Board thought that Mentoring/developing internal talent was topmost priority for their CEOs to work on (Table 3).     
  • Like CEOs, the Board thought that Listening was a third priority for development, but again this area wasn't among the top they were working on (Table 3).
  • CEOs and the Board differed the most, in terms of what they thought, on Mentoring/developing internal talent, Communication, and Interpersonal (Table 4).
  • They agreed perfectly on 4 of the 12 areas, in terms of what they thought needed development (Table 4).  
  • They agreed moderately on another 5 of the 12 areas, differing mostly by just 1 or 2 rank positions (Table 4).   
Again, the good news is that CEOs recognize that they have development needs and want to get coaching to work on these.  Also, the Board seem to be quite supportive of their CEOs developing themselves via coaching.

Apparently, however, CEOs and the Board need to better align what they think CEOs should in fact be working on.  At best, this may simply require better communication between them, so they can reconcile their apparent disagreement.  At worst, this may mean there are notable ruptures in their relationships, which is a more serious matter to address, before or along with coaching.

To wit, the Harvard Business Review summary inquires about this:
So there's tension between boards and executive teams when it comes to coaching. How does it manifest itself? 
Again, when things are going well, there can be a tendency on the part of some CEOs to be less open to feedback and a corresponding "If it ain't broke..." attitude from the board. If things are going well, boards often feel as if they don't need to have this difficult conversation with the CEO. Both of these attitudes/approaches are a problem and certainly do happen.
Besides CEO and Board agreement, there also ought to be better alignment between what CEOs think they ought to work on and what they're actually working on.  With time, resources and investment often at a premium for top leaders, they and their Board can ill afford misalignments.  In other words, they mustn't work on anything, if it isn't a top priority.    

What is the impact of coaching?

This survey did not really address the impact of coaching on leadership behavior or performance.  However, from the PDF report - 2013 Executive Coaching Survey - we can pinpoint to survey items that suggests impact:
  • When it comes to making changes in leadership style in response to the feedback and coaching that you receive, 42.9% of CEOs were very receptive and the remainder of the CEOs were receptive (57.1%).  Therefore 100% of them were open to making changes, although we do not know whether they actually did.  
  • 78.3% of CEOs received informal coaching and leadership advice from the Board:  38.9% and 55.6% of these particular CEOs found this to be very useful and useful, respectively.  
In conclusion

On the whole, these are encouraging findings about CEOs, their desire for executive coaching, and the support they get from the Board.  There is still quite a lag, though, in the degree to which CEOs actually utilize coaching, relative to their sports counterparts.  But they seem to be coming around.  For those who are in coaching, we need information on how it's actually working out vis-a-vis whatever objectives the CEOs establish at the outset.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!  Also, if you'd like a PDF of this article, please e-mail me at

Ron Villejo, PhD

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