Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
While many studies and articles have outlined the characteristics of
effective coaches and coaching programs, this article is focused on
critical executive characteristics that are related to successful coaching
outcomes. Some of these characteristics are related to what makes
executives successful in general and the final and most important
characteristic is related to what an executive must commit to for a
successful coaching program.
Companies rarely invest in outside executive coaches for any but their top
executives, those who have achieved much by being smarter, harder-working,
savvier, and knowing more than others. But that very success can promote
an over-generalized belief in oneself, the Know-It-All Syndrome.
Successful lawyers often assume that they are automatically successful
business people and leaders; so too do executives assume that if they are
the best at achieving business results, they also know best about
achieving results with people.
The truth is that the ability to generate good business results is not the
same as the ability to generate good people results. The evidence from the
field of emotional intelligence (EQ) demonstrates that EQ is twice as
important as IQ and technical skill combined in predicting success and is
almost entirely responsible for leadership success. But try to tell that
to some successful, operationally-focused executives.
The problem is that successful coaching requires equal partnership with a
coach and a willingness to learn. If you already know it all, what is left
to learn? Of course, the syndrome manifests itself with more subtlety than
that and often without conscious awareness. But the signs are clear: a
continued challenge to the importance or priority of work on "people"
(read "soft") skills in favor of business results, arguments about how
this style helped accomplish a lot, etc.
Instant Answers Syndrome
Executives rarely make it to the top by taking the slow, contemplative
path. They tend to be action- and results-oriented with a track record of
achieving better results faster than others. Introspection is not their
long suit: action is. This is great for their organizations and even great
for their careers in most cases.
Where it isn't helpful is in considering their impact on others or making
the small steps necessary to make, and more importantly, to sustain
improvements in leadership, interpersonal, or communication style central
to an executive coaching program. On the other hand, if executives muster
the patience and limited time necessary for coaching programs that break
needed changes into small steps, their efforts are consistent with the
evidence on how adults learn and change.
Many executives mistakenly assume that their rise in an organization
requires an image of invulnerability. This manifests as unwillingness to
ask for help in the guise of strength. They must have ready answers and a
consistent task focus to maintain the image of the strong and confident
leader. Shows of vulnerability are not part of the game plan/executive
It can be difficult to break set, acknowledge the need for improvement and
assistance, even to an external coach, but this is critical to the success
of the coaching relationship. Without emotional openness coaching
relationships remain superficial and transactional: no deep learning and
change are possible with this low level of self-disclosure.
By far the most serious impediment to the successful coaching of
executives is the issue of coachability. Coachability is just what it
appears - the ability to be coached - and it depends on an affirmative
answer to at least three questions: Is there a behavior of yours that you
want to change? Is changing your behavior a priority? Are you willing to
be held accountable for making changes in your behavior? Absent
affirmative responses to all three questions, even the best coach cannot
single-handedly produce successful coaching outcomes.
The key to the situation lies in the "single-handedly" reference. Any
successful coaching relationship requires a partnership of executive and
coach. There is nothing to coach if the behavior to be changed lies
outside the executive. If an executive views the problem with his
leadership style as primarily not with his style but with a risk-averse
organization or inadequately skilled subordinates, the target behaviors
for change lie outside the realm of his coaching program.
A coach might argue that 20 complaining subordinates cannot all be wrong
is claiming that their boss drives change without listening to others'
views or building consensus, but unless the executive sincerely agrees or
"owns" her problem behavior, the coaching program is going nowhere. The
only behavior we can change is our own; if we see the problem in others or
the situation we cannot make changes.
Sometimes executives acknowledge problems in their own behavior but either
because they are only giving lip service to the problem, dispute the
seriousness of the problems their behavior causes, or are engaged in other
activities they view as higher priority, they are not willing to give the
coaching effort the serious attention it requires. A good coach helps an
executive find important levers of change and small but noticeable steps
to take that don't consume too much time, but priority attention is always
part of a winning formula.
If the coaching focus is not an executive's priority, he or she will find
many excuses in a busy schedule to never make the small but meaningful
steps. Or they will do the minimum required, instead of seeking
opportunities to apply the coaching insights and steps more broadly. The
excuses may be varied and some may be valid, but they amount to the same
thing: a lack of importance assigned to the coaching and a lack of
Good executive coaches and good executives treat coaching programs like
other business initiatives: requiring clear accountabilities, measures of
success, and timetables to track and sustain progress. An executive's
refusal to be pinned down to specific steps, measures, accountabilities,
or timeframe signals a lack of commitment to the change effort. A comment
like, "I'll make a concerted effort to communicate the strategic vision
more clearly to my team" is vague, subjective, and noncommittal. It would
never fly if an executive were asked to lead a major business initiative
and it doesn't fly as a coaching commitment.
Affirmative answers to the coachability questions are the fundamental
executive determinant of coaching success. The common executive syndromes
of Knowing It All, Instant Answers and Invulnerability can also interfere
with getting the most out of a coaching program. Coaching isn't for
everyone and it may not be for anyone at all times. But at the right time,
with the right receptivity and willingness to put aside characteristic
modes of executive behavior, it can facilitate great leaps forward in
leadership and interpersonal style. Are you coachable?