Maximizing Coaching Outcomes:
Identifying the Coachable Executive
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.
Know-It-All Syndrome
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.
Invulnerability Syndrome
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 success handbook.
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 results.
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?