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How to Use (and How to Choose) an Executive Coach

There's Always Room for Improvement

Michael Jordan knows an important lesson in life: no matter how good you are, there's always room for improvement. I once heard him being congratulated about ac

hieving another scoring title — he responded by noting that he also dolphins.jpghad led his team in turnovers that year!

Like Jordan, many progressive leaders are recognizing and acting on this lesson. Many of these leaders are using an executive coach to identify particular areas that need improvement, challenge them to improve in measurable ways and provide support along the way. This approach to individual development is gaining momentum daily...and is the type of improvement device we want our clients and friends to be knowledgeable about—for themselves and their valued employees.

This newsletter is devoted to the subject of how to use (and how to choose) an executive coach. Be like Mike!

  • Look to a Coach to Provide a Foundation for Change
  • 360-degree Feedback:
    A Powerful Enhancement to the Coaching Process
  • Some Straight Talk from a CEO
  • Coaches are in Demand:
    (The trick though, is knowing how to use them)


Look to a Coach to Provide a Foundation for Change

by Judy Futch

Coaching provides a unique opportunity to work on specific goals and issues that are affecting your performance and that you are interested in changing. There are three foundational concepts that a coach can provide: assessment, challenge and support. *

ASSESSMENT provides a reliable benchmark; it lets you know where you are now relative to where you'd like to be. It provides clarity about needed changes and clues about how the gap can be closed. Assessment can be provided by on-going feedback, 360 feedback, instrumentation (MBTI, for example) and self-reflection. What am I doing well? Where do I need to improve? How am I doing in relationship to my goals? What's important to me? It helps to shift your thinking about your current self-understanding to a broader and complex vantage point.

CHALLENGE creates an opportunity to s-t-r-e-t-c-h beyond your self-perceived restraints. Challenges can be on the level of specific action steps and goals or the exploration of values and beliefs. Since challenges stimulate stretch associated with professional development and also create a measure of disequilibrium, they are most powerful when coupled with an element of support.

SUPPORT is key in maintaining motivation to learn and grow. Support helps produce a sense of accomplishment about learning. Support comes in many forms — a personal coach, encouraging comments, empathy, active listening, provision of learning resources (books, web-sites), self-reflection opportunities (journaling, meditation), feedback, or cross—group sharing.

What happens when you have a healthy challenge coupled with support but no assessment? Your likelihood of success is slim. It would be like running a marathon with your own cheering section and no honest review of your capabilities or adequate preparation. What happens if challenge and assessment is present but no support? You may not have the appropriate resources and you may lose your motivation. Assessment and support without challenge? You may find yourself "always doing what you've always done...and getting what you've always gotten." Challenges bombard us constantly, both from our professional and personal lives. Challenges can be overwhelming unless we restore balance by:

1. reducing the challenge, (which may not be an option), or

2. increasing the amount of information we have about our skills and abilities and seeking out additional forms of support.

Both assessment and support are within our ability to influence.

Personal and professional development is an on-going process. A coaching relationship helps to increase your range of motion, broaden your repertoire of responses and gain perspective on your own experience. Most importantly, it helps you to apply your learning back to your biggest asset — yourself!

The ACS model (Assessment, Challenge, Support) was created by the Center for Creative Leadership based on its research on leadership development.

"The Handbook of Leadership Development," edited by McCauley, Motley, Van Velsor, is an excellent source book.

360-degree Feedback:
A Powerful Enhancement to the Coaching Process

by Susan Wilkes

When I taught archery, there was nothing like the sound of a well-aimed arrow zinging through the air and then thwacking into the bull's-eye. Coaching is the same way; the most rewarding moments are when a individual is able to hit his target goal on an important project, apply just the right interpersonal skill in a difficult situation, or lead her company into a fruitful new strategic venture.

As you just read in the preceding article, accurate assessment is critical to a successful coaching experience. The assessment tool that I find most powerful is a multi-rater assessment, more commonly known as 360-degree feedback. Using this tool brings your target into much clearer sight, showing you exactly where you need developing and where you already excel. It is a dynamic and motivating catalyst which can give your development a stronger forward trajectory.

Here's why I like to use a 360-degree feedback:

First, it gives you a much fuller view of the person being coached. If you rely only on the traditional management assessment instruments, the individual provides a picture of him or herself that is based only on their own self-perception. Using conventional performance evaluation systems, the view is based only on the perception of the individual's supervisor. Multi-rater feedback includes not only the individual's perspective and his or her supervisor's, but also the perspectives of peers, direct reports, and other key people. From these multiple angles, both the individual and the coach get a much clearer picture of the person's performance.

Another assessment advantage of the systematic approach of 360-degree feedback is that the coach can be clear on what is being measured and can ensure that the leadership competencies being addressed are those that are important to the organization. Thus, the coach has a clear picture not only of the individual but also of the target performance expectations. Further, while interviews with supervisors and subordinates provide useful information about the individual, at times there is a need for more precise measurement on particular dimensions. Having quantitative data rather than just qualitative comments, adds an element of credibility to the process and gives more exact information to work with.

The second major enhancing feature of 360-degree feedback is that it is highly motivating. I have yet to meet anyone who truly does not care what his or her colleagues think about him or her. People may react with defensiveness, anger, or denial and in fact they often do. But they react that way because they care about how they are perceived by others. Seeing the opinions of one's colleagues in black and white is an intense experience and quite likely to affect the individual. The coach can then assist the individual in moving past less constructive emotions and shifting into a learning mode.

With the target clearly in sight and a motivated individual, the coach can focus on skill building and aim, thereby increasing the likelihood that the coached person will hit the mark. So, as you consider how to improve your personal performance and/or your organization's performance, consider the forward momentum that 360-degree feedback can create.

Susan Wilkes, an organizational psychologist, is the Manager of the Workplace Initiatives Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is author of a popular 360-degree feedback instrument and a frequent provider of executive coaching. For further information on the leadership model used in her 360-degree instrument.

Some Straight Talk from a CEO

"My experience has been that the coaching process is catalytic, hastening my development as a leader in ways that traditional management training programs do not. The very focused approach, keen individual attention, confidential discussions, and the objective viewpoint all made the coaching process uniquely valuable for me. My coach was able to be very affirming while also providing me with fresh insights and new ways of thinking about my leadership. In addition to clarity and insight, I received a lot of practical guidance on a wide range of issues. These benefits, together with the inspiration I felt, have led to my making wiser business decisions, expressing my leadership more fully, and doing a better job of drawing out the complete capacity of my team."

More Straight Talk

"My coach has helped me establish some guideposts that will become a permanent part of my professional and personal life. I quickly became aware that I would have to dig deep, explore the myths or truths that drive me, and create a much broader template for change than I had imagined. Having a coach who represented accountability and always sought clarity has made a great difference. "


"My weekly phone calls from my coach help me put "first things first" and map out a plan of action. Knowing we'll be talking together in a week, I feel accountable to follow through. I feel free to share concerns and fears that I don't feel comfortable sharing with anyone else at home or work. The opportunity to talk with my coach weekly is a real benefit to me."

Coaches are in Demand:
(The trick though, is knowing how to use them)

Fortune Magazine ran an article entitled, "Can You Handle the Truth About Your Career?" by Patricia Nakache. In the article, Ms. Nakache cautioned readers to ask themselves some pretty tough questions before hiring a coach. Her questions are excerpted here. Download the full transcript .

...At its best, coaching is clearly superior to training. It is far more time efficient, and it is tailored to individual needs. But before hiring a coach, consider the following:

Are you open to changing? "The fundamental challenge in coaching is to get the individual to relax, open up, and really think about his leadership style in a profound way, without being defensive or looking for arrows," explains John Kotter [professor of leadership at Harvard Business School]. Leocadia Burke, senior consultant at the Levinson Institute, a Boston executive development firm, concurs: "The No. 1 reason coaching fails is that people don't accept accountability for their behavior." Ask yourself if you are ready to accept potentially difficult feedback and whether you really want to change. (Be honest: Do you want to involve your subordinates in more of your decisions? Get to meetings on time? Be less confrontational with peers?)

Are you realistic about what coaching can do? "Beware of any guarantees," counsels Michael Shahnasarian, president of the National Career Development Association. And don't believe coaches who claim to have catapulted their clients to much higher positions and income levels. "There are so many variables leading to promotions and increased sales, it's hard to say that it was the coaching that made you more money," says Burke.

Do you have achievable goals? Wendy Wallbridge, a coach based in Larkspur, California, warns clients not to set aggressive and potentially conflicting goals. For example, don't pursue a tough business target, like doubling your company's size in a year, and at the same time try to shed 20 pounds. If achieving all your goals at once seems impossible, it probably is.

Are you prepared to work--hard? Quite simply, you get out of coaching only what you put into it. Says James Flaherty, head of New Ventures West, a San Francisco firm that trains coaches: "It's like hiring a personal trainer. To get in shape, you still need to lift the weights and sweat."

Well, if you are now overwhelmed by the idea of working with a coach, here is some good news: it is very possible that you don't need one. "Sometimes bosses are skilled people. They don't need outside help to coach their staffs. There are more of those than not," says Burke. Kotter agrees: "The best coach is a person's boss." So before you call a coach, look in the corner office and see if the boss might qualify.

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