What Can HR Learn from Executive Coaching?

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. November 19, 2020
What Can HR Learn from Executive Coaching?

HR professionals are turning to executive coaching to improve their effectiveness and add organizational value. They have found that concepts and tools developed for coaching company leaders—360-degree assessments, goal setting, targeted behavior identification, enrolling stakeholders (people committed to helping the leader grow) and measuring progress—can be applied to common HR challenges such as compliance, claim prevention, risk analysis, investigations and conflict resolution. This column explores key areas of overlap.

1. The goal isn't staying out of court; it's developing your people.

Too often, HR gets stuck in the weeds of compliance and claim prevention. Executive coaching takes a different tack. It focuses on developing human potential.

When HR focuses too narrowly on compliance, it loses sight of the human beings that make the organization succeed.  "We are called upon, by the nature of the work we do, to support the growth and performance improvement of employees throughout the organization," said Heather Stewart, HR consultant and executive coach at GlobaLocal HR Solutions in Los Angeles, "whether that is a newly promoted supervisor who is struggling to adapt to the needs and requirements of managing a group, or an executive whose leadership style is sabotaging the organization's—as well as his or her own—goals." 

"Having a clear and concise coaching framework and methodology is invaluable. Without that framework, we are merely providing feedback, which typically ends up addressing the symptoms of the problem, rather than the cause," Stewart said.

Cláudia Schwartz, president of HR Results in San Diego, said that HR's contributions parallel those of executive coaching, and so the two are natural partners. "HR's work is about facilitating purposeful communication, aligning stakeholders' interests, stimulating learning, and championing processes that mobilize action to achieve shared goals."

Because of these shared traits, the natural career progression for some HR professionals is into executive coaching, said Paul Falcone, CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills, Calif. "A formal coaching program for executive and hi[gh]-potential leadership development and performance management effectively expanded our HR practice and added a new notch to our belt in terms of our department's value-add, as well as our ability to positively impact the organization in a strategic leadership area."

2. Don't dictate the solution. Help them find it.

One of the cardinal sins in executive coaching is the coach doing the client's thinking. A good executive coach engages with the client and draws out his or her thinking. The resulting action plan isn't dictated by the coach; it's owned by the client.

"Too many times, HR is considered the 'policy police,' " asserted Crystal Kohanke, SHRM-CP, vice president of HR at CHRISTUS Health in San Antonio. "Leaders and employees alike hide from or avoid us. In an effort to tell people all they cannot do in the name of compliance or risk- avoidance, HR misses the opportunity to discuss what we can do! HR practitioners can learn from executive coaches by creating collaborative relationships through a coaching approach and by providing 'feedforward' [improvement suggestions for the future] versus 'feedback' [criticism of the past]."

3. Ask good questions.

The best coaches are great listeners and questioners. According to Kohanke, they adhere to the period-to-question-mark ratio. "HR professionals can help others feel truly heard and understood," she said. "This creates the trusting and open platform needed to really assess options and to make real change happen. Using coaching tools like 360s and actually including stakeholders in the needs assessment ensures everyone has a chance to be involved in helping people grow or improving performance or a situation."

Using a "brilliantly constructed question" is an HR best practice, said Brian Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of organizational development and training at MEDNAX National Medical Group in Ft. Lauderdale. "Questions are a tool to figuratively open the minds of those whom we are trying to coach. Questions that are poorly constructed cause limiting thoughts and produce limiting actions."

"The goal, in my opinion, of a strong HR coach is … [to] seed a thought or spark a bit of future-focused possibilities where the client is able to envision a different outcome and a positive future. As a systemically trained therapist, the best practice for me is to design circular questions. Circular questions provoke an intervention and open possibilities for transformation in a much better way than does offering opinions, prescriptions, directives or instructions," Rosenberg said.

4. Executive coaching principles can support critical DE&I work.

A successful diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiative requires buy-in and support from the organization's top leaders and a methodology by which change can be made, measured and maintained. The actions and approaches described above will go a long way in ensuring DE&I progress.

"Increasingly, organizations will look to HR for advice, counsel and strategic alignment of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and HR," said Isaac Dixon, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, associate vice president of HR at Portland State University in Oregon. "Acting like an executive coach in obtaining and listening to stakeholders' input will be key to HR professionals being successful in the DE&I space."

Conclusion

There are many excellent executive coaching programs. As an HR consultant and former labor and employment attorney, I highly recommend that HR professionals find a coaching program that suits them. Once you've completed the journey from "compliance cop" to "culture coach," you won't look back.


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