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Executive Coaches Ease Leadership Transitions

Vol. 59 No. 9 No longer brought in as a Hail Mary maneuver, executive coaches are being used to help new leaders hit the ground running.


Whether working on a football field or in a corner office, a good coach is an expert at bringing out the best in people. For Dr. Steve Waronker, an anesthesiologist whose playing field frequently shifted between bedside and budget meetings, that was just what he needed. When Waronker became chief of anesthesiology at Emory Specialty Associates in Marietta, Ga., he began meeting weekly with an executive coach to get a better grasp on his rapidly evolving role and to learn how to work more collaboratively.

“The main objective was to learn—and unlearn—some leadership skills to deal with a larger and more traditional organization,” Waronker says.

Before receiving coaching, he says, his approach to achieving goals was to “go on offense, play hard and don’t compromise.” While he usually got the results he sought, others sometimes found him abrasive. “I left some scorched earth on the way to the end zone,” he says.

Working with a coach, he learned “how to listen more, talk less, compromise, and get there via questions instead of bold and sometimes intimidating comments. It actually helped me with my home life as much as my work life.”

Waronker is one of many emerging leaders who have turned to executive coaching, which provides a kind of one-on-one customized tutorial on leadership skills. Just as “life coaches” have become increasingly popular for people interested in self-development in their personal lives, executive coaching has become more widespread as a training tool in the professional space.

“In the past five to seven years, I’ve seen a spike in senior leaders receiving executive coaching amongst a broader range of organizations throughout the country,” says Joshua Miller, a global leadership development and coaching professional at JHM Executive Coaching in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

“Coaching is effective because it is personal, behavior-oriented and targeted to the individual,” says Waronker’s coach, Rick Brandt, president of consulting services for TalentQuest, a talent management consultancy in Atlanta. “It facilitates learning in a psychologically safe environment and focuses on results that are important to the individual and organization.”

What Coaching Is

Unlike a consultant, who will analyze situations and tell clients what to do, a coach helps people look within and draw their own

Pitfalls to Avoid

Executive coaching can be an excellent leadership development tool for emerging leaders, but HR must address challenges such as these for it to work well:

Failure to prioritize coaching. Executives are busy people, and they may not see the value of investing time in coaching. “With emerging leaders, the difficulty is in their recognizing that executive coaching can help them, and then being focused enough to maximize the impact of the coach,” says Leslie W. Joyce, senior vice president and chief people officer at manufacturer Novelis.

Desire to overuse coaching. Jennifer Dwyer, leadership development manager at BASF, says her biggest problem is having to say “no” when more employees want coaches than the budget will permit. “Executives who have used coaching themselves want to use it for employees below the executive level,” she says. “I have to push back [and ask], ‘Are you sure coaching is the right solution for this situation?’ We try to find alternative development programs to support employees. Not everybody can get a coach.”

Failure to position coaching properly. Companies that have used coaching in the past for remedial performance problems may have a hard time convincing leaders that their job is safe. “It’s hard to overcome that impression,” says Joan Caruso, managing director at executive coaching firm The Ayers Group. “Messages are subtle and lasting.”

conclusions. As certified coach Michael Esposito, SPHR, puts it, “A great coach raises probing questions, and the client comes to the answer himself. A great consultant tells you what you need to do.” Esposito is director of employee relations at Novelis Inc., an Atlanta-based aluminum manufacturer with 10,000 employees; he has coached leaders at Home Depot Inc. and The HoneyBaked Ham Co.

What a coach shouldn’t be viewed as is a last-ditch effort to salvage a leader with serious performance issues, because that is generally not a good use of company resources, experts say. “Your chances of success are poor if the person doesn’t want to be coached,” Brandt says.

BASF Corp., a chemical company based in Florham Park, N.J., with almost 17,000 employees in North America, began offering executive coaching five years ago. “We wanted to establish executive coaching as a value-added process, not a remedial last chance,” says Jennifer Dwyer, leadership development manager at BASF. “It’s common for our leaders to transition every four years to completely different geography or business lines. We need to ramp them up as quickly as possible.”

BASF offers three types of coaching: executive-level coaching, transition coaching for first-time leaders and accelerated coaching for high-potentials. “Every time a new executive steps into a new role, we offer a three- to five-month transition coaching,” Dwyer explains. The company offers longer engagements of up to nine months for so-called accelerated development—coaching that isn’t tied to a new role but rather is intended to prepare employees for the next step in their career.

“We have 2,500 managers and, at any given time, we have 30 to 40 coaching engagements,” Dwyer says.

In a typical coaching engagement with Brandt, the first order of business is to establish trust. He does that by letting the leader he’s coaching know where he gets his information and what he can share. Then he conducts a 360-degree review, gathering feedback from 13 to 15 co-workers. Without revealing who said what, Brandt shares the comments with the person being coached, and together they select the habits and behaviors they want to address.

Who Gets Coached

According to the 2009 Global Coaching Client Study by the International Coach Federation, most coaching clients are between 36 and 45 years old and have a post-graduate degree. Sixty-five percent are female. The top three motivators cited for obtaining coaching are:

  • Self-confidence.
  • Work/life balance.
  • Career opportunities.

Coaching is most effective for executives who are preparing for a promotion, who are moving into a new role or who have hit a wall in their development. “Senior executives benefit from an honest coach who will shoot them straight—the further up the ladder they go, the less people want to tell [them] what’s really going on,” says Lou Solomon, founder of Interact, a communication consultancy in Charlotte, N.C.

Leslie W. Joyce, senior vice president and chief people officer at Novelis, says the company uses executive coaching primarily as a transition acceleration tool. “As key leaders are moving into larger and more-global positions,” she says, “we have found it is helpful for them to have a coach that can help them stay focused, operate as a sounding board and share collective wisdom.”

Joyce knows of an Italian executive who moved to take over operations in Korea 18 months ago. “As part of his transition and socialization acceleration, we assigned him an executive coach,” she says. The assignment lasted three months and had three goals: to smooth the adjustment to a new culture; to keep the executive focused on his 90-day plan; and to provide a sounding board when the executive needed a third-party opinion about the impact of his decisions, especially if that impact might be different in Korea than it would have been in Europe.

Gitterman and Associates Wealth Management LLC also uses coaches to transition executives. The Iselin, N.J.-based company’s CEO and co-founder, Jeff Gitterman—who is also CEO and co-founder of Beyond Success Consulting, a coaching and consulting firm based in the same city—says three of Gitterman and Associates’ 25 employees have gone from individual contributor positions to management positions, and all three received coaching.

The Logistics

Before engaging an executive coach, an employer must specify in a contract several aspects of the work, such as confidentiality, duration of the engagement, cost and medium. HR professionals also must determine whether to use internal or external coaches, or a combination.

Confidentiality. Make sure you’re clear about what is shared, with whom and when. Ben Dattner, executive coach and organizational development consultant at Dattner Consulting LLC in New York City, suggests that 360-degree feedback should be confidential but that the development plan based on the feedback should be shared. “Only when feedback is confidential can the stakeholders be brutally honest about strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

Duration. “Most objectives can be accomplished in six to nine months, meeting twice a month,” says Joan Caruso, managing director at The Ayers Group, an executive coaching firm headquartered in New York City. “At the end, some clients continue to meet with their coaches, but we like to re-contract, to focus on different specific objectives.”

Cost. Coaches charge between $200 and $3,000 an hour, with an average rate of $350 an hour. Even though coaching can be a costly investment, Esposito argues that it is a good value compared to other leadership development options. “Coaching is an ongoing relationship,” he says, as opposed to a two-week class where participants are supposed to emerge magically transformed.

In person vs. via phone. Many coaches prefer to meet in person. Brandt meets with clients twice a month for one-and-a-half to two hours. “I prefer to meet face to face, but I might alternate with a phone call,” he says.

Dwyer advocates for face-to-face coaching, too. “People become much more transparent with someone they see in front of them,” she says. “They know they are getting their full attention.”

Internal vs. external. “Whether the coach is internal or external has become a hot topic in the field of coaching,” Miller says.

Internal coaches are less expensive and understand a company’s culture and industry.

But if you go that way, be sure to set clear boundaries, especially when it comes to confidentiality, Caruso says. For example, if an executive is up for a promotion, should an internal coach weigh in on what he or she has learned in the coaching engagement? “Internal coaching works best when the individual’s sole responsibility is coaching,” Caruso says, thus avoiding potential conflicts of interest.

Senior executives usually prefer being coached by someone from outside the company so that they feel comfortable revealing their vulnerabilities.

Many HR professionals use a mix of internal and external coaches. “I use a few different coaching firms to make sure I have diversity,” Dwyer says. “I provide the client with two to three biographies, and I insist they interview at least two. That way, they own this choice. They can choose the one they click with.”

Choosing an Executive Coach

Experts offer the following advice to employers seeking executive coaches:

Find certified coaches. The nonprofit International Coach Federation provides academic coaching guidelines, credentials and accreditation to schools. Individual credentials include the associate certified coach (ACC), professional certified coach (PCC) and master certified coach (MCC), with the ACC being the most basic level and the MCC the most rigorous. The certifications require various levels of training and client experience.

Check references and experience. “What I find to be most important in an executive coach is actual coaching experience, both in terms of tenure as an executive coach and the variety of experience,” says Joan Caruso, managing director at executive coaching firm The Ayers Group. “We like to see a minimum of eight to 12 years as an independent coach, an advanced degree and corporate experience.”

Test-drive the coach. “Anyone can be charming in an interview. Give the coach a case study and ask, ‘How would you work with this person?’ ” advises Ben Dattner, executive coach and organizational development consultant at Dattner Consulting LLC. If HR managers are comfortable being coached themselves, they can ask to be coached on their own challenges. There are many different styles and forms of coaching, so find the person who meshes best for your client and needs.

The ROI of Coaching

Since each executive coaching engagement focuses on different objectives, it is difficult to apply universal metrics for measuring effectiveness.

Most companies tend to rely on anecdotal evidence of success. Both Novelis and BASF ask executives if they would recommend the coach to someone else.

Brandt relies on a targeted change survey to evaluate coaches. “Ask people who know the participant well the degree of change exhibited in targeted behaviors over the course of the engagement,” he recommends.

Gitterman says the greatest return on investment comes from permanent behavioral changes. Gitterman and Associates looks for “internal changes in people’s perspective and attitudes,” he says.

HR’s Role

HR’s responsibility in facilitating coaching is to set parameters for the engagement. “The most important thing HR can do is be clear, specific and honest with executives,” Caruso says. Explain why the emerging leader is getting a coach and what the expectations are. “It floors me that so often people—successful, high-potential people—don’t know why they are being asked to work with a coach,” she says.

Waronker says coaching can lead to deeper insights and personal growth. “You gain not only insight into yourself but also into the many others you interface with every day,” he says. Statistics bear this out: According to the 2009 Global Coaching Client Study, 96 percent of clients said they would repeat the coaching experience. That kind of validation underscores why many organizations are calling in the coaches as a way to achieve success.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.


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