Advice & News

April 4, 2024

Applying Lessons Learned about Coaching to Help Executives


We live in a world in which effective leadership is more necessary than ever. When good leadership prevails, organizations and people prosper. Colleges and universities are good examples of this phenomenon. These institutions, large and small, public and private, are experiencing historic challenges. Many pressures are financial and tactical, and many are more strategic and philosophical. Indeed, they challenge the purpose of higher education.

Looking at the churn of university presidents, one must wonder -- do we understand what effective leadership looks like? There is considerable evidence that dissatisfaction is growing regarding the roles and efficacy of university governing boards.

How can we apply lessons learned about teams and coaching to help boards and executives become truly high performing?

New Presidents Need Guidance on University Culture

Boards hire presidents to solve problems. If the problem is enrollment, they look for someone with experience in admissions and student affairs. If the problem is financial, they look for a seasoned fundraiser. If the problem is in government relations, they look for successful lobbyists.

Regardless of an urgent need or tactical challenge, a new president needs guidance in how to navigate an academic environment - including its culture -- and how to lead effectively in it.

Organizational culture is a powerful force. We sense its presence in successful businesses and championship teams, and we sense when it's absent or toxic.

The pandemic, demographic changes, social media, AI, divisive politics and declining consumer confidence affect all enterprises. Boards tend to emphasize the CEO role rather than teams even though we know that leadership is a team sport. Reflective leaders prepare for meetings and decisions with their boards and teams by engaging an extra set of eyes and ears (i.e., a coach).

McKinsey & Company reports that as executives become more senior, they are less likely to receive constructive feedback on performance and strategy from their boards and colleagues.

Feedback is necessary for every leader. The CEO cannot succeed alone. McKinsey research also found that "CEOs who invest time in learning generally report an improvement in performance and that training can help senior as well as early tenured CEOs."

Such learning is facilitated by a coach.

Coaching Stimulates Reflection, Nurtures Behavior Change

Coaching stimulates personal growth at an individual, team or board level. Coaching is neither a form of therapy that heals nor is it advice that directs outcomes. Instead, it is a process that stimulates an individual's thinking.

Key findings over the last few decades, including studies at organizations like the Center for Creative Leadership, have demonstrated that, first, feedback is an important element of a person's professional and personal development. Second, the most effective executives are active learners; they turn everything into a learning experience. And third, the Center found that people often operate in feedback-deficient environments. Coaching provides constructive feedback in a way that nurtures behavior change.

What is Coaching?

Engaging a coach is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that the executive is reflective and wants to learn. An executive coach provides formal feedback and support to help an individual or a team gain self-awareness, improve decision-making, communication skills and interpersonal relationships and maximize their potential as leaders. Executive coaching sessions may cover a wide range of topics, including leadership style, conflict resolution, time management, strategic planning and career development.

Overall, executive coaching aims to empower leaders to overcome obstacles, capitalize on opportunities and achieve higher levels of performance and success in their roles.

How Do Coaches Operate?

A classic coaching engagement begins with an individual leader negotiating a professional relationship with a coach. Usually, there is an awareness of a problem. For example, the leader may ask: Am I being as effective as I need to be and is my team or board operating in a way that is productive and high-performing? Then, ground rules are established about communication, roles, confidentiality, scope and professional fees.

More importantly, a process is outlined about how the coach will collect and share feedback with the individual leader or team's performance. The customary approach is to diagnose and compare the characteristics of leaders and teams with high-performing competing organizations.

Research shows that leaders whose self-concepts are more closely aligned with their public reputation are typically considered most effective. Thus, building a higher degree of self-awareness at the onset is an important result in a coaching engagement. Effectiveness does not necessarily mean most popular. Instead, it means the leaders accomplish better results relative to agreed-upon goals.

The assessment phase usually ends with the coach preparing an Individual Development Plan that integrates all the data and outlines key strengths the executive needs to engage. The plan also includes specific recommendations about new behaviors for the executive to develop.

Next, the coaching phase begins. This is a process to monitor and review how effectively the executive executes the development plan. This phase is tailored to each situation. Often, one-on-one meetings are scheduled every two to three weeks, and sometimes the coach may observe the executive in team or business meetings. At the end of the engagement, there is a process to review and evaluate progress, often with a superior or board member.

Executive coaching relationships are typically deep and personal. Confidentiality is always important, including a clear understanding about what information will be shared and with whom. We find that the more the executive being coached owns and drives the process of sharing information, the more impactful the engagement.

Characteristics of Great Coaches

Our experience suggests there is potentially great value in benefitting from the experience, knowledge and skills of a coach who has been a successful leader. There also can be great value in leveraging the technical acumen of a skilled diagnostician and facilitator.

Often, the situation requires the skills of a facilitator and not a doer. The coach is a supplement or an extra player on the team, court or field - not a substitute - and can enhance the experience and wisdom of the team and board.

Many former CEOs, for example, do not make the best coaches because of their tendency to dominate or control. The trick is to find a coach with a proven track record in developing talent who has built or experienced operating on a high-performing team.

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