Like a great white shark, a business must keep moving forward in order to survive and remain competitive. Since organizations rely on effective leaders to guide progress, senior executives must also be in constant motion by learning new skills and adapting to changing environments. Leadership involves a wide range of personal and professional skills, and it’s imperative to consistently focus on growth and development.
One of the best ways to navigate today’s volatile waters is to build an executive coaching program for the senior leadership team and high-performing executives who fit into the succession plan. New skills, attitudes and behaviors in the C-suite can have a profound and lasting impact on a company’s performance. Organizational benefits from a top-down coaching program include a faster response to market opportunities and threats, a more positive corporate culture and stronger workforce engagement.
Executive coaching plays a vital role in succession planning by helping mid- to upper-level managers develop the skills needed to lead more effectively. A recent study titled “Corporate Learning Survey 2016,” published by Henley Business School in the United Kingdom, found that coaching is an essential element to succession planning. Professor Nick Holley, Co-Director of the Henley Centre for HR Excellence, noted from the survey that “The big leap from running a business unit to leading an enterprise is difficult to manage well because it requires an entirely different set of skills. Smart organizations have found ways to inform future leaders of how that senior leadership role will differ and the knowledge and skills required to be successful.”
The study found that more than 60 percent of respondents said the top two major challenges facing their company over the next three years were organizational-wide leadership capabilities and effectiveness of management teams. The study also found that 66 percent of senior executives preferred coaching over classroom-based executive leadership and development programs.
The Coaching Myth
Despite awareness of these sustainable benefits, far too many organizations fail to take advantage of executive coaching as a high-level development opportunity. One of the reasons is that it can be difficult to quantify the return on investment for a coaching program. Making a financial commitment to increase the value and effectiveness of an organization’s human capital is much different than launching a sales or marketing program where the ROI can be measured dollars.
Another reason some companies are reluctant to invest in executive coaching is a perceived stigma attached to the concept. Some corporate directors believe a CEO would only need an executive coach in order to overcome poor performance or capability. This is not the case. Just like top professional athletes who travel with coaches that offer advice to “up their game”; many leading executives do the same. Even Jack Welch, former CEO of GE and best-selling business author, worked with an executive advisor for many years throughout his career.
According to a Stanford Business School survey, nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches. Only 34 percent of respondents said they received external coaching and of those, nearly 80 percent said receiving coaching was their own idea.
Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group, a talent development solutions company specializing in coaching, assessments and team effectiveness, notices this trend as well. “Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in,” says Miles. “Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of the Board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone’.”
David F. Larcker, Professor of Accounting at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, shares a similar perspective with Miles, saying, “What’s interesting is that nearly 100 percent of CEOs in the survey say they actually enjoy the process of receiving coaching and leadership advice. There is a real opportunity for companies to fill in the gap. If CEOs are willing to be coached and make changes based on coaching, it stands to reason that companies and boards should make this happen.”
Implementing an Effective Coaching Program
Planning and implementing an executive coaching program requires two key elements. The first is identifying the “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How” of the strategy. The second is assuring internal alignment of the program with the support of the CHRO and Board of Directors. The “5Ws+H” question provides a practical framework for planning a senior executive coaching program, in order to address the following issues:
- Who: Is it just the CEO, a subset of the C-suite, or a wider group of executives who will receive coaching? An executive coaching program should target high-level executives in the c-suite, but also focus attention on the emerging pipeline of talent for future succession planning.
- What: What type of skills will the coaching objectives focus on? Will the coaching program focus on building community outreach skills? Should it emphasize the development of “soft skills” like listening to others, working as a team or becoming more persuasive? Part of an executive coaching program should include an assessment phase, where a coach can observe how a company’s leaders interact with one another and direct reports.
- When: Since time is always a precious resource, how often will coaching sessions be held and how long will they last? Generally, it’s best to schedule coaching periods into an executive’s calendar, which could mean weekly, bi-weekly or monthly conversations.
- Where: Should a coaching session be conducted in the executive’s office, at a location outside the organization or perhaps in a group meeting in the conference room? A change in environment can result in a higher level of engagement and reception and therefore increase retention during the coaching session.
- Why: This is the biggest question to answer, because it shapes the entire experience of the coaching program. Whether the initial thought of coaching was a suggestion from the Board of Directors or independently requested by the CEO, the outcome of an executive coaching program will yield enhanced leadership capabilities and skills across the organization.
- How: Once the “Who, What, Where, When and Why” have been established, the next step is to build an executive coaching program catered to the unique learning styles of the “coachees”. How will the program integrate different formats of learning? For example, some members of the senior leadership team will be visual learners, while others grasp concepts better through a conversation with the coach.
When planning an executive coaching program, it’s essential to involve the Board of Directors and the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), whose participation and support is required for the program to be a success. In some cases, the Board of Directors may be the driving force for instituting executive coaching, while in other cases, the Board may need to be persuaded that the potential benefits far outweigh a modest investment in internal resources.
In both cases, the CHRO can provide the necessary insight, documentation, enthusiasm and energy to launch a successful executive coaching program. Training and development has long been a priority for HR departments, and executive coaching is a strategic application of that function.
Finally, the Board or CHRO will need to assess the results of an executive coaching program. As part of that process, individuals or teams receiving coaching should be asked about what they are learning and how they are applying these new skills. Asking “coachees” for feedback helps to keep the senior executives engaged with their skill-building activities and leadership development.
Overall, an effective coaching program can lead to follow-up training and build a new internal process for talent development. It can also create a cyclical approach to the continual improvement of the senior leadership team and strengthen the succession plan.