EXECUTIVE COACHING Take it from the Top – Getting the best tuned coaching

Coaching can work wonders. At best, it is powerful tool for fast-tracking executive development by helping to plug skill gaps, build leadership capability and create more effective teams. But its rapid rise to the top of the training toolbox carries the risk of overuse and misuse.
The questions around coaching centre on knowing when it is most effective; how to identify who will gain most benefit and, consequently, asking how organisations can maximise the return on their coaching investment.
The first golden rule, according to practitioners, is “start from the top”. That’s where the most organisational impact can be achieved.
Leadership coach Leslie Hamilton uses an eggbeater analogy; turn it little at the top to deliver lot of churn further down. “If you can change the leader of an organisation just little, it can have profound flow-on effect and that holds true for any leadership development. So the organisations who use coaching well are usually the ones that start at the top. And simply by modelling, they make it okay for others to see it as valuable option.”
Top down is also the philosophy adopted by Blue Chip Coaching, according to partner Carmel Byrne. “We coach executives and executive teams because, in our experience, the benefits generated at this level trickle down to teams and individuals at other levels in the organisation. That’s because those executives incorporate effective coaching into their own leadership style.”
If senior executive is getting one-on-one coaching, team members often report the positive impact for them of changes in that person’s approach or behaviour, says Byrne.
“Clients absorb coaching skills and techniques through being coached themselves and then find themselves applying these [techniques] when coaching and mentoring their own people.”
Leadership starts at the top. If those heading the company aren’t fantastic role models then ad-hoc interventions at lower levels of the company are lot less effective, says Geoff Lorigan director of the Institute for Strategic Leadership (ISL) and professor of strategy and MBA director at the University of Auckland Business School. “We start from the top with our coaching and build the whole culture from the top of the company.”
ISL runs two intensive live-in programmes. One targets chief executives, directors and senior managers and is held at Millbrook in Queenstown four times year. similar one for high potential mid-managers is held three times year.
The maximum intake of 20 participants is split into four syndicates, each of which has an independent coach who works both with the team and its individual members. The intensive courses are followed up with individual coaching sessions either with the same or another coach. “We prefer not to whack people on the high potential programme if the CEO and top people haven’t been on our Millbrook one because, at the end of the day they need good role models.”
Lorigan says coaching risks becoming sort of portmanteau solution to executive development without being properly thought through. “Coaching is going wild. People are climbing on the bandwagon and saying ‘let’s have some’ without looking at where to start or what the structure should be. Coaching must be strategically aligned from the top down to create the culture needed for the environment in which the company operates.”
Hamilton agrees that companies must create coaching culture. “I wrote an entire course to help organisations understand what support systems must be introduced before even offering coaching. Coaching can be very profound personal experience and individuals can be isolated which does more damage than good for an employee if the nuances of this are not well understood.”
This is particularly true when organisations take ‘fix-it’ approach to what they see as an identified individual’s problems. There is subtle but quite significant difference if the ‘fixing’ happens in isolation or within culture that encourages and supports continuing self-development. “If the company participates in that ‘fixing’ so the support is there that’s one thing, but oftentimes it’s used by managers to offload difficult part of their job onto someone else,” says Hamilton.
The risk of the latter heightens as coaching becomes more popular tool in an organisation’s training toolbox and there is an official source of coaching intervention.
“To build coaching culture organisations must understand the nuances of what coaching can do and put the support structures in place first,” he adds.

Identify the need
That said, coaching can deliver specific development needs when and as they are most needed. Coaching, says Byrne, “provides greatest value and results when it is critical for individuals to achieve significant new success or results”. That could be when someone is stepping up to more senior management role or taking on new responsibilities; it could be at time of organisational change or in response to new market challenges.
“In our experience, coaching loses traction if the executive is not driven by achieving particular outcome at the time he or she is being coached. On the other hand, when team or individual genuinely wants or needs to achieve something, then coaching is very meaningful,” Byrne adds.
Coaching is outcomes-oriented. It is, therefore, most effective when there is specific issue or event coming up, says David Scott, principal learning and development consultant in Australasia for Hudson Global Resources. “A coach can help [a manager] formulate goals around specific event with specific outcomes and help individuals through process to reach those goals.”
That event could be transitioning to more senior role. “The gap between one level of management and the next can be quite broad. Coaching can help bridge that gap in faster and more focused way rather than leaving individuals to find their feet in the role by themselves, which is often the case,” says Scott.
Coaching differs from more generic training because it can focus on very specific skills or skill gaps that leader or potential leader might need to work on. “The light it sheds where development activity needs to be focused is more laser-like than fluorescent, if you like,” says Scott.
And, according to the most recent Hudson Report on Leadership in the Workforce in New Zealand, our managers seem to lag in the so-called “soft” skills around people management. The report recommended that leadership training be more strongly focused on these and suggests personalised coaching could foster them.

Getting the best ROI
Getting the best return on coaching investment depends on how well it is targeted to both organisation and individual needs. “If you are targeting people who are already high performers – doing well but want to be lifted into the exceptionally good category – organisations don’t need to develop many of those people to get significant return on investment,” says Lorigan.
Then there are those on derailment track and where some coaching intervention would help. “We prefer to delay individual coaching until people have been on our programmes. They learn in more accelerated way if they are in syndicate of people outside their organisation. It’s safer environment in which they have the opportunity to gain greater self awareness not only through feedback from the coach, but from colleagues in the syndicate as to where their blind spots are,” he explains.
Overcoming personal roadblocks can yield great returns for the individual and the company. Scott cites one person who had all the technical expertise for promotion but was held back by personal manner that others found abrasive. After six months of coaching his manner was transformed sufficiently to leapfrog him through three management levels. “When you look at the skill that takes you through the management ranks, it’s the political and interpersonal that make difference not operational competence – but combined they are very powerful.

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