One-on-One Coaching Misses the Mark

Here's why it takes a team to coach a leader.
Lawrence Polsky and Antoine GerschelJanuary 4, 2016
One-on-One Coaching Misses the Mark

Companies around the world are spending billions of dollars every year to coach their leaders despite estimates that coaching fails as often as it succeeds.

Antoine Gerschel, left, and Lawrence Polsky

Antoine Gerschel, left, and Lawrence Polsky

A 2012 Deloitte report estimated that U.S. companies were spending about $14 billion annually on leadership development, and 70% of companies with formal leadership programs employed executive coaches. A 2013 Stanford Business School survey found that almost all executives surveyed wanted leadership advice and training. Yet a 2014 report by executive search firm Korn Ferry revealed that only a small percentage of organizations evaluate the impact of coaching.

Consequently, evidence as to the efficacy of coaching comes largely via self-reporting by coached executives. And as few executives would want to admit to having failed at being coached (executives do not like to fail at anything), this reporting is unreliable.

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Indeed, some estimates suggest coaching fails half the time.

This failure rate can be explained by the fact that almost all executive coaching is conducted in private and focuses on the individual, when in fact no executive operates in private or on his or her own. We believe this misalignment of practice and problem limits the potential of executive coaching to help either executives or their organizations.

The Big Disconnect

According to the Stanford survey, the five top skills executives want coaches to help them with are:

  1. Delegation (37.2%)
  2. Conflict management (27.9%)
  3. Team building (23.3%)
  4. Mentoring (23.3%)
  5. Listening (20.9%)

All these relate to interactions with others, especially with teams.

  1. Delegation is critical to take advantage of a team’s abilities.
  2. Conflict management promotes creative discussion within high-performing teams.
  3. Teams are at the center of any leader’s work.
  4. Mentoring helps build strong teams.
  5. Leaders who can’t or won’t listen under-leverage their people.

However, according to the Stanford survey, 60% of executives who receive coaching report that the process is “kept private.” In other words, the outputs of the coaching they receive are not shared. That makes it difficult to address the very skills leaders want to develop, as by definition those skills are exercised in public, working with others.

Worse, traits that support the top five skills — the ability to persuade and motivate, compassion, and empathy — are at the bottom of the Stanford list of what executives are working on. They avoid these “intangible,” “nuanced” skills because working on them makes them “uncomfortable,” even though improving them can “really make a difference in [their] effectiveness.”

These intangibles make executives uncomfortable because they’re behavioral. They’re personal.

Who relishes having their personality examined — especially in public — or their behaviors changed, especially when there’s a suggestion that something is wrong? Yet nothing is more important, or more central to executive coaching, than behavioral change. The higher one rises in an organization, the more one’s success depends upon the quality of one’s interactions with others, which are determined by one’s behaviors.

To effect behavioral change, a coach needs external leverage, and we believe that can be provided only by a team.

Eliminating Secrecy

We were called into a multibillion-dollar chemical company by its CEO, who was unhappy with one of his C-level executives. “You gotta fix this guy or I’ll have to fire him,” the CEO told us.

The problem was that the executive’s team projects were consistently late and over budget.

Traditional coaching says to first evaluate the executive’s weaknesses. We did this by going to his team (with his permission). We found that while his team liked him, it perceived him as a micro-manager who couldn’t delegate, and talked a blue streak in meetings.

When we brought this feedback to the executive, it was all news to him.

Traditional coaching works with ane executive one-on-one and helps him find new approaches. Believing this approach too limited, we facilitated a meeting with the executive and his team to share the feedback we gathered. This eliminated secrecy and impressed the team. The executive had made himself vulnerable, and the team began thinking about how they could help him.

Then we moved the conversation away from the executive to how the team could improve. It began discussing how better to define its collective goals, redesign meetings to make them more productive, and address issues before they became problems.

The challenges the team identified, and the solutions proffered to improve performance, never would have emerged in private, one-on-one coaching sessions. Even if the executive’s skills had improved, many of these other matters would never have arisen, and the team would likely have continued underperforming, its projects late and over budget. In this case the cost overruns ceased, saving the company severalundred thousand dollars annually. And the executive was not fired.

In another engagement, the regional CEO of a global technology company (call him Sam) believed his Moscow team was underperforming and brought us in to “fix them.” Maybe, he thought, they felt underpaid.

Previously, the business had a country CEO to whom the Moscow team reported, but in an effort to create a flatter organization the company replaced its country CEOs with regional ones, like Sam.

At Sam’s behest, we flew to Moscow to interview the team. The problem wasn’t money; the team was unclear about its objectives. Sam? He was a distant figure. The empowerment the company thought it would achieve by thinning the hierarchy had translated into abandonment.

We urged Sam to go to Moscow to articulate what he expected from the team. This, and discussions about how to achieve those goals, improved the team’s performance. We didn’t “fix” the team; we revealed the dysfunction between the leader and the team — a reliable root of evil — and the team and leader fixed themselves.

Additionally, the company’s perception of Sam improved.

A leader’s analysis of a team’s shortcomings is almost always incomplete. Executive coaches must collect the leader’s and team’s input, arrive at a synthesis, and work with both. This has to be done publically, and collectively.

The Big Takeaway

Working collaboratively creates trust. Without trust, it’s impossible for teams to function optimally, and trust is generated when a leader is willing to be vulnerable, as was the chemical company executive. That’s another reason why executive coaching conducted in private will rarely produce positive outcomes.

It takes a leader to make a team, but it takes a team to coach a leader.

Antoine Gerschel and Lawrence Polsky co-founded of Teams of Distinction in 2008. Since then, the firm has helped organizations in a broad range of industries and sectors around the world improve the performance of their executives and teams.

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