Transitioning My Coaching Blog

First, I would like to thank my readers for following my blog about executive coaching.  Every blog post I write forces me to think deeply about how coaching should be practiced.  I undoubtedly get more out of writing my blog posts than the reader gets from reading them. As I have said many times, whoever does the heavy lifting gets the most benefit.  I believe I am a better coach as a result.

When I began blogging about my book, Executive Coaching and the Process of Change, my goal was to elaborate on its content for one year.  I am approaching the end of that year.  I will write three more blog posts related to my book:  one on coaching innovation, another on coaching to influence “upstairs,” and my final blog on how long a coaching assignment should last.

My plan going forward is to transform my blog into an interactive dialogue with my readers. I am asking my readers to send me their coaching questions, challenges, and experiences.  I will respond to these requests in the context of my coaching model and process, which are dedicated to behavioral change.  I will continue to write a weekly blog post under the new domain name of “askcoachalan.com.”  You can begin sending me your coaching questions, challenges, and experiences to my new email address: coachalan@askcoachalan.com.

I look forward to hearing from you and taking on this new challenge of creating an interactive dialogue about executive coaching.

Ethical Conflicts in Coaching

In my last blog, I discussed core values and ethical standards for executive coaching.  In this blog, I will review several ethical conflicts that can arise in a coaching relationship.  I will also offer a way to manage these conflicts to either avoid or minimize their consequences.

A coach sometimes hears of or experiences behavior that is either unethical or illegal.  I once had a coachee who was paid as a professional to provide services to a medical facility.  He was considering the addition of a new service to his client and charging an additional fee.  The ethical problem was that he was already being paid by the medical facility, and the new service could be perceived as an enhancement to services for which he was already being compensated.  The new service enhancement would definitely benefit his client company, but as a service provider, was there a potential conflict?  He did not see this as a conflict of interest, but, as a result of the dialogue with me, his coach, he decided to be transparent with his proposal to his client.  In this case, coaching helped to make the coachee aware that there was another perspective that needed to be considered.  This led to the coachee being more open about his intentions rather than unilaterally changing the compensation arrangement.

One sticky situation I have found myself in is when I am coaching competitors or coaching parties on two different sides of a dispute.  When coaching competitors, I am always up front about who I am coaching.  If it is a problem for either party, I will not engage with the prospective coaching client. If it becomes a problem after both competitors are engaged, I will disengage from the most recent coaching relationship.  In this situation, trust is more important than continuing to coach both competitors. In one case, the cousin of one CEO went into a similar line of business to that of another CEO I was coaching.  The two CEOs knew each other, and when it became apparent that a relative of one CEO could be competing with the other CEO, I decided to end the coaching relationship with the CEO who had the least tenure.

Serving two coachees who are in a dispute is rare, but I have experienced this twice.  My decision was not to coach both individuals but instead to coach only the one who had seniority in my coaching.  I also referred the other coachee to another coach.  Could I have worked with both coachees?  Probably, and I may have been able to help them resolve their differences.  I know of coaches who would not see this as a conflict but rather as an opportunity to shift roles in order to help resolve a problem while maintaining both coachees as clients.  I believe this is an ethical conflict.   A coach is not a mediator or a consultant. In my opinion, mediation or consultation are not services that a coach should undertake. This is a situation where a referral to a qualified professional would be more appropriate.

There are situations where a coachee is having a problem with the sponsor.  If the coach is also coaching the sponsor, this may be an opportunity to explore the relationship and the openness between executives.  I often found myself asking questions that relate to an existing problem without revealing the source of the questions.  In one case, an executive I was coaching felt he was underpaid for his position as COO.  His CEO, whom I was also coaching, was aware of the disparity in compensation but was more concerned about cash flow than the feelings of his COO.   If the COO were to leave the company, it would have been a terrible event for the company. My role as a coach is to make sure the CEO is aware of the consequences of his actions.  In this case, it was a matter of how the CEO handled the compensation issue.

I had been involved in dialogue that had led to the hiring of the COO.  As part of my coaching with the CEO, we had ongoing conversations about the COO’s performance.  It was clear to the CEO that the COO had brought value to the company.  As a result, it was quite natural for me to raise questions about the COO’s retention without revealing specific conversations that I had with him.  After a very frank discussion about retention of the COO, the CEO opened the compensation dialogue with the COO, charting out an equitable compensation agreement.

I have provided several ethical conflicts that can arise from coaching.  It is important for the coach to always be aware of his or her role in these situations and to continue to provide an open and candid relationship while helping the coachee to accomplish meaningful goals.  Trust is clearly the main factor that gives the coach the latitude to engage the coachee in honest, forthright dialogue.

The Ethics of Coaching

The Ethics of Coaching

Most professional organizations have a code of ethics or conduct that guides members of the profession. The American Psychological Association is an excellent example; the APA publishes ethical principles and a code of conduct that guide its members on appropriate and inappropriate behavior. No professional association exists for executive coaches that I am aware of, and I have never seen a document delineating core values or ethical standards related to coaching.  In this blog, I will offer my personal views about the core values and ethics of coaching.  In a future blog, I will identify and discuss specific ethical conflicts that often occur in the coaching process.

I will identify three core values.

In my opinion, the most important core value of executive coaching is trust.  The trust that exists between a coach and a coachee is the basis for effective coaching.  For the coach, trust is demonstrated by maintaining strict confidence, a shared value in being open and honest, and a willingness to give feedback aimed at helping the coachee to succeed.  From the coachee’s perspective, the willingness to be vulnerable and open with the coach is paramount.

From the beginning of a coaching engagement, a coach needs to explain the purpose of coaching and how he or she will engage the coachee in dialogue. The coach also needs to pledge confidentiality and offer examples of what this means. Without confidentiality, there will be no trust.  The confidence that a coachee needs in order to be open and honest with a coach is directly related to the belief that what is said in a coaching session remains confidential between coach and coachee. I am aware that many coachees are sponsored by their CEO or board of directors, and there may be pressure for a coach to reveal specifics about the coachee.  Any pressure to share confidential information needs to be denied.  In my coaching practice, I make it known upfront to both the sponsor and the coachee that I will not share information that is discussed in a coaching relationship. Because this has been explained beforehand, confidentiality has never been a problem.

Maintaining confidentiality in coaching does not mean that sponsors of coaching do not get feedback.  I encourage sponsors to observe and share any changes with the coachee and coach. I will also meet with sponsors to review what I see as changes and seek specific examples from sponsors about their observations.  In other words, by staying focused on tangible results, the coach is able to review progress and provide the sponsor with information without breaching confidentiality

Two related core values that I will address are best discussed early in the coaching engagement.  They are transparency on how the coaching model works, and unwavering support for the coachee in his or her quest for success.

Transparency means there should be no secrets between the coach and coachee.  A coach will ask many questions and create tension in the coachee.  It should be apparent to the coachee as to why he or she feels tension and how the tension relates to progress in coaching.  A coachee also needs to know that probing questions are part of finding what truly matters to the coachee. Otherwise, this type of questioning can lead to suspicion and resistance.  Transparency will also reinforce trust; it promotes the openness and candor that are essential to an effective coaching relationship.

The third core value is unwavering support for the coachee’s quest for success.  The purpose of coaching is to help the coachee to succeed.  There is no other purpose.  A coachee needs to feel his or her coach is not just supportive but is an advocate for change that will help the coachee to be successful.  In my coaching practice, leveraging strengths is central to the coaching process.  This helps make change a positive, reinforcing experience, which, in turn, enhances the positive relationship between the coach and coachee.  Success in altering behavior supports both coach and coachee.

I have only scratched the surface about the core values and ethics of coaching.  If I have offered some clarity, I have accomplished my mission. When the coaching profession publishes ethical standards that guide coaching behavior, everyone involved in coaching–the coach, coachee, and sponsors of coaching–will benefit.

Staying Focused on the Important

Steven Covey made a distinction between the urgent and the important. My experience has been that most executives pay too much attention to the issue of the day and lose focus on what is most important to their company’s success. This is an easy trap to fall into. It is hard for top executives to ignore the many distractions that invade their agenda. As a coach, I feel one of my most important roles is to help keep my coachees focused on the important, often delegating the urgent demands to others on the executive team.

Rather than one case, I offer several brief cases to illustrate how a coach can keep coachees focused on the important. The areas selected are building a strong executive team, building company capacity and infrastructure, and innovation. They were chosen because they offer a variety of important goals and approaches in maintaining focus. Each will demonstrate the role a coach can play to help executives avoid being derailed by distractions while staying focused on the most important goals of the company.

Building a Strong Executive Team

Tom is the president of a fast-growing company, and, yet, he has his fingers in every decision being made by his executive team. His CEO was concerned and asked his coach to work with Tom to help him create an “A-Team” of highly competent and motivated executives. It did not take long for his coach to realize that Tom was risk averse. While Tom liked the idea of delegating, he was fearful that his team members would fail to make the right decisions. One by one, his coach reviewed the balance sheet for each executive team member. There were two executives who were under-producing, and the conversation quickly turned to the decision to tolerate (unacceptable), develop (using coaching and training when appropriate), or terminate them. Tom’s coach helped him to focus on finding a mentor for one executive who was talented but lacked experience for the role envisioned for him. The other executive who was under-performing had his role changed to bring his skills in closer alignment with performance expectations. Other changes were made to elevate one executive to the A-Team and two executives from the A-Team to the level that reported to the top executive team. The result was a streamlined, productive A-Team Tom could trust and delegate to.

Building Company Capacity for Growth

Peter is the owner and CEO of a growing medical products company. It was clear that the company had outgrown several of its managers and executives. Problems were occurring in quality control, chemistry, and operations. The plant was also out on space for both office and operations. Confronted by his coach on how Peter would lead his company through these challenges, the decision was to invest in infrastructure to meet anticipated sales. In the past, the strategy was to build capacity only when sales demanded it. As the leader of a larger company with faster growth and more demanding customers, Peter knew he needed to change. His concern was spending in advance of sales and the disquieting feeling of leveraging the company financially. Coaching helped Peter to focus on his goal of growth and keeping customers happy. He was able to overcome his short-term concerns about the increased cost of overhead and falling profits for the longer term goal of growing the company. As a result, he has a new building, a stronger executive team that can handle day-to-day challenges, higher quality products, and the ability to meet customer demand. Sales have continued to grow, and the company is able to successfully manage its growth.

Innovation

Most executives view innovation as new product development or improvements to operational processes. Bill is the CEO of a service company with over 250 employees. He was expressing concern about the spiraling costs for health care. Insurance rates were growing annually and becoming a higher percentage of overall operating expenses. He also viewed his workforce as older and less healthy than average. He needed to get a handle on containing these costs. One of the roles of a coach is to expose coachees to information that can enlighten them. In this case, the coach brought in a speaker to a Vistage group that Bill was a member of. The speaker’s talk was about containing medical costs. The speaker was rich in ideas. Bill and his coach discussed these ideas, and, as a result, Bill decided to stop complaining about costs and start creating an innovative program to contain them. With the help of a consulting group, Bill’s company was able to offer many innovative programs, including a lunch and learn program on exercise and nutrition, smoking cessation clinics, a consumer-driven health plan combined with a high-deductible health care savings account option as an alternative to traditional health insurance, support for gym membership, and bonuses to members of the high-deductible health care savings plan for meeting health goals. The results were outstanding. Not only was the company able to contain health care costs, but most of its employees spent less for out-of-pocket health care expenses. The work force was much healthier, with less absenteeism. Although it was an intuitive assumption, Bill believed employees were more productive. The coach’s role here was to refocus Bill from complaining about costs and possibly cutting company contributions to health insurance toward instituting innovative health and insurance programs to contain or reduce health care expenses. This also led to a healthier and improved work force.

The message here should be clear. Executive coaches should play a strong role in keeping top executives focused on what is important to the overall success of their company. Keeping executives from being distracted by events that continually occur in a normal business environment will serve their companies’ most important goals and aspirations.

Case Study: A Magic Moment in Coaching

Most of the case studies I have presented have occurred in the past.  I rarely describe a current case because the results of coaching may not be clear.  As I have said many times, coaching is a developmental process, and it can take several sessions before positive outcomes are realized.  That being said, I decided to describe a current case because it has provided one of those magical moments that broke through a major barrier with the coachee.

Rick is the owner of a small but growing manufacturing company.  I have had a long-term coaching relationship with Rick.  He was approaching his late 50s and was at the point in his career when he needed to plan for succession of both leadership and ownership.  His plan was to transfer ownership to his three sons.  He was also hopeful that his sons would step into leadership roles. I was asked to coach each son and two other senior executives to prepare all five of them for leadership succession.

Kenny is Rick’s middle son.  His skills were in the manufacturing floor, where he was familiar with each piece of equipment. His job was to calibrate each machine so that it would yield the maximum output.  Kenny was very proud of his ability to improve productivity.  There was a problem, however.  Once the machines were calibrated, the machine operators often changed the settings that Kenny established.  With 40 machines, Kenny was not able to help out when a problem popped up and the operators went back to their old ways of adjusting the machines and thereby eliminating his improvements.

Before I get into the details of Kenny’s coaching, I need to describe how we got started.  I had asked Kenny to take three assessments and explained how they would be used to create his balance sheet of assets and liabilities.  He seemed okay with this.  The assessments were all online so he could take them at his leisure.  Weeks went by, and he had not completed the assessments.  Finally, after some prodding from me and, I think, his father, Kenny completed two assessments.  We were ready to start coaching.

In the first session, we established a few short-term goals for Kenny in his current role as machine calibration expert. Gaps were recognized between his desired results and the current problems operators were experiencing in maintaining his changes.  He appeared motivated to work on the gap. The first two sessions were also devoted to creating a balance sheet for Kenny.  It became clear in these initial sessions that Kenny had some serious liabilities in communicating and follow-through. While he was able to improve each machine’s functioning, he was not able to train the operator or supervisors to maintain the changes he had made.  I had hinted that the balance sheet could give Kenny some clues to help him close the gap and reach his goal. After the second session, Kenny had agreed to add his personal assessment to those that were revealed from the formal assessments and present it at our next coaching session.

At the next session, Kenny explained that he could not access his balance sheet because his computer had frozen.  He also had not taken the Strength Finder assessment as requested.  In the following session, he still did not present his balance sheet. This time, he explained he had the balance sheet on a thumb drive in his office and someone borrowed it without letting him know. He had completed the Strength Finder but could not access it on his computer.  Finally, together, we were able to access the Strength Finder results.

The reason I went into detail on Kenny’s excuses and lack of preparation is to point out his passive resistance to coaching.  While he seemed cooperative and talked freely about his work, his successes, and his failures, he came to each session unprepared.  This is generally not a good sign in a coaching relationship. We discussed his lack of preparation, and he acknowledged that he was poorly organized.  This confirmed one of his assessments findings and gave us some insight into one of his liabilities.

When we looked at the Strength Finder’s top five strengths, there, staring at us was the answer to the mystery of why Kenny was struggling in maintaining the machine changes he had made.  Kenny was an achiever and maximizer. He was competitive and self-assured. He had no problem claiming the importance and value of what he was doing on his job.  He blamed others for not maintaining his changes, acknowledging that he had struggled at keeping up with all the demands for his time.

What was unusual and unexpected was one of the strengths, ideation.  In my experience, this is not one of the strengths found in people doing his type of work.  For those not familiar with the concept of ideation, it refers to a fascination with ideas or concepts, and creating a new way of thinking. When asked to explain this strength, Kenny lit up with excitement.  He wanted me to go with him on the manufacturing floor to see an invention he had created to save time and money in machining parts. I followed him to the floor, where he showed me his invention.  I asked how much time and money this invention would save the company.  He was not sure, but I could see he was mentally working on the answer. He then told me that this could save as much as $100,000 per machine per year.

This took me by surprise. We had been working on how he was going to close the gap in maintaining the work he had done on each machine, while it never even occurred to either of us that his real passion was an invention he had created to speed up the manufacturing process while greatly reducing waste.  The cost savings was a game-changer.

So much of what I have described in my book and blogs offered a process for change.  In Kenny’s case, the gap between his stated desired goal and his current performance was clear; he just did not have the assets to make it happen. While still a work in progress, it appears that Kenny could use a partner with follow-up assets that compliment his skill in calibrating machines.  But his real contribution may be in creating machine processes that could save millions of dollars for his company.  The savings could give his company a competitive edge in gaining work.  In a future blog, I hope to report more on Kenny and how coaching influenced his contributions to his company.

Coaching Communication

The technical competencies, or “nuts and bolts,” of business are important for an executive coach to understand. However, in order for a coach to be successful, he or she must also possess effective communication skills. A coach must be a competent communicator at all levels: interpersonally, within a group, and organizationally. Specific communication skills that are necessary for any coach include active listening, effective questioning, the ability to probe in a caring way, clear and simple language, reframing, and giving and receiving feedback. In the remainder of this blog, I will elaborate on how each of these skills enhances the coaching relationship.

One of the central roles of an executive coach is to engage the coachee in pursuit of relevant outcomes, whether they are behavioral, performance-based, or both. Through deft questioning, the coach will be able to identify the gap between a coachee’s goals and his or her current status with respect to these outcomes or goals. This gap provides the tension that, if sufficient, will motivate the coachee to change existing behaviors and adopt new behaviors that move him or her closer to desired goals.

How does the coach know what questions to ask? There are several sources of information available, including assessments, 360-degree feedback, and interviews with executives who know the coachee. I believe one of the most meaningful sources of information about the coachee comes from the coach’s active listening and observational skills. By being in the moment and paying careful attention to the coachee, the coach can pick up the clues that help in framing questions that are designed to elicit constructive tension for the coachee. Continued probing and active listening will help to establish an even deeper understanding of the coachee. Once the tension is identified, the coach can shift attention to guiding the coachee on behaviors that will lead to lasting change and goal attainment.

While confronting a coachee is important, the coach needs to demonstrate trust and caring. Rapport between the coach and coachee is critical. No one likes to be confronted by people who don’t care about them. The term “carefrontational” is often used by executive coaches to emphasize the importance of the delicate situation that exists when the coach must demonstrate care and understanding while asking probing questions of the coachee. Being carefrontational will help the coach stay focused on problem-solving while minimizing defensive behavior by the coachee.

A coach must remember that he or she is a facilitator whose role is to keep the coachee working toward the goal and not getting bogged down by distractions or diversions. The coaching model requires a coach to probe deeply and confront the coachee. The coach must have a keen awareness of his or her role, the goals for the coachee, and the situational context affecting coaching. The coach must have a grasp of the communication process and how he or she communicates with the coachee. Self-awareness and the ability to relate interpersonally with others will be a major factor in a successful coaching relationship.

An important skill for a coach is the ability to frame questions that lead to favorable results. Effective questions often begin with the words or phrases such as what, how, and tell me more about that. These questions move the dialogue toward clarity and problem-solving. Effective questions focus on eliciting answers around what is already working for the coachee, clarifying objectives, and agreeing on next steps. Effective questions are energizing and supportive; they create a clear target or goal and turn coercion into collaboration. Effective questions move people forward and provide them with the sense of how they can create their own results. The coach who asks effective questions is facilitating a constructive conversation that will lead to insight and goal accomplishment.

How a coach phrases questions can also have a negative impact. Some questions, such as those beginning with the word why can elicit excuses that keep the coachee from accepting full responsibility for actions or events. Questions beginning with when can lead to the coachee delaying action or putting things off if they are not related to specific goals. And questions beginning with who have a tendency to lead to blaming others or scapegoating and should be avoided.

Most coachees want clear, concrete feedback, avoiding generalizations, clichés, and abstractions. The more a coachee can offer specific examples of situations they have experienced, the more concrete and understandable the self-reflection will be. Using past experience allows both visual and experiential evidence to help define the clarity of feedback to the coachee. It also sets up an opportunity for the coachee to revisit the experience and test how alternative behaviors might have brought about a different, improved result.

In this blog, I have tried to underscore the importance of communication in coaching. Communication is not just what words are used or even how they are interpreted. There are many subtleties in communicating trust, caring, and how to use the information given by the coachee to frame questions while probing for a deeper understanding about the coachee. Change is dependent on a strong relationship between coach and coachee. Communication is the process that facilitates this relationship.