Coaching Operational Excellence

In addition to coaching leadership and strategy, which were discussed in my previous two blogs, an executive coach needs to understand operations, or how organizations convert human, financial, and material resources into finished products and services. Operations include functional areas such as human resources, technology, manufacturing, and organizational design.

Human resources refers to the recruiting, hiring, training, and retention of the best employees. It also includes compensation, employee relations, and organizational development. Pretty much everything that has to do with people defines the role of human resource management.

A coach must also have an understanding of the technology of operations, including the processes used to produce products and services. While it is not be necessary for a coach to be an expert in technology, it helps to have familiarity with business systems, information technology, and different manufacturing technologies. He or she must also be familiar with product innovation, manufacturing and its support functions, quality control, and project management.

Understanding methodologies of operational efficiency will help coaches when dealing with the challenges of costs and on-time delivery of products and services. This knowledge is vital for the coach if she or he is to be able to help the coachee’s organization remain competitive and cost effective.

Finally, knowledge about the relationship between organizational design and organizational performance will help the coach to guide executives in developing the most effective ways of structuring their organizations. The following case demonstrates the role of an executive coach in helping a CEO to organize his company operations in pursuit of a competitive edge.

Case Study: Operational Effectiveness through Coaching

Mark is an engineer who took over a garage-based business from his father and turned it into a thriving manufacturing company with 270 employees and two state-of-the-art factories.  Marks major customers are manufacturers and suppliers of automotive vehicles.  His success was mostly from patented products that his company designed and developed in-house. Anticipating intense competition from China once his patents expired, Mark was concerned about his costs and his ability to retain business.  At the same time, customers wanted Marks company to constantly cut its costs, making it difficult to fund innovation and create the next generation of products.  Innovation also requires a special environment without the pressures of deadlines and production schedules.


Realizing his future lay in both innovation and cost efficiencies, Mark needed an organizational structure to solve the paradox between the needs for innovation and the efficiencies of low-cost manufacturing.  Many coaching sessions were spent exploring options about how to do this.  Facing this paradox head on, Mark, with guidance of his coach, came up with a brilliant plan: he created a task force that he called his Pioneer Team.  This group would have its own budget and report directly to Mark. He knew he had to protect their independence. Their major goal was to develop new products and improve existing ones.  He put his most innovative people on this team.  A second, smaller team was charged with taking the Pioneer Team designs and creating models and prototypes of its designs. They were also charged with testing these designs using rigorous quality and endurance standards.  The remaining operations people were charged with continuing to concentrate on low-cost manufacturing. Their role was to create efficiencies, cut waste, strip unnecessary costs from the operations, and make sure that deliveries met customer expectations. 


By separating these three functions, Marks company was able to focus on three different processes and protect each from the incompatibilities of the others.  He was able to produce low-cost products, test, and innovate. In most organizations, these goals get blended together, losing focus on the unique requirements of each and often failing to do any one of them well.  In Marks plant operation, his team was able to cut costs in manufacturing processes and materials without sacrificing quality.  They also vertically integrated their operation through building a new plant that enabled them to control supplier costs, quality, and on-time delivery. All this was accomplished through an organizational design that protected otherwise incompatible functions from interfering with each other.  Marks company continues to grow in the highly competitive marketplace of vehicle manufacturing. 


The role of coaching in Mark’s case was to help him appreciate how the relationship between organizational design and predictable outcomes affected his company’s ability to meet seemingly incompatible goals.  The coach’s understanding of organizational design and its effect on operations helped Mark to solve a problem that otherwise could have threatened his business.

Coaching Strategy

A major role for top executives is to be a strategic thinker. In order for a coach to properly add value to these executives, he or she must understand various levels of strategy, including how to identify and leverage personal and organizational assets, and create and sustain a competitive advantage. In other words, the coach needs to be a competent strategic thinker, paralleling what is expected from the executive being coached.

It is important for a coach to understand both the strategic side of business and the tactical, management side of business because any strategy is useless without the ability to execute it. While it is important for the coach to consider the coachee’s organization from both a high level and the ground level, it is also the coach’s responsibility to ensure that the executive remains focused on strategy while delegating specific activities to the appropriate parties who will be able to execute them. The case below illustrates how coaching can help a coachee to think strategically in growing his or her company.

Case Study:  Coaching Strategic Thinking

Peter is the consummate entrepreneurial executive.  Trained as an accountant, he began his early career at a top national accounting firm working in the health care industry.  After a few years, he was recruited by a hospital as its CEO, where he established a reputation as a very capable executive.  In his next position, he navigated a regional hospital through a highly political and turbulent environment.  During this time, he earned an MBA.  In all of his work experiences, Peter developed skills in networking, negotiating, and strategic thinking.  He saw the big picture in health care, and he knew where market niches existed and how to access them.  His networking ability allowed him to identify persons who could help him enter into relationships to support niche opportunities. These were Peters assets, but he also had liabilities.

One liability was his lack of attention to detail. So, when he took a position in a private for-profit health care company, he hired his former number-two person as COO of this company.  The COO was strong on detail and in running the operations of the company. By managing this liability, Peter was then able to focus on a strategy to guide and grow his company. His coach helped Peter to understand and leverage his assets. He had some initial success in leveraging his relationships to obtain new customers.  He also developed new products with existing customers who were looking for ways to differentiate themselves from competitors.  But Peter struggled to get traction with larger national customers who questioned his companys size and ability.  This frustrated Peter. He presented this challenge to his coach, and they discussed how to gain visibility and credibility with larger companies. Again, the power of asking probing questions led to a strategy that leveraged Peters assets. He had already formed a relationship with the CEO of a company that did business with larger customers. He approached this company with a proposal that they form a strategic alliance, with Peters company offering them products and services they did not currently have. A deal was struck and, over the next several months, Peters company was able to sign contracts with several larger companies.

Peter had another asset. He had a deep understanding of his industry and its players.  His coach encouraged Peter to identify niche opportunities for his company.  One of these opportunities had the potential of creating a major breakthrough in patient care.  He was able put a strategic plan together, raising the capital needed to launch the service on a national scale. His company had grown from a small, regional player to a much larger company with national customers.

The primary role of Peter’s coach was to keep him focused on his strategic objectives and how to achieve them. Understanding Peter’s balance sheet, his coach continually probed about opportunities, questioned how they fit his growth plans, and helped Peter become aware of how to leverage his assets in the pursuit of strategic opportunities.  This enabled his company to grow its markets and absorb this growth under the very capable executive in charge of operations.  The coach’s knowledge about strategy played an important role in helping Peter grow his company.

Coaching Leadership

In a previous blog, I made the case for why executive coaches need to understand business.  In the next several blogs, I will offer specific areas of business that executive coaches need to be skilled in.  Coaches also need to understand enough about these areas to ask appropriate questions that will guide executives toward action, and change when needed. I will start with leadership. 

Leadership involves the capacity for vision, team development, group dynamics, delegation, and the ability to develop, mentor, and motivate individuals and teams.  Executive coaches must have strong leadership skills because their primary job is to develop these skills in their coachees.  The following case will illustrate this point.

Leadership Case:  An Introvert Learns to Lead

Joe was the general manager of a large distribution division of a publicly held corporation.  He was not the stereotypical leader—bold, assertive, and decisive.  Instead, Joe was an introvert, quiet and slow at making decisions. He had many strengths, including strategic thinking, expert knowledge of distribution, trustworthiness, and responsibility.  Joe inherited a politically charged executive team when he arrived at his division.  His predecessor regularly played executives against each other and made separate deals with each of them.  Joe knew he needed to take action, but his leadership liabilities soon became apparent. He was not sure which way to turn. 

Much of Joe’s coaching was focused on identifying and managing his assets and liabilities. Once his balance sheet was established, Joe decided to rebuild his team with people who, first, were competent in their area of responsibility and, secondly, complemented his liabilities with their own strengths. For example, Joe’s HR director was so aligned with the previous GM that no one else on the executive team found him credible. Furthermore, the HR director was not doing the job Joe wanted him to do.

Because Joe had a hard time firing people, his coach helped him to set up a performance feedback program to use in addressing the deficiencies of his HR director.  This program clearly identified deliverables and deadlines. Anticipating that the HR director may not meet his performance goals, Joe’s coach helped him to craft a response by asking questions that dug deeper into the reasons for poor performance.  Joe asked his HR director, “What is keeping you from meeting your objectives?”  After several missed deadlines the director resigned, stating he felt unable to perform as expected. One by one, with the help of his coach, Joe built his own team, each time upgrading its skill level and strengths. Joe was able to use the balance sheet approach in evaluating his team members and coached them on how to leverage their own strengths while managing their liabilities. 

In this case, Joe was able to overcome his reluctance to fire a team member by benchmarking deliverables and setting a timetable for completion.  Not being able to meet these expectations, team members chose to resign rather than be fired.  Joe learned to ask good questions that made clear what constituted success and failure for his team members.  He was able to replace his dysfunctional team with highly functioning executives.

Joe’s division had tremendous success, much of it attributable to the skill he demonstrated in building his team. The team members turned out to be his disciples, cascading organizational goals down to the workers on the floor.  Joe learned that he could lead with a supportive team that complemented his leadership style. As a result of Joe’s success in his division, he was promoted to run worldwide distribution for his company at their home office. 

Every leader has a balance sheet of assets and liabilities.  The secret to effective leadership is not a stereotypical formula of leadership attributes but the ability to leverage assets while managing liabilities in pursuit of organizational goals.  Being an introvert does not disqualify a leader; it merely changes the way he or she leads. If coaches are to help executives to master the leadership process, they must first understand how the leadership process works.






On Becoming a Coach: Programs to Develop Coaching Skills

Okay, you have decided you want to be an executive coach. You have business experience, and you have the behavioral skills that are necessary for successful coaching. Where do you go to build your coaching skills?  I will briefly describe several ways to learn about executive coaching. These include academic institutions, coach certification programs, online programs, local coaching peer groups, reading, and executive peer advisory companies that train coaches/facilitators.

Academic Programs:  Very few academic programs exist that will prepare you for a career in coaching.  Only a scattering of MBA courses in executive coaching have been created and taught.  The problem in academia is that very few faculty members have the experience or skills to teach executive coaching. 

Coach Certification Programs: A few coach certification programs are taught in academic-like settings.  The College of Executive Coaching has an impressive roster of coaching faculty and offers a program of training and mentoring by a master coach. Another top-rated program is the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, or iPEC.  Both The College of Executive Coaching and iPEC offer programs in several urban locations. The Fielding Institute, in Santa Barbara, California, offers courses that will prepare professionals for executive coaching.  There are certification programs like those offered by the International Coaching Federation that require many hours of supervised experience with a master coach in order to be accredited as a coach. Other institutes, like the Gestalt Institute, of Cleveland, Ohio, help coaching students adopt a holistic approach to working with coaching clients.  These programs profess to be rigorous, and they require many hours of training.  However, the verdict is still out on whether these programs truly prepare executive coaches who deeply understand the coaching process.

Online Programs:  As in so many other areas today, coaching certification programs and coaching associations are becoming increasingly internet-based.  While these types of online programs are probably emerging to meet the growing demand for the services of the coaching profession, many experienced coaches have serious doubts about the efficacy of these programs. A “one-size-fits-all” commodity approach to executive coaching is a recipe for disappointment.  An executive coaching certification program is an intensive, interpersonal developmental process requiring face-to-face mentoring from a master coach; it simply cannot be achieved over the internet.

Coaching Groups: One way to learn more about coaching is through interacting with other executive coaches.  In joining a coaching group, try to seek out coaches who really understand what coaching is all about.  Several years ago, I founded a group of executive coaches who met monthly and explored different approaches to coaching.  Some coaches went through Gestalt training; another worked on deep change techniques using brain research as the basis for her approach to coaching. Still others were graduates of academic programs that taught courses in leadership, communication, and change.  One was an experienced executive who was self-taught as a coach.  Being part of a professional network of colleagues who engage in effective coaching will enhance continued learning about the coaching process.

Reading: A great deal of knowledge about coaching can be acquired through reading.  Dozens of books and articles have been written about coaching.  However, the quality of these publications varies greatly.  I have a personal bias toward coaching books that are based on a change model. After all, change is what coaching is all about.  Readings that have change at their core are rare.  Here are a few recommended readings:  Leading Change, by John P. Kotter; Deep Change, by Robert E. Quinn; Grow Your Own Leaders: How to Identify, Develop and Retain Leadership Talent, by William C. Byham, Audrey Smith, and Matthew J. Paese; Profiles in Coaching, edited by Howard Morgan, Phil Harkens, and Marshall Goldsmith; and Leading with Soul, by Lee G. Bolman and Terrance E. Deal, which is a parable with an excellent example of a coach and a coachee as they experience the process of coaching.

Peer Advisory Programs:  Companies exist that train coaches in support of their mission to help their executive clients succeed. I have been associated with one such company for over 20 years.  Vistage International (formerly TEC) recruits former top executives with a high aptitude for coaching and behavioral professionals with significant business experience to be chairs.  Vistage trains its chairs to be group facilitators and executive coaches.  It creates groups of 12 to 18 non-competing business leaders to provide a forum for learning, group problem-solving, and individual coaching.  The chair/coach is responsible for executive education and facilitating group problem-solving sessions.  Between monthly group meetings,  chairs engage in a one-on-one coaching session with each of their members, keeping them focused on growing their companies and their leadership skills. 

Vistage training for chairs is very intense and utilizes many of the coaching methods discussed in my book and blogs.  Vistage has over 18,000 CEO members and over 800 chairs/coaches.  More can be learned about becoming a Vistage chair by visiting its website at

There is no clear pathway or program to becoming an executive coach.  A few programs offer extensive training in coaching. Others do not.  Many of the paths lack in-depth understanding of behavioral change or a comprehensive development of the skills needed to become an effective coach.  If you are serious about becoming an executive coach, seek a program designed around the change process and strong mentoring to help you develop your coaching skills. 



On Becoming a Coach: Three Behavioral Competencies

Originally posted on executivecoachingbook:

No consensus exists on which behavioral attributes are most important for executive coaching. However, there is little question that possession of certain behavioral attributes, when present, will enhance the effectiveness of coaching. I will comment on three attributes that I believe are critical for anyone thinking of becoming an executive coach. They are emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself into another person’s situation, and intuitive thinking.

Much has been written in the last decade about Emotional Intelligence, often abbreviated as “EI.” The key components of EI related to coaching are self-awareness, self-control, and the ability to relate to others. Let me explain why these are important.

Self-examination is not limited to coachees. Every coach has a balance sheet of assets and liabilities. Awareness and understanding of one’s balance sheet allows the coach to manage the coaching relationship. Every coaching relationship is different, and the coach must be aware of…

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On Becoming a Coach: Three Behavioral Competencies

No consensus exists on which behavioral attributes are most important for executive coaching.  However, there is little question that possession of certain behavioral attributes, when present, will enhance the effectiveness of coaching. I will comment on three attributes that I believe are critical for anyone thinking of becoming an executive coach.  They are emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself into another person’s situation, and intuitive thinking.

Much has been written in the last decade about Emotional Intelligence, often abbreviated as “EI.” The key components of EI related to coaching are self-awareness, self-control, and the ability to relate to others. Let me explain why these are important. 

Self-examination is not limited to coachees.  Every coach has a balance sheet of assets and liabilities.  Awareness and understanding of one’s balance sheet allows the coach to manage the coaching relationship.  Every coaching relationship is different, and the coach must be aware of how to deal with these differences. 

The urge to project or impose the coach’s values or biases on the coachee needs to be controlled. Unless the coachee’s values or goals are the problem, coaches need to work within the guidelines of the coachee’s values and goals. While it is natural for a coach to want to help a coachee, restraint is needed to keep from offering solutions.  Having the coachee do the heavy lifting is an essential part of the coaching process.

I have commented many times about the importance of the coaching relationship.  A coach needs to establish rapport and earn the trust and confidence of the coachee.  A coach must also be able to empathize with the coachee.  This will allow the coach to understand the coachee’s thought process and provide the insights needed to develop change.

A coach needs to be in the moment, totally in touch with what is going on in the coaching process.  Continuous monitoring of the verbal and non-verbal responses of the coachee will allow the coach to help the coachee create a balance sheet of assets and liabilities, identify gaps between desired goals and current behavior, and create plans on how to change behavior. Not everyone is capable of immersing oneself in another person’s problems and differentiating one’s own needs from those of the coachee.

It took me years to realize that success in teaching needs to be measured not by how the teacher performs but how the student performs.  The same applies to coaching.  I needed to come to terms with how I judged my success.  Early in my coaching career, I allowed my own biases to dictate how I engaged with coachees.  Today, I use staying within the coaching process and improvement in coachee performance as measures of internal and external success.

Coaches are investigators.  They search for clues and integrate them to form hypotheses. These hypotheses are tested by asking probing questions with the intention of finding the core problem that needs to be addressed.  I strongly believe that coaching is most effective when the coach thinks intuitively.  By this, I mean a coach must work with many unknowns. By asking questions that clarify the challenges confronting a coachee, the coach is able to better understand the coachee.  The ability to ask good questions, knowing when to probe deeper, and piecing the clues together is an intuitive process.  For people who need more detail and more certainty, coaching will become cumbersome for both coach and coachee.  Coaches are continually creating new algorithms.  The “Zen” of coaching does not lend itself to highly structured or predictive formulas. 

I have worked with many executives and students who wanted to become executive coaches.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks to their success was the need to prepare questions in advance.  They were afraid of not knowing what to ask the coachee.  They also wanted to control the coaching relationship by guiding the coachee toward their solution, without regard to whether or not it was the best solution for the coachee. It takes a great deal of confidence and discipline to be able to rely on one’s intuitive skills to guide the coachee toward self-improvement.

It was not my purpose to identify all of the behavioral skills that lead to successful coaching. My book Executive Coaching and the Process of Change discusses many more behavioral attributes that affect coaching.  If I were asked to name three of the most important personal attributes that a coach should have, they would be emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself in another person’s challenges, and the ability to ask probing questions and use intuition to piece together the clues presented by the coachee.




On Becoming a Coach

There is no simple pathway to becoming an executive coach. Unlike other professions, there is no degree program or widely accepted certification process that qualifies a candidate to be an executive coach. I will answer the question of how to become an executive coach in three parts. In this blog, I will demonstrate why it is important that executive coaches understand business. In my next blog, I will identify some of the behavioral skills needed to be a coach. Finally, I will identify several programs that help the aspiring coach to acquire and perfect coaching skills.

I believe executive coaches need to understand business at multiple levels. I will use my own experience as a case in point. The experience of having studied, taught, consulted, and started several businesses has been invaluable in my journey to becoming an executive coach. I gained knowledge in the areas of leadership, strategy, operations, financial analysis, and organizations. My experience with organizations included heavy and light manufacturing, a variety of service organizations, not-for-profit organizations, starts-ups, family businesses, financial services, distribution, and medical delivery. I worked with most functional areas of businesses from early entry jobs to the CEO. I also believe that teaching organizational behavior, entrepreneurship, and leadership solidified my knowledge, allowing me to articulate what I had experienced within a larger body of research and theory. But this is just one person’s journey. Many executives, particularly those who had multifunctional responsibilities, may have sufficient business knowledge to coach. Certainly, former CEOs have an edge in understanding the role of the top executive.

Let’s examine why an executive coach needs to understand business. The majority of the issues that the coachee brings to coaching sessions are business related. Therefore, it is important that both the coach and coachee speak the same language–the language of business. Most executives want practical, results-oriented, efficient, and customized coaching. They are comfortable with a coach who speaks their language rather than one who is primarily theoretical, abstract, and didactic.

Related to using a common business language is establishing credibility. Having a business background adds tremendous credibility to the coach and the coaching relationship. Remember, the goal of coaching is to help the coachee find ways to improve his or her performance. Familiarity with the business issues that the coachee faces will greatly enhance credibility, which, in turn, will facilitate change.

As I have stated many times, coaching is a process. It requires that a coach know how to identify gaps, create tension, move the coachee toward important goals, and find ways of sustaining the change. Much of this is done through asking questions that help the coachee to actively pursue ways to improve. Knowing which questions to ask cannot be prepared in advance; they cannot be scripted. Coaches act on clues the coachee offers and integrates these clues into a hypothesis that leads to deeper questions. Understanding the business issues that challenge the coachee is central to asking relevant questions of him or her.

To summarize, the first task of a coach is to establish rapport with the coachee. Knowing the language of business will strengthen credibility, trust, and acceptance. Understanding business will help the coach ask relevant questions that will guide the coachee in changing and improving performance.