Coaching to Influence the Boss

One lesson I learned in writing is that case studies help to illuminate the point the author is trying to convey. This is why I use case studies as illustrations of the points I want to make about coaching. Each case is a real-life example of a coach, a coachee, and a situation that the coachee is trying to cope with.

This blog post will focus on how to influence the person to whom the coachee reports. I often hear executives ask, “How do I tell my boss something he or she may not want to hear?”  This can be a challenge because many organizations are hierarchical, and the coachee is often torn between giving honest feedback and taking the risk of upsetting the person(s) to whom he or she is accountable.

I will write about two “hired gun” CEOs who tried to influence their boss/business owners. The results were very different, and the reasons why will reveal important lessons to be learned. These lessons also can apply to boards of directors or anyone in the organization that an executive reports to.  From a coaching perspective, the success of the coachee will depend on the cooperation and alignment of the boss/business owner.  It is important to be able to communicate up the hierarchical ladder in order to be in a stronger position to succeed as an individual and as a company.  The two cases you are about to read will illustrate this point.

John is a “hired gun” of a $25 Million construction supply company. He was hired by his company’s owners to turn the company around after several years of financial losses.   John accepted the position with confidence and soon learned the reasons the company was failing; they were related to the ownership structure, heavy debt, and a culture of apathy.  Sales were flat. The company had not invested capital to replace aging equipment. The previous CEO was also an owner but had been ineffective in making the changes needed to turn the company around.  In coaching, it became apparent that John’s success depended on ownership restructuring, debt restructuring, culture change, and weeding out non-performers.  Investments in equipment and supply sources were also critical for success.  Although John was the CEO, he needed owner approval for these changes.

Much of the debt burden was attributable to monthly payments owed to two of the owners. It would not be easy to convince them to restructure this debt.  Many coaching sessions addressed this challenge.  One goal in coaching was to find a way to influence the owners to restructure the debt.  John needed to first demonstrate his ability to turn the sales and bottom line around so the company would be in a position to attract bank financing.  It took a full year, but John was able to show growth in sales and profits.  He established credibility with his company’s owners–enough to raise the challenge of restructuring debt. His coach worked with John to create a case for change with a compelling agenda for the owners.  His coach also helped John develop a plan that demonstrated how restructuring the debt would allow the company to prosper.  Next, his coach helped John to contrast the restructuring plan with what would happen if the company did not restructure the debt.  He demonstrated that the status quo would handicap the company and lead to an erosion of assets just to survive. Faced with these alternatives, the owners accepted John’s plan to restructure the debt.  John found a bank willing to offer long-term financing that would satisfy the owners and the capital needs of the company with terms that would allow the company to manage its debt.   The company is on its way to its most profitable year ever.

John was successful because he was able to lay out to the company’s owners what Jim Campbell in Good to Great called “the brutal facts.”  These facts demonstrated how the status quo would eventually bankrupt the company.  John also laid out a plan of action that would satisfy the owners and allow him to grow the business. The role of the coach was to help John organize his thoughts and present a plan that the owners would accept.  The brutal facts created tension with the goals of the owners; the debt and ownership restructuring plan reduced that tension. In my opinion, this was a major reason for John’s ability to influence his company’s owners.

The second case was not successful. In this case, Don was hired by the two owners who previously had run the company but were unable to grow it beyond its current state. The company manufactured products for the local market.  The products were high in quality, and the company brand was respected.  The owners wanted to grow the products into a regional and, ultimately, a national brand.  Don was well on the way of accomplishing his mission when conflicts arose between him and the owners.  The owners kept interfering with his leadership.  Although irritating, Don was able to manage.  The conflict heated up when the owners became upset with Don over a major change initiative. I believe the owners were threatened by his success and felt displaced by his leadership.  Don’s attempts to influence the owners failed.  In fact, these attempts created even more tension.  Finally, in frustration, Don and the owners reached a mutual agreement to part ways.

Why did I include this case? It is a warning to CEOs who take over entrepreneurial companies, because I have seen similar scenarios unfold many times in different industries.  The newly hired, highly competent CEO replaces the owner who had struggled to grow the company.  The culture the new CEO enters is often controlling and highly influenced by the personality of the entrepreneur/owner.  As much as these owners would like the company to succeed, they are haunted by the fear of losing their influence and the feeling of being displaced by the new CEO.  In reality, they are often more concerned about losing their influence than the success of their company.  I am aware of one owner who accused a CEO of “throwing him under the bus.”

To summarize, it is important to influence upstairs. I would add the warning that company politics can get ugly. Coaches need to be aware of this and help their coachees to navigate the perils of their leadership. A good principle to keep in mind is to create tension for the owner, boss, or board that is meaningful and relevant to their goals. Misreading their goals can spell disaster for the relationship and job security of the new leader.

Coaching Innovation

To gain and maintain a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced business environment, companies need to continuously improve products, services, and processes. Innovation has become an indispensable strategy toward these improvements. An executive coach needs to encourage coachees to engage in innovative thinking to be successful. I will present three cases to illustrate the role of a coach in encouraging innovation.

Company X is a manufacturer of parts for a major industry. They sold a patented product through distributors and directly to original equipment manufacturers. Anticipating their main product coming off patent protection, they were concerned about a flood of knock-off products, particularly from China. The coaching challenge was to help the CEO of this company solve the dilemma of maintaining a culture of innovation within the company while at the same time producing its products in a low-cost manufacturing environment. As a result of several sessions addressing this dilemma, the CEO realized he needed to protect innovation from being perceived as an unnecessary financial burden to manufacturing. He formed a “pioneer” team of his most creative people and protected them with a separate budget. Manufacturing had its own budget with the mandate of creating a low-cost, efficient operation. This strategy of separating the Pioneer team from the Manufacturing team turned out to be successful. The company continued to develop new products, improve its existing products, and remain cost-competitive.

Company Y made an engineered product that was designed to meet new government regulations for its customer. A competitor developed a new product that not only met specifications but had some additional advantages that were missing in Company Y’s product. The competitor’s product was also less expensive. Company Y was given six months to come up with a product to match the competitor’s product or lose the customer’s business. This challenge was raised and processed in coaching. The company already had a well-defined innovation strategy, but the challenge presented by its customer required a different approach. It was determined that this challenge was a top priority. This meant putting other projects on hold and adding more resources to this one. The result was a new product that outperformed the competitor’s product. Company Y kept the business, albeit at a higher cost. It is now dedicating resources to reduce its manufacturing costs and thereby regain its profit margin.

Company Z is a large service company that was trying to reduce its escalating health care costs. The coach introduced the company CEO to an individual who specialized in innovative solutions to reduce health care costs. As a result, the company changed is health care plan to a consumer-driven health plan (CDHP), which combines a high-deductible insurance plan with a health savings account (HSA). The CDHP was just the beginning. The company also wanted to promote a healthier lifestyle for its workforce. Employees were given the opportunity to engage in health-related programs, rewarding participation with additional money placed into their HSA. Programs included a covered annual physical, weight-management classes, exercise classes, and nutritional guidance. These programs helped employees make healthy lifestyle choices that should lead to better health, fewer doctor visits, and a more productive workforce. In fact, Company Z experienced lower health care costs, reduced out-of-pocket costs for employees, and a healthier workforce.

The role of the coach in each of these cases was threefold: first, to maintain innovation as one of the key topics of the coaching dialogue; second, to examine the process of innovation; and, third, to stay focused on results. Given all of the demands made of executives, it is easy for them to lose track of innovation. Many executives will complain about problems rather than innovate for solutions. Keeping the coachee focused on innovation as a critical contributor to the success of the company is central to the role of the coach.

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.