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Coaches Coach, Players Play, and Companies Win

Patrick C. Caironi
Pennsylvania State University

Executive coaching has been a part of business consulting for some time now, and according to London (2002), has grown significantly in recent years. However, there are many aspects of this method of leadership development that remain in question. Is there agreement upon which methods are the best? What approaches do most coaches take when evaluating a client? What is the feeling companies have toward coaching? To find answers to these questions and more, I went straight to the source, the coaches themselves.

Leadership is a key aspect of organizational success, so the degree of effectiveness to which organizations develop leadership will directly affect success. As part of their leadership development programs, companies are turning to executive coaches. Executive coaching is practical, goal-focused one-to-one learning (London, 2002, p.164). The intersection of the organization, leader, and coach is one that possesses great potential for individual change.

The Questions I Asked

In my investigation of coaching and leadership, I interviewed four respected SIOP members. I began by asking, What personal qualities of the leader help to make the coaching experience more effective? I wanted to learn what traits the coach hoped that the leader might already possess when beginning the coaching relationship. Obviously, the leader will have some deficiencies, but there may be some personality or other characteristics that make a leader more receptive to coaching. Along these same lines, I also inquired, What types of organizational climate/atmosphere are more conducive to a successful coaching experience? Then, taking the opposite slant, I asked about the personal and organizational factors that tend to inhibit a positive coaching situation.

In addition, I asked about the receptiveness of organizations to having an executive coach work with their leaders. One would expect that if the organization were receptive to coaching, then the opinions and plans of the coach would be taken more seriously. Conversely, if the organization were not receptive, coaches and leaders may have difficulty with the implementation of their action plans. Another issue, likely related to the leaders receptivity to coaching efforts, was how the request for a coach comes about (i.e., does the leader ask for coaching, or does someone else in the organization decide that the leader needs help)? Self-initiated coaching relationships would appear to lead more likely to individual change, but the leader might recognize the seriousness of concerns that cause others to recommend or require that the leader work with a coach. Also, given that my respondents all serve as coaches who are external to the leaders organization, I asked if they perceived differential roles for internal and external coaches.

A key question to be answered was What exactly are the best coaching techniques? I wanted to learn from these experienced I-O psychologists which methods they have found to be most effective. I also asked the coaches opinions on the use of 360-degree feedback as part of a coaching relationship. Since this is also a common developmental technique applied by organizations, I was interested in the extent to which executive coaches found it helpful. Finally, I completed my interviews by asking about the types of educational backgrounds that facilitate effective coaching.

The Answers I Heard

One of the four coaches whom I interviewed was Vicki Vandaveer, founder and CEO of The Vandaveer Group, Inc. Regarding desirable personal qualities of an individual for most effective coaching, Vandaveer mentioned motivation and orientation to learning and growing. An example of a difficult situation is one in which someone else has requested coaching for an individual, and the individual is not receptive. However, she noted that a good coach can usually find a way in, helping the individual see the personal benefits to coaching and coming around to personally owning the process. She commented that every coaching relationship is different because the parties to the relationship are different and, therefore, a unique combination.

The most effective executive coaching is based on science (e.g., motivation, adult learning, developmental psychology, social psychology of organizations, systems theory, etc.) and applied with artful skill. Vandaveer likens the coaching relationship to a unique danceeach with different rhythm, intensity, level of synchronization, demands, degree of structure, and so forth. With the most active learners, she can work at a deeper level of self-discovery and personal change, while with others she wont get further than helping them process and respond effectively and appropriately to 360-degree feedback. Regarding 360-degree feedback, she said that it does potentially have benefits if used appropriately. Her concern is that too many people use 360-degree feedback without sufficient understanding of its appropriate uses and its limitations.

Vandaveer said that her coaching engagements have come by a variety of means. Sometimes human resources (HR) recruit and screen coaches. At the present time, most of her coaching business comes directly from line management through referral by existing coaching clients.

Vandaveers goal in coaching is to best help the executive achieve the next levels of personal and leadership effectiveness. That typically involves assessing needs, establishing developmental goals and measures, agreeing upon a coaching strategy and process with the leader, and then executing the coaching plan. The plan may or may not include gathering 360-degree feedback, conducting an individual psychological assessment (including personality and cognitive tests), and always includes periodic face-to-face meetings, between-meeting assignments, observing the executive in action, and other agreed-on actions. Examples of what she does in coaching are (a) gather data, (b) identify needs, values, motivational drivers, and so forth, (c) help surface and challenge assumptions and mental models underlying perceptions and behaviors, (d) serve as sounding board, (e) help prepare for key meetings (e.g., board or worldwide employee meetings), (f) help the individual gain insight into himself or herself, others, and their interactions, (g) help remove problematic blind spots, and (h) always provide support.

On the topic of an internal versus external coach, she said there is a role for both. A key part of every managers role is to assess performance and coach those that report to them. Internal (HR) professional coaches can be effective, and they know the organization well. The value of the external coach includes objectivity (not being a part of the organizational system) and a safe source for discussing most sensitive issues, fears, and so forth that politically one cannot afford to risk sharing with an internal person.

Vandaveer commented that coaches come from a variety of backgrounds, including clinical psychology, I-O psychology, OD, or business (e.g., MBA) with an organizational behavior specialty. She believes that I-O psychology provides a good beginning base for coaching (e.g., organizational theory, human motivation, learning theory, problem identification and analysis). However, I-O programs typically do not provide all the training necessary for coaching. Additional important knowledge and competencies include understanding oneself as an instrument in the coaching process, good understanding of ones own motivations and needsand how to manage them in a helping relationship, skill in process facilitation and group dynamics, to name a few. She got her training from continuing education, which has been, interestingly, largely from clinical and social psychologists and anthropologists.

Another coach whom I interviewed was George P. Hollenbeck, principal of Hollenbeck Associates. He said that, concerning a coachs traits necessary for a positive coaching experience, he likes to think more in terms of skills rather than personal qualities, but, if he had to select qualities, integrity and I.Q. commensurate with the executive are important, and the executive must respect the coach. Also needed are knowledge of business and the organization at the level of the executive, knowledge of personal change methods and difficulties, interpersonal skills sufficient to relate to the executive, and low power motivation with a high need for achievement. An organization most conducive toward coaching would be one that is bottom-line oriented, rewards performance rather than personality and competencies, is supportive of development, interested in learning, and relatively free of politics. Conversely, an environment that would not be supportive of coaching would be one that is filled with intense political bickering and distrust among executives and is too short-term oriented and unforgiving.

In Hollenbecks opinion, 360-degree feedback can be useful when it is targeted and specific. He said that it is most effective in helping with the assessment process that directs coaching and to clarify organizational direction. Requests for coaching usually come from a boss suggesting to human resources that someone needs help, human resources suggesting a coach, or as part of a program in which the company offers a coach. He commented that almost never would an executive say, I want a coach.

The coaching techniques that Hollenbeck found to be most effective are (a) interviews with boss, subordinates, and peers, (b) personality inventory and maybe an interest inventory, (c) leadership style questionnaires, (d) background interviews with the executive, (e) observation of the executive in work situations, and (f) review of existing data the executive may have from previous training programs, performance appraisals, and so forth. On the issue of internal versus external coaching, Hollenbeck observed that there will always be internal coaching from the boss, human resource personnel, and mentors. The internal people know the organization better than external people ever will. An external person will often be trusted more, be more objective, more willing to deliver bad news, more willing to tell it the way it is, and have more skill and talent relating to people to get them to change.

According to Hollenbeck, a coach can come from a background of I-O psychology, clinical psychology, or business. He said the best background is one of problem solving, knowledge of individual and organizational change, and knowledge of business. Typically, he noted, an MBA knows nothing of change and a clinician knows nothing of business. An I-O psychologist can be a nice combination of both, but he commented that many I-O psychologists do not get such training. Hollenbeck also pointed out that part of this question related to the issues of the executive. He said, There are hundreds of wannabe coaches who are family therapists, social workers, and clinicians but want to focus on the executives family, and so forth, rather than job performance. He pointed out as an example, that if you have an alcoholic executive, you need someone who can deal with alcoholics, but if you have an executive who needs to delegate, listen, and communicate, then you need someone who can deal with these things.

The third coach I interviewed was Val J. Arnold, senior vice-president of Personnel Decisions International. Arnold noted that a leader should have specific objectives for their development, be open to feedback and experimentation, and willing to try things on the job. An organizational climate that facilitates coaching is one in which learning and development are encouraged and seen as a sign of strength, not weakness; people can ask for, receive, and use feedback (they need to be able to tell people what theyre trying and get feedback for maximum impact); and top leadership pays attention to development and models it. Some barriers against leadership development are beliefs that development is a weakness and that leaders dont have weaknesses, and situations in which people are afraid to ask for feedback, honest discussion is not a part of the culture, and top leadership does not support learning and development.

Arnolds feelings on 360-degree feedback are that it can be very helpful for understanding others perceptions of you. It works best when the questions deal with real issues for the participants, they respect and believe the people who gave them feedback, and feedback is the beginning, not the end of the process. The goal of 360-degree feedback should be to use data to move to action, and not just for insight. Arnold is not sure whether most organizations are receptive to using a coach. Coaching peaked as an intervention a little while ago and has now settled back some. Commonly seen methods of requesting a coach are when someone in power believes someone else needs to change/develop, and they facilitate getting that person a coach, as well as when a person feels a need for development/change and gets the organization to support coaching.

As far as an internal versus external coach, Arnold believes both can be effective. It depends on parties involved, their views, and the skills of the coach. Internal dynamics of power can prevent effective coaching sometimes just as a lack of skill or competence of the coach can affect outcomes all of the time. According to Arnold, the best coaching techniques involve a solid behavior change technique, in which the coach helps people set clear goals that meet their own needs while also aligning them with the needs of the business and helps them think through how best to meet the goals (where sound psychology of people and how they change comes in). The coach should also focus on spaced practice of the changed behavior, build in feedback and support loops, and fade out the feedback provided by the coach, while teaching the leaders to assesses their own progress. Finally, as far as background goes, Arnold notes that sometimes the best coaches are those who have been there, done that, (i.e., sometimes best coaches for CEOs are ex-CEOs).

My final interviewee was Richard Jeanneret, the managing principal of Jeanneret & Associates, a general management consulting firm that this year is celebrating its 20th year of being in business. He believes the best qualities a leader can have going into the coaching relationship are an openness to the coaching experience and the desire to benefit and develop from the experience. Also, the leader should be willing to help the coach understand the relevant business and people issues, and the leader should be flexible in recognizing that strategies and goals may change as the coaching relationship evolves. The leader should be ready to accept feedback from the coach and possibly others (e.g., 360-degree feedback) and be able to trust the coach and the coachs advice. The organization should be participative, flexible, and supportive of change, with a focus on development in other human resource management systems. Jeanneret notes that organizational qualities that would not be supportive of a coaching endeavor are rigidity, being highly political, lacking in trust, nonparticipative, and internally overly competitive.

He believes that 360-degree feedback can be useful if performed correctly. He prefers to conduct organizational interviews with key players if the organization will be receptive to that strategy. Jeanneret does not believe most organizations are receptive to having a coach come in. How the request comes about for a coach, he notes, depends on the purpose of the coaching assignment (e.g., an individual development plan, a performance problem, a need for conflict resolution, the specific agenda of the leader who requests the coach, whether or not the organization requires every executive to have a coach). His feelings and reasoning are the same with respect to whether an internal or external coach is better, with the additional dimension of the capabilities of the coach. He also added that coaches and researchers have not engaged in sufficient effort to evaluate the effectiveness of the coaching experience and to give guidance as to what strategies and styles would be most effective under various types of conditions. There are likely to be many more failed or discontinued coaching assignments out there than there are successful ones.

Regarding the best coaching techniques to use, Jeanneret said that depends on the goals of the assignment. About 35%40% of the time he couples coaching with assessment. Otherwise, he believes in face-to-face meetings and input from others, such as peers, senior managers, subordinates, obtained either through an interview or survey. He adds that the strategy needs to be an active one. Thus, after a coach has a chance to understand the leader and vice versa, then it is time to develop some set of action plans. These may be assignments that take place either inside or outside the organization. The assignments should have the characteristics of goal-setting models (i.e., a stated objective, measurement strategy, and timeframe). Reinforcements should be available whenever possible. If coaching remains passive and the coach and leader simply get together to theorize or speculate, then there probably will be little broad developmental gain. However, Jeanneret did note that a very valuable role for a coach can be to help a leader think through a tough issue (e.g., which of several strong candidates to promote, how to deal with conflict between a couple of key executives, etc.), but added that typically these are focused, one-time events rather than longer-term development activities.

Finally, when I asked about the background of a coach, Jeanneret commented that the field is full of all types, whether it be the more common I-O, clinical, and MBA background, or fields such as human resources, counseling, and education. He noted that many coaches even started in technical fields.

Similarities and Differences in What I Heard

There are many similarities in opinion across the four individuals I interviewed. Concerning the personal and organizational climate necessary for a positive coaching experience, most agreed that the leader should be open, receptive, and willing to experience new things. The leader should also be willing to accept feedback. The organization should also be open and flexible. It should not be rigid or full of political bickering. Feedback should also flow easily. Development should be seen as a positive thing, and not as a sign of weakness.

Most agree that 360-degree feedback is good, when used properly. It has its place in the assessment of the leader but is by no means the end-all to the evaluation and coaching process. Regarding differential roles for internal and external coaches, most agreed that both have their benefits, depending on the situation. Both can be used in organizations. Neither is clearly superior to the other. Some noted that there is always internal coaching going on, as the leader will be coaching subordinates. However, many agreed that a problem with this is that the leader may be reluctant to mentor a subordinate for fear that the subordinate will take the leaders job.

The coaches I interviewed agreed that the request for a coach is usually the human resource department or a superior requesting help for a leader. While the leader could encourage the organization to support the idea of having a coach, it is rare for a leader to say, I need a coach. As for the best coaching methods, there was some distinctiveness, but some coaches did agree that face-to-face meetings and interviewing the leaders boss, peers, and so forth, were effective. All agreed that the background for a coach could be any number of possibilities, ranging from I-O psychology and clinical psychology to a business degree.

As mentioned previously, there was some differentiation on the opinion of what coaching techniques are the most effective. One coach focused on a behavioral style approach, while another seemed to take a more intense personal approach, advocating psychological (e.g., personality and cognitive) assessments and interviews with assignments given. I believe that, while all would use 360-degree feedback in their assessment, some would give more weight to it than others would.

Executive coaching can be a very important part of leadership development. The personal attention and coaching enable the leader to see exactly what is needed to change to become more effective. With leaders holding such a powerful position of influence and control, it is important that they are doing things correctly. A coach can help ensure this. While leadership development always begins within the organization, the assistance of an outside coach is, in my opinion, often essential. Paper-and-pencil assessments, such as 360-degree feedback and surveys, can only go so far. The presence of a coach, working closely with the leader, focusing on the leaders personal and behavioral characteristics, can be unmatched in impact on the leader. While much can be debated about executive coaching and its precise influence on leadership change and development, the presence of a coach can be a positive influence on executives across varying industries and companies. Similar to the need of even the most talented athletes for coaching and instruction, the leaders of prominent businesses across the country and around the world can benefit from executive coaching. If a company came to me and told me it had problems with its CEO as a leader, my initial response would be to get a coach. 

I would like to thank Val Arnold, George Hollenbeck, Richard Jeanneret, Vicki Vandaveer, and James Farr, my coach at Pennsylvania State University, for their knowledge, assistance, and guidance. Without them, this article would not have been possible.


     London, M. (2002). Leadership development, paths to self-insight and professional growth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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