With the demand for executive coaching skyrocketing in many companies and organizations, what’s the best way to prioritize your company’s selection of individuals to receive coaching, especially when talent development and training budgets are tight — even more than usual as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s a question leadership and talent development professionals as well as HR departments struggle with every year, as familiarity with coaching grows among new generations of managers and executives, and as the tangible benefits of coaching increasingly have been validated across multiple industries and in countless functional areas of focus.
From CEOs and other members of the C-suite to vice presidents, directors, and senior and middle managers, it’s important to note that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to designing coaching engagements. Instead, the intensity, focus, design and duration of a coaching engagement should be based on the developmental needs of the individual, the desired outcomes by senior leadership, the level of the individual in the organization, and the impact that changed behaviors on the leader’s part is likely to have on productivity, leadership effectiveness and business performance.
Clearly, the more senior the manager or executive who’s targeted for coaching, the wider the options they may be offered. An engagement with a senior executive might last six to 12 months (or longer) and begin with a pre-engagement leadership assessment (e.g., The Hogan Personality Inventory, The Lominger Leadership assessment, etc.). Engagements for managers or more junior executives might last four to six months and begin with a workshop or initial virtual consultations and get-acquainted sessions via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime or Go-to-Meeting.
Increasingly, companies are also employing cohort-based leadership development programs. These feature a mix of group coaching sessions (typically for 12 to 15 individuals at a time) interspersed with one-on-one coaching sessions for each individual cohort member over eight to 12 months. These programs, often offered to emerging, high-potential leaders, are a great way to build leadership bench strength across multiple functions and departments or to prepare an organization for emerging business challenges.
Regardless of what kind of coaching a company offers its executives and managers, there are seven factors to consider when evaluating a person’s suitability for coaching. A prospective candidate for executive coaching should possess each of the following.
Established track record of early and consistent success
Any individual selected to receive executive coaching should already have clearly demonstrated their leadership potential as well as their ability to adapt and learn, work with others and deal with rapidly changing market conditions and business challenges. For that reason, prospective learners will likely be drawn from a company’s cadre of emerging young leaders, high-potentials, or established managers and executives whose careers are on the rise.
Normally, potential learners already have managerial responsibilities, but in some instances, an individual contributor who shows great promise, who has not yet managed others, will be a candidate for coaching as well. So, too, may new arrivals in a company who are being onboarded or groomed for higher-level leadership responsibilities in the near future.
Demonstrated capacity for new learning
In today’s business environment, managers and executives must have a deep capacity for new learning. This goes beyond academic prowess or intellectual acumen to include a proclivity and enthusiasm for real-time experiential learning and an inclination to “lean in” to new business challenges as they arise. Such personal traits are critical to leadership effectiveness because learning agility has become a foundational component of leadership agility. In an insightful white paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership, “Learning about Learning Agility,” “learning-agile” leaders are described as individuals who typically display greater extroversion, originality of thought, resilience and focus than many of their workplace counterparts. They’re also more likely to challenge the status quo, generate new ideas and plans, and embrace learning as a goal in itself. “[L]earning-agile individuals not only seek out new and challenging situations that may serve as learning experiences, but also manage these challenges effectively, allowing learning to occur,” the report notes.
Because learning agility is a key element of leadership agility, choose candidates for coaching who display a thirst for new learning on a daily basis, who see the job they have now as a learning ground or stepping stone experience for future advancement, and whose skills are mission-critical to the company’s long-term success.
Ability to embrace adaptive leadership
Besides learning agility, candidates for coaching should demonstrate potential as it relates to problem-solving and decision-making. In “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” authors Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky identify two kinds of challenges business leaders face today. These include “technical” challenges — those for which proven problem-solving approaches and solution paths already exist, and “adaptive” challenges, which require a mindset shift on the part of leaders to successfully address them. The adaptive leader adopts an intuitive, inquisitive, open and exploratory mindset with which to look at business problems and issues in new ways. Heifetz et al. describe this as the ability “to get on the balcony”; to look at problems and challenges with fresh eyes; and to discern new patterns, variations and combinations of things that lead to breakthrough insights and new pathways of action.
Clearly, in choosing candidates for executive coaching, talent development professionals should select individuals who have the intellectual bandwidth and potential to exercise both technical (everyday) business decision-making and creative/adaptive leadership in response to new or emerging business challenges.
Self-awareness and emotional intelligence
Developing oneself as a leader depends, in large measure, on an individual’s self-awareness and emotional/social intelligence. The most effective leaders are highly self-aware and realize that to be effective, they must work through others to get work done. They embrace their strengths with both humility and self-confidence but also acknowledge the strengths and contributions of others. They are vulnerable and decisive, visionary and inclusive. They realize that in today’s organizations, real power emanates not from formal positional authority alone, but more often from one’s ability to influence others, to engender trust and respect, and to engage and align others around common objectives.
For this reason, choose individuals to receive coaching who have the capacity to grow, not just in the depth of their business knowledge, but in their knowledge and awareness of self. Choose individuals who already display both humility and agency at work, who motivate and inspire their teams, and who have shown the ability to create followership among others.
Demonstrated ability to engage others
In my experience as a coach, leaders often struggle with how best to exercise influence with groups. Many leaders achieve early success by displaying strong subject matter expertise and by being standout individual contributors. But as one takes on the role of leading a team, department or organization, there’s a heightened need to engage others, optimize the involvement of colleagues in group discussions, and drive effective and inclusive team/group decision-making. To be sure, this requires strong emotional intelligence, but it also requires honed facilitation and group communication skills.
In today’s world, the role of leader as a convener and facilitator of group discussions continues to increase in importance. That’s why, in my work with managers and executives, I emphasize the importance of leaders developing strong facilitation, or “dialogic,” skills. This includes the ability to set the table for critical discussions with others, create an environment in which everyone present feels free to speak, where each person is given voice, and where the leader establishes an ecosystem that allows for the thorough discussion and vetting of ideas before critical decisions are made. Doing all this well is not easy, and leaders today must check their egos at the door for this dialogic leadership approach to succeed.
Strong social and interpersonal skills
In today’s matrix-based organizations and highly collaborative work environments, leaders need to display a standout ability to work well with a variety of people. They must be able to build followership among individuals with competing goals and agendas and create a spirit of trust, engagement, alignment and camaraderie around common goals in the process. For these reasons, choose candidates for coaching who understand the importance of building “social capital” within their sphere of influence, who’ve shown the ability to build and maintain strong stakeholder networks and work across departmental or business unit lines. Also, look for individuals who possess a flexible interpersonal style, who can adjust their engagement approach with others based on the personalities and needs of the moment, and who employ tact and diplomacy along with a results-orientation.
Leadership presence is the fundamental basis of the authority, credibility and power (formal or informal) any leader possesses and conveys to others. It includes variables such as physical bearing, mannerisms and demeanor, use of language and ability to communicate, the ability to emotionally connect with others, and the ability to project authenticity, integrity and character to others. Given the importance of presence in leadership effectiveness, consider as candidates for coaching any executive or manager who possesses upside potential in any or all of the aspects of presence noted above. Coaching can help an executive or manager pinpoint both the areas in which their leadership presence is strong and where, with a little bit of focus, they can dramatically improve their presence and leadership effectiveness.
Toward the future
Developing leaders is never easy, especially in an environment where training and development dollars are limited and leadership development needs are immense and growing. To maximize coaching’s value to your organization’s success, be sure to identify both current and emerging leaders to receive coaching, as this will help build your existing leadership bench and provide a mechanism for the continuous development of new generations of leaders in the future.