You’ve got a few steps to get through before you hire the first coach. As someone I worked with used to say, “First things first, second things second.” That might sound obvious, but so many organizations fail to think things through and purposely sequence their actions. As a result, investments in people and resources fall short of their full potential.
Let’s assume executive coaching is the right solution for your organization. In a field that lacks consistency, quality, and sometimes uses paid certifications as evidence of capability, you’ve got to do some mining before you find gold. For the good of coaches, talent, and organizations alike, here’s some high level advice, in order.
1. DEFINE THE PURPOSE
What are you trying to achieve and why? Be specific. The purpose will drive everything else after this, so think this through, articulate it, and make sure people are aligned. Tie it directly to business strategies and goals, for no coaching program should ever be done in isolation. What organizational outcomes will the use of coaching relationships support? There are many possibilities for the purpose of your organization’s program, including:
- Development of future leaders. This is probably the most popular reason for a program, but make sure you’ve figured out which archetypes/capabilities you’re trying to develop. It’s not enough to say “leadership” or “high potential” without defining it (and its needs) for your organization.
- Support of current leaders. It can be lonely at the top. Senior executives still need opportunities to learn and somewhere to go for perspective once they’ve “made it.” The political atmosphere may not support a safe environment for them to do this, so coaching may be a temporary solution while the cultural issues are worked out in the meantime.
- Facilitating a culture change. Behavior, working dynamics, and relationships between people will be different when you create a coaching or helping culture. A coaching program may be one of the conditions you set to encourage this.
- A form of 360°feedback. Depending on the context, this may be an inappropriate or appropriate use of a coaching program. I’ve seen it go both ways. Some coaching arrangements begin with 360° interviews and psychometric assessments. These are analyzed and put together in an executive summary that identifies priorities for the coaching relationship. 360° feedback should always be done in the spirit of development and building of self-awareness. It must never, NEVER be used as a performance management tool, nor a replacement for authentic conversations. To do so will guarantee a corruption of your agenda and outcomes.
- Transition tool (in or out of roles/the organization). Coaching can be used as part of a support system helping people and the team around them manage through the inevitable change that come with transitions. The purpose of these arrangements should be clear and communicated for intended understanding. This was not the case in one organization. They hired coaches for both high potentials and poor performers. With no transparency, people (even those being coached) were confused. Why would an organization treat these two groups the same way?
2. DESIGN THE COACHING EXPERIENCE
Once the purpose is determined, your next step is to design for what it will be like to go through the coaching program itself, as an experience. People are not cogs in a machine. Every coaching arrangement should address the learning and business needs individually, so we are not talking about everyone doing the same thing every time in the same way. However, you can design an experience for consistent outcomes, such as: overall success in achievement of coaching goals, development of capabilities, demonstration/adoption of new behaviors, improved relationships, increased engagement, satisfaction, etc. Consider the coaching experience as a journey. What happens as one enters the program, participates, and comes out? In design, the 5E’s is a popular guideline used for the various points along the way: Entice, Enter, Engage, Exit, Extend. Design of Work Experience offers a comprehensive approach to creating experiences based on the context of the organization and its people and guides the progress toward desired future states. Upon completion of the coaching program’s designed experience, it’s clear what conditions have to be in place and what needs to happen to achieve desired goals. The presence/absence of these conditions and the planned outcomes become the measurements for your program’s success, so get these down. They will be useful later.
3. IDENTIFY THOSE WHO WILL BE COACHED
Who’s getting coached? Coaching can be a very beneficial contribution to your overall talent development program, but it doesn’t come cheap. Chances are you can’t afford to offer it to everyone, especially at the same time. It then comes down to priorities. First, establish criteria as an impartial decision making tool. Include only that which the business and its people most critically need (as opposed to want). Next, look at the coaching experience you designed. Knowing that its purpose is tied to business needs, who are those that will benefit the most when you compare them to the criteria? Consider the roles in the company where top talent and performance make the biggest difference. Once nominated, ensure candidates are in a position to fully engage in the coaching program. In what remains, parse out cohorts and implement them in waves.
4. FIND COACHES AND PAIR OFF
Source your coaches next, with forethought and discipline. If your company has a required procurement process, make sure your RFP reflects the purpose, requirements of the designed experience, and your criteria.
Based on the firms that answer, you can begin an iterative filtering process, with each round narrowing the field. Treat individual coaches and large firms as equals in the same pool. After all, they share the same level of variability—all have their different strengths and challenges.
Round 1: Eliminate coaches whose approaches and specialties don’t match your designed experience.
Round 2: Test for capability, not situations. Many vetting processes ask questions around “Have you ever…” That doesn’t indicate capability, nor does it account for everything that could happen in the course of a coaching relationship. Look for demonstration of behavioral characteristics (flexibility, resourcefulness, use of network, connections between ideas). The most capable experts will become evident.
Round 3: Next, observe behavior in an experiential setting—i.e. interactions where people can’t fake or talk their way through. Get creative with role plays, coaching fairs, speed networking, etc.
Round 4: Use references wisely. Remember that they’re provided by coaches for the purpose of endorsement, so ask open-ended questions that might challenge the prepared script and allow you to read between the lines. Listen not just for what’s said, but also for what goes unspoken.
Round 5: Select 3-5 options per person for comparison. Reiterate to everyone the criteria and measurements for the coaching relationship based on the designed experience. Resist the temptation to choose on personality alone.
There are those who choose coaches most similar to them—so much so that they end up enabling or validating each others' faults. On the other hand, a forced fit when compatibility is way off is also counter-productive. Balance the tension between these two extremes and find relationships that aim for both “backbone and heart,” as author Mary Beth O’Neill discusses in her book. The coaching relationship (relationship being the key word) should appropriately challenge the person to learn while also fostering trust in a psychologically safe environment.
5. YOU’RE NOT DONE YET: TRACK PROGRESS AND OUTCOMES
Many organizations walk away once the coaching relationship begins. It’s unwise to completely disengage at this point. Give the pairings their space, but set up a way to touch base and monitor progress. If you created a journey map, look out for markers of success and concern along the way. Use the measurements created out of the designed experience in Step 2 to ensure alignment of intentions and outcomes. Course correct as necessary along the way. When all is said and done, the success of the overall program is a pass/fail: Did the outcomes match the purpose? Yes or No?
These steps should get your coaching initiative off to a better start. If you are ready for more, talk to me about a customized approach based upon your organization’s unique context.