One of the harshest criticisms of executive coaching has to do the client behaviour “backsliding” – reverting to its original state once the coach leaves. Even if the coach is competent and the client is willing, backsliding can indeed happen.
When we venture into an executive or leadership coaching engagement, there need to be at least 3 parties involved – the coach, the person we are coaching, and the executive sponsor who is usually the direct manager or some other representative of the organization’s interests.
Each of these three players has a role – two of which are usually pretty clear. That third one, though – that’s important, and too often missing or lacking clarity. The “executive sponsor” role is the one that can make the difference between executive coaching that “sticks” and coaching that might feel helpful but that probably doesn’t have lasting impact. It’s also one of the things that differentiates executive or corporate coaching (done well) and any other kind of coaching.
You see, we are very aware that when we get hired, we are being paid by a company. Yes, we are working with an individual, but our work with that person has to be based on what’s important to their organization. Without an engaged steward of the organization’s interests, we are operating in a vacuum. Without that steward, there’s no assurance that we’re set up to be working on the right things, or that the results of coaching will be maintained.
We’re not – or at least we are not supposed to be – a long term support mechanism. We’re supposed to come in for a predetermined period of time and then leave, and when we do, the client – the person we’ve been coaching – is supposed to have shifted something such that they are more effective. The manager plays a key role throughout, but most particularly at the outset and the conclusion of the engagement.
When we sit down to establish goals and areas of focus for the coaching work we can see whether the manager has given this meeting and the criteria any thought in advance. If they’ve come to the meeting completely unprepared, it gives us tremendous insight into the priority they place on developing their people. If they aren’t willing to make an effort to set the coaching up for success by clarifying the goals and areas of focus, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll stay disengaged once we leave.
In the meeting – does the manager talk to the coach, or to the person who will be coached? I’ve been in countless meetings where the manager spoke to me as if their employee wasn’t in the room – which tells me a lot about the manager’s willingness to provide clear and direct feedback.
Is there an agreed frequency and format of updates between the client and their sponsor throughout the coaching engagement? We’ve seen managers who ignore the whole thing as if it’s not happening, and others who ask for updates more often than we’re seeing the client. Not to mention those managers who avoid asking the client altogether and who call us directly to inquire vaguely “How’s it going?” Regular updates between our client and their sponsor help the sponsor stay connected to what we’re doing, but even more importantly those updates send a message to our client that they are not in this alone – that while they’re doing some hard work, they’ve got support and interest from their boss.
Once the engagement is over, and (in a perfect world) we’ve had a wrap up meeting where everyone agrees that the objectives have been achieved, the client and their manager are left to ensure that the changes “stick” – that the investment in coaching has created sustained change. In that meeting we try to gain some agreement to next steps and the sustainability plan, but even if we get that done it’s still up to the other two parties to make it happen.
In deciding to invest your company’s money and your employee’s time in working with an external coach, you’re not done. Far from it. You’re not divesting yourself of the hard work of developing your people, you’re just using a different approach that requires a shift in your involvement.
If you are a prospective client, or if you’re someone who hires coaches for your organization – be sure that the coach has a process for involving an executive sponsor or organizational stakeholder in the work. Not requiring internal support and not having process for navigating the objective setting and communication aspects of the coaching work is a strong clue that any positive effects will likely be short term at best.
And coaches – don’t let the executive sponsor off the hook. Educate them about the importance of their role and ensure they’re on board to support what you’re doing with their people. After all, you don’t get more business if your clients aren’t successful.