Play to Win, Part I: Developing Executive Coaching Programs

The concept of employee training programs is common for organizations across all industries; it defines guidelines for prepping new hires to meet the demands of the job, and it grooms veteran employees to take on new responsibilities. But what about the members of the organization that are already at the top--the C-suite executives who shape and execute the strategies that directly affect brand, reputation and the bottom line? For these organizational leaders, a more high-level, nuanced approach is required, especially in a business climate in which leadership's reputations largely mirror that of the company, for better or worse. Thus, executive coaching comes into play as a practiced strategy to give companies a competitive advantage in a time when every move counts. "The goal of executive coaching is really to improve the performance of the individual in the context of the organization in a very customized way," says Susan Ennis, president of Susan Ennis & Associates and board member of the Executive Coaching Forum. "Coaching really comes from what the executive needs, and how that meshes with the organization's needs." An immediate question one might raise in the context of developing executive coaching programs is cost--namely, in a difficult economy, how can you justify this expenditure? For Ennis, though, the answer is simple: "One different and good decision on the [executive's] part pays for the coaching," she says. "For more junior employees, you can figure out a way to leverage your dollars: Find groups of people who can work together, establish a set number of times for them to meet and factor in peer-to-peer coaching to continue the learning experience when the coaches aren't there." For communications professionals, executive coaching is a potentially lucrative service. PR agencies could offer it to clients on a consulting basis and corporate communications executives could help develop in-house programs (for the pros and cons of internal versus external executive coaches, see sidebar on page 6). Regardless of your place within the communications discipline, the following steps will help you develop an executive coaching program that can help an organization endure the current economic roller-coaster ride. *Get aligned. "Coaching initiatives not only influence individual performance," Ennis says. "They can greatly affect your organization's capacity to execute." To ensure that you align coaching initiatives with business strategies, Ennis recommends determining the business objective up front, which could include the following: Build strength within the organization; Retain top performers who are at risk of leaving; Prepare key executives to take on new strategic roles; and, Manage "star" executives with critical shortcomings. Then, Ennis says, it's time to assess your organization's culture, resources and priorities. She recommends asking (and answering) these questions: Does the culture encourage people to ask for help, or is seeking help seen as a sign of weakness or failure? What business practices and funding models are normative in this organization? Does the business financially support learning efforts for executives and other employees, or are these the first funds to be cut? Can executive coaching be aligned with other human resource systems or successful initiatives, such as an implemented succession plan, a high-potential program or a 360 degree-feedback and development planning process? This part of the planning phase should include interviews with multiple people within the organization as no coaching program will be effective if everyone isn't on board. "At the beginning of a successful coaching program, a key challenge is getting executives to accept help," Ennis says. "Executive coaching should not be a stand-alone intervention that meets the needs and prestige of an individual executive without supporting the business goals of the organization." *Vet potential coaches. Whether you choose to hire a full-time executive coach or bring in an external consultant, you need to identify a pool of potential advisers who can meet the objectives that you already identified. "Much more difficult than finding coaches is assessing whether each candidate fits your organization," Ennis says. "Your decision should be based on coaching range--training, career history, personal characteristics, adaptability, learning experiences, successes and failures--plus the ability to reflect upon these issues, integrate learning and use that learning to help others." Screen candidates with a sharp focus on the executives who need coaching and make sure the personalities fit. These screenings should have multiple components, including reference checks, phone interviews and face-to-face meetings. Always demand to speak to someone whom the candidate coached previously and ask candid questions about the success in the context of the needs that were presented up front. *Give coaches an organizational crash course. Once you've chosen the executive coach, he/she needs to have an in-depth understanding of both the "coach-ee" and the organization. According to Ennis, topics to cover should include: Company overview HR philosophy Definition of leadership Expectations Measures of success Confidentiality agreements A map of the org structure that outlines who's who Then, allow the coach to have supervised interviews with other employees within the company, including peers and those who report directly to the executive being coached. This will give you and the coach a better understanding of others' perceptions of the executive's leadership style, etc. Ideally, the coach can also sit in on meetings to observe the executive's demeanor. "As partners in executive development strategies, coaches are invaluable resources because they focus their energies to benefit both the individual and the organization," Ennis says. "They often work together to help individuals or departments develop solutions or opportunities for collaboration." Editors Note: This is part one of a two-part series that outlines the process of developing and executing executive coaching programs. Next week, learn how to execute the program and measure its success. PRN CONTACT: Susan Ennis, Pros & Cons: Internal Coaches Versus External Consultants When developing an executive coaching program for an organization, there are two approaches that managers can take: Establish an internal position, or hire an external consultant on an as-needed basis. There are pros and cons to both approaches, so it's a matter of deciding which is the best fit for your organizations' needs. Internal Coach Pros: Familiar with the organization's mission Develops a perspective of both the organization's and the executives' strengths and weakness over time Cons: "It gets difficult [to use internal coaches] for very senior-level executives because of the power differential," says Susan Ennis, president of Susan Ennis & Associates. "The coach has to speak truth to power in a very different manner if they are internal." May be less likely to be critical of senior executives for fear of losing their jobs External Consultant Pros: Can be hired on an as-needed basis Approaches organizations' challenges and opportunities with objectivity Can use a broader range of experiences to shape innovative coaching strategies for different executives' personalities Cons: Expensive Takes time to have a full understanding of both parties' (the organization and the executive) needs Must be trusted to sign confidentiality agreements

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