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“She is a leader who has some rough edges needing refinement.”

“He has done well in his current role, but he isn’t sure how to get to the next level.”

“He doesn’t recognize how demotivating he can be to the organization.”

“We have tried to help her but nothing has worked. I’m not sure what to do with her.”

These are common reasons that companies spend money on executive coaches. If you are a stakeholder who advocates coaching and/or funds it, you want to make sure the money is well spent. Before you try to find a coach for one of your leaders, you may want to take a few moments to ensure the situation is right for coaching. In the right situation, coaching can have a substantial impact. In this type of situation, the organization is committed to helping leaders be successful, and the leaders targeted for coaching see the value of and commit to the coaching process.

It would be great if every situation was cut and dried so you could feel confident money spent on coaching will produce the desired results. Unfortunately, many situations are not cut and dried. Some situations may appear to be right for coaching, but further digging reveals they are not (at least not yet). What do you do? As a stakeholder, you can become better at identifying the right situation by fine-tuning your judgment.

If you are considering getting a coach for leaders in your organization, ask the following questions to help you decide if the situation is right for coaching:

1) Have the leaders been given feedback?

While you may be diligent about giving feedback, don’t assume that everyone else is. When I asked this question of stakeholders at a variety of companies who were considering getting coaches for their leaders, I found 30 percent of the leaders had not received feedback. Of the 70 percent that had received feedback, about half described the feedback as vague or confusing at best.

So, the first step in deciding whether to get leaders a coach is to provide feedback to the leaders. This lets them know that there is an issue or leadership gap. They now have the chance to do something about it.

To be valuable to the leaders, make sure the feedback is clear, timely and actionable. Clear feedback makes it easy to see specifically what the gap is. Timely and actionable feedback enables them to better understand the impact of the gap and figure out how to address it to prevent any further problems. If all of this is done using empathetic candor, the leaders are more likely to be receptive to and act on the feedback.

2) What did the leaders do with the feedback?

Providing effective feedback to the leaders is crucial, but what comes after that is even more important to gauge whether providing a coach makes sense. If the leaders took the feedback to heart and attempted to improve, you know that they are at least willing to do something about their leadership gap. This willingness makes it more likely that a coach would be able to help these people.

If you provide effective feedback to the leaders and it goes in one ear and out the other, think twice about getting them a coach. Leaders that have not acted on feedback in the past are likely to do the same with a coach. Ongoing feedback is a part of the coaching process. For the coaching process to be beneficial, the leaders need to be receptive to and act on feedback. If they are unreceptive and fail to act on feedback, leaders will not build needed proficiency to close leadership gaps.

3) How much ownership do the leaders show?

If you or the leaders are expecting a coach to fix them, consider how realistic this expectation is. The coach can help the leaders, but the coach cannot close their leadership gaps for them (nor can anyone else). The only people who can really close their gaps are the leaders themselves when they take action to do so.

The leaders are accountable for building their own capabilities with the help of resources available to them. The coach is a key resource. When the leaders are accountable, they recognize the work needed to improve their capabilities and are willing to embrace it (or accept what happens if they do not).

The work isn’t just in the coaching sessions. The bulk of the work for the leaders is in between the coaching sessions. The coach can provide guidance and feedback and help the leaders to develop strategies to execute, but the leaders are the ones who need to consistently execute them. The coach can then help the leaders refine approaches that will continue to build their proficiency.

To get a sense of leaders’ ownership of the coaching process, talk to them about accountability and the work they will need to do. Watch for false commitment—leaders talk like they are receptive to coaching but their actions to date suggest otherwise. For example, they make bold statements but have continually failed to take action on the same leadership shortcomings despite having the opportunity and resources to do something about them.

If you think you are seeing false commitment, ask the leaders how the current situation would produce different results from the past when nothing was done. When they understand the points you are making and offer specifics for how they would build the coaching work into their daily routine, they are more likely to benefit from the coaching. If they try to rationalize or defend past behavior, this is a form of resistance. The situation is not right for coaching at this time. So, money spent would not be that fruitful.

4) What is the real purpose of the coaching?

The three prior questions can help you identify the right situation for coaching when the intent is really to help leaders close leadership gaps. Just be careful not to misuse coaching for something that has nothing to do with helping leaders close their gaps. When this is done, it undermines the credibility and effectiveness of the coaching process. The most detrimental form of misuse involves using coaching to cover the organization’s backside. In this situation, the organization has already made the decision to offboard leaders because of performance, fit or other gaps but hires a coach anyway. Basically, the organization uses coaching as a way to show it has done everything it could before it lets these leaders go.

I want to make a distinction here. A coach could be brought in to try to help struggling leaders whose jobs are at risk if they don’t turn things around. This still could be a situation that is right for coaching. The critical factor is whether the decision has already been made to let these leaders go despite the coaching.

In some organizations, I discovered that the decision had been made, but no one had articulated it. While you could argue this is a situation that is right for coaching even though the decision had been made, consider the likelihood of success. In cases like these, the organization knows the leaders are not a fit. The leaders typically are not motivated to embrace the coaching, because they know they are out the door. Consequently, a coach walking into this situation is already starting behind the eight ball.

If you look closely at this situation, it is not really a coaching issue. It is a management issue (i.e., the organization made bad hires or failed to effectively manage these leaders). Using coaching to deal with this issue is not a good use of money.

Executive coaches can be valuable resources to help leaders build proficiency in areas where they have gaps providing the situation is right for coaching. By taking the time to answer the four preceding questions, you will help ensure money spent on coaching is money well spent.

Related article:

Selecting an Executive Coach: The Three Critical Factors


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Business Discussion, Flickr)