Executive coaching: distinguishing acceptable from exceptional

“The opportunities for executive coaches to substantially impact the business world are great. However, the effectiveness of executive coaching needs to be clearly and scientifically demonstrated for us to achieve these outcomes.” – The Korn/Ferry Institute (2009)

Coaching is fast becoming a core part of our working worlds and rightly so. The power of coaching to support reflection, constructive challenge and critical thinking has long been recognised, with the emphasis on individuals finding their own solutions and ways forward being particularly effective. In Michael Pain’s ‘Coaching The CEO’ article last year, he cites the importance of CEOs having time to reflect, process and think ahead and indeed top business leaders around the world are known for their belief and investment in coaching (including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates & Eric Schmidt to name a few). Over the last few years in particular, coaching has also started to become a hallmark of many top quality development programmes. But as with most things, as popularity increases so too do the offers of ‘quality’ coaching expertise.

Interestingly, although coaching is a growing industry and highly impactive on the working world (and in some cases personal lives too), it is still a largely unregulated profession. It is therefore vital that as leaders, we are able to differentiate between basic knowledge/interest and deeply developed expertise and really get to grips with what a high quality, truly effective coaching offer looks like. In order for coaching to retain its impact and for the profession to maintain integrity, commissioners must be able to sift out the ‘so-so’ and opt only for the exceptional. We must make the judgement ourselves to ensure that only those who have the right skills and experience are able to undertake the important role of a professional coach. Sadly, not all coaching out there meets the grade we would expect.

So as a CEO looking to invest in coaching for yourself and/or your organisation, how do you sort the wheat from the chaff in a world where coaching is everywhere? Coaching can be a significant investment – particularly in terms of time and resources – so as CEOs you need to feel assured it will bring a return on that investment. As the person leading and quality assuring Forum Strategy’s executive coaching provision – and as an ILM qualified and experienced coach myself – I offer some look-fors to guide you as CEOs accessing (or thinking about accessing) coaching and / or supporting your staff to do so too. 

Coaching look fors:

  • Training – What sort of training has your coach completed? It is important to know whether they have accessed development that grounds their approach in evidence based methodology. The word training is purposefully used as this is not just about formal qualifications (although these do help to gauge training level and it’s depth). Completing specific coaching training will ensure your coach develops the skills and approach needed to coach effectively but this aspect in isolation is often not enough to secure quality, it needs to go hand in glove with the level of experience and practice an individual has also had.
  • Experience – how experienced is your coach? This is not to say those with a lower level of experience would not make great coaches, but the question here is really about what level of experience is necessary for the person being coached? For CEOs and executive leaders, we generally find that the coach needs to have significant experience working with people at this level because the challenges presented within sessions are often unique to executive roles. This also links to a second point around the two types of experience we have to consider – experience as a coach and experience in the role the coachee is in. The former is arguably the most important aspect as it relates to confidence and knowledge of how to help someone navigate executive level issues. The latter is also important but not always essential (unless some mentoring might be required) as the coach should not need deep specific role level knowledge if they are guiding rather than advising. Again, the right mix of experience and background will be determined by what coachees are looking to achieve from their sessions.
  • Supervision – does your coach access regular supervision sessions?  Supervision is a really important element of coaching practice. Those who coach inevitably need a safe space to reflect on their own practice and experiences with someone qualified to guide it in the right direction. Regular supervision is very good practice to look for in the coaching profession as it demonstrates a commitment on the coach’s part to continual learning and development.
  • Quality assurance – how is the coaching quality assured by the company you are accessing it through? How are issues flagged and resolved if they occur and how is feedback collected and learned from? Making sure that there is a clear process for checking the quality of the coaching at regular intervals is important. Without it, we risk coaching relationships being less effective or as positive as they could be. By quality checking, we seize every opportunity to ensure that all parties are satisfied, and where they are not, find a way to get things back on track, including possibly sourcing a different coach.
  • Chemistry – how does your coach establish trust, honesty and rapport with their coachee from the start? In coaching terms, we call this chemistry building. An effective coaching relationship must have good chemistry for it to be a positive, productive experience. How your coach plans to build this in at the start of the sessions, and their plans for addressing it should the chemistry not right, says a lot about the coach’s experience and understanding of the process.
  • Objectivity – can your coach provide an agenda/politics free environment? For a coaching relationship to be truly successful, the person being coached must feel able to be entirely honest and open about their challenges. External coaches can pretty much always provide this for people as they don’t have personal ties to the organisation. When setting up internal coaching programmes, this element in particular needs to be really carefully scrutinized, particularly for one to one coaching programmes (rather than seeking to establish wider coaching cultures). Often great success can be achieved through a combination of internal coaching programmes (to establish an organisation wide commitment and culture) with external coaching for individuals (so they can feel safe in working through potential challenges they wouldn’t want sharing within the organisation).
  • Value for money – for the money you invest it’s important to consider, what does this actually cover? Inevitably (as with any profession), you will need to invest money to secure expertise in coaching but when running any procurement exercise, a balance needs to be struck between achieving a fair price and securing a quality service. To deliver a high quality coaching offer, it does require a significant, purposeful investment and therefore the pricing will likely reflect some of this – as John Ruskin famously said “Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort” So it is always worth considering how much the pricing might provide an indicator of how much time can be out to quality assurance and delivery.

At Forum, we work hard to ensure we build all of these elements into the executive coaching we provide to CEOs and Education Executives. Our clients should be assured of the quality they are accessing and we are fully committed to ensuring they only access the best coaches in the industry. 

By providing some guidance around what to look for when sourcing a quality coaching offer, we aim to support you as CEOs and Trust leaders to be able to find the best fit for you and your organisations. We want you to judge our offer alongside others and be well equipped to ensure that any investment you make in coaching offers the return you and your Boards need. Access to coaches is the easy part in such a growing market, but ensuring you find the right fit and those who offer you a quality, professional service, is more complex. An effective, sustainable approach to coaching will however, make quality paramount and in doing so, we each ensure the coaching profession retains a strong, credible reputation. 

Key takeaways for CEOs:

  • Checking the quality of the coaching you invest in is vital – there are ways to do this before committing to coaching contracts. Beware of those who over promise and under deliver!
  • The balance between quality and cost needs careful consideration – for the elements of exceptional coaching to be incorporated, it requires a resource investment; therefore a procurement exercise based on monetary value alone, may not get you what you need longer term
  • Set clear goals and objectives for the coaching – be really clear on what you (and/or your team) and your Board expect to achieve 
  • Make sure a quality assurance approach is built in throughout the coaching process from start to finish – this will be the only way you’ll spot whether the coach/coachee relationship is working effectively and your only opportunity to address any issues should any arise
  • Opt for excellence not acceptable – with coaching it makes a huge difference to the outcomes you’ll see and it ensures we retain integrity across the profession

To find out more about Forum Strategy’s Executive Coaching, you can visit our dedicated webpage here.

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