Not so Fast – Don’t Hire that Executive Coach (…Yet)

This may sound strange coming from someone who coaches many executives and it’s true that some of my best clients begin by telling me that they want executive coaching for one of their senior leaders. But before I start talking about a contract, my first response to such a request is to ask why. The discussion that follows may lead us to decide that further investigation would be helpful before jumping into that solution.  

Here is an example.  The executive director of a large association contacted me to coach one of his senior vice-presidents. He had spoken to several other coaches who described their methodology and given him a price for their services.  I took a different approach. I told him that before he spent money on coaching, he needed to be clear about the objectives of the engagement and be sure that coaching was appropriate.The executive director told me that he wanted his SVP to “be a better leader.” “What would that look like?” I asked. “He would be more respected, more responsive, people would like working with him.” Sounds reasonable, but I still wasn’t sure what behaviorally that would mean and how it would impact the performance of the department and the organization as a whole.

This led to a discussion about how the department was organized, what the expectations were for its performance – what the deliverables were and how they were measured. What was going on in the department that led the executive director to believe that the SVP was being ineffective? What was he observing in the SVP’s behavior that indicated that the SVP lacked leadership skills? What did he want to see that he wasn’t seeing?

Here’s what I found:

  • The SVP was actually in charge of two departments with different mandates and as a result, different cultures.  Managing one department required a very different style than managing the other.
  • The SVP had a clear vision for his department and how it aligned with the organization’s mission, but he had not clearly communicated it to his direct reports, nor had he clearly articulated the strategy.
  • The SVP’s temperament was mercurial.  People in the organization never knew who they would encounter – the kind caring fun-loving man who would go out of his way to support an employee in distress or the explosive, micro-manager with exceedingly high expectations for performance.
  • Although the scope of responsibility for these two departments had been broadened considerably over the past two years, no additional resources had been allocated – no new personnel, no money for activities mandated by the board strategy.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the SVP had no real interest in coaching. The SVP had agreed to it under pressure from his manager in an attempt to appease him.  The SVP enjoyed working with one division of his department but felt no affinity for the other. Nor did he have much interest in developing one.

So… I told the executive director that I did not recommend coaching.  Instead, I recommended that he and I meet a few times to develop a plan. Some of the outcomes of our discussions included:

  • Changes to the organizational structure.
  • Measures to ensure that the mission and strategy are effectively communicated throughout the organization, especially this SVP’s team.
  • The creation of a performance plan for the SVP that specified expectations for both business outcomes and acceptable managerial behavior.
  • Increased effort on the part of the executive director to lobby the board of directors for additional resources to meet their strategy requirements.

Executive coaching can be enormously effective when the candidate is motivated, the expectations explicit and the situation appropriate. It’s definitely an option to consider, but if you call an executive coach and they are willing to tell you a method, timeline, and fee without a more in-depth discussion, buyer beware or you may end up merely hiring a vendor – not a professional.

If you are interested in how you might apply these concepts and other psychologically informed principles to solving the seemingly intractable problems in your organization, please contact me at or (301) 943-3074.

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