Ethical Conflicts in Coaching

In my last blog, I discussed core values and ethical standards for executive coaching.  In this blog, I will review several ethical conflicts that can arise in a coaching relationship.  I will also offer a way to manage these conflicts to either avoid or minimize their consequences.

A coach sometimes hears of or experiences behavior that is either unethical or illegal.  I once had a coachee who was paid as a professional to provide services to a medical facility.  He was considering the addition of a new service to his client and charging an additional fee.  The ethical problem was that he was already being paid by the medical facility, and the new service could be perceived as an enhancement to services for which he was already being compensated.  The new service enhancement would definitely benefit his client company, but as a service provider, was there a potential conflict?  He did not see this as a conflict of interest, but, as a result of the dialogue with me, his coach, he decided to be transparent with his proposal to his client.  In this case, coaching helped to make the coachee aware that there was another perspective that needed to be considered.  This led to the coachee being more open about his intentions rather than unilaterally changing the compensation arrangement.

One sticky situation I have found myself in is when I am coaching competitors or coaching parties on two different sides of a dispute.  When coaching competitors, I am always up front about who I am coaching.  If it is a problem for either party, I will not engage with the prospective coaching client. If it becomes a problem after both competitors are engaged, I will disengage from the most recent coaching relationship.  In this situation, trust is more important than continuing to coach both competitors. In one case, the cousin of one CEO went into a similar line of business to that of another CEO I was coaching.  The two CEOs knew each other, and when it became apparent that a relative of one CEO could be competing with the other CEO, I decided to end the coaching relationship with the CEO who had the least tenure.

Serving two coachees who are in a dispute is rare, but I have experienced this twice.  My decision was not to coach both individuals but instead to coach only the one who had seniority in my coaching.  I also referred the other coachee to another coach.  Could I have worked with both coachees?  Probably, and I may have been able to help them resolve their differences.  I know of coaches who would not see this as a conflict but rather as an opportunity to shift roles in order to help resolve a problem while maintaining both coachees as clients.  I believe this is an ethical conflict.   A coach is not a mediator or a consultant. In my opinion, mediation or consultation are not services that a coach should undertake. This is a situation where a referral to a qualified professional would be more appropriate.

There are situations where a coachee is having a problem with the sponsor.  If the coach is also coaching the sponsor, this may be an opportunity to explore the relationship and the openness between executives.  I often found myself asking questions that relate to an existing problem without revealing the source of the questions.  In one case, an executive I was coaching felt he was underpaid for his position as COO.  His CEO, whom I was also coaching, was aware of the disparity in compensation but was more concerned about cash flow than the feelings of his COO.   If the COO were to leave the company, it would have been a terrible event for the company. My role as a coach is to make sure the CEO is aware of the consequences of his actions.  In this case, it was a matter of how the CEO handled the compensation issue.

I had been involved in dialogue that had led to the hiring of the COO.  As part of my coaching with the CEO, we had ongoing conversations about the COO’s performance.  It was clear to the CEO that the COO had brought value to the company.  As a result, it was quite natural for me to raise questions about the COO’s retention without revealing specific conversations that I had with him.  After a very frank discussion about retention of the COO, the CEO opened the compensation dialogue with the COO, charting out an equitable compensation agreement.

I have provided several ethical conflicts that can arise from coaching.  It is important for the coach to always be aware of his or her role in these situations and to continue to provide an open and candid relationship while helping the coachee to accomplish meaningful goals.  Trust is clearly the main factor that gives the coach the latitude to engage the coachee in honest, forthright dialogue.

The Ethics of Coaching

The Ethics of Coaching

Most professional organizations have a code of ethics or conduct that guides members of the profession. The American Psychological Association is an excellent example; the APA publishes ethical principles and a code of conduct that guide its members on appropriate and inappropriate behavior. No professional association exists for executive coaches that I am aware of, and I have never seen a document delineating core values or ethical standards related to coaching.  In this blog, I will offer my personal views about the core values and ethics of coaching.  In a future blog, I will identify and discuss specific ethical conflicts that often occur in the coaching process.

I will identify three core values.

In my opinion, the most important core value of executive coaching is trust.  The trust that exists between a coach and a coachee is the basis for effective coaching.  For the coach, trust is demonstrated by maintaining strict confidence, a shared value in being open and honest, and a willingness to give feedback aimed at helping the coachee to succeed.  From the coachee’s perspective, the willingness to be vulnerable and open with the coach is paramount.

From the beginning of a coaching engagement, a coach needs to explain the purpose of coaching and how he or she will engage the coachee in dialogue. The coach also needs to pledge confidentiality and offer examples of what this means. Without confidentiality, there will be no trust.  The confidence that a coachee needs in order to be open and honest with a coach is directly related to the belief that what is said in a coaching session remains confidential between coach and coachee. I am aware that many coachees are sponsored by their CEO or board of directors, and there may be pressure for a coach to reveal specifics about the coachee.  Any pressure to share confidential information needs to be denied.  In my coaching practice, I make it known upfront to both the sponsor and the coachee that I will not share information that is discussed in a coaching relationship. Because this has been explained beforehand, confidentiality has never been a problem.

Maintaining confidentiality in coaching does not mean that sponsors of coaching do not get feedback.  I encourage sponsors to observe and share any changes with the coachee and coach. I will also meet with sponsors to review what I see as changes and seek specific examples from sponsors about their observations.  In other words, by staying focused on tangible results, the coach is able to review progress and provide the sponsor with information without breaching confidentiality

Two related core values that I will address are best discussed early in the coaching engagement.  They are transparency on how the coaching model works, and unwavering support for the coachee in his or her quest for success.

Transparency means there should be no secrets between the coach and coachee.  A coach will ask many questions and create tension in the coachee.  It should be apparent to the coachee as to why he or she feels tension and how the tension relates to progress in coaching.  A coachee also needs to know that probing questions are part of finding what truly matters to the coachee. Otherwise, this type of questioning can lead to suspicion and resistance.  Transparency will also reinforce trust; it promotes the openness and candor that are essential to an effective coaching relationship.

The third core value is unwavering support for the coachee’s quest for success.  The purpose of coaching is to help the coachee to succeed.  There is no other purpose.  A coachee needs to feel his or her coach is not just supportive but is an advocate for change that will help the coachee to be successful.  In my coaching practice, leveraging strengths is central to the coaching process.  This helps make change a positive, reinforcing experience, which, in turn, enhances the positive relationship between the coach and coachee.  Success in altering behavior supports both coach and coachee.

I have only scratched the surface about the core values and ethics of coaching.  If I have offered some clarity, I have accomplished my mission. When the coaching profession publishes ethical standards that guide coaching behavior, everyone involved in coaching–the coach, coachee, and sponsors of coaching–will benefit.

Staying Focused on the Important

Steven Covey made a distinction between the urgent and the important. My experience has been that most executives pay too much attention to the issue of the day and lose focus on what is most important to their company’s success. This is an easy trap to fall into. It is hard for top executives to ignore the many distractions that invade their agenda. As a coach, I feel one of my most important roles is to help keep my coachees focused on the important, often delegating the urgent demands to others on the executive team.

Rather than one case, I offer several brief cases to illustrate how a coach can keep coachees focused on the important. The areas selected are building a strong executive team, building company capacity and infrastructure, and innovation. They were chosen because they offer a variety of important goals and approaches in maintaining focus. Each will demonstrate the role a coach can play to help executives avoid being derailed by distractions while staying focused on the most important goals of the company.

Building a Strong Executive Team

Tom is the president of a fast-growing company, and, yet, he has his fingers in every decision being made by his executive team. His CEO was concerned and asked his coach to work with Tom to help him create an “A-Team” of highly competent and motivated executives. It did not take long for his coach to realize that Tom was risk averse. While Tom liked the idea of delegating, he was fearful that his team members would fail to make the right decisions. One by one, his coach reviewed the balance sheet for each executive team member. There were two executives who were under-producing, and the conversation quickly turned to the decision to tolerate (unacceptable), develop (using coaching and training when appropriate), or terminate them. Tom’s coach helped him to focus on finding a mentor for one executive who was talented but lacked experience for the role envisioned for him. The other executive who was under-performing had his role changed to bring his skills in closer alignment with performance expectations. Other changes were made to elevate one executive to the A-Team and two executives from the A-Team to the level that reported to the top executive team. The result was a streamlined, productive A-Team Tom could trust and delegate to.

Building Company Capacity for Growth

Peter is the owner and CEO of a growing medical products company. It was clear that the company had outgrown several of its managers and executives. Problems were occurring in quality control, chemistry, and operations. The plant was also out on space for both office and operations. Confronted by his coach on how Peter would lead his company through these challenges, the decision was to invest in infrastructure to meet anticipated sales. In the past, the strategy was to build capacity only when sales demanded it. As the leader of a larger company with faster growth and more demanding customers, Peter knew he needed to change. His concern was spending in advance of sales and the disquieting feeling of leveraging the company financially. Coaching helped Peter to focus on his goal of growth and keeping customers happy. He was able to overcome his short-term concerns about the increased cost of overhead and falling profits for the longer term goal of growing the company. As a result, he has a new building, a stronger executive team that can handle day-to-day challenges, higher quality products, and the ability to meet customer demand. Sales have continued to grow, and the company is able to successfully manage its growth.


Most executives view innovation as new product development or improvements to operational processes. Bill is the CEO of a service company with over 250 employees. He was expressing concern about the spiraling costs for health care. Insurance rates were growing annually and becoming a higher percentage of overall operating expenses. He also viewed his workforce as older and less healthy than average. He needed to get a handle on containing these costs. One of the roles of a coach is to expose coachees to information that can enlighten them. In this case, the coach brought in a speaker to a Vistage group that Bill was a member of. The speaker’s talk was about containing medical costs. The speaker was rich in ideas. Bill and his coach discussed these ideas, and, as a result, Bill decided to stop complaining about costs and start creating an innovative program to contain them. With the help of a consulting group, Bill’s company was able to offer many innovative programs, including a lunch and learn program on exercise and nutrition, smoking cessation clinics, a consumer-driven health plan combined with a high-deductible health care savings account option as an alternative to traditional health insurance, support for gym membership, and bonuses to members of the high-deductible health care savings plan for meeting health goals. The results were outstanding. Not only was the company able to contain health care costs, but most of its employees spent less for out-of-pocket health care expenses. The work force was much healthier, with less absenteeism. Although it was an intuitive assumption, Bill believed employees were more productive. The coach’s role here was to refocus Bill from complaining about costs and possibly cutting company contributions to health insurance toward instituting innovative health and insurance programs to contain or reduce health care expenses. This also led to a healthier and improved work force.

The message here should be clear. Executive coaches should play a strong role in keeping top executives focused on what is important to the overall success of their company. Keeping executives from being distracted by events that continually occur in a normal business environment will serve their companies’ most important goals and aspirations.

Case Study: A Magic Moment in Coaching

Most of the case studies I have presented have occurred in the past.  I rarely describe a current case because the results of coaching may not be clear.  As I have said many times, coaching is a developmental process, and it can take several sessions before positive outcomes are realized.  That being said, I decided to describe a current case because it has provided one of those magical moments that broke through a major barrier with the coachee.

Rick is the owner of a small but growing manufacturing company.  I have had a long-term coaching relationship with Rick.  He was approaching his late 50s and was at the point in his career when he needed to plan for succession of both leadership and ownership.  His plan was to transfer ownership to his three sons.  He was also hopeful that his sons would step into leadership roles. I was asked to coach each son and two other senior executives to prepare all five of them for leadership succession.

Kenny is Rick’s middle son.  His skills were in the manufacturing floor, where he was familiar with each piece of equipment. His job was to calibrate each machine so that it would yield the maximum output.  Kenny was very proud of his ability to improve productivity.  There was a problem, however.  Once the machines were calibrated, the machine operators often changed the settings that Kenny established.  With 40 machines, Kenny was not able to help out when a problem popped up and the operators went back to their old ways of adjusting the machines and thereby eliminating his improvements.

Before I get into the details of Kenny’s coaching, I need to describe how we got started.  I had asked Kenny to take three assessments and explained how they would be used to create his balance sheet of assets and liabilities.  He seemed okay with this.  The assessments were all online so he could take them at his leisure.  Weeks went by, and he had not completed the assessments.  Finally, after some prodding from me and, I think, his father, Kenny completed two assessments.  We were ready to start coaching.

In the first session, we established a few short-term goals for Kenny in his current role as machine calibration expert. Gaps were recognized between his desired results and the current problems operators were experiencing in maintaining his changes.  He appeared motivated to work on the gap. The first two sessions were also devoted to creating a balance sheet for Kenny.  It became clear in these initial sessions that Kenny had some serious liabilities in communicating and follow-through. While he was able to improve each machine’s functioning, he was not able to train the operator or supervisors to maintain the changes he had made.  I had hinted that the balance sheet could give Kenny some clues to help him close the gap and reach his goal. After the second session, Kenny had agreed to add his personal assessment to those that were revealed from the formal assessments and present it at our next coaching session.

At the next session, Kenny explained that he could not access his balance sheet because his computer had frozen.  He also had not taken the Strength Finder assessment as requested.  In the following session, he still did not present his balance sheet. This time, he explained he had the balance sheet on a thumb drive in his office and someone borrowed it without letting him know. He had completed the Strength Finder but could not access it on his computer.  Finally, together, we were able to access the Strength Finder results.

The reason I went into detail on Kenny’s excuses and lack of preparation is to point out his passive resistance to coaching.  While he seemed cooperative and talked freely about his work, his successes, and his failures, he came to each session unprepared.  This is generally not a good sign in a coaching relationship. We discussed his lack of preparation, and he acknowledged that he was poorly organized.  This confirmed one of his assessments findings and gave us some insight into one of his liabilities.

When we looked at the Strength Finder’s top five strengths, there, staring at us was the answer to the mystery of why Kenny was struggling in maintaining the machine changes he had made.  Kenny was an achiever and maximizer. He was competitive and self-assured. He had no problem claiming the importance and value of what he was doing on his job.  He blamed others for not maintaining his changes, acknowledging that he had struggled at keeping up with all the demands for his time.

What was unusual and unexpected was one of the strengths, ideation.  In my experience, this is not one of the strengths found in people doing his type of work.  For those not familiar with the concept of ideation, it refers to a fascination with ideas or concepts, and creating a new way of thinking. When asked to explain this strength, Kenny lit up with excitement.  He wanted me to go with him on the manufacturing floor to see an invention he had created to save time and money in machining parts. I followed him to the floor, where he showed me his invention.  I asked how much time and money this invention would save the company.  He was not sure, but I could see he was mentally working on the answer. He then told me that this could save as much as $100,000 per machine per year.

This took me by surprise. We had been working on how he was going to close the gap in maintaining the work he had done on each machine, while it never even occurred to either of us that his real passion was an invention he had created to speed up the manufacturing process while greatly reducing waste.  The cost savings was a game-changer.

So much of what I have described in my book and blogs offered a process for change.  In Kenny’s case, the gap between his stated desired goal and his current performance was clear; he just did not have the assets to make it happen. While still a work in progress, it appears that Kenny could use a partner with follow-up assets that compliment his skill in calibrating machines.  But his real contribution may be in creating machine processes that could save millions of dollars for his company.  The savings could give his company a competitive edge in gaining work.  In a future blog, I hope to report more on Kenny and how coaching influenced his contributions to his company.

Coaching Communication

The technical competencies, or “nuts and bolts,” of business are important for an executive coach to understand. However, in order for a coach to be successful, he or she must also possess effective communication skills. A coach must be a competent communicator at all levels: interpersonally, within a group, and organizationally. Specific communication skills that are necessary for any coach include active listening, effective questioning, the ability to probe in a caring way, clear and simple language, reframing, and giving and receiving feedback. In the remainder of this blog, I will elaborate on how each of these skills enhances the coaching relationship.

One of the central roles of an executive coach is to engage the coachee in pursuit of relevant outcomes, whether they are behavioral, performance-based, or both. Through deft questioning, the coach will be able to identify the gap between a coachee’s goals and his or her current status with respect to these outcomes or goals. This gap provides the tension that, if sufficient, will motivate the coachee to change existing behaviors and adopt new behaviors that move him or her closer to desired goals.

How does the coach know what questions to ask? There are several sources of information available, including assessments, 360-degree feedback, and interviews with executives who know the coachee. I believe one of the most meaningful sources of information about the coachee comes from the coach’s active listening and observational skills. By being in the moment and paying careful attention to the coachee, the coach can pick up the clues that help in framing questions that are designed to elicit constructive tension for the coachee. Continued probing and active listening will help to establish an even deeper understanding of the coachee. Once the tension is identified, the coach can shift attention to guiding the coachee on behaviors that will lead to lasting change and goal attainment.

While confronting a coachee is important, the coach needs to demonstrate trust and caring. Rapport between the coach and coachee is critical. No one likes to be confronted by people who don’t care about them. The term “carefrontational” is often used by executive coaches to emphasize the importance of the delicate situation that exists when the coach must demonstrate care and understanding while asking probing questions of the coachee. Being carefrontational will help the coach stay focused on problem-solving while minimizing defensive behavior by the coachee.

A coach must remember that he or she is a facilitator whose role is to keep the coachee working toward the goal and not getting bogged down by distractions or diversions. The coaching model requires a coach to probe deeply and confront the coachee. The coach must have a keen awareness of his or her role, the goals for the coachee, and the situational context affecting coaching. The coach must have a grasp of the communication process and how he or she communicates with the coachee. Self-awareness and the ability to relate interpersonally with others will be a major factor in a successful coaching relationship.

An important skill for a coach is the ability to frame questions that lead to favorable results. Effective questions often begin with the words or phrases such as what, how, and tell me more about that. These questions move the dialogue toward clarity and problem-solving. Effective questions focus on eliciting answers around what is already working for the coachee, clarifying objectives, and agreeing on next steps. Effective questions are energizing and supportive; they create a clear target or goal and turn coercion into collaboration. Effective questions move people forward and provide them with the sense of how they can create their own results. The coach who asks effective questions is facilitating a constructive conversation that will lead to insight and goal accomplishment.

How a coach phrases questions can also have a negative impact. Some questions, such as those beginning with the word why can elicit excuses that keep the coachee from accepting full responsibility for actions or events. Questions beginning with when can lead to the coachee delaying action or putting things off if they are not related to specific goals. And questions beginning with who have a tendency to lead to blaming others or scapegoating and should be avoided.

Most coachees want clear, concrete feedback, avoiding generalizations, clichés, and abstractions. The more a coachee can offer specific examples of situations they have experienced, the more concrete and understandable the self-reflection will be. Using past experience allows both visual and experiential evidence to help define the clarity of feedback to the coachee. It also sets up an opportunity for the coachee to revisit the experience and test how alternative behaviors might have brought about a different, improved result.

In this blog, I have tried to underscore the importance of communication in coaching. Communication is not just what words are used or even how they are interpreted. There are many subtleties in communicating trust, caring, and how to use the information given by the coachee to frame questions while probing for a deeper understanding about the coachee. Change is dependent on a strong relationship between coach and coachee. Communication is the process that facilitates this relationship.

Coaching Entrepreneurial Growth and Change

A great deal of attention has been paid to the role of entrepreneurial companies as engines of economic growth.  Studies have shown that most of the job growth in the US is from entrepreneurial companies.  Studies have also shown that most small entrepreneurial companies fail to grow beyond the original owner and a handful of employees.  In order for entrepreneurs to grow their company, they must be willing to change how they operate their businesses.  Change creates a challenge for most entrepreneurs because they tend to cling to the strategy that helped them launch their company.  Many of these entrepreneurs are happy to create a job for themselves or just maintain their lifestyle.  The following case illustrates how coaching can help a small, lifestyle business transform itself into a growth company. The case will include the obstacles, frustrations, and breakthroughs leading to change.

Growth and Change in an Entrepreneurial Company

Sean has been in a service business for 20 years.  After some early success, his sales have remained flat for the last several years.  During this time, he experienced a great deal of turnover in staff.  Morale was poor, with most employees believing that Sean was only interested in making money to support his affluent lifestyle.  Although the company has a good reputation with customers for its expertise and service, most of its success is due to the owner’s wearing multiple hats and filling in many roles. Sean’s major asset in addition to being an expert in his field is his ability to network with potential customers. He is an extrovert and very likeable.  He shows a strong interest in others, which opens up many client relationships. He has one key executive who handles a portfolio of customers.  The remainder of employees are assigned to customers for projects that the owner or key executive sold.

Sean has had a six-year coaching experience that initially helped him double his revenues.  Two issues still concerned him: he was afraid of losing his key executive who was responsible for about half of the company’s sales, and he was also frustrated with the turnover of staff that quit and went to work for customers or competitors, or opened their own business in competition with his company.  While his company was profitable, he realized his business was not sustainable beyond him and his key executive.  Without them, the company had limited financial value. 

The first challenge was to make sure his key executive was committed to staying with the company. Coaching sessions identified several options, and a deal for stock ownership and a strong bonus program were worked out.  It was hoped that the key executive would also become the COO and run the day-to-day company affairs.  This was not to be.  While very good at sales and client relationships, his key executive had little interest in assuming a company leadership role.

Poor morale and turnover continued. Coaching the owner to change his management style or bringing in a COO did not materialize as options.  This was one of those times when a coach needed to confront the coachee with the “brutal facts.” Either Sean makes major changes in his business or he would not be able to build any equity or sustainable growth. With Sean choosing to grow his company, his coach encouraged Sean to consider a consultant who would perform an organizational audit and help Sean restructure his company for growth.  After weeks of hesitation, Sean invited the consultant to conduct the audit and make recommendations for change.  His coach followed the consulting relationship closely, interacting with the consultant and Sean.  After several months, a plan was proposed, and Sean committed to it.  The plan called for reorganizing the company into three divisions, changing roles and responsibilities for employees, stronger communication and cooperation between employees, and greater accountability for everyone in the company.  The consultant was retained to help implement these changes. 

It is too early to tell whether Sean will stay committed to the recommended changes.  He will need to take a leadership role in implementing the changes.  He is highly motivated to change, and his coaching sessions help him to stay focused with the company transition.

Entrepreneurs are very good at starting a business but not always good at growing the business. Beyond the creativity and spurt of energy to launch a company, there is a barrier to growth.  As Marshall Goldsmith, a leader in executive coaching, has stated in the title of his recently published book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, a different set of skills is required to grow a company.  These skills include leadership, an accountability culture, continual monitoring of the organizational culture, systems and procedures, and, in many cases, a change in strategy and organizational design.  These are skills that entrepreneurs often lack, and outside help may be needed to create these changes.  Realizing this, a coach can facilitate growth and change by challenging the entrepreneur to decide on whether he or she is willing to change or be at risk of failing to survive beyond the entrepreneur’s ownership. Understanding this dilemma is paramount to how the coach can approach the entrepreneur and help with the changes needed for growth and sustainability of the company. This case also illustrates how the role of the coach differs from the role of a consultant.




Coaching Growth and Change

At its core, executive coaching is about growth and change.  Coaches are continuously challenging their coachees to change behavior in order to accomplish meaningful goals. Coachees who are able to engage in new behaviors are growing their skills and assets. The executive coaching process is evolutionary, and both parties must be prepared to deal with continual change for growth to occur.  It may sound like a cliché, but without change, there is no growth. And without growth, there is no change.

I decided to offer two cases to illustrate different approaches to growth and change. In this blog, I will present a case that deals with an employee promoted to a management position.  Being promoted posed several challenges for the coachee, which are discussed below.  In my next blog, I will present a second case that deals with an entrepreneur who had great difficulty in growing his company. His challenges were not only in changing himself but other team players as well.

The Challenges of Promotion

Mike was a successful employee in an asset recovery company. Recognizing his leadership potential, his CEO promoted him as head of operations. Mike was ambitious and accepted the promotion without full consideration of the challenges that were in store for him.

His first challenge was to develop his leadership style.  Most of his leadership experience came from role models he experienced at work, from coaches on teams he had played on in his youth and in high school, and from parenting, both as a son and his experience with his own children.  His style was controlling.  He led by directing people on what they needed to do. He explained in great detail how his employees were to accomplish goals.  He readily expressed his disappointment when goals were not met.  This led to many complaints about his leadership style.  He was particularly bothered when the complaints came from former friends who felt Mike was micromanaging and condescending.  Recognizing that Mike needed some help, his CEO hired a coach to work with him. 

It did not take long to uncover several major challenges affecting Mike’s leadership. He struggled with the transition from being a peer to one of being a “boss.”  He did not like the term boss, but he realized that this is how others perceived him in his new role.  Old friendships were strained, and Mike was grieving this loss. He knew he needed to change if he was to be effective in his new leadership role. He was highly motivated to earn the respect of the workers he was supervising. 

In coaching sessions, several models of leadership were discussed.  By examining his balance sheet, Mike was able to identify several assets that would help him forge an effective leadership style.  For example, using his approachability and achievement assets, he was able to focus on achieving stronger relationships.  At his monthly coaching sessions, Mike discussed his leadership experiences.  He analyzed these experiences, reflecting on the gap between his desired leadership approach and how he actually behaved.  It did not take long for Mike to have success both in his team’s productivity and in how others perceived his leadership.  Mike readily acknowledged these changes, which reinforced his new approach and reduced the tensions he had experienced.  His CEO also recognized Mike’s growth as a leader. He expanded Mike’s role by taking him on sales trips to meet customers and including him in top-level strategy meetings.  Mike is now, for all practical purposes, the COO of the company. 

Promotions often create challenges. Newly promoted executives are thrust into leadership roles that they have never experienced.  In Mike’s case, he needed to change peer relationships while coping with the loss of old friendships. Mike grieved these losses.  Coaching helped him manage the transition from a peer to a leader.  By processing his feelings, he soon realized that his own growth was tied to his ability to manage his feelings and to alter his leadership approach.  Mike strongly felt the tension of his failed attempts to lead. He embraced the need to change his leadership style. He became a better listener and showed appreciation for the effort and accomplishments of his employees. His old friends soon adjusted to his changed style that was both supportive and open to feedback.  Mike’s growth as a leader prepared him for a larger role in the company. 



Coaching Operational Excellence

In addition to coaching leadership and strategy, which were discussed in my previous two blogs, an executive coach needs to understand operations, or how organizations convert human, financial, and material resources into finished products and services. Operations include functional areas such as human resources, technology, manufacturing, and organizational design.

Human resources refers to the recruiting, hiring, training, and retention of the best employees. It also includes compensation, employee relations, and organizational development. Pretty much everything that has to do with people defines the role of human resource management.

A coach must also have an understanding of the technology of operations, including the processes used to produce products and services. While it is not be necessary for a coach to be an expert in technology, it helps to have familiarity with business systems, information technology, and different manufacturing technologies. He or she must also be familiar with product innovation, manufacturing and its support functions, quality control, and project management.

Understanding methodologies of operational efficiency will help coaches when dealing with the challenges of costs and on-time delivery of products and services. This knowledge is vital for the coach if she or he is to be able to help the coachee’s organization remain competitive and cost effective.

Finally, knowledge about the relationship between organizational design and organizational performance will help the coach to guide executives in developing the most effective ways of structuring their organizations. The following case demonstrates the role of an executive coach in helping a CEO to organize his company operations in pursuit of a competitive edge.

Case Study: Operational Effectiveness through Coaching

Mark is an engineer who took over a garage-based business from his father and turned it into a thriving manufacturing company with 270 employees and two state-of-the-art factories.  Marks major customers are manufacturers and suppliers of automotive vehicles.  His success was mostly from patented products that his company designed and developed in-house. Anticipating intense competition from China once his patents expired, Mark was concerned about his costs and his ability to retain business.  At the same time, customers wanted Marks company to constantly cut its costs, making it difficult to fund innovation and create the next generation of products.  Innovation also requires a special environment without the pressures of deadlines and production schedules.


Realizing his future lay in both innovation and cost efficiencies, Mark needed an organizational structure to solve the paradox between the needs for innovation and the efficiencies of low-cost manufacturing.  Many coaching sessions were spent exploring options about how to do this.  Facing this paradox head on, Mark, with guidance of his coach, came up with a brilliant plan: he created a task force that he called his Pioneer Team.  This group would have its own budget and report directly to Mark. He knew he had to protect their independence. Their major goal was to develop new products and improve existing ones.  He put his most innovative people on this team.  A second, smaller team was charged with taking the Pioneer Team designs and creating models and prototypes of its designs. They were also charged with testing these designs using rigorous quality and endurance standards.  The remaining operations people were charged with continuing to concentrate on low-cost manufacturing. Their role was to create efficiencies, cut waste, strip unnecessary costs from the operations, and make sure that deliveries met customer expectations. 


By separating these three functions, Marks company was able to focus on three different processes and protect each from the incompatibilities of the others.  He was able to produce low-cost products, test, and innovate. In most organizations, these goals get blended together, losing focus on the unique requirements of each and often failing to do any one of them well.  In Marks plant operation, his team was able to cut costs in manufacturing processes and materials without sacrificing quality.  They also vertically integrated their operation through building a new plant that enabled them to control supplier costs, quality, and on-time delivery. All this was accomplished through an organizational design that protected otherwise incompatible functions from interfering with each other.  Marks company continues to grow in the highly competitive marketplace of vehicle manufacturing. 


The role of coaching in Mark’s case was to help him appreciate how the relationship between organizational design and predictable outcomes affected his company’s ability to meet seemingly incompatible goals.  The coach’s understanding of organizational design and its effect on operations helped Mark to solve a problem that otherwise could have threatened his business.

Coaching Strategy

A major role for top executives is to be a strategic thinker. In order for a coach to properly add value to these executives, he or she must understand various levels of strategy, including how to identify and leverage personal and organizational assets, and create and sustain a competitive advantage. In other words, the coach needs to be a competent strategic thinker, paralleling what is expected from the executive being coached.

It is important for a coach to understand both the strategic side of business and the tactical, management side of business because any strategy is useless without the ability to execute it. While it is important for the coach to consider the coachee’s organization from both a high level and the ground level, it is also the coach’s responsibility to ensure that the executive remains focused on strategy while delegating specific activities to the appropriate parties who will be able to execute them. The case below illustrates how coaching can help a coachee to think strategically in growing his or her company.

Case Study:  Coaching Strategic Thinking

Peter is the consummate entrepreneurial executive.  Trained as an accountant, he began his early career at a top national accounting firm working in the health care industry.  After a few years, he was recruited by a hospital as its CEO, where he established a reputation as a very capable executive.  In his next position, he navigated a regional hospital through a highly political and turbulent environment.  During this time, he earned an MBA.  In all of his work experiences, Peter developed skills in networking, negotiating, and strategic thinking.  He saw the big picture in health care, and he knew where market niches existed and how to access them.  His networking ability allowed him to identify persons who could help him enter into relationships to support niche opportunities. These were Peters assets, but he also had liabilities.

One liability was his lack of attention to detail. So, when he took a position in a private for-profit health care company, he hired his former number-two person as COO of this company.  The COO was strong on detail and in running the operations of the company. By managing this liability, Peter was then able to focus on a strategy to guide and grow his company. His coach helped Peter to understand and leverage his assets. He had some initial success in leveraging his relationships to obtain new customers.  He also developed new products with existing customers who were looking for ways to differentiate themselves from competitors.  But Peter struggled to get traction with larger national customers who questioned his companys size and ability.  This frustrated Peter. He presented this challenge to his coach, and they discussed how to gain visibility and credibility with larger companies. Again, the power of asking probing questions led to a strategy that leveraged Peters assets. He had already formed a relationship with the CEO of a company that did business with larger customers. He approached this company with a proposal that they form a strategic alliance, with Peters company offering them products and services they did not currently have. A deal was struck and, over the next several months, Peters company was able to sign contracts with several larger companies.

Peter had another asset. He had a deep understanding of his industry and its players.  His coach encouraged Peter to identify niche opportunities for his company.  One of these opportunities had the potential of creating a major breakthrough in patient care.  He was able put a strategic plan together, raising the capital needed to launch the service on a national scale. His company had grown from a small, regional player to a much larger company with national customers.

The primary role of Peter’s coach was to keep him focused on his strategic objectives and how to achieve them. Understanding Peter’s balance sheet, his coach continually probed about opportunities, questioned how they fit his growth plans, and helped Peter become aware of how to leverage his assets in the pursuit of strategic opportunities.  This enabled his company to grow its markets and absorb this growth under the very capable executive in charge of operations.  The coach’s knowledge about strategy played an important role in helping Peter grow his company.

Coaching Leadership

In a previous blog, I made the case for why executive coaches need to understand business.  In the next several blogs, I will offer specific areas of business that executive coaches need to be skilled in.  Coaches also need to understand enough about these areas to ask appropriate questions that will guide executives toward action, and change when needed. I will start with leadership. 

Leadership involves the capacity for vision, team development, group dynamics, delegation, and the ability to develop, mentor, and motivate individuals and teams.  Executive coaches must have strong leadership skills because their primary job is to develop these skills in their coachees.  The following case will illustrate this point.

Leadership Case:  An Introvert Learns to Lead

Joe was the general manager of a large distribution division of a publicly held corporation.  He was not the stereotypical leader—bold, assertive, and decisive.  Instead, Joe was an introvert, quiet and slow at making decisions. He had many strengths, including strategic thinking, expert knowledge of distribution, trustworthiness, and responsibility.  Joe inherited a politically charged executive team when he arrived at his division.  His predecessor regularly played executives against each other and made separate deals with each of them.  Joe knew he needed to take action, but his leadership liabilities soon became apparent. He was not sure which way to turn. 

Much of Joe’s coaching was focused on identifying and managing his assets and liabilities. Once his balance sheet was established, Joe decided to rebuild his team with people who, first, were competent in their area of responsibility and, secondly, complemented his liabilities with their own strengths. For example, Joe’s HR director was so aligned with the previous GM that no one else on the executive team found him credible. Furthermore, the HR director was not doing the job Joe wanted him to do.

Because Joe had a hard time firing people, his coach helped him to set up a performance feedback program to use in addressing the deficiencies of his HR director.  This program clearly identified deliverables and deadlines. Anticipating that the HR director may not meet his performance goals, Joe’s coach helped him to craft a response by asking questions that dug deeper into the reasons for poor performance.  Joe asked his HR director, “What is keeping you from meeting your objectives?”  After several missed deadlines the director resigned, stating he felt unable to perform as expected. One by one, with the help of his coach, Joe built his own team, each time upgrading its skill level and strengths. Joe was able to use the balance sheet approach in evaluating his team members and coached them on how to leverage their own strengths while managing their liabilities. 

In this case, Joe was able to overcome his reluctance to fire a team member by benchmarking deliverables and setting a timetable for completion.  Not being able to meet these expectations, team members chose to resign rather than be fired.  Joe learned to ask good questions that made clear what constituted success and failure for his team members.  He was able to replace his dysfunctional team with highly functioning executives.

Joe’s division had tremendous success, much of it attributable to the skill he demonstrated in building his team. The team members turned out to be his disciples, cascading organizational goals down to the workers on the floor.  Joe learned that he could lead with a supportive team that complemented his leadership style. As a result of Joe’s success in his division, he was promoted to run worldwide distribution for his company at their home office. 

Every leader has a balance sheet of assets and liabilities.  The secret to effective leadership is not a stereotypical formula of leadership attributes but the ability to leverage assets while managing liabilities in pursuit of organizational goals.  Being an introvert does not disqualify a leader; it merely changes the way he or she leads. If coaches are to help executives to master the leadership process, they must first understand how the leadership process works.