Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart

A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with Their Challenges
by Mary Beth O'Neill

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000




Executive coaches have the privilege of working with the men and women who lead and influence the direction of today's organizations. With this privilege comes a responsibility to partner with leaders in significant ways in order to contribute to successful change efforts. The work of executive coaches deserves its own literature in the field.

Unlike coaching methodologies that use techniques to leverage change in the client, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart focuses on the need for coaches to use their own presence with the client. Executive coaching is not about imposing skill training onto leaders. Fundamentally, it is about learning to be with leaders as they navigate through their world, finding key moments when they are most open to learning.

Now let me be clear about being, learning, and doing. I do not mean that business outcomes should be ignored. There must be business results tied to coaching executives, and coaches should be business partners with leaders (Chapter Five). That can include helping develop necessary skills. But the key difference in a change effort occurs when leaders face their own challenges in pulling off the business results, and see how they get in their own way. In those pivotal moments, how a coach manages herself in the relationship to an executive facing those challenges can make the critical difference in the coaching outcome, and therefore, the business outcome.



There are four essential ingredients of executive coaching. The first is having a results- orientation to a leader's issue. To lose sight of outcomes is to waste the time, money, and energy of the leader. The second ingredient is partnership. The coach becomes a partner in the executive's journey toward greater competence and effectiveness. The third ingredient is the ability to engage the executive in the specific leadership challenges he* faces. This helps him explore what pulls him off course and what he typically avoids. He might also see the wake he creates in others as he works through his agenda.

In the fourth ingredient, the coach links team behaviors to the bottom line goals, and points out the need for executives to set specific expectations of their teams to achieve the results. This is an essential connection, defining as much as possible what specific people processes are most relevant to these distinct business goals. It keeps leaders focused on their results orientation but now widens their view to what they most need from their teams to get there. It is important in this conversation (linking results with team behaviors) to keep the leader's responsibility central.

When I coach executives, I hold three core values or principles that guide my approach. They provide the main framework for executive coaching. These principles provide an awareness that allows for an exponential increase in coaching effectiveness:

  • Principle #1: Bringing your own signature presence to coaching is THE major tool of intervention.
    Principle #2: Using a systemic perspective keeps you focused on fundamental processes. These forces either promote or impede the interactions and results of the executives you coach.
  • Principle #3: Applying a coaching method is powerfully effective when you also use the first two principles, bringing your signature presence and using a systemic approach. Otherwise, the method will achieve only short-term results.

In Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, we will explore each of the essential ingredients of executive coaching as well as the 3 key principles.

* Note: Throughout the book I alternate "he" and "she", using them interchangeably as pronouns for the coach, the executive and the employee.


Developing a Strong Signature Presence

Why is signature presence so critical for coaches? Dealing with organizational change and dilemmas is not for the faint-hearted. The business arena contains risks, opportunities, dangers, and dead-ends: all can make a leader flinch. Coaches are colleagues to leaders at exactly those times when they may flinch … or fight back, or dig in, or any number of responses. Coaches show up in the executive's office when the leader is most likely to act from an automatic less effective response. A coach has to bring her own presence in order to be a contributing partner.

Presence means bringing yourself when you coach -- your values, passion, creativity, emotion, and discerning judgment -- to any given moment with a client. You bring your resourcefulness and authenticity to your work. You develop a balance between two activities: the courage to speak and command attention, and when needed, the ability to become an invisible part of the background.

Presence means developing and increasing your tolerance for a host of situations many people actively avoid: ambiguity, daunting challenge, others' anxiety or disapproval, and your own stress. Presence stands in the midst of any of these reactions, does not shut them out, and acts anyway. In the face of internal or external resistance, you refuse to back away from the moment at hand. Signature presence is moving through these moments in a way unique to you, making the most of your own strengths, interests, and eccentricities.

Systemic Thinking: Understanding Challenges of the Executive and Coach

It is important to attend to the system co-created between you and your client. Within interactional fields, people establish ways of relating that become like choreographed dance patterns over time. These patterns are either useful or counterproductive. Typical client - coach patterns include a wide variety of behaviors. Here is a sample of them (these first two are useful, the second two less effective):

  • Client seeks advice: coach fosters independent thinking.
  • Client seeks tough feedback: coach gives it.
  • Client vents: coach placates.
  • Client is continually late for appointments: coach tolerates it.

Every relationship develops a systemic "dance," and the coach-client relationship is no different. It is important to take an inventory and figure out the types of dances you develop with different kinds of clients. Can you name the typical patterns of interrelating that you and your clients develop over time? Are these patterns effective for your clients and your coaching?

Often, the very pattern developing between you and the executive is a living sample of the system your client is in with his own organization. Systems have a way of extending themselves out to their farthest boundaries, pulling anyone who comes close to them into their interactional vortex.

The Triangled Coach: Being Effective in the Middle

The occupational hazard of coaching is to step in and "supervise" the leader. This usually occurs because the coach becomes anxious about providing value. Instead, you must continue to focus on being present with your clients so you can withstand their anxiety: not catch it from them, not abandon them in their anxiety, and not be thrown off course when your approach may not look like help to them in the moment. This kind of calm presence in the middle can be enormously useful to leaders seeking answers to their organizational dilemmas.

Here are the actions you can take as a coach to keep you most effective with your clients when you are brought into the middle of the triangle between them and their relationship with their challenge:

  • Identify and avoid Rescue Model attitudes and behaviors.
  • Use the attitudes and behaviors of the Client Responsibility Model -- sustain a belief in your client's resourcefulness.
  • Support the primary relationship between the executive and her challenge, whatever / whoever that challenge may be. With heart and backbone (compassionate and firm) keep turning your client back to facing her own challenge.

This chapter covers the risks of the Rescue Model. It also outlines the opportunities to help the leader and the coach in the dilemmas of self-management that arise during organizational stress.


Phase 1 -- Contracting: Find a Way to Be a Partner

 There are a number of important steps for contracting:

  • Joining with the leader.
  • Familiarizing yourself with the leader's challenge.
  • Testing the executive's ability to own his part of the issue.
  • Giving immediate feedback to the leader.
  • Establishing a contract.
  • Encouraging the executive to set measurable goals.
   One way to finalize a coaching contract is to start coaching right in the contracting conversation. Then your potential client has a taste of how you work. You can immediately begin a productive partnership and build elements into it that will keep the other phases on track.

Phase 2 -- Action Planning: Keep Ownership with the Client

To help your client get to the action, you can work with her through these steps of the planning phase:

  • Move the executive from general venting to a specific plan.
  • Help the leader identify her side of the pattern in the "forcefield" of the situation.
  • Address organizational and role alignment issues.
  • Plan for resistance to the executive's actions.
  • Determine if you as the coach have a live action coaching role during the leader's implementation of her plan.

As you will see in this chapter, the coach has a tremendous opportunity to contribute to the leader's success by covering these steps during the planning phase.

Phase 3 -- Live Action Coaching: Strike When the Iron Is Hot

Live action-coaching means you are present when your client conducts their business activities and interactions in real time. Live action coaching is not choreographed but is more like jazz improvisation. You intervene at unexpected yet critical times to help your client achieve his goal.

The challenge you face in live action sessions is being prepared to be very active at any time, while also prepared to do nothing if that is what is called for. This is the ultimate challenge of the Client Responsibility Model of coaching. After all, it is the leader's session. "Doing nothing" yet staying attentive and engaged takes a lot of energy. You observe to what extent your client is accomplishing what she set out to do.

Turning your observations and your judgments into action can be tricky. I said earlier that I have a bias for action in these live action settings. Remember the motto from the Client Responsibility Model: "stay active AND stay out of the way." You want to act in the moment to increase the leader's possible learning. You can err in a number of ways, however, that actually block the leader's full learning potential. One way is to pseudo manage, that is, fill in during all the pauses, missteps, and hesitations of the leader in such a way that you take away her leadership. You need to stay out of the way of her management of agenda and her meeting.

Chapter Seven explores the steps you can take to ensure that your "jazz improv" is successful in helping your clients dramatically increase their effectiveness.

Phase 4 -- Debriefing: Define a Learning Focus

This chapter covers the following areas of debriefing:

Evaluate the leader's effectiveness, including --

  • assessing the leader's strengths and challenges.
  • encouraging executives to customize their managing.
  • reviewing the leader's skill in management competencies.
  • customizing your debriefing to each executive.
  • debriefing with tough clients.

Evaluating the leader's effectiveness, gives the leader a kind of biofeedback mechanism. He can compare his own experience to the feedback he gets from you as his coach. During the debrief phase, the executive can be open to learning and improving how he manages. Among the many items to attend to in the learning moments, I will focus on two here: the executive's approach to his employees, and his ability to enact a core set of management competencies (these can be guidelines for his future development). I will also explore ways to customize your coaching to each executive during the debrief phase.

Sometimes, you may encounter a client that resists developing his leadership ability. In the debrief stage, you need to decide how to continue to work with the leader -- or even whether to continue to work with him at all. A section in the chapter addresses this challenge.



Making a Strategic Transition to the Role of Executive Coach

This chapter is for those of you who are organizational consultants and trainers and who want to move more into the role of executive coach from where you are right now. This assumes that you have the necessary traits of an executive coach --those that have been explored in the book-- such as the following:

  • You hold a systemic perspective.
  • You have a strong sense of self. You are not intimidated by people in positions of authority.
  • You are business and results focused.
  • You can move conversations from the global to the specific.
  • You can give immediate feedback.
  • You are equally able to support and challenge.
  • You have a sense of humor about human foibles.
  • You can let others create their own successes and mistakes.

Typical questions and dilemmas people have in making this transition include the following:

  • What do I do when I have a leader who doesn't know how to use me as a coach?
  • How do I start from where I am now? How do I create an opportunity?
  • What if the leader has a completely different map for change and my role within that change?
  • How do I deal with the leader's resistance to spending time on coaching?
  • How do I get the leader to see me differently?
  • How can I ensure the leader has a first successful experience of me as her coach?
  • How do I deal with an "inadequate" or weak leader?
  • How can I help the leader to see my coaching role as leverage for her to reach greater effectiveness?

Chapter Nine outlines an approach you can take to move more into an executive coaching role when the leader with whom you work only sees you in the other organizational positions.

Effective Executives: Helping Leaders Coach Employees

When leaders coach, they commonly make the mistake of down-playing their role as the employee's boss. This creates confusion in the employee and unproductive coaching on the part of the boss. An executive who wants to coach his employees must keep these roles clear. An executive has to be clear about the hat he wears at any given time, as a way to manage the complexity created by this dual role.

There are common pitfalls when people act as both a boss and a coach. One extreme is the boss who soft-pedals his bottom line expectations because as a coach he wants to develop his employees. A boss may try to "coach" an employee into compliance (replace the word, "coach," with "nag," "cajole," or "plead"). This faulty thinking goes something like this, "Maybe if I coach them, they'll do what I want." Coaching is not a substitute for performance management. Yet another extreme is a boss who thinks coaching means being directive and telling an employee the details of how to accomplish expectations.

Therefore, there are separate and sequential tasks a boss needs to do with any employee:

  • Task 1 -- name performance expectations, ensuring employee commitment to them, and

  • Task 2 -- coach and develop employees to accomplish those expectations.



Assess Your Coaching Effectiveness

You can develop your coaching skills more quickly when you take time to evaluate each of your coaching sessions and plan for the next one. Included are assessment sheets you can use for a quick check of how you did. The forms list the foundational skills that undergird the four coaching phases.


Questions for Clients

Included in this appendix are examples of questions that you can ask your clients at various stages throughout the coaching process. You will recognize them as the questions that are embedded throughout the chapters and stories of this book. They are intended as a stimulus to your thinking when approaching your clients.

The goal behind all of these questions is raising ownership and resilience in your client. Use whichever ones you find helpful to get you started in the conversation. Ultimately, you will create your own questions for engaging both your resourcefulness and the resilience of the leaders with whom you work.


Combining Coaching and Consulting for Powerful Results

Since consulting and coaching are mutually reinforcing, the leader's efforts benefit from combining the two. The consulting process allows the executive to impact a larger part of the organization in a shorter time. In addition, the coaching deepens the executive's commitment to sustain her change goals and outcomes. Any effective consultation process includes ongoing coaching as an integral part of the work and can make significant contributions to organizations.

The following are items explored within Appendix 3 :

1) Actual results clients have achieved during executive coaching processes that link executive coaching with larger consulting interventions in the executive's company.

2) How to think about your contribution to leaders' business results.

3) A sample of how consulting and coaching processes can interweave for powerful results.

4) Consultant competencies required to impact a whole department, division, or
the entire company.