Epic fail: 

The surprising reasons why coaching doesn’t work


Published on: September 2019

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

There are dozens of reasons why Executive Coaching and Advisory work is one of the best investments leaders and companies can make.  As someone who has coached senior leaders for over a decade, I’ve had a front-row seat to witnessing the benefits that come to those who take full advantage of the opportunity. Done right, no other form of development for leaders has quite the same impact in such a short period of time. That’s likely because of how the work has such a positive ripple effect. Coaching outcomes benefit the individual leader personally and professionally and also have a profound impact on employees, teams, and overall company performance.

Given that, why would coaching be anything but successful?  Unfortunately, there are times when it doesn’t produce the desired outcomes. The reasons may surprise you.

The coach is asked to play the role of bad cop.  While working with a Business President at a large technology company, I spoke with several of his colleagues, including the company CEO, to capture feedback and perspectives about this leader’s impact, results, and overall performance.  While all had strong words of praise, each described how his tendency to fly off the handle and blow things out of proportion was creating major stress across his team. Left unchecked, all felt the behavior was becoming a major derailer for this leader, yet nobody had ever raised their views with him before, including the CEO, to whom the leader reported.  On the contrary: he told the President to “keep up the good work” and the difficult feedback was repeatedly left out of the conversation. When I brought this feedback up to my client, he didn’t fully believe it, and it undermined our work across other areas as well.  When key coaching themes aren’t ever raised or reinforced internally, or the coach is expected to play the role of “bad cop,” it creates a major disconnect for the leader, who is left wondering what to believe and who to trust for straight answers.

The leader is not sure how to use the coaching.  Unless you’ve engaged in executive coaching before, it isn’t always initially obvious about how to actually use a coach and fully benefit from the partnership.  Engaging in executive coaching means recognizing that you have a thought partner, confidential sounding board, and supportive voice of reason when you need it most.  It also means that you have to be actively engaged in tapping those resources. Leaders who pick up the phone, shoot over a text, or choose to interact outside of the formal meetings get much, much more out of coaching than those who don’t. The result is that some clients are able to move the needle much faster than others because they leverage their coach in this powerful, proactive way.  To make sure you do the same, at the start of any coaching partnership, ask questions like, “How do your best clients work with you?” and apply what will work for you and the coaching relationship you’re engaged in.

The leader is reluctant to trust.  When I reflect on some of my very best coaching relationships, they all share one thing in common:  trust.  Like any relationship, trust in coaching – in the process and in the coach – has to be earned, one meeting or conversation at a time.  To get there faster, leaders who get value from coaching know they have to jump in with an open mind and expectation of trust even before it is fully proven out.  The sooner we get there, the better, because nothing slows down progress like a leader who is overly guarded, holds back, wears a mask, or struggles to get real. Of course, it’s true that some leaders have had a bad experience in the past where trust was broken, and others may be skeptical about coaching or have bought into a dated stigma about coaching as something that is reserved for underperformers.  Today, we know that most companies use coaching for their very best performers, so if you’ve made the decision to engage in this work, you’ve done so for a good reason.  Surrender and trust the process. You’ll get farther, faster, and you’ll enjoy the ride.

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