Monday, October 12, 2009

What HR Wants From an Executive Coach

I’m co-posting on the topic of executive coaching with Mary Jo Asmus, an executive coach, leadership blogging friend, and former HR executive.

Mary Jo came up with this idea as a way to bridge the expectation gap and improve collaboration between HR and external coaches.

You’ll find the co-post “What an Executive Coach Wants from HR” over at Mary Jo’s blog.

Here’s mine, from the limited perspective of just one corporate “buyer” of executive coaching services:

What HR Wants From an Executive Coach

1. Results… and sooner than later!
Executive coaches are a big investment, and especially during these tough economic times when budgets are tight, we need to make tough trade-off decisions as to where we spend our limited professional services dollars. Our Board of Directors are holding our executives accountable for making the numbers every quarter, and they in turn are holding HR accountable for helping them get those results. If we’re going to spend $10,000-$30,000 on an executive coach, we need to see a substantial ROI ASAP. That means measurable objectives need to be established right at the beginning, and a process for evaluating progress and results.

2. Competence.
The ideal executive coach has a combination of executive experience and professional coaching credentials. Our executives need practical advice from someone who has walked in their shoes and understands executive politics. While we prefer professional coaching certification or training, from International Coach Federation (ICF) or some other credible organization, experience and track record is looked at as well.

3. Value.
We realize the best coaches can command top fees. There is a reason for this – it’s a scarce skill set and the good ones can consistently produce results for their clients.
However, budget dollars are tight. In fact, when it comes to corporate spending, things may never return to where they were. So while we understand the concept of “you get what you pay for”, we also reserve the right to shop for the best fees and negotiate. It’s like buying a car - we’d prefer not to pay sticker, we want quality over brand name, and don't want a lot of un-needed options.
We’d also like the option of paying an hourly fee, vs. a fixed 6-12 month price. That way, unlike a cell phone plan, either side can walk away at any time, with no long-term commitment or penalties.

4. Help us make an informed buying decision.
Provide us with a nice 2 page package that describes your background, coaching model, references, process, and pricing. That will help us easily narrow down our options and pass along our recommendations to our executive clients. Be willing and available for a 30-60 minute initial screening and chemistry phone call or meeting.

5. Involvement.
When we connect you to a client, we want to be involved as a part of a three-way partnership. HR can provide valuable upfront background and context, be involved in development goal setting, help answer questions and possibly remove obstacles, and be an ongoing resource for the executive. Keep in mind that unless the executive is paying for the coach with their own Visa card, the company is paying the coach, and HR often represents the company’s interest. The degree of involvement should not depend on whose budget the coaching fees are being paid from.

6. Focus on leadership behaviors and business results, unless otherwise agreed to upfront.
A disturbing number of executive coaches are contracted initially to address workplace behavioral issues and end up crossing the line into personal therapy. We realize it’s often important to “peel back the layers” to get at the underlying issues, but the best coaches know where to draw the line and make a referral – even if they have the expertise.

7. Chemistry with the executive client.
We want our clients to make their own choice when it comes to a coach. We’ll give them at least 3 choices, as opposed to over-relying on the same executive coach. We’ll do our best to minimize the political pressure of feeling the need to work with the coach that the CEO favors.

8. Client and company confidentiality.
We’ll want a signed NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and expect it to be honored. When working with our company and executives, we expect and respect the highest degree of confidentiality and discretion. While this may seem like a given, unfortunately, it’s not always the case. In fact, it’s often issues of internal confidentiality that cause the most problems – which we often need to step in and clean up.

9. Access and convenience.
While phone coaching is getting more popular and can be very effective, many of our executives still prefer face-to-face coaching. Being located in the same area as the executive, while not something a coach can control, is something we look for. Being willing and able to travel to the client helps as well.

We’d love to hear from other HR pros or executive coaches - sharing these expectations can only only help improve the process. What do you look for? Please post a comment on either blog.


Anne Perschel (bizshrink on twitter) said...

Dan - Another great post - clear, concise and to the point. In many ways you are doing what you are asking of coaches. Seems to me the post is an excellent read for coaches and HR folks who may not know to ask and expect what you've stated.

A few additional suggestions.

1.ROI - A mid-point and/or post-assessment that focuses specifically on the goals and objectives the coachee addressed.

2.The coach should take measures to understand the company's culture, values, leadership model and expectations of the executive. I ask the HR lead (or other person as appropriate)to be my culture guide and translator.

3.Use live real time data - either contract to shadow the client (if appropriate and acceptable) or ask the client to identify a "spotter" he/she trusts to watch out for the desired behavior changes and provide feedback.

4.If coaching is remedial vs. high potential an agreement that all parties address willingness and capability to learn and change as the first objective. If the coachee is neither willing or capable it is likely not worth the investment to continue the engagement.

Thanks - and please keep posting.

Anne Perschel
Leadership Psychologist

Monica Diaz said...

These are exactly the concerns that smart clients address and that we as coaches must have an answer ready for. In my experience, if clients aren't should be volunteering all this! (It only means they don't know what to expect and that is never a good thing). Thanks for a great article and to the point checklist on what to keep in mind in the important coaching-HR relationship.

Jo Jordan said...

This is a really useful list that will go a long way to smoothing the commercial relationship between a company and a coach.

What is missing here though is a systemic view. Without a systemic view, most qualified coaches would recuse themselves.

Briefly, "behavioral" problems aren't likely to be issue of the executive alone. They are an issue of the work design, group dynamics, etc. Most importantly, how will behavior be adjusted by people who have power over the executive? That's the CEO and the HR Director! How will that be negotiated? What are you willing to change to resolve issues you perceive?

There is also a question of ethics. You may pay. But as with hiring a doctor, say, the professional obligation is still to the client/patient. Basically, the person who give personal information takes ethical precedence. The coach is obliged to act in that person's interest and with their explicit consent.

As we are talking about information provided by the CEO, the executive, and the HR Director, and which can reflect negatively on one or ALL of them, the coach has a delicate balancing act.

Ethically, what coach would undertake work if the CEO and HR Director don't recognize the "fault" may lie with them and the way they have been managing the team. Tough, but many firms do broker this honestly.

I think you go along way though, to teasing out the commercial considerations that coaches might be vague about. I would add a clause that requires them to slow you down, get you to look at the whole picture, and see if the problem is much easier to solve than you think!

Cecelia Ghezzi said...

Dan-- I really like how you and Mary Jo outlined the list very clearly. No fluff here, straight and to the point of what you expect from HR coaches. I agree that it really should be a partnership, rather than the HR dept. at hand expecting the exec. coach to come in and work miracles alone. Consultants are tough to gauge sometimes, though, because they have no real vested interest in the company. They get paid to get in, do a great job, and get out. I could see how #6 may get a little fuzzy as to lines being crossed. Thanks!

Rodney Johnson said...

It's easy to agree with everything and challenge everything thats been said up to this point. And here is my point. I've been doing extensive work in what I refer to as Silent Problems" inside organizations. These are the problems that are being ignored, neglected or going unnoticed as defined in my book "Without Warning." Its been my experience that silent problems inside organizations impact performance, change initiatives, etc. I encourage coaches to initiate a silent problem analysis on the front end of anny engagement. Only when the silent problems are identified and quantified can a coach even begin to address the ROI and other performance measures in defining success.

Susan Battley said...

I'm glad to see these great pointers added to the discussion on how executive coaching can deliver enduring value on both the individual and organizational levels. Clarifying expectations, roles and responsibilities up front with all parties (executive, his/her supervisor, HR sponsor, and coach) is absolutely critical. The importance of an assessment/diagnostic phase cannot be underestimated. Further, research on coaching outcomes is pointing to low effectiveness rates with seriously derailing managers. So some key questions for practitioners and researchers alike include: who benefits the most from coaching (e.g., individual personality, motivational and situational variables)? Is more coaching always better? How is success defined and evaluated (e.g., self-report, goals achieved, business impact). As our empirical knowledge increases, we'll all be more educated providers and consumers. Best regards.

Susan Battley, PsyD, PhD
Battley Performance Consulting, Inc.

Author, COACHED TO LEAD: How to Achieve Extraordinary Results with An Executive Coach (Jossey-Bass)

Dan McCarthy said...

Anne, Monica, Jo, Cecelia, Rodney, Susan -
Wow, thanks so much for adding to the dialog.
I'm learning as I read and think about each of your comments, and will most likely modify or add to my list of considerations when I work with a coach. I'm sure others will as well.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree in that we need to find a way to measure how HR performs. Because as a business owner if my manager says we need another employee or we need a new tool or machine, I base my decision to hire or purchase on the return it will give the company. I see no way of measuring this return from an HR person, yet. I agree that their years of experience and their track record are very vital in making a decision on whether or not to hire, but is their track record the only way we can measure the return? You make some very great points about how they should handle themselves, their level of involvement, and their access. I am just struggling with one thing and that is how I can measure their performance.

Dan Cooper said...


This seems like an excellent example of blogging at its best -- an initial post (really two) with several valuable nuggets of wisdom, followed by excellent responses that expand the discussion. Nice job!

To pick up on Nickhalen's comment on the need for a way to assess performance: is there any standard of "generally accepted coaching practices"? If there were a list of the most important coaching criteria, at least, then even rough assessments of performance on each criterion would be useful. HR professionals and coaches could have a discussion about a coach's greatest strengths in terms of a shared language.

Dan McCarthy said...

Nick -
Good points, we need to hold HR to the same standard of accountability that we're demanding from coaches.

Dan -
Thanks, it's been a good virtual dialog. As to your question... not yet, but it's trending in that direction.
How about an "Angie's List" for coaches and consultants?

Scott Eblin said...

Thanks for the public service you did with this post Dan. Good and comprehensive list. Having been on the buy side myself before becoming a coach nine years ago, I agree with just about everything you said.

Here's a different perspective on fee structure. Having originally started with an hourly rate structure, I converted to a fixed rate structure several years ago and have found that the clients take the coaching opportunity more seriously when they view it as a relationship and not something that they can cancel out of if the day seems too busy. They also appreciate the "all access pass" to the coach without the sound of the meter running. The key, as you suggest, is to include a "no fault" divorce clause that enables either party to cancel the engagement at any time. If the payment scheduled is split up over the life of the engagement, the financial risk to the client is minimized.

Dan McCarthy said...

Scott -
Thanks. I like your pricing model, seems like a win-win.

Joe said...

I think a big point raised here is the importance of a coach having the proper credentials and background experience.

I recently spoke with a coach that was telling me that executive coaching is probably the easiest profession to get into. However,being successful as an executive coach is not that simple

Basically, any average Joe off the street can build a website for himself and deem himself as an executive coach. My roommate could decide today to be an executive coach and he would be one.

In order to ensure that companies are choosing qualified coaches, they need to check credentials and make sure that coach has "successful" experience both as a professional and a coach.

Great Post!

Dan McCarthy said...

Joe -
Thanks. What you say is sad but true. The coaching profession has very low entry barriers, so buyer beware. The really good ones, however, are worth every penny.

Anonymous said...

I have a question you might think about.

I am a Coach myself, have been working for some time and am deeply involved with some of the research on active factors.

Now, I hear many times that "business experience" is "absolutely essential" for success in coaching.

Research demonstrates absolutely the opposite. Research demonstrates that coaches are the most effective, when they act in a state that does not have any knowledge transfer at all, instead pushing the client himself towards developing his own solution. Especially K├╝nzli (2009) has had such results, and the newer research by de Haan et al. (2010-2012) has demonstrated the same. Self efficacy of the coachee was more important, activating of results was most important, the ability to get the coachee to reflect different perspectives and enter an systems experience just as going into solution were far more effective than anything with business experience.

Some of the more hardcore practitioners and academics go as far as saying that having business experience of your own on board level might seem useful to create a face to face level relationship at first, however contaminates the thoughts, advice and behaviour of any executive coach, since he will inadvertently lean towards incorporating experience he has had, that often is absolutely incompatible due to differences in organizational culture, field context such as legal barriers and other examples.

So, where does this idea come from, that business experience is useful if the bulk of research shows it is at best neutral?

Dan McCarthy said...

Anon –
Thanks for your comment. I don’t doubt that there is credible research to support what you’re saying. However, the title of my post was “What HR wants…..”, not “What makes an effective coach”. I even prefaced it by saying “from the limited perspective of just one corporate “buyer” of executive coaching services”. Also, I didn’t say business experience was absolutely essential, I said we look for both.
My intention was to provide useful information to executive coaches from a typical buyer’s perspective. If the perception is wrong that experience is important – or worse, that it’s detrimental, then hopefully this will help coaches be prepared for that and deal with it proactively.
BTW, as a former management trainer, we’ve been fighting the same battle (experience vs. training skills) for a long time. I wish you all the best!