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The 50 Percent Factor: Why Executive Coaching Doesn’t Always Work

Chalk board pie chart representing the fact that executive coaching only works 50 percent of the time When CEOs or human resource professionals share their specific concerns about a leader who is experiencing challenges, their next question is always, “Do you think that coaching this individual will be effective?” Most consultants and coaches will reply “absolutely” and tell you about all of their successful projects.

Unfortunately, our response sometimes disappoints our clients. We are painfully honest when we say, “Overall, our coaching projects are 50 percent successful.” About half the time, we work with executives/managers who are excited about having a coach and want to learn how to be an even more effective leader. They are motivated about learning and putting their new skills into action. As we work with these motivated leaders, it is not uncommon to hear the leader’s boss, peers or direct reports say, “Wow, Joan has really changed.” Some of the leaders we have coached have even risen to the most senior positions in their organizations, attributing their success directly to their coaching experience.

The other half of the time, we work with a leader who is so busy doing the technical aspects of their job that the coaching is perceived as an inconvenience. The only question this leader longs to ask us, but never does is, “Tell me exactly what I have to do to complete this coaching assignment and get you out of my life.” The challenge with these executives/managers is reflected in the old cliché: If you keep on doing what you have always done, you keep getting what you have always got. Some of these leaders we’ve worked with have eventually been asked to leave the organization.

You may be curious as to why some leaders aren’t motivated to improve their leadership skills. The reality is about half of the leaders that we work with have been rewarded in their career with promotions and bonuses for their past behaviors, and even though people give them feedback about their leadership strengths and opportunities for growth, they are still not motivated to change. These leaders have the perception that their past has worked well enough for them and really do not see a strong need to change. While we never want to discourage coaching, leaders with this attitude are typically unsuccessful in a coaching relationship.

The next question we’re always asked, after explaining the 50/50 Factor, is: “How do you know, ahead of time, which leader will benefit from coaching?” Our experience during the past twenty years has taught us to ask the following questions:

  1. Is the leader a learner?

    The leaders we are asked to coach are most often high achievers and contribute a great deal of technical expertise to the success of their team or the organization. Clearly, they have been consistently open to learning in their area of technical expertise. The question is, will they also be open to learning about how to more effectively lead and motivate their team members? What is their outlook about managing the people side of their business? Do they value the unique gifts that each team member brings to the team, or do they see the people side of their business as a necessary evil?

    The executives/managers that we have successfully coached have all been learners who valued the support provided by the coach and their organization. They have been people who honestly believe that they can learn, grow and overcome the people issues that are presently challenging them. They are hopeful, not afraid to work hard, and open to trying new approaches to build even better working relationships with their team members. They want to change and are appreciative of the coaching support.

  2. Can the leader accept feedback?

    Being able to accept constructive feedback is tough for any of us, but essential if coaching is to be successful. The leader must be able to get beyond his/her initial defensiveness and be open to ideas about doing things differently. If, in the past, the leader has been able to justify their behavior and blame poor outcomes on their employees or point fingers towards other areas within the organization, a red flag should come up. Although this person may say they are open to feedback, their defensive responses indicate otherwise.

    To be successful, the leader must first acknowledge that, for whatever the reason, they are being perceived by others as less effective in a particular area of their leadership. Then, they must be open to hearing new ideas from their coach about how to better manage their working relationships. Finally, they must be willing to put into practice new approaches and strategies that will help them build even stronger, more effective workplace relationships.

  3. Is the organization serious about seeing the leader change?

    Coaches are not usually consulted until other organizational interventions have been tried, such as coaching from the leader’s boss. When an organization makes the decision to hire an executive coach, it is often in response to a specific crisis… team members are leaving or threatening to leave, morale is impacted, productivity is down, etc.

    We have been most successful in our coaching partnerships when the organization was clear on their expectations or outcomes for the coaching, and held the leader accountable for changing behaviors that were negatively impacting the team. In other words, coaching was provided with a strong expectation of changed behaviors and accountability. The organization was clear in defining positive outcomes and expectations. They were also equally clear that if the leader could not change, a determination would be made about whether that leader was a good fit for the organization.

Sometimes clients ask, “Is it worth it to hire a coach?” The answer is: absolutely. Fifty percent of the time, we coach leaders who take the coaching feedback and create significant leadership and organizational success. It is our belief that this fifty percent success factor will far outweigh the coaching failures who suffer from a disease called “Popeye Syndrome.” These leaders have a unilateral focus shared by Popeye, the famous cartoon character who simply said, “I am what I am.” Even if you and your organization are unable to create a leadership “win” through coaching, you will know that you did everything possible to support this leader in being successful.

Finally, if coaching doesn’t work and the leader is unwilling to change, share them with a competitor and mess up someone else’s strategic plan.

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