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Feb 1, 2021

During a recent forum, a group of leadership coaches were sharing stories of their latest corporate engagements. One coach shared an in-depth experience that began like this:

Jim, a VP for a regional bank, wants to hire a coach for Tamar, head of regional operations. He tells Tamar he wants to invest in her development, thinks she is “doing just great,” and even sees her as a potential successor. He tells her about his experience with coaches and the value they bring. Tamar knows little about coaching but is open to the idea.

Jim reaches out to a coach and shares a different story. He informs the coach that while Tamar’s performance is OK, she is shy, which leads people to believe she can’t do the job. However, when under stress, Tamar speaks condescendingly to colleagues. She works a tremendous number of hours and her results are mediocre. Jim fears she has some personal issues going on, as well. Her staff shared she occasionally sleeps overnight on the couch in her office. While this is not against company policy, Jim feels the optics are unprofessional to her staff and peers. 

Jim says to the coach, “Tamar knows I want to hire a coach for her, but I haven’t had the chance to give her the details. I want you to do that. Tamar is good, but I need her performance to improve.”

The coaches at the forum nodded with familiarity as the anecdote sparked the question: “Are coaches hired to do the job of the manager?” In the case of Jim and Tamar, it sounded like it. 

Giving feedback and evaluating performance rests solely on the manager. This is a fundamental responsibility of management and not within the scope of an external party. Yet many coaches at this forum had an experience like this, of a manager wanting the coach to deliver feedback. 

Any coaches in this situation (and worth their credentials) would explore the bigger issue of why Jim hasn’t been communicating effectively with Tamar and then proceed by clarifying roles and setting expectations. Some would even create an engagement that involves coaching both Jim and Tamar.

A Poisoned Well

At the financial institution where Jim and Tamar worked, it was common to hire coaches for “bad actors.” This means poorly performing managers were given coaches with a message that the coach would help them develop their leadership. However, many of the managers didn’t see a need to meet with a coach, and they certainly were not informed of their performance.

This approach to coaching poisons leadership development. It sounds like, “You have a coach? Oh no. What did you do?”

It is as though working with a coach is punitive. This stigma compromises the development of leaders and treats something intended for growth as a disciplinary action. Worse, some organizations will hire a coach to conduct a 360-degree assessment and use that data to prove the leader is ineffective. Some coaches refer to this as a “seek and destroy” approach to leadership. Who would want to be a part of this kind of organization?

Coaching is, indeed, an effective intervention to build skills, increase self-awareness, and improve performance — but there are circumstances that need to be in play to make it successful, namely: 

  • The context for coaching must begin with empathy and an understanding that the coachee is talented and competent, not broken. 
  • The coachee must also want to be there and is ready to advance their performance. It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell us that for someone to change their behavior, they have to want the change. Coaching without some sort of buy-in from the coachee is set up to fail.

HR to Step In

Those in the organization best-suited to evaluate the need for a coach as well as vet their skills are HR leaders. Effective HR business partners work to align talent management with organizational strategy. They see a system, rather than an individual department, that enables them to identify patterns and leverage resources. They have a pulse on performance and understand the nature of coaching, the circumstances needed for success, and the skills required. 

In the case of Jim and Tamar, HR was not involved nor informed of Tamar’s challenges. The real problem was the lack of collaboration between the HR business partner and Jim. They met but rarely, and only did so to resolve personnel emergencies. In this case, HR missed a big opportunity to influence the organization and support talent by preventing the misuse of coaches.

HR departments that have not stepped in to these situations yet can make a quick impact by engaging now: 

  • Ask about performance and dig into which actions the leader has been taking to influence the team’s results. 
  • Attend team meetings to not only stay current with business activity but also observe interactions, style, and expectation-setting.
  • Use data by consulting employee satisfaction surveys or rates of turnover to get a sense of the work environment.

When a coach is requested, HR can vet the coach and confirm credentials, such as certification with the International Coach Federation. These credentials are the gold standard in coaching and proof of experience and education in the field, two critical components for coaching success. This also means that even if the context of the coaching engagement is not perfect, the coach is skilled and qualified to be a valuable resource to the leaders and the institution.

There is no doubt that external coaches are an effective resource for leadership development, but the leader will always own the responsibility of performance management. What’s more, HR plays an important role in balancing the two so that a consistent and strategic focus remains on the talent of the organization.