When Leadership Coaching Works (And When It Doesn’t)

by Marshall Goldsmith

This week’s question for Ask the Coach:

When does leadership coaching work? When is it a waste of time?

In my work as an executive coach, I only get paid if my clients achieve a positive, lasting change in behavior – not as judged by themselves, but as determined by their key stakeholders. Given my pay-only-for-results philosophy, it doesn’t make much sense for me to waste time with clients who are not going to improve. This has made me think a lot about when coaching works – and when it doesn’t.

The huge majority of professionals who call themselves executive coaches are actually behavioral coaches. Although some are experts at strategy (e.g. CK Prahalad or Vijay Govindarajan), most – including me – are not.

When will coaching aimed at changing leadership behavior be most effective? If the clients’ issues are behavioral, they are willing to try and they are given a fair chance. Although these three factors may seem simple on the surface, getting a real assessment of each can be tricky.

1. Are the clients’ issues behavioral?

Executive coaching has become very popular in the past few years. In fact, it has become so popular that I sometimes get ridiculous requests for coaching. One pharmaceutical company called and asked me to coach “Dr. X.” I asked, “What is his problem?” They replied, “He is not updated on recent medical technology.” I laughed and said, “Neither am I.” Behavioral coaching will only help behavioral issues. It won’t turn bad doctors into good doctors or bad engineers into good engineers. Coaching is not a catch all that solves all problems.

Second, when leaders commit an ethical violation they should be fired – not coached. It only takes one ethical violation to ruin the reputation of an otherwise outstanding company. All employees need to understand that integrity is a condition of employment not a performance appraisal factor.

Third, if a leader is headed in the wrong direction, behavioral coaching will only help them get there faster. The strategy of the company is ultimately determined by its top executives. Behavioral coaches cannot turn bad strategies into good one. Connected to the strategy are the products and services offered by the company. No amount of coaching can salvage products and services that do not meet the needs of customers.

2. Are the clients willing to try to change?

Advice that is never implemented will not do much good. If clients are willing to do the work needed to achieve positive, lasting change – they can definitely improve. If not, coaching is a waste of time. As an example, when my last book was the number one selling business book in the US the number one selling diet book sold ten times as many copies. If reading diet books would make you thin, Americans would be the thinnest people in the history of the world. You do not get better because you read a self-help book or hire a coach. You will only achieve positive, lasting change in behavior when you do the work required to make this happen.

3. Are the clients going to be given a fair chance?

In some cases the top executives of large companies lack the courage to give mangers honest, negative feedback. In these cases what is called executive coaching is actually a seek and destroy process – that is used to document failure, under the guise of “We did everything we could to help this person! We even hired an executive coach.”

In other cases executives may want the person to succeed, but peers may sabotage the chances of coaching making a positive difference. Like higher executives, peers can write off their colleagues and create an environment where nothing they do to change will be given any credibility.

In summary, leadership coaching can be a very valuable process when the clients issues are behavioral, they are motivated to change and when they are given a fair chance. Both coaches and organizations need to look beneath the surface and make sure that these conditions really exist – before even beginning the coaching process.





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