Executive Coaching – A Behavioural Transformation
My background is as an HR leader with strong internal coaching experience within blue-chip MNCs. I qualified on the Certified Associate Coach (CAC) Programme in 2016, but due to relocation had been unable to undertake the upgrade to CPC in a timely manner. I established my own coaching practice in the US in 2017 and have worked with a number of individual clients and companies in a professional coaching capacity. In late 2019, I was hired as an internal coach and Head of HR to work with a global Leadership Team of a trading business.
My case study documents my experience as a coach in applying my acquired coaching knowledge, skills, tools and resources in this coaching journey during 2020.
This case study outlines the following:
- A brief description of the coaching challenge with one of the General Managers selected to receive executive coaching
- How coaching knowledge, skills, tools and resources were used to move the client forward
- Self-reflection on my performance as a coach
I was advised that the individuals I was to be working with were notorious for their rude, aggressive and ruthless behaviour. They were unconcerned with this negative image, and enjoyed their reputation as the ‘bad boys’ of the company. They believed their macho behaviour was an advantage and they had no interest in working on their softer skills, believing that functions such as HR and executive coaches could add no value.
The GM sponsor had a different view, fearing the impact of such an arrogant culture could create the potential for compliance breaches in a highly regulated world. He was clear and specific in his requirements and asked me to work with each of the individuals in the team to improve their:
- People Leadership skills
- Internal stakeholder relationships
For this case study, I will choose one of the General Managers, Mr TA.
PROTOCOL 1: TRIALLING
Our initial meeting with coachee, Mr TA, included the GM, who set out the case for change and gave some idea of the behavioural transformation he was looking for. I noted the GM was surprisingly vague in his approach and was reluctant to clearly provide examples of behaviour that did not meet the required standard. I considered if it was possible that the GM was lacking in confidence in providing feedback to his direct reports and was hoping a third party may be able to act as a conduit for him, thus covering up his own deficiencies. I referred back to the previous meeting and checked the GM wanted to focus on the areas above and these were shared and noted down for the three of us.
I could also see from comments Mr TA made that he was not sure he needed coaching, although he was in agreement to go ahead with the arrangement.
I shared my coaching experience and credentials and could see Mr TA was more interested once I was able to explain what coaching could do for a client and was not just a tick in the box exercise to please his boss.
- Document sponsor’s expectations – Having attended the CPC course recently, I would have chosen to document more clearly the sponsor’s expectations, using a template format at this point, since the lack of clarity about the focus when in front of the coachee client was awkward and felt political.
- Demonstrate professionalism through being assertive –Although I was assertive with the coachee, I feel I needed to be more assertive in my role with the GM cutting through the ambiguity and ensuring I was not being ‘used’ to do the work he was not prepared to do himself.
PROTOCOL 2: CONTRACTING
In our earlier session without the client, the GM had been very clear about Mr TA’s needs, but where all three of us were present, I had had to direct the conversation to ensure these were made explicit. If I did not take a proactive role in this contracting stage, I was concerned the coaching goal and scope would be too vague and we would be unable to develop a plan that would meet the needs of the sponsor, or enable Mr TA to make progress towards behavioural transformation.
I requested time with Mr TA without the GM present, to ensure we had a strong contracting phase between the two of us. I felt it was critical for him to know the rules of confidentiality, and also that I was committed to working with him. I shared that he also needed to be explicit about his commitment to work with me towards this goal. He seemed surprised at this direct approach, but it was effective as it showed him that I was not a passive player in the relationship, like many of the interactions he had with his peers, stakeholders and even his boss.
I asked him how he wanted to work with me and how as a Coach I could support him in reaching this goal. I felt his body language and manner reflected that he still had some doubts about whether or not coaching was going to help him. He was sarcastic and said he felt his behaviours delivered his results, which he was handsomely rewarded for. I reminded him of his commitment to working with me, and asked him why he was not sure coaching would help him. We also briefly talked about what would happen if he was unable to demonstrate a behavioural change that his boss was looking for. Both these thought provoking questions steered him back to a more positive acceptance of the need for coaching and so we were able to move on.
We discussed the three areas of focus and I asked him where he wanted to start so we could form a preliminary goal plan. His focus areas were losing his temper and understanding what behaviours he needed to show for ‘being a better leader’.
- Early and explicit commitment to the goal – Paying attention to the discontinuity between the body language, and the words enabled me to ensure the coachee knew I was not going to be fooled by lip service and aligned with my commitment to be honest with him. This was also important in establishing a mutually respectful relationship.
- Clarity of goal – Focusing him on his own tangible goals from the high level set by the GM helped him take ownership for the coaching outcome.
- Create a compelling business case for what coaching can do for the client – I encouraged him to take ownership of the coaching goal by focusing him on the positives and on the tangible content of his goal plan.
PROTOCOL 3: DISCOVERY
Mr TA and I spent the initial part of Discovery building our relationship. Since he had not played any part in selecting me other than to meet me in the initial trialling and contracting meetings, I realised that my genuine interest in his story and the issues he was facing in his job on a day-to-day basis would help to build trust and safety. We met offsite, in a small quiet café, and I let him share his story. I asked probing questions to get more detail and insight to show interest, but at the same time I was careful to completely suspend judgement.
Frustrations with his boss were very clear, there was a broken relationship and this was driving many of his angry moments.
We reviewed the overarching goal of Behavioural Transformation and detailed more specifically the areas to work on as follows including the desired outcomes:
- People Leadership skills
- Having a ‘toolkit’ of positive influence, rather than resorting to controlling and threatening behaviour
- Internal stakeholder relationships including anger management
- Being able to control his temper when feeling frustrated, including with his boss.
- The importance of building trust and safety in an ethical manner – I had correctly understood that Mr TA needed to trust me in order to make this relationship successful, however I was not prepared for the length of time it would take to do this. The discovery protocol ran for two full sessions as once he opened up to me, it was sometimes hard to stop him talking. Particularly difficult points were that I had to resist colluding with him about his ‘terrible boss’. He sought affirmation about this a number of times and I ensured I was not drawn into an unethical position of being ‘against’ the Sponsor, in accordance with the ICF ethical standards.
- Great tools make a coach’s work easier – The CPC course introduced me to the Self-Accountability Monitoring tool. I would have found this particularly useful at this stage of the relationship, as it would have enabled me to invite the client to gather appropriate evidence and resource for the Deep Learning stage. I did ask Mr TA to observe his triggers between coaching sessions, but this would have been an excellent tool to formalize and document his observations.
- Identify disempowering frames early – I felt he was in a number of very disempowering frames including Fraud and Reacting. Particularly with the GM, he was also in a Blame paradigm and I knew I would have to focus my coaching on achieving a paradigm shift for him in these areas.
PROTOCOL 4: DEEP LEARNING
By our fourth session, I felt Mr TA and I had a rapport and he shared with me his 360 degree feedback as felt this would help him address being a better leader. Results showed his anger and behaviour towards his peers was extremely unpleasant. He could also see there were consequences if he was unable to control himself in front of his GM or other senior stakeholders. Despite this, he started off by invalidating the survey results, describing small sample sizes as a reason for the negativity and timing. I picked up on this immediately, reminding him of my commitment as a Coach to be honest and truthful to him. I asked how the behaviour of invalidating the results was going to serve him well in this coaching partnership and this seemed to move him into a less defensive space.
His trust for our relationship led him to describe how he felt in many of his working relationships he was either a parent or a child and therefore he was acting towards others like his own father had towards him, or playing the role of defiant child. This deeply personal observation and awareness seemed to move him into a new space and we covered how quick he was to judge and criticise others, like his own father had been. My coaching focused on asking questions what would move him away from the disempowering frames; take more responsibility for his actions and be less emotional in these situations.
We brainstormed some explicit actions as follows:
1) Remove himself physically from the situation during heated conversations
2) Develop some distraction techniques in meetings (e.g. getting a cup of coffee)
3) Practise questioning techniques to explore rather than judge others’ perspectives
We brainstormed some implicit actions by talking about strategies for new and empowering feelings and behaviours first. Some implicit actions were:
1) Identify the negative inner voice triggers – awareness is powerful and an important first stage.
2) Challenging himself to not see contradiction as threatening, but as an opportunity to learn
3) Read up on Transactional Analysis, a theory on relationships and behaviours that may support an understanding of why his angry interactions felt so parental. Berne (1964)
- Actions that move the client forward add value – It was in this session I truly felt like he valued me as a Coach as I was able to call out his behaviours and show how they were not helping him. I think it would have been more ideal to have delivered some actions sooner, but I think this might have compromised our relationship and the actions would have been low quality and less impactful.
- Coach should demonstrate courage and be able to challenge – the invalidation of the survey was a crossroads in our relationship. If I’d let this go, I think Mr TA would have felt that I was weak and he would have used his power and frustration to turn on me. My challenge reinforced the culture of mutual respect and my coaching professionalism in line with the values of honesty and integrity.
PROTOCOL 5: ACTION CONFIRMATION
Although I made some notes, I asked Mr TA to document his actions as ‘homework’. I wanted him to spend time reflecting and I thought this homework would be helpful to demonstrate his commitment. He was quite energised to do this as he was feeling very positive about the plan we had put in place and he had already begun to feel more empowered. He no longer saw this behavioural transformation as something imposed upon him, but he felt he would be a better leader and able to get better results if he could manage his anger and he had a way to do this.
- Get the client to document the actions if possible – I felt this was a good way to check understanding as well as demonstrate his ownership and we were able to review it together against my notes to check for any omissions.
PROTOCOL 6: TRACKING
Mr TA and I changed our mode of meeting from Face to Face, to Zoom calls for this phase. It was easier to have shorter meetings and little and often was more helpful to keep up the motivation rather than hour-long sessions with a more structured agenda. Mr TA felt he could call me even at unscheduled times to celebrate his successes and this kept him motivated as well as positive about his progress.
Company-driven measures of progress such as stakeholder feedback were useful and Mr TA saw me as a trusted partner with whom he could share the outcomes and choose specific behaviours to focus on over months 4-6 of our partnership. We did have one additional 60-minute scheduled session to enable him to prepare for his mid year review and to discuss highlights of his behavioural transformation so far.
- A coach needs to be flexible in meetingformat – it was good to be flexible in how we met but I would have benefitted from structuring the coaching package upfront as it was sometimes difficult to account for meetings that were ‘short calls’ or texts. It felt petty to record every single minute we spent tracking progress, especially when it was a quick check-in for around 10 minutes, or a text message to update. In the end we agreed we would allocate 2 hours for this tracking stage, although in reality I probably spent more than double that.
PROTOCOL 7: AUDITING
After working together for 6 months I asked Mr TA for feedback on the coaching partnership. We agreed that we would capture the key points and share them with the sponsor – his GM – so the sponsor could see what progress had been made and where there was still work to be done.
Mr TA was extremely grateful for the coaching I had provided, he shared that I gave him an honesty that he’d never had before. He shared that he had initially felt coaching would be a waste of time and that it was something weak people did, but now he could see the benefit and was committed to keep working on other areas he felt he was falling short of the required standards. Although he had not managed to repair all the relationships he had previously destroyed he felt like he was on the right track and was committed to continuing his journey. He felt the most pivotal point of the coaching journey was being aware that he had brought his childhood experience into the workplace inappropriately. This awareness was something he was still trying to process and be mindful of in his interactions with work colleagues.
I really enjoyed working with Mr TA during this time and I realise that as a Coach I like to address life issues that are impacting professional performance. I learnt that documenting outcomes was extremely important at all stages of the relationship and am grateful that having done the CPC course I now have a range of useful templates I can use that will serve me well. The importance of following a clear staged process is paramount, and establishing a strong goal at the start with deliverables and measurable outcomes improves the quality of the coaching.
I aspire to be one of the best executive life coaches in the market, and am confident that my CPC qualification and experience will support me in achieving my goal in this area.