Think Key Players, Not Just Executives

When you think about who really matters in your organisation, you don’t want to find yourself readily crossing names off the list. In this day and age, everyone is vital—they have to be.

But there are always individuals with special skills and talents. There are always people who, by virtue of charisma and strong work ethic, exercise a certain influence over the internal culture. And there are always people whose challenges and blind-spots have more pronounced effects on the organisation.

The best candidates for executive coaching meet all three of these criteria. That’s because coaching is not really for individuals—it’s for organisations. When it works, the benefits diversify like a well-managed stock portfolio. The coaching itself may be private, but the results are shared.

A report in the McKinsey Quarterly gives evidence that executives are short-sighted in terms of developing talent within an organisation. They tend to focus on quick fixes and immediate returns over long-term growth. This one by PDI Ninth House suggests that leaders, as they climb up the company ladder, become less effective in seeing and developing talent below them.

Or how about this interview in the Harvard Business Review, which indicates that talented people are feeling chronically under-engaged at work. Even when financial rewards are limited, they crave direct conversation around personal and career development.

All of these could be arguments for coaching an executive. They could also be arguments for coaching a manager or lead analyst—someone with more practical influence. The point is that job titles are not the most important indicators of who to coach. Key people can be found anywhere in an organisation. Even in the lower-ranks.

Consider the coaching process itself: You’re drilling down, with an open mind, into the behavioural mechanics of an individual. If you apply that same open-mindedness to the mechanics of an organisation, your best candidates for executive coaching will make themselves known.

The Acupuncture Effect

Identifying and working with individual character traits is where executive coaching begins. Different coaches use different methods, but one goal is constant: To guide the key player toward a clearer understanding of his or her own patterns of behaviour. Where do these patterns help? Where do they hinder? If the coach is skilled, the key player begins to embody subtle changes in the organisation.

Regardless of one’s view on the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture, it offers a good illustration of how executive coaching is supposed to work. Manipulating one part of the body delivers benefits to another. When the right points are stimulated, the entity responds as a whole. In other words, when we talk about key people for executive coaching, we’re talking about entry points for a collective “treatment.”

How do you know you’ve found the right entry points, i.e. the right key people?

You see it informally. A decision-making process, led by a key player being coached, is noticeably more open and collaborative. Bad ideas are valued along with good ones, which leaves team members feeling invigorated. Things around the office feel less reactive and more proactive, less customary and more creative, less 20th century and more 21st.

You see it in formal contexts. When a performance review given by a manager contains useful elements of executive coaching, the employee’s perception of the organisational culture begins to change. When a CFO in a board meeting feels comfortable mentioning a leadership challenge he is facing, a previously narrow channel of communication begins to widen. These changes lead to others. Shifts in communication, in culture, in functionality.

Since executive coaching reaches beyond traditional models of organisational development, we must question our assumptions when deciding who to coach. We must take a fresh, unbiased look at which key players offer the best ROI through coaching.

ROI is, after all, the true objective. But we must also accept that coaching may not deliver immediately quantifiable results. As current research is telling us, not everything that makes an organisation successful can be readily quantified. This may sound like risky territory—but doesn’t the constant need for a sure bet, a well-traveled path, represent an even bigger risk in this innovative climate?

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