Implicit Outcomes in Executive Coaching
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Much has been written from the scholarly and practitioner perspectives about executive coaching. The aim of this article is to refract some of that work through the prism of my personal experience as an executive coach and former organizational practitioner responsible for setting up and running executive coaching programs in large organizations.
This is a collection of observations informed by research and intended to stimulate conversation about the Implicit Outcomes we realize from executive coaching. This is not meant to be a singularly authoritative codification. I invite readers to examine the ways in which their own experience is similar or different in realizing these Implicit Outcomes and to create and ponder their own lists. Conscious thought, dialogue and debate can only serve to make us better coaches and practitioners.
I believe we can all agree that in virtually every coaching engagement, sponsors (those responsible for selecting coaching as the intervention of choice), managers (bosses of those being coached), clients (those being coached) and the coaches themselves, share one Explicit Outcome: behavior change. With the possible exception of senior-most executives who contract for their own “coaching” but are in reality seeking an objective, third-party “trusted advisor” as a sounding board, virtually every coaching engagement seeks to start, stop or strengthen a behavior that is limiting or supporting a client’s effectiveness within her/his organizational system.
However beyond the expected change or modification of behavior, I have observed what I have labeled as five Implicit Outcomes arising from executive coaching. Again, this is not meant to be exhaustive, rather these are outcomes that often occur in the course of what may be considered a successful coaching engagement. These five Implicit Outcomes are:
1. Greater awareness of one’s impact versus intent
2. An increase in the client’s intentionality
3. A clear or clearer view of a guiding personal vision
4. A deeper understanding of the importance of a network of relationships
5. A greater appreciation of individual strengths and their contribution to success
Greater Awareness of Impact Versus Intent
Many practitioners may argue that this is not an Implicit Outcome at all and that every coach seeks to achieve this outcome. After all, isn’t a coach’s goal to help their client’s make productive and conscious choices? It’s a fair point, however the coaching client may not always see this as an expected outcome and it may not always be an outcome that we as coaches, “contract” to achieve. That said, I continue to be surprised at the power that comes from exploring this issue with clients. And the important enabling mechanism to this outcome is the feedback collection that often accompanies an executive coaching assignment, whether through formal means such as coach-led interviews with stakeholders or formal 360 feedback collection instruments. Most clients are open and motivated to receive feedback as a way to understand how they are perceived since getting feedback in most organizations, such as the performance management process, is often of little or limited value.
At the heart of this outcome is self-awareness; not only helping a client to be more aware of her/his internal motives, drives and values, but also becoming aware of how these internal factors drive external behavior and the impact that those behaviors have on others. In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, Tasha Eurich points out that most people believe they are self-aware, however only 15% of those she studied met the criteria for possessing self-awareness. Eurich goes on to place internal and external self-awareness in a helpful two-by-two matrix identifying, without judgement, four archetypes bases on combinations of low and high internal and external self-awareness. This type of framework can be invaluable when helping clients gain greater insight and awareness of how they are showing up with others around them. As Robert Hogan, developer of the Hogan Suite of personality assessment tools asserts, our reputation is solely the function of how others experience us.
While clients may not always declare greater awareness of intent vs. impact as an outcome of coaching, and sponsors and managers of clients may not care as long as the desired behavior change is consistently demonstrated, most successful coaching engagements will manifest greater awareness of intent versus impact.
Increased Client Intentionality
No matter where the coach operates on the continuum of guiding a client’s self-discovery to providing advice or “teaching” in any given assignment, clients often emerge from a coaching assignment with a heightened sense of intention (and possibly even personal agency) and a more conscious, even planful approach to key situations and interactions. I have had clients tell me variations on, “I don’t ‘wing it’ in these situations anymore,” or “It feels like I have a plan now when I am delegating work.” This increased intentionality may come from relatively small modifications such as providing useful frameworks for things like delegation or listening or managing a difficult conversation. Most coaches have these tools at the ready and can deploy them when the situation requires it. These tools and frameworks can shape new mental models that stay with clients long after the coaching has ended until intentionality is no longer novel but transformed to a habitual behavior.
And, raising intentionality can also happen at the meta-level of coaching. Richard Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory (ICT) is an example of helping clients operate with a far higher level of ownership and commitment when undertaking the hard work of personal change. ICT takes a client through five “discoveries” that serves to impart personal meaning and purpose to the actions and behaviors that clients take in their self-development journey.
As coaches, when we observe our clients becoming more purposeful about the choices they make in consequential situations, it is a safe bet that we have helped them realize the Implicit Outcome of greater intentionality.
A Clear Personal Vision
Most coaching seeks to identify a future state of being and doing for the client, and to juxtapose that future state against current reality, thus yielding the gaps that need to be closed in order to achieve personal change. We have all seen models such as the GROW framework developed explicitly for this purpose. The difference with this outcome is the degree to which the future is grounded in a compelling personal vision rather than a set of transactional conditions that need to be satisfied. For that reason, this Implicit Outcome may be seen by some aspirational. Nevertheless, almost all coaching assignments share the basic element of this Implicit Outcome: the identification of a desired future state.
As already noted, sponsors of coaching and managers of those being coached are often less concerned with a client’s attainment of self-actualization in a coaching assignment. They simply want certain behaviors to stop, start or grow stronger. However what we know from research is that a personal vision that activates the client’s sense of purpose and self-efficacy, as a professional and a person, is far more likely to sustain the hard work of personal change. As coaches, we play a mediating role, helping the sponsors see the outcomes they desire while helping the client to put these “goals of the coaching” into a more personally motivating framework. Coaches can guide sponsors, managers and clients to move from a set of presenting or “felt needs”, toward a set of designed objectives that satisfy both organizational and individual expectations. Of course some clients may not be in state of readiness or acceptance to create a more holistic personal vision. In those circumstances our job as coaches may be to help them see the value in a more fully realized future state, inclusive of whole-life concerns. We can do this by examining the client’s life stage, values and legacy, but ultimately it is the client’s readiness that dictates our approach.
This Implicit Outcome will occur in virtually any coaching assignment. Our job is to evaluate the client’s readiness and the many variables and choose how much or how little we can bring a client to a more personally compelling vision for change.
The Increased Importance of Relationships and Networks
Very few coaching assignments happen in a vacuum. Multiple constituents will have a conscious or unconscious stake in an executive coaching assignment, from sponsors and bosses to peer/colleagues and direct reports and possibly even customers. Not to mention that in today’s organizations, almost no one does their job without some form of interdependence with others.
Often as coaches we try to help clients envision stakeholder groups as distinct with differing needs and expectations, and to help them tailor their approach to each, recognizing that one size does not fit all. Many clients realize the importance of relationships and the need to have a well-developed network, but they may slip into the pitfall of viewing relationships and networks as transactional, existing to satisfy a quid pro quo relationship that is more the norm in most organizational settings.
As coaches we try to illuminate the value of developing and maintaining relationships that are interdependent and will weather the test of organizational politics and competition. This is most evident when clients receive feedback on how they are perceived, or as already noted, when they see that their impact on others is not in line with their intention. As a client once told me, “I really do know more about the subject than they do, so why don’t they just listen to me?” While that statement was very likely true, the client’s lower emotional intelligence contributed to devaluing relationships in favor of expertise. In my experience clients – often with peer relationships that they perceive in a more competitive frame – will make attempts to change unproductive behaviors, but only to satisfy the optics for sponsors and bosses. They have trouble accepting or trusting that there is more power in genuine and, as Daniel Goleman would say, “Resonant” relationships.
Our challenge as coaches with such clients is to try and uncover their reluctance to let go of their suspicion. We try to guide them through experimentation and role modeling to experience vulnerability as the antecedent to trust. Coaches can support a client’s discovery by modeling this kind of “all-in” trusting relationship. Borrowing an idea from another helping profession, psychotherapy, we know that there is no more powerful influence a coach brings to an engagement than a deep and authentic relationship with the client. Clients may have never experienced such a relationship at work as most organizational environments encourage us to relate on a role-to-role basis, and until only very recently has much emphasis been placed on developing human-to-human relationships.
The Implicit Outcome related to Relationships and Networks is almost always manifested. As coaches one of the things we can do is to guide clients to see that there is far more power in developing relationships and networks that feature mutual dependence, support and trust.
Greater Appreciation Strengths
Much has been made of the strengths-based approach to coaching and human development emerging from the Positive Psychology movement and made popular by authors and speakers like Marcus Buckingham. While most clients will have heard of, and may even possess a deep understanding of strength-based development, it never ceases to amaze me how few seem to believe that using their strengths is a viable way of achieving coaching goals and outcomes. We all know the cliché of the person who upon receiving their 360-assessment report, skips over the strengths and goes immediately to the development needs section. Ask a client to draft their development plan and it will almost assuredly make no mention of leveraging strengths.
As coaches we can help clients to move beyond a passing acceptance or acknowledgement of their strengths. We can ask them to predict what others see as their strengths; we can help them see that a strengths focus illuminates, in most cases, not only what they are good at, but often what they enjoy doing; and, we can even help them understand that overusing strengths can often turn into a development need leading to formulating strategies that dial back strengths as opposed to “fixing” weaknesses. A focus on strengths need not be soft or codling.
Ultimately we know from research that clients will have more energy and commitment and will most likely sustain change longer when strengths are used as the basis of a development plan. As Implicit Outcomes go, this may one of the more challenging for coaches to realize. Organizations, particularly deeply analytical organizations, prefer identifying deficits and faults. And clients may be reluctant out of fear of being seen as arrogant, or “tooting one’s own horn”, or may even be practicing a peculiar brand of false humility. No matter, it has been my experience that an effective coaching assignment almost always yields a realization and hopefully, a lasting internalization of a client’s true and differentiating strengths.
As noted at the outset, these are my personal observations. I offer them to readers as a way to raise our own awareness of what we expect as outcomes when we contract with sponsors and clients at the outset of a coaching engagement. Even if we are not contracting for these outcomes explicitly, they can be useful guideposts for us as we navigate the unique and nuanced arc of any given client engagement.
If you would like to learn more about Cognoscenti Associates approach to coaching please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It), Tahsa Eurich, Harvard Business Review, January, 2018
Hogan Assessment Systems, 2018
Helping People Change, Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten, Harvard Business Review Press, 2019
Coaching for Performance, John Whitmore, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2003
Becoming an Exceptional Executive Coach, Michael H. Frisch, Robert J. Lee, Karen L. Metzger, Jeremy Robinson, Judy Rosemarin, AMACOM, 2012
Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatizis, Annie McKee, Harvard Business Review Press, 2002
Hidden in Plain Sight: The Active Ingredients of Executive Coaching, D. Douglas McKenna, Sandra L. Davis, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2009
Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham, Donald O. Clifton, Gallup Press, 2020