Executive Leadership Coaching


(Note: This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner as an interview of Rita Graziano.)

D. Wright: Today I’m talking with Rita Graziano, whose passion is leadership development. Rita is CEO of Focused Solutions Group, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and a master’s degree from Santa Clara University. Certified in numerous assessments, Rita focuses on the potential of leaders to contribute strongly to both their organization’s increased effectiveness as well as to their own job satisfaction.

Rita was a director in several technology companies in the Silicon Valley before starting her own firm that employs ten talented and experienced learning professionals in the United States and Europe.

Rita Graziano: Thank you.

DW: Why is it so important to develop leaders today? Does leadership development truly make a difference?

RG: Well, that’s a good question. If we reference the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org), there are numerous in-depth studies that have reached the same conclusion—organizations that invest in leadership development perform better than those that don’t. The CCL goes on to say that there are four direct benefits of leadership development that have been demonstrated in those numerous studies.

First, there is an improvement in bottom-line financial performance. Secondly, there is an increase in the ability to attract and retain talent. Thirdly, there is an ability to drive a performance culture. Finally, there is an increase in organization agility, which is very important in today’s constantly changing world of business.

So, yes, developing leaders make an enormous difference and we actually have decades of research to prove that. I think today we’re increasingly walking a tightrope with tremendous profit for companies on one end and with the need to invest in people on the other. Developing leaders can mean a win-win in that tension between short- and long-term perspectives.

DW: When you consider developing leaders, what works best, training or coaching?

RG: I think this is a very important question because the answer can mean achieving an ROI on leadership development versus possibly wasting time and money.

Early in my career I was a strong believer in training as the best answer and today, after decades working with leaders, I have a different viewpoint. As a trainer I have instructed many leadership development programs, but for the past decade and a half I have concentrated on coaching leaders. This provides a more direct path to those outcomes we just discussed.

Why Coaching Succeeds and Training Fails

There are important reasons, in my mind, why coaching is the better alternative in terms of results achieved. And to reference some research to back that up, there is a McKinsey study (Why Leadership Development Programs Fail, 2014) that points out key reasons why classroom style training of leaders often fails.

I’ll very quickly run through those reasons because I think they’re important:

The first one is lack of context—too many training programs assume one size fits all. They assume that the same group of skills or style of leadership being taught is appropriate, regardless of the leader’s functional group, the organizational strategy or culture, or even the top management mandate.

In reality, what works is explicitly tailoring a from-to path for each participant, guiding each one from where that person is now to where he or she wants to be.

Coaching is the method that allows learning to be tailored to the individual leaders.

The second way training fails is that it decouples learning from actual work. I think many of us know that adults typically retain about 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing.

Furthermore, burgeoning leaders—emerging leaders—no matter how talented, often struggle to transfer even the most powerful offsite experiences into changed behavior on the front line.

Coaching should be, in my opinion, learn-by-doing. A coach partners with the leader to identify high-value development areas and enduring strengths, and then works alongside that leader to find and evaluate opportunities within his or her learning or leadership imperative to implement and practice key skills. Development should be imbedded in the work of the leader.

The third reason is underestimating mind-sets. Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior and, although most organizations recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mind-sets of those leaders, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root causes of why leaders act the way they do. Doing so can be uncomfortable for the leaders to participate in development. It can be uncomfortable for trainers, but if there isn’t a significant degree of discomfort, the chances are that the behavior won’t change. So just as a sports coach would view an athlete’s muscle pain as a proper response to training, leaders who are stretching themselves should also feel some discomfort as they struggle to reach new levels of leadership performance.

Now, some training programs do create that tension or discomfort. I think that notably we can look at the NTL and CCL programs. Those training experiences can lead to some breakthrough learning, but those programs—those classroom training events—do remain events, too soon forgotten.

Working with a leader, a coach can uncover and confront mind-sets that affect learning and can facilitate the appropriate level of tension required to ignite those important ah-ha moments that are immediately then turned into action.

The final reason why training falls short is failing to measure results. Today there continues to be too many training programs measuring reaction to the training and we don’t know what results occur or don’t occur afterward. Best practice coaching means setting measurable SMART goals and, during the course of the coaching engagement, analyzing results of actions taken.

In my experience, both as a coach and trainer of leaders, these four reasons and other reasons are why training is not the best development approach make individual leadership coaching the true results-producing option.

DW: Are there times when training is the best option?

RG: Today, the best use of training is as a “tutorial.” With technology today, we have access 24/7 to any topic, theory, research, or concept, and we can do that by way of short courses, e-learning, or our own online research. Training in the form of a quick just-in-time option, such as an online webinar or tutorial that is driven by the learner’s immediate needs, is an excellent option. An example is a major networking company here in Silicon Valley today that successfully employs three-minute YouTube videos as a means of providing learning modules quickly and conveniently for the learne

DW: Is there any data that supports the coaching option ahead of training?

RG: Yes, and earlier I mentioned two studies by the Center for Creative Leadership and McKinsey. There are many others by respected thought leaders. One other I like to quote is from the recognized guru in the field of coaching leaders, Marshall Goldsmith, who said, “The research on coaching is compelling. Coaching works best with high potential people who are willing to make the concerted effort to change.” I like this quote also because Goldsmith reminds us that the successful coaching equation includes a desire on the part of the leader to learn and make changes. Of course, this ingredient is critical whether we’re talking about coaching or training.

DW: What is executive coaching? Is it when an organization is managing a leader out?

RG: That is an important question. In the past, say twenty or thirty years ago, coaching was often a euphemism for on your way out! Happily, that perception of coaching as pre-outplacement has shifted to a great degree because of the results we have seen from coaching as a very highly effective development tool.

I think the best definition of executive coaching—one-on-one coaching of leaders—is found in the HBR Research Report, The Realities of Executive Coaching (2009). What they say is that executive coaching is “a confidential, individually tailored engagement, designed to meet the needs both of the executive being coached and the organization paying for the service.”

When we see what kinds of work executive coaches are doing with leaders and the research and data out there, we can see that the shift has moved from coaching as outplacement to coaching as development.

DW: So what types of leaders benefit the most from executive coaching?

RG: The first type are the high potential leaders or succession candidates—those we are expecting to be our bench-strength going forward. Secondly, they are leaders preparing for promotion to increased responsibilities and/or increasing their scope, perhaps in their work. Leaders from acquired companies benefit from coaching to help them assimilate into the parent company. Oftentimes, they are first time leaders or leaders with blind spots (e.g., a valued leader who has a blind spot that can be developed). Finally, when competition is fierce for leadership roles, valued leaders who are “flight risks” are often candidates for coaching.

Most often the leaders I have coached are at an inflection point—something has changed or is about to change and/or the demands of that leader’s performance have increased.

DW: So what about someone reading this who is a leader or hopes to be a leader; what should he or she look for in a coach?

RG: What I think is especially important is for executive coaches to have been leaders themselves in the past. This allows them to have experienced personally the rewards and challenges of leadership.

Secondly, and certainly importantly, I look for the following things in the coaches I ask to join my team. These are both attributes and skills: First, I look for understanding in their background and experience in the dynamics of human behavior. Secondly, I look for outstanding listening skills and the ability to read between the lines—to look under the surface and discern possible unconscious or subtle drivers of behavior.

Thirdly, I look for sincere advocacy for each leader being coached, including being very supportive and encouraging of the participant as well as being willing to hold up a mirror to confront less effective behaviors. I think a leader should expect a coach to bring to the coaching engagement a variety of proven strategies, tools, and techniques that are practical and will help the leader make changes.

Finally, exceptional self-awareness in a coach is vital—a coach who understands himself/herself and has a very professional results-oriented demeanor, along with high integrity.

DW: Many HR professionals believe they are the best coaches of the leaders they support. Would you agree with that?

RG: I recently had the opportunity to ask a group of HR business partners from different companies how they felt about coaching their constituent leaders, especially how they were able to separate development activities from performance appraisal work with that same leader. There was wide agreement that it’s a tricky endeavor to wear those two hats—the first hat being that of an HR partner who works for both the leader and the organization and is an active participant in the performance evaluation process, and the other hat being that of an objective development partner.

In some organizations, the slippery slope of wearing both hats successfully has led the organizations to identify very specific practice guidelines to mitigate the potential conflict of those two roles. However, I remain wary of the confidentiality and comfort for that leader in being able to engage in a truly open and honest conversation with the same individual who has input into his or her performance reviews.

What I found is that developing oneself as a leader can produce some anxiety, some questioning of one’s own capability, and discomfort. Discomfort is something leaders may have no other outlet beyond coaching to discuss with complete trust and comfort.

I would urge organizations to consider how to message and conduct HR-led coaching in order to ensure that the individual leader has a safe learning environment.

DW: Executive coaching has grown in recent years in the United States and especially in Canada, as a development option for leaders. Why do you think that is so?

RG: I tend to look at the pace of organizations today as well as the lean infrastructures in many companies. I think those are two drivers behind the increase in coaching of leaders. It’s an expensive and time-consuming effort to create a curriculum of leadership development training programs and, as was said already, there is awareness that one size does not fit all. Change occurs quickly and almost before the programs can be delivered they are outdated.

When organizations have a need today to up-level the capabilities of a leader, perhaps because that leader is taking on greater responsibilities or is a succession candidate, it is more efficient and effective to provide that leader with targeted, customized learning that fits the needs of today.

DW: How do you make the case with your clients that executive coaching pays off?

RG: We have already seen that there is a great deal of research that can be offered to clients and provides some pretty quantifiable data on the ROI of coaching leaders. For myself and the other coaches on my team, the proof is in the demonstrated behavior that enables organizations’ success. We do a lot of data-gathering and reporting to our client organizations.

Why Should I Have a Coach?

DW: How would you answer the question that would be posed by a leader who is in his late forties or early fifties, has a great company going, seems to be at the top of his game, and says, “Why should I have a coach?”

RG: As humans, we strive for a certain amount of self-awareness and if this person is at the top of his game, then he has invested in that self-awareness. However, I think it’s human to have some blind spots and a coach can help reveal them.

I work in the Silicon Valley, so I know that change happens continuously. When you’re on the top of your game today, the market will change or there will be another force out there. It’s good to step back and get a broader view. Learning never stops.

DW: Right, and a very good answer I might add.

I had a friend I asked the question, “Who is the greatest golfer in the world?”

“Tiger Woods,” she said.

Tiger Woods has five coaches, which is probably why he’s the best in the world.

RG: Marshal Goldsmith often talks about the fact that he has a coach and talks to that coach every single day, which is amazing.

DW: That’s a lot of commitment to the process.

RG: It is.

DW: Well, this has been a learning experience for me and I’m sure that it will be for our readers also. I appreciate your talking to me this afternoon and taking all this time to answer these questions. Not only has it been a learning experience, I have enjoyed listening to your answers.

RG: Thank you very much. I appreciate that; thanks for the opportunity.

DW: Today I have have been talking with Rita Graziano. Rita is the CEO of Focused Solutions Group, a leadership team that helps others to succeed. Rita, thank you so much for being with me today on Leadership: Helping Others to Succeed.

RG: Thank you.