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The Role of Executive Coaching in Talent Management and Succession Planning

executive coaching certificationAuthor: William J. Rothwell, Ph.d., Sphr

Research indicates that as many as 70 percent of U.S. firms still do not have successful talent management or succession planning programs. And yet many authorities continue to warn that, despite the current economic downturn, a war for talent is looming. Indeed, the current economic downturn may in fact create an additional hardship for employers, since it may tempt many managers to take their human talent for granted as unemployment rises. In short, the “r” word (that is, “recession”) may lull some managers into false sense of security as many workers delay their retirements or hunker down to accept extra work at a time when finding new jobs may not be as easy as in boom times.

Executive coaching has emerged in recent years as a topic of great interest for several reasons, and employers should be cognizant of what those reasons are. But what is executive coaching? What categories of executive coaching may exist? When is executive coaching appropriate? How does executive coaching relate to talent management? How should executive coaching be carried out? Who should carry it out? This brief article addresses these questions.

What Is Executive Coaching?

Executive coaching is a process of helping an executive become more effective in his or her job. While almost anyone who helps an executive become more effective serves as an executive coach, a planned process of executive coaching usually involves two people — the coach and the executive — working together. Professional executive coaches may — or may not — hold a formal certification in executive coaching from any one of several respectable organizations.

What Categories of Executive Coaching May Exist?

There are various ways to categorize executive coaches. A simple way to do that is to distinguish between a job content coach and a job process coach.

A job content coach helps a newly-promoted executive to master the job to which he or she has been assigned. Job content coaches are usually people who have successfully held the same or similar job for which they are providing coaching. Instead of making a new job a “sink or swim experience,” the organization provides an executive coach as a “life preserver.” As a simple example, suppose the company’s board of directors promotes an individual to the job of CEO but board members are painfully aware that the individual is really not yet “ready” for the job. In that case, the company’s board might search for an individual who has successfully held the job of CEO in another company in the industry. Perhaps the coach is retired. The coach’s role is to provide on-the-job coaching, organized around a mutually-negotiated schedule and approach, to the newly-promoted CEO.

A job process coach, on the other hand, helps a newly-promoted executive address interpersonal relationships. A common problem in some organizations is that a technically-proficient individual is promoted into management. He or she is exceptionally gifted in the technical side of whatever work they do — such as MIS, engineering, research, or some other technical specialty — but the individual is not particularly good in dealing with people. Perhaps he or she is weak on EQ (emotional intelligence). In a bid to help the individual, the organization commits to give him or her a job process coach to help him or her deal with interpersonal relations (processes).

When Is Executive Coaching Appropriate?

Executive coaching is appropriate when organizational leaders:

  • Are aware of it as a possible solution to lack of readiness for promotion or lack of effective interpersonal skills
  • Are willing to spend the time, money and effort to make it work
  • Are able to source a well-qualified coach
  • Are able to ensure that the executive is committed to the change that the coach is intended to help him or her make

How Does Executive Coaching Relate to Talent Management?

From the previous sections, it should be apparent that executive coaching can be, at times, a valuable strategy to use in talent management. If the organization’s leaders want to promote from within but feel that in-house bench strength is really not “ready” for promotion, then a job content coach can provide “on the job training” to help an executive transition from his or her previous role to a new one. On the other hand, if the organization’s leaders value the technical gifts of a worker but believe that his or her interpersonal skills are inadequate to meet the demands of higher-level responsibility, then a job process coach can effectively provide real-time help by “following the executive around” and offering advice (usually in private) about ways to improve how the executive interacts with other people. It should thus be obvious that executive coaching can be a powerful approach to use, particularly when the organization has not sustained an effective talent management program over time to systematically prepare people for the challenges of other, usually higher-level, positions.

How Should Executive Coaching Be Carried Out?

There is no “one size fits all approach” to executive coaching, and numerous “models” to guide the executive coaching process have appeared in print. Clearly, the best approach is to negotiate an arrangement between the individual who needs help (the executive) and the person who is to offer it (the coach). Ideally, that arrangement should be put in writing and updated periodically. Of course, quite often there is a third party in the relationship — and that is the “sponsor” (the person or group who requests the coach to help the executive). The agreement should clearly spell out who does what, who is responsible for what, and who pays for what.

Of key importance is to decide whether the coaching experience will focus on the job content (what the job requires and what results are to obtained) or the job process (how to establish and maintain effective interpersonal relationships with other people).

In job content coaching, the executive coach should:

  • Clarify the desired results to be obtained
  • Clarify how well the executive is currently able to achieve the desired results
  • Formulate an individual development plan, a coaching agreement, that will help narrow the developmental gap
  • Clarify how and how often the coach and the executive will interact
  • Clarify when and how the coach, executive and sponsor will communicate about results achieved

In contrast, in job process coaching, the executive coach should:

  • Clarify the desired improvements in interpersonal skills that are to be obtained, perhaps by conducting a 360-degree assessment or by interviewing superiors, peers and subordinates of the executive
  • Clarify how the executive is currently interacting with others
  • Formulate an individual development plan, a coaching agreement, that will help narrow the developmental gap
  • Clarify how and how often the coach and the executive will interact
  • Clarify when and how the coach, executive and sponsor will communicate about results achieved

Quite often, job process coaches will use “job shadowing” to follow the executive around and then offer “instant replays” and “instant feedback” on the executive’s interactions over the phone, by email, in meetings, or in daily interactions with others. Job content coaches may not need to observe what the executive is doing so much as what results he or she is getting and then offer advice — through face-to-face meetings or even through email, phone, web conference, or even instant messaging.

Who Should Carry Out Executive Coaching?

Executive coaching can be carried out by external consultants, hired for their expertise in coaching and their experience. It may also be carried out by anyone who has a willingness to offer help to an executive — and have the executive listen to that advice and try to improve based upon it. To some extent, the person who should do the coaching role should be appropriate for the type of change needed: does the executive need job content or job process coaching? (Rarely can helpers do both.)


Executive coaching has many applications. One possible application is to use it to provide “on the job learning” opportunities for individuals who are perceived to be unready for promotion but who may be promoted anyway. Another possible application is to use executive coaching to improve the interpersonal interactions of otherwise talented people who may be lacking in social skills.

(Reprinted with permission by Linkage Inc.)

William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR is President of Rothwell & Associates, Inc. He is also a Professor at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Author of over 300 works, his most recent books include HR transformation: Demonstrating strategic leadership in the face of future trends (DaviesBlack, 2008) and Working longer: New strategies for managing, training, and retaining older employees (AMACOM, 2008).

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About the Author

Linkage is a global organizational development company that specializes in leadership development. We provide clients around the globe with integrated solutions that include strategic consulting services, customized leadership development and training experiences, tailored assessment services, and benchmark research. Join us at Linkage’s Talent Management Summit, the industry’s premier event bringing together HR, talent management, LD, and OD leaders to help organizations advance and implement a complete talent management process.

Learn more at www.linkageinc.com/tm or by calling 781.402.5555.

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