The Coaching Process

Talent Management

by Marshall Goldsmith

Many talent leaders charged with developing executive-level talent may at some point ask, should we hire an external executive coach? Since I provide executive coaching for a living, it’s a little hard for me to be objective in answering this question. But I can offer some guidelines on when, how and if you should hire an executive coach. We’ll pretend the executive in question is a CEO successor.

To begin with, make a rough analysis of the needs of the potential CEO. This memo should focus on behavioral coaching — that’s all I know. If your successor needs help in a different area, do not describe his or her needs and then ask the prospective coach if he or she is qualified to handle this type of challenge. Begin by asking the coach to describe his or her area of specialty. For example, my area of expertise involves helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in leadership behavior. I don’t do strategic, functional, technical, “how to give speeches” or “how to get organized” coaching. There is absolutely nothing wrong with those types of coaching; they’re just not what I do.

I do get ridiculous requests for coaching. One pharmaceutical company wanted me to coach a potential head of R&D. When I asked about the person’s major challenge, I was told, “He is not updated on medical technology.” I replied, “Neither am I!” I cannot help a bad scientist become a good scientist or a bad engineer become a good engineer. If your potential successor needs to brush up on skills in marketing or finance, find a coach who has expertise in that field.

Strategy can be a particularly tough area to work on. There are very few strategists in the world who I would recommend. Great thinkers like C.K. Prahalad or Vijay Govindarajan could help far more than I could. Your successor’s strategic vision may well determine the future of the company. So be careful who you ask for advice in this area. Far too many “experts” pretend to be knowledgeable about strategic coaching when their backgrounds show they are not at all qualified to give advice on strategy. I am not an expert on strategy, but I know enough to know that I am not an expert.

If your successor needs coaching in a specific area, hire a coach who specializes in that field. For example, David Allen is a true expert on productivity and getting organized. Andrew Sobel and David Maister are experts in professional services. Robert Dilenschneider is an expert on executive presence.

At the CEO level, most requests for coaching are behavioral, not technical, functional or strategic. The first advantage of having an external executive behavioral coach is confidentiality in collecting data. It can be hard for insiders to get valid information about a potential chief executive. Outsiders tend to be more trusted for this type of data collection.

A second advantage of an outside coach is credibility. If your successor needs help in a certain area, you may have credibility as a senior talent executive but have low credibility as a coach or teacher.

A third advantage of an outside coach is time. I have never met a talent leader who wasn’t extremely busy. How much time are you willing to devote to the coaching process?

When I was asked by one CEO, who I knew very well, to coach a potential successor, I asked, “Why do you want me to do this? You have been to my classes several times. You understand my coaching process as well as I do. Why don’t you just do it yourself?”

He laughed and replied, “To begin with, you love this type of work more than I do, so you have more motivation than me. Second, although you say I can do this as well as you, I think you have more ability as a coach than I do. Third, I am totally overcommitted and don’t have the time to do this on my own. Fourth, your fees are high, but you make a lot less than I do. So hiring you will save the company a lot of money.”

Although I ended up coaching the successor, the CEO remained involved in the process and was a key player in its success. In most cases, I believe that hiring an executive coach can be a useful part of the succession process. But the talent leader, the CEO or whoever is responsible for initiating coaching must take responsibility for the entire process. He or she likely knows more about what it takes to be the next leader of the organization than any outsider does.