Executive coaching to the rescue

Many senior people are judged on their first 100 days in the job. Which is where coaching can come in very handy.

The first 100 days in a new senior position can be crunch time, both for the employee and the organisation. Business pressures mean there is little time to settle into a role, and no leeway to learn from mistakes. It’s also lonely at the top, leaving a new senior person vulnerable to a crisis of confidence as they cope with a different set of responsibilities.

“In a new job there are all sorts of dynamics,” says director of executive education at Lancaster University Management School, Sally Watson. She says the new employer or department should invest time and money into helping someone settle in and read the landscape, and that coaching is increasingly seen as the best way to do this.

“Cultural issues can take a new person six months to a year to understand,” she says. “But 100 days of coaching can accelerate that.”

Easing into the job

Watson advocates coaching for easing a new person into a job because it allows the incumbent to learn and discover direction in a non-judgemental way.

“Having a coach is like having someone walking alongside you who is not your boss,” she says.

As with all genres of coaching, Watson says it is important to get the contract stage right when detailing the priorities and approach for coach, coachee and line manager.

“During the contracting phase, think about all three corners of the triangle: the task they have to perform the role that person is occupying and the person themselves,” she says. “Its about getting a balance around the triangle.”

And along with the priorities, it is important to perfect that elusive chemistry. At a time when the new arrival could be feeling especially vulnerable, there has to be a rapport established between coach and coachee.

“The coach has to allow for a session of relationship building at the beginning and check if the coaching is appropriate to the coachee’s need. Also, it must never be perceived as therapeutic, but as a business orientation.”

At coaching consultancy Full Potential Group, senior executive coach Sue Ingram sees coaching during the first 100 days as a way of “bridging gaps and mindset changes” when the incumbent has moved from task expert to manager of people, or from manager of people to strategic leader.

She says that it is important for the coach to work on relationships.

“I work [with the coachee] on identifying the key people with whom they must build a relationship, such as the accounts department and teams beneath them,” she says. “Often people have a preference for building relationships with senior people, but can end up without the right information because they haven’t built the right relationships.”

Line of communication

Ingram also sees the early stages as a way of securing communications between the line manager and coachee.

“A meeting can be used to clarify expectations and deliverables,” she says. “It is essential to get the deliverables from the line manager and organise how the two of them are going to communicate with each other.

“I try to identify a potential quick win early on to give them confidence and to allow people to see them doing things.”

The package Ingram uses usually starts with an initial meeting of two or three hours, with another face to face after two or three weeks, before moving onto an hour-long telephone call once every two weeks.

“It is also helpful if the employer’s culture is open to receiving critical feedback from an individual,” Ingram adds. “The individual wants to succeed enormously and to feel they can make a difference helped by clarity and reflective thinking.”

Coaching helps new incumbents to understand the company “beyond the glossy brochures,” says Brigit Egan, director at Oakridge Training and Consulting.

“There is a real need to understand the behaviour of the manager and their expectations,” she says.

The first 100 days are becoming so crucial that there is an emerging sense that starting coaching then might be too late.

Some companies are arguing that the coaching would be more effective if it started before the 100 days. Jonathan Perks, managing director of Penna Board and Executive Coaching, advocates early training. He prefers to start work with the incumbent before they start the role, even two months beforehand.

“I ask them to consider four key areas,” he says. “We look at how the new person will add value to the job what is their emotional connection with the role what’s it going to be like to be led by them and what success will look like.”

Ready to start work

Perks asks them to be ready to start work “from the first minute of the first hour of the first day”.

As well as the initial two months pre-start date, Perks expects to be around for the first four months of their appointment, and says that there are a number of ways that both his and the new appointee’s performance will be judged.

“Some companies prefer to measure the new person’s emotional intelligence before and after the coaching period,” he says. “Also, in their first year they may have a balanced score card or some financial measures so that the company can see what they, and I, are achieving.”

At Acuity Coaching, managing director Simon Coops thinks that there is a role for the coach at an even earlier stage. “We have been asked to work with hiring managers looking at what they are trying to achieve and what the options are,” he says.

Acuity Coaching has worked on “opening the hirer’s mind” to avert them from hiring in their own image and getting them to compile a brief for the search company, based on the skills required and what the hirer is trying to achieve.

“Most recruitment is reactive, done too late and is too rushed,” says Coops, “but if you want your fair share of top talent, you have to plan more. Sometimes the coach can be involved in bringing them on board.” In his opinion, this means that the process from recruitment to settling is more likely to flow seamlessly.

Coops has worked with in-coming senior people before they start the job. He says there should be incentives to encourage the coach to do a good job.

“The ultimate thing is to link the coach’s fee to the performance of the individual. We are doing this with both a mobile phone giant and an energy company at the moment. I don’t understand why there isn’t more of it going on.”

Case studies

Companies that pride themselves on having a coaching culture are using both internal and external coaches to run 100-day programmes.

At law firm Thring, Townsend, Lee and Pembertons, as director of people Melanie Richens points out: “Everything is geared towards a coaching style of management.”

New senior partners are assigned an executive coach but also receive training in coaching.

“I see everyone who joins at interview and get a good measure of what they need. I match people up whether they are process-driven or beliefs and values-driven people,” she says.

At engineering giant the VT Group, executive development and succession planning director Michael Staunton says that he is implementinga coaching programme throughout the rapidly expanding company.

“As we make acquisitions we put the new people onto the coaching track. We expect them to find a coachee as well as be coached, as we are trying to create a coaching culture from the top down.”

Newcomer Dave Mitchard had Staunton and a senior coach to identify early priorities.

“I looked at a 100-day plan and worked out what I wanted to achieve,” says Mitchard.

Mitchard is managing director of Air Tanker Services and has been with VT Group for three months, although he previously worked on joint projects with the company.

“I had a route map which I have reviewed three times. It has been great to have Michael and George to bounce things off,” he says.

He has seen their meetings as a helpful outlet.

“I report to the board,” he says. “This programme has helped me in what is sometimes a lonely job.”

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