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The greatest flaw in executive coaching programs

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Traditional leadership development programs don't do a good job of meeting the needs of dynamic organizations – those going through rapid growth, a big strategic shift or a change in ownership. That's because such programs benefit the participants, but not so much the broader organization.

We define traditional leadership programs as those involving some kind of individual assessment (for instance, 360-degree surveys, personality tests, simulations), followed by one-on-one meetings with a professional coach.

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The problem with traditional programs is that they can be perceived as operating inside a black box. Coaching conversations happen in private, and this creates the perception the program is disconnected from the overall business.

Individuals make changes to their own behaviour during the coaching process, and it is assumed that these coaching conversations and individual-level changes produce downstream benefits for the organization, though the benefits are often hard to perceive and measure.

Dynamic organizations, on the other hand, have different kinds of needs. These kinds of companies are navigating through an intense change process. And companies going through intense change processes need help with those processes. They need tools and information that will support them in executing their plans successfully.

Real-time insights about how the business is functioning across various parts of the company can be particularly valuable. Unfortunately, traditional leadership programs don't yield any information that might benefit the change process, and they don't help decision-makers better understand what is happening inside their organization in real-time.

This seems like a wasted opportunity. In traditional programs, coaches have dozens of conversations with clients about what is happening in the business, across many areas and functions. Coaches are also privy to management best practices that could be shared widely and benefit many people. These two types of information amount to raw material that leadership programs dig up, and could be utilized, but is instead being left untouched.

I believe that dynamic organizations need a different kind of leadership development program. They need programs to benefit not only the individual participants, but to also help drive the broader change process. They need a kind of hybrid model that supports both the participants' and the organization's needs.

How can we adopt this hybrid model?

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•Collect insights from coaches about the functioning of the business, gleaned from their many conversations in different pockets of the company, to share with decision-makers. This information can then be used by executives to make refinements in executing the changes.

•Collect ideas from coaches about management best practices – what's working and what's not for managers as they lead change in their teams – and circulate this to other program participants, and throughout the organization, to promote collective learning.

A key benefit to this approach is that is it delivers something of tremendous value to program sponsors. For the executives who fund these programs, what they care most about is achieving their change management goals. Using this new format, we can give executive sponsors something of direct benefit to them, something that will help them achieve their most critical objective, namely information about the functioning of their business. As a result, they will be more likely to invest in these programs in the future.

To make this work, safeguards need to be put in place, to protect the integrity of the coaching relationship, which is the highest priority. There are practical steps to do this:

•Run a leadership program with many participants, so that coaches can work with at least three (and preferably more) individuals. Increasing the number of participants assigned to each coach creates an additional layer of anonymity that protects participants.

•Establish an information-sharing policy, one that communicates to all participants and stakeholders that coaches will be asked to capture macro-level themes about the functioning of the business, but will never share specific details of coaching conversations with others in the organization. Senior program sponsors (that is, executives) and stakeholders (for instance, the vice-president of human resources) should sign off on this policy.

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•Give participants and coaches "veto power" over what is shared. Allow them to review what themes about the functioning of the business will be shared with senior leaders, and give them the power to exclude anything with which they are uncomfortable.

By adapting traditional notions of how a leadership development program can function, and by making these programs more relevant to dynamic businesses, it is possible to unlock greater value and learning for the enterprise, while still supporting individuals as they strive to become better managers and leaders.

Tim Jackson (@jacksonlead) is the president and owner of Jackson Leadership, a Toronto-based consulting firm that specializes in delivering leadership development programs for dynamic organizations.

Leann Schneider is a consultant with Jackson Leadership. Her areas of expertise are leadership assessment, feedback and training, as well as behaviour-based interviewing. She has an M.A. in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Guelph.

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