3 Stigmas and Solutions in Executive Coaching

February, 2018

In the Media

Whether an executive feels stigmatized when being coached depends on the approach management takes.

Business leaders need help. “We expect a lot from our leaders these days,” said Andee Harris, CEO of HighGround, an employee engagement software company based in Chicago. Workers expect leaders to have cultural sensitivity, motivate staff and to give coaching, and at the same time, they must manage the company and its financials.

Such expectations can be overwhelming, Harris said. Leaders benefit from having a sounding board or an executive coach from outside of the organization who can help the leader view problems with a new perspective.

Still, some people think that if they have a coach something is wrong with them, Harris said. This feeling is on the decline, though, but there are still some instances in which to either not use executive coaching or to approach the pairing in a certain way.

Stigma 1: Coaching is a precursor to firing.

“Coaching is not a replacement for performance management,” said Brooke Vuckovic, adjunct lecturer of leadership coaching at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Vuckovic also owns an executive and career coaching practice under Brooke Vuckovic and Associates. When put on a coaching plan for remediation, leaders tend to resist it or are uncertain of the end goal and feel as they are on a path to being fired.

A better approach for this scenario is for management to first ask the leader if they have plans for improvement in certain areas, Vuckovic said. This can indicate to the leader that they need to change, and they are likely to do so on their own. If they hit a barrier in working toward that improvement, they should receive a coach, but only if they’re open to it.

If resistant to coaching, it simply won’t work. “It’s a waste of everyone’s resources,” Vuckovic said.

Stigma 2: Coaching makes a leader appear weak.

Another stigma that learners might fear is that they’re admitting to encountering a challenge they can’t weather themselves. Executives have had a long track record of hitting their targets and goals over time, and they take a lot of pride in proving they can accomplish these tough challenges, said Jeffrey Cohn, managing partner of Elevate Partners, a New York-based leadership advisory firm. They don’t want to fail, disappoint their peers or appear vulnerable.

That vulnerability is OK though, and the CEO can promote their use of coaching to help their executives overcome that feeling of stigmatization, Cohn said. The CEO can talk with their executives about their experiences of being coached as well as the importance of building their underlying soft skills of EQ and vulnerability. “It goes a very long way to encouraging others in the organization to receive coaching,” Cohn said.

Stigma 3: Coaching means hearing negative feedback.

Learners might also fear the process. Oftentimes, coaching assignments require a 360-degree feedback process, in which the learner’s peers share experiences of working together, said Sharon Melnick, CEO of Horizon Point Inc., a coaching and training firm based in New York City. With this come criticisms, which could cause some feelings of embarrassment for the learner.

Still, the approach taken with the pairing makes a difference. How the position is framed influences how the learner will interact with it, Melnick said. Position the pairing around how the learner will benefit from the process, rather than acting like they aren’t living up to expectations.

Despite these complex feelings of receiving help at work, executive coaching is becoming more widely accepted. While those receiving coaching might feel judged, “in my experience, that’s old-school thinking,” Melnick said.

Coaching Instead of Coasting

While executive coaching used to carry many of the aforementioned stigmas, the past decade has seen a transformation in attitude. Today it’s seen as a perk for most people; coaching is an investment in the worker, Melnick said.

“I think we are a culture now where everyone is looking to get the edge,” she said. Coaching has entered many aspects of people’s lives, including fitness, dating and overall life, so “it’s no longer about being weak in order to ask for help. Now it’s seen as a competitive edge,” Melnick said. People serious about their impact in the world and being their best selves — at work and otherwise — see coaching as a positive and must-have.

When it comes to executive coaching, business leaders need help. Amid a busy workday, leaders can become reactive in an effort to simply get through the mountain of tasks they must complete, Melnick said. Coaches can help leaders to pause, step back and reflect on their behaviors.

“We all have blind spots. We all can benefit from and — dare I say need — someone who can help give us an external and objective evaluation of ourselves,” Melnick said.

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