Coaching the Uncoachable Executive

By Steve Albrecht, DBA

If we take the idea that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink to the business arena, how do companies use coaching to improve the performance or behavior of their leaders, when they don’t think they need it?
I work with two types of employees when it comes to coaching; pick the one you’d rather be in the room with. One says, “I’m so glad you’re here! I know I’ve got some rough edges, some blind spots, and I need to improve the way I communicate with my staff and my boss. We have a lot to talk about and I want to get right to work.” Chance of success: high.
The other type says, “I don’t know why you’re here or I’m here. It’s probably because one of my team got hurt feelings and complained. Maybe my style is a bit rough, but I get things done. Besides, the clients love me and I make this place a lot of money. Can we get on with whatever this is? I have a lot of work to do.” Chance of success with this type of client? Poor to middling.

Coaching Executives is a Thorny Issue
For help with this thorny issue, I spoke with Jordan Goldrich, COO of the San Diego-based executive coaching firm, CUSTOMatrix. Jordan holds an LCSW license and is a Master-Certified Executive Coach. Coaching an executive can be an extremely challenging task, according to Jordan.
“Most executives who don’t want to be coached are referred by their managers for coaching for several reasons. They’re very valuable because of their technical knowledge or business expertise, but their interpersonal style creates a negative impact on their key stakeholders and superiors. Or they are part of a leadership development program, where everyone must have coaching and they don’t want it because they are legitimately too busy, don’t trust or respect the coach, or don’t believe it will be valuable for them.”
Jordan also sees executives as having either a lack of insight or a skewed view of their impact on their organization and the people in it. 
“They’re genuinely not aware of the impact they’re having on others,” he explains. “Or they recognize they’re having a negative impact but can’t believe their impatience, frustration, anger, and even sarcasm with employees is more of a problem than lack of production, late deadlines, fuzzy thinking, and lack of accountability of the people who are complaining. In addition, many don’t believe they can control their behavior.”
It’s interesting to note the mindset that Jordan sees in these executives and senior leaders who are seen as abrasive. They believe they are like warriors, achieving a level of success in overwhelmingly complex strategic roles. Jordan adds, “They believe they are not being recognized for their contribution. They may even feel they are being disrespected.”

Abrasive Leader as a Client
These internal challenges can manifest in significant hurdles for Jordan in his role as a coach. He says of the abrasive leader as a client, “They believe that the request to change is part of a politically correct culture where, as one executive said to me, ‘Kids are not allowed to play tag because it will harm their self-esteem.’”
The coach must help the executive uncover his or her intrinsic motivation to change. In other words, find a reason they would change this behavior even if they were not being pressured to change. If the coaching is successful, they conclude that they should change because they want to be more consistent with their own core beliefs and values.
“I have met many sincerely religious people,” Jordan says. “Or they may change because they recognize they want to win or achieve even greater things than they already have.”
In many situations, Jordan finds that self-assessment instruments can help executive clients.
“Assessment instruments provide a wealth of information in an economical way. Their self-ratings on specific items deepen their understanding of their own motivations, and personality, communication, decision, and influence styles. The assessment reports and debriefs can combine to create new options for behavior changes.
“I typically use two self-assessments, plus a 360 evaluation, which may include my interviews with key stakeholders,” he adds. “Since I’m certified in the following assessments – Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, FIRO-B, California Psychological Inventory, WorkPlace Big Five, Conflict Dynamics Profile, DiSC, and the Hogan Personality Inventory – they are part of my coaching toolkit as well.”

Demonstrating Success
With serious internal and external obstacles in the executive’s path, how does this client demonstrate success? Coaching, like other soft skills improvements, may not have an obvious immediate benefit, but more of a behavioral and performance shift, which could appear over a span of weeks or months. 
Obviously, business owners and C-level executives don’t always have a lot of patience for the slow-and-steady approach to improvement. Jordan uses subjective evaluations, like feedback from internal customers, peers, superiors and other stakeholders, achieving goals, and meeting deadlines. Even employee turnover is a measure.

Poorly performing employees sometimes leave under the executive client’s “new and improved” leadership approach because they can no longer hide behind the formerly abrasive behavior of their manager.
However, the coaching process benefits those who participate fully. The challenge in all behavior and performance change is getting business leaders to leverage their own intrinsic motivations to change. Then they are able to see the wisdom of good ideas, positive suggestions, and the need to embrace them, regardless of whether they initially like the coaching intervention.

Dr. Steve Albrecht is a keynote speaker, author, podcaster, and trainer. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); M.A. in Security Management; B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He is board-certified in HR, security, coaching, and threat management. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and criminal justice. He can be reached at Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in “Psychology Today” and is reprinted with the author’s permission.