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How to coach: keeping the C-suite on track

To help C-suite-level leaders maximise their leadership potential, HR can offer a powerful and effective solution. Millicent Machell reveals how HR can engage the C-suite in executive coaching.

In most high-flying professions, from athletes to musicians, having a coach is par for the course. So why don’t more board-level executives have someone to keep them on top of their game?

“People in the C-suite have attained that level based on an immense amount of experience and hard work,” says Bertie Tonks, chief people officer for the customer engagement company Collinson.

“By the time they have got there, they often feel quite sure of themselves. But it is important that they keep being challenged, and keep getting feedback they can reflect on.”

Navid Nazemain, an executive coach, agrees: “An executive’s work is never done. Personal development is crucial, and coaching can offer a safe and open space that executives do not often have access to, working on everything from emotional intelligence to conflict management.”

As the C-suite diversifies, this work becomes even more important, according to Paula Leach, a former chief people officer for the Home Office who is now an executive leadership coach. She explains that leaders from diverse backgrounds and perspectives may not have the shorthand that comes with working alongside a similar group of people who see the world in the same way.

“To bring on a team from diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking without facilitating their development and communication would be like buying an amazing plant and not providing it with light and water,” says Leach.

Read more: Eight coaching skills every HR leader should master

A typical coaching session requires its subject to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses honestly, with the coach acting as a facilitator. For executive coach Jenn Fenwick, each session starts with asking leaders ‘what are you bringing to the table? What’s going well? What are you learning?’

Fenwick explains: “People commonly come to coaching to learn about the evolution of being a leader, and their personal evolution of who they need to be, now and in the future. They look at what actions they can take, and the internal narratives they need to support that.”

Successful coaching also hinges on a thorough evaluation of the subject, according to Nazemain: “If there is a target behaviour to be improved, for example listening skills, I as your coach would carry out a 360˚ assessment on your behalf, interviewing your direct reports, your peers and your HR partner.

"I would ask them to rate your listening skills from one to 10, and give one piece of advice on how you can improve listening.

“I would then aggregate these findings so that they are anonymous, and present them back to you. So not only would it be established that you are, say, six out of 10 at listening, but you could have 10 to 12 ideas on how to improve.

“If you try one idea each week or month, it would be impossible not to improve, and most importantly, to do so in a way that involves the people that matter to you.”

The responsibility of suggesting, managing and facilitating the C-suite’s development often rests on HR, in the role of coach, confidant or sounding board. “People often look to us with the assumption that we’re experts on people and organisational psychology,” says Tonks. “HR is the closest thing to a ‘live-in’ coach that most companies have access to.”

Fenwick adds that HR can leverage coaching skills to have more productive conversations with the C-suite. “For HR leaders, it’s not necessarily a formal coaching qualification but learning how to conduct those coaching conversations that can be a game-changer. It can allow you to co-create with leaders, and truly assess where they need support and development.”

Read more: How to coach a royal CEO

However, leading this development journey can be challenging due to what Tonks calls the “heavy weight of politics” in the C-suite. Leaders can be put off coaching through fear of exposing weaknesses, time constraints, doubts on its value or mistrust.

“HR has to learn to engage leaders in coaching and development by navigating through the politics and not getting heavily embroiled in it,” he says. “That will reduce focus on what actually needs to happen.”

Coaching, as with most forms of development and training, is underutilised and misunderstood, according to Fenwick. She says: “There’s a stigma around coaching because people think it’s only for leaders who aren’t doing well.

“I wish people understood the strategic edge it gives, and that it’s not just for spot development. It’s a no-brainer in times when leaders have to be so resilient.”

As HR seeks to tackle the ‘accidental manager’ phenomenon, when a leader is promoted through purely technical skill and is not given managerial training, Fenwick reckons that coaching will become a tool that is more often reached for.

“When I speak to my executives,” she says, “there are so many derailing challenges that could have been negated if they were given proper learning and development opportunities at the start of their leadership careers.”

Building in this step change will, of course, require buy-in from senior leaders, which HR should feel confident handling, according to Leach. “The responsibility is with HR, and that’s where it absolutely should be,” she says. “This is our function for the wider organisation: to look at people’s needs and to figure out the best response.”


This is part one of an article from the May/June 2024 print issue. Part Two will detail four methods for getting through to C-suite leaders.

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