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How to coach: keeping the C-suite on track, Part 2

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.

Missed part one? Read it here: How to coach: keeping the C-suite on track, Part 1

So, how can HR get through to different types of leaders? Here are four examples of ways in.


Resistant due to ego
Some leaders think that accepting coaching means accepting personal weakness, according to Nazemain. “I often encounter the alpha type, someone who wants to think of themselves quite highly,” he says. 

“This type of leader is unlikely to be intrigued by improving soft skills. To them, the idea of having soft skills could feel weak. Being told they have an area to develop will seem insulting.”

Steve Nicholls, also an executive coach, added that some executives are worried about the effect that employing a coach will have on their image within the boardroom and across the wider company. “One of main barriers is being afraid to admit some degree of frailty,” Nicholls explains.

“A lot of these leaders feel they have to be seen as someone who is all-guns-blazing. Whereas if you peel back the layers and ask people what they need help with, you see the human behind the big job.”

According to Nazemain, HR has to meet the alphas of the business world on their own level. “If people are resistant due to their ego, the approach requires something that speaks to them. 

“I will say something like: ‘I have been fortunate enough to see you in action, and you are brilliant at what you do. But I have also worked with other incredible leaders who have something you may not have figured out yet because they had the strategic advantage of a coach. Would you be open to trying it?’

“If you start from an angle of ‘this will give you peak performance’, and move away from softer ‘HR speak’, then this is a conversation that people will make time for.” 

Equally, Nazemain says there are times that HR has to tell leaders what they don’t want to hear: “As a coach, I have worked with my fair share of HR leaders as line managers. Some of them have been fantastic but others have been less impactful, often the people with the longest tenure, because they never want to speak the uncomfortable truth.

“There are times when you’ll have to tell a CEO: ‘I’ve seen you lose your temper six times in the last five meetings. Is this something you are willing to work on?’ Sometimes, that strength is the thing an alpha needs to hear.”

Read more: Leaders must abandon their egos


Resistant due to time constraints
In a world where time is money, it can be difficult to convince executives to set time aside for coaching and personal development. Fenwick approaches this challenge head on.

“When I have my first session with a leader, I often jokingly ask them: ‘When you saw these two hours in your calendar, how did you feel?’” she says. “Because of how busy these people are, seeing that chunk of time blocked out can be quite stressful.” 

According to Fenwick, the best way to tackle this worry is to show busy leaders that they will eventually save time by being coached. Remind them that they will become more efficient, and better at time management and delegation.

She says: “The benefit of coaching is to pull the leader out of the hecticness of everyday business and really focus on them. Coaching is like a strategic headspace where you can hit pause and work things out, which is really what leaders are craving right now.”

Executives’ doubts about whether their time is being used well can also be calmed by communication with their peers, explains Nazemain. “I’ve had CEOs who were told ‘you need coaching’ rock up to a call quite impatiently, asking: ‘Why am I here?’ CEOs are the most demanding and suspicious about if their time is being used valuably.

“What I’ve found has really helped is to put them in touch with their peers who have also had coaching. There’s really no point in me talking about what I’ve done and can do for them. If a fellow CEO says: ‘I got this from coaching, and so much more,’ then that’s all they need to hear.”

Leach added: “Time can be a big inhibitor. But the amount of development time you need actually increases the further you move up the chain. At the top of organisations, what is happening is mostly relational, so skills like listening, understanding and collaboration are essential. 

“Leaders at this stage aren’t reaching out to learn more about their field, they’re experts in their field already. It’s interpersonal skills that become increasingly important the further up you are.”

Read more: Take the time to recharge


Resistant due to budgetary concerns
Asking the C-suite to spend find money in the budget for personal development during financially turbulent times will not always be easy. To tackle this, HR should take a numbers-based approach, according to Leach.

She says: “I think there’s a very compelling return on investment case which we in HR often don’t employ sufficiently. You can find a wide evidence base on productivity for collaborative teams, or teams who have developed soft skills and risk management skills, which are the sorts of things we seek to develop in coaching. Quite frankly, the numbers start to add up.”

Grace Adelakun, senior HR partner for BBC News, builds on Leach’s point by explaining that coaching can have indirect financial benefits: “Coaching helps leaders to show up better for themselves and their teams by being more attuned to their environment. If you’re able to make some tweaks, you have potentially stopped someone on a certain salary going out of the door. That’s a massive cost saving. 

“Equally, giving leaders the space and freedom to really ideate could be the key to their next project or strategy that unlocks growth. Coaching enables space for possibilities, both in terms of revenue and culturally.”

Nicholls adds that HR should tailor development plans to their company’s existing financial goals. “It is much easier to engage a CFO in a conversation where you’re relating coaching to people goals, financial goals and other strategic aims. That’s how you get them to understand the benefits.”

Read more: Sharpening employees’ tools on a tight budget


Resistant due to worries about divulging personal information
As coaching focuses on individual challenges, it is a personal experience. In Nazemain’s words, “clients will sometimes share things that they won’t share with their partner after 20 years of marriage”.

No wonder then, that some are hesitant to open up. Tonks says that HR leaders and coaches should avoid diving too quickly into what can be deeply personal conversations.

“When talking to the C-suite and opening up a conversation, the starting point is to get an understanding about who we are and what we want. Once I understand those things from an HR perspective, I can start to build and layer conversations that are more open, with a transparent focus on vulnerabilities.”

As HR either manages or facilitates the coaching process with the C-suite, they must tread a careful line to maintain trust, Tonks warns. “A lot of C-suite’s problems tend to be with each other. It is vitally important that HR does not overshare perspectives of other people on their behalf. The moment you say ‘I shouldn’t tell you this, but...’, you are showing that you aren’t trustworthy.

“Be authentic. Be sincere. But you can’t be transparent at all times, because that will often lead to a diminishing quality of relationship.”

Maintaining balanced relationships across the C-suite is also vital, says Tonks: “The moment the CFO thinks you have a stronger relationship with the COO, for example, they don’t feel they can open up to you. They may fear that you are manipulating situations on their behalf.”

Fenwick adds that the C-suite often lacks the confidential sounding board that coaches can provide. “The more people progress, the more they doubt that anything is completely confidential. But leaders need a support crew, whether that is a trustworthy CPO or an external person.

“An HR leader can absolutely be a sounding board and have quite natural coaching conversations. To do that though, there needs to be an environment of trust, openness and psychological safety.”

Read more: Trust is the foundation of business


Coaching is currently an unregulated industry. There are around 370,000 people registered as working coaches on LinkedIn in the UK. Here is some advice on what to look for in an external coach.

Find someone who has a plan
“Coaching generates deep conversations and at times requires people in a group to use total blunt honesty,” says Tonks. “But if that is not managed well, conversations can go really wrong. Facilitators need to be good at creating guardrails, and making sure that people are clear that they have to manage their reactions.” 

Prioritise meaningful experience
“Coaching can get really theoretical and idealistic,” says Leach. “It can really help if a coach has experience of being in rooms with C-suite leaders, so that they have empathy from a practical standpoint of what’s going on. It would be great if coaching helps people to get to a deeper meaning but fundamentally they have huge jobs and are under a lot of pressure, so the work needs to be in the real world.”

Find someone who commits
“When looking for a coach, try and have an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation with them,” advises Nicholls. “Anyone worth their salt would like to come into the office in person, and pick up the vibes of the place anyway.

“It’s important to have a deep conversation about what you’re looking to achieve and why. You need someone who is willing to treat the project with the importance it deserves.”


This is part two of an article from the May/June 2024 edition of HR magazine. 

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