by John Baldoni

Coaches Do Not Play the Game

Jan 21, 20086 mins
IT Leadership

Why you need to understand what executive coaches do before engaging with one.

College basketball is a coach’s game. Coaches, together with their assistants, teach individual skills as well as team fundamentals. They can work with players to elevate for a jump shot, set feet for a screen, and determine finger placement for a free throw. College coaches teach players to create a zone defense, set up a back-door play, and establish offensive presence. What coaches cannot do is teach a player to have the game come to him: to read a defense so the player can exploit the weakness and score a basket. Taking over a game, that is, imposing your will on a team, is even more advanced; such ability emerges from physical presence as well as from experience. In short, players play, but coaches watch.


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This analogy can be applied to behavior-based executive coaching. Like a basketball coach, the executive coach can teach facets of leadership and management, and even make suggestions for action steps related to communication, delegation, conflict management, and decision-making. But the coach cannot play “the game.” The flow of work comes to the individual and it is up to him to make the right decisions.

The coach works with the individual to help her discover her strengths so she can apply her talent and skills to perform more effectively. Sometimes the coaching is developmental, helping an executive get ready for the next level of leadership. Other times the coaching is corrective, working to help the individual drop bad habits and leverage good ones. Behavior-based coaching is not skill acquisition; it is a developmental process that seeks to leverage self-awareness in order to improve performance. The individual makes the choice about what to do or not do.

These distinctions are vital, especially as demand rises for executive coaching. According to research conducted jointly by the Institute for Executive Development and RHR International, 63 percent of companies surveyed use executive coaching to develop their high potential talent.

It’s important to understand what a coach can do before engaging with one. What an executive coach does, as a basketball coach may do, is create structure where learning and self-discovery can occur. The individual plays the game. Within that framework, here’s what a coach can do.

Assess. Coaching must be grounded in reality. Assessment includes interviews with the individual as well as with his boss. Sometimes you can shadow and employee to see him in action. Personality assessments are useful for explaining behavior types; multi-rater evaluations are good for judging behavior in the workplace. When using assessments, use care and caution. I consider such assessments as snapshots in time; they are one perspective, not the entire picture. The assessment process, including interviews, sets up the individual for where he is now.

Action Plan. Executive coaching is based on performance improvement; it is often tied to business objectives. That is, you coach an individual to become more effective in his job. You select coaching objectives, typically two or three that help the individual achieve his goals. For example, if an executive needs to create a new team, you may structure the coaching around communication and delegation. If the individual needs to lead a change initiative, you work on things like influence – up, down and throughout the organization. If the coaching is corrective, you focus on helping the individual stop bad habits. For example, if the manager is a high-control type, you find ways to help him learn to delegate as well as to stop micro-managing.

Evaluate. Along the way, and certainly at the close of the engagement, the executive coach and individual need to take stock of the situation. One good way is to interview key stakeholders to determine behavior change. The operative question is: do you notice positive change? For the individual, change becomes visible with results that are measured in two ways. One, did the behavior change help fulfill business objectives? Two, did the change help the individual manage and lead more effectively? Sometimes results will be immediate; other times they will evident over time.

Sometimes individuals want more from their coach. They almost want the coach to play the game with them. That’s not a good sign. A colleague of mine says, “If I’m working harder than the person I’m coaching, then something is wrong.” It is well and good to advice and share tips and techniques but to get more involved does the individual little good. If the coach is doing all the discovering, there is little left for the coachee to uncover. Liken it to the teacher providing the answers to the test; memorization may occur, but not real learning.

Executive coaching is growing in popularity. Nearly half of all companies surveyed by Marshall Goldsmith Partners and the Institute for Executive Development provided coaching at the “the Director and Manager level.” These same companies foresaw a 10 percent growth in the demand for coaching over the next three years. Coaching does pay. According to research done by Right Management, 91 percent of those surveyed reported “that value received was greater than the time and money invested.” ROI was 5.7 times initial investment. Eighty-six percent of those who received coaching were very satisfied, and more than nine in ten would recommend coaching to others.

But as with all executive coaching there is one thing to keep in mind: know when to say when. Coaching engagements, like basketball seasons, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There should be closure to an engagement, when the coach and individual part ways. Yes, there are examples of coaching relationships that extend for years and years. That is rare. It is far better to work one on one for six months or a year, and then take a break. This enables both coach and coachee to reflect and gain new and fresh perspectives for the next time around.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits, including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker, and author of six books on leadership, the most recent being “How Great Leaders Get Great Results.” Visit his leadership resource website at