Talent Management: Coaching Executives from a Business Perspective

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Jack Bucalo

This is the sencond in a series of articles on which Jack Bucalo focuses on the topic of Talent Management.

If you examine the management and leadership responsibilities of upper-middle and upper management executives (typically, $300K cash compensation per annum and higher) in any company and compare them to the same responsibilities of lower and lower-middle managers, you find that they are far more complex and influential to a company's success. Yet, the coaching activities at these two levels tend to remain fundamentally the same - concentrating on the interpersonal skills and leadership style development.

The following responsibilities highlight the differences, though these are far from a complete list.

Lower and Lower-Middle Managers

  • Planning and prioritizing departmental work
  • Coordinating inter-departmental work
  • Team-building
  • Problem-solving
  • Performance review and feedback
  • Motivating
  • Communicating
  • Training and developing employees

Upper-Middle and Upper Management Executives

  • Planning and controlling major multi-functional and multi-divisional projects
  • Achieving key business objectives that directly effect the company's operational and financial worth
  • Rejuvenating a failing or struggling business or function with a business recovery and strategic plan
  • Improving key company wide business metrics, such as sales, net income, market share, quality, etc.
  • Creating a revamped executive management team
  • Developing potential succession plan candidates
  • Communicating and leading the implementation of a new strategic plan for a key business or function
  • Revising executive and/or sales incentive compensation plans

It should be emphasized that coaching at the upper-middle and upper management levels, at a minimum, should be used to support of a company's succession planning program so that all identified succession candidates and high potential managers receive individualized coaching that fits their particular needs and helps them to transition into a more strategic management position in the foreseeable future.

When it comes to coaching these upper-middle and upper management executives, there are several points to remember. First, the executives being coached are typically successful upper middle or upper management ones who have already demonstrated an ability to achieve excellent business results job after job after job which required the effective use of functional, business, financial and management skills. Second, they understand and typically utilize a democratic leadership style in the vast majority of their leadership endeavors. Third, they usually possess a relatively complete set of interpersonal skills though one or two of them might need some refinement.

When it comes to the person who will be coaching them, there are also several key points to remember. First, and perhaps foremost, is that if the coach does not possess some practical work experience in the functional, business or management areas that are relevant to the executive's real life position, there is a high likelihood that the executive will disregard most of the coaches' advice as being superficial, conceptual and comparatively unimportant. Second, the coach should concentrate on both the hard skills (financial, management, executive, functional [Sales, Marketing, R & D, etc.], business strategy, and so on) and any important soft skills (interpersonal and leadership) that are needed for advancement. In my experience in North America, top line management tends to view these in a two-thirds/hard skills to one-third/soft skills ratio, though the ratio can vary based on the individual executive's skills and developmental needs. Also, it may vary in other countries based on the individual executive's skills and country's management skill norms. Third, development should include an appropriate emphasis on what hard skills are needed for upward advancement. Too often, coaches deal almost exclusively in the realm of interpersonal skill or leadership style change because that is their own experience base, to the detriment of the executive being coached.

Though some coaches, leadership gurus and Talent Management leaders may not agree with this emphasis on hard skills, most line executives do. When a company's executive development and coaching efforts reflect the real world reality of the appropriate ratio, TM leaders will find that line executives are much more supportive of their function.

Below are examples of some key developmental experiences that enhance the hard skills which should be considered for any executive who is seeking to be the general or division manager of a large business unit(s) or running a large functional organization. Selecting any one or more of these or similar developmental experiences should be the responsibility of the executive's superior and the TM leader working together.

  • lead or actively participate in the contract negotiations with a key customer regarding the closing of a large multi-product and services sales contract.
  • regularly meet with key customers to understand their strategic plans and how the company's current and future products and services can better help them achieve their goals.
  • lead or actively participate in the financial and operational analysis, and acquisition agreement negotiations of a potential acquisition.
  • lead or actively participate in the analysis of a failing or struggling businesses' financial statements, market/product situation, and establish a financial/operating recovery plan and strategic plan.
  • gaining exposure to a particular functional area (e.g. finance, product development, manufacturing, etc.) for which they have had little previous experience.
  • managing a much larger business unit or division with different products, markets, vendors and customers than they have previously managed, while reassessing its strategic direction.
  • gaining exposure to new technology trends and applications, and provide a detailed business analysis of how these new trends and applications that will affect current and future business lines.
  • gaining exposure to or operating any business that allows them to expand their understanding of the company's globalization efforts and future international businesses.
  • managing a large number of technical personnel in a highly technical business, especially one that is a critical element in the company's strategic plan.
  • exposure to a particular financial, business or market/product situation not previously experienced.
  • interacting directly with members of upper management and/or the Board of Directors on specific current and/or future business issues.

When a company's Chief HR Officer and TM leader work with the CEO, COO and upper line management executives to establish and track the development of both hard and soft skills, they will find that all of their development programs will be much more readily endorsed and implemented by them.

The key point here for all coaches and H.R. leaders is that the skills development for high level business executives should be implemented in the appropriate ratio of hard and soft skills - the way they exist in the executive's real world.