An interview with Brian O. Underhill

Development and Learning in Organizations

ISSN: 1477-7282

Article publication date: 27 June 2008



(2008), "An interview with Brian O. Underhill", Development and Learning in Organizations, Vol. 22 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

An interview with Brian O. Underhill

Article Type: Leading edge From: Development and Learning in Organizations, Volume 22, Issue 4

Brian O. Underhill, PhD is an industry-recognized expert in the design and management of worldwide executive coaching implementations. His executive coaching work has successfully focused on helping clients achieve positive, measurable, long-term change in leadership behavior. He has also helped pioneer the use of “mini-surveys” - a unique measurement tool to help impact behavioral change over time. Brian is the Founder of CoachSource and the Alexcel Group. Brian is the author of Executive Coaching for Results: The Definitive Guide to Developing Organizational Leaders (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA, 2007).

Executive coaching is becoming increasingly popular as a development technique in organizations, why do you think this is the case?

Executive coaching has gained prominence due to a number of factors. For one, the increasing pace of change requires leaders to develop quickly and in the context of their current jobs. Traditional training programs are often set up to train large numbers of people en masse. Coaching instead offers an individual developmental method without removing leaders from their work. Recently, I heard a CEO of a major Fortune 500 organization indicate that he had not been to one of those week-long leadership development programs in probably 25 years. He endorsed a “learning on the fly” approach, where leaders can learn in place. Executive coaching offers this.

We also know that the “war for talent” continues, even in a softer economy as we are experiencing lately in the USA. Companies are still looking for the best possible talent they can find. Many organizations view coaching as a way to compete in the marketplace to attract and retain that talent. Several organizational leaders we met said they would not still be at their companies if they had not received coaching.

We also find that coaching helps learning to “stick” better, given the built-in follow up. When coaching first came to the forefront in the 1990s, companies were offering it as a one to two hour debrief in conjunction with a 360° feedback report. Over time, companies found that the learning seemed to last longer, and requested increasing amounts of coaching. Eventually six- and 12-month assignments became the standard.

Finally, our research found executives glowed very positively regarding their coaching experiences (and 92 percent indicated they would hire a coach again if the time is right). We found leaders looked at coaching rather “selfishly”; they enjoyed the chance to work with an unbiased external professional to further their development as a leader and advance their careers.

What attracted you to this area of work?

I have always been fascinated with the intersection of business and psychology and executive coaching offers just that, yet in a seemingly more tangible way than other forms of organizational consulting. I was incredibly blessed to start as an intern with Marshall Goldsmith while I was in graduate school. At the time his company was mostly processing 360 feedback reports plus conducting the one-hour telephone session. As client coaching requests grew, we were in a great place to start to formulate a coaching methodology.

My prior career was as an elementary school teacher. At first, I did not see any connection between my prior life and now. It then occurred to me that children in school do not behave that differently from adults in the workplace! Only with the kids it is much more obvious - and you have more “control” over getting the behavior to stop. Now I work with some of the brightest, most accomplished people at the top of some of the world’s greatest organizations … The behaviors are the same - only they are harder to detect and I no longer can send them to the principal’s office. I guess that is why we are paid so much more.

Your work has involved the design and management of executive coaching for a number of organizations worldwide. Do you think that a similar coaching approach is required across an organization or is it very much related to the executive as an individual?

In our research, we analyzed the degree to which organizations desired a consistent approach to coaching - that is, they want all their leaders to have a consistent coaching experience. Organizations struggle greatly with the consistency debate in managing their coaching programs. Should they offer a consistent experience to all leaders across the company and around the world? Should they work to standardize instruments, processes, methodologies, result metrics, and costs? Or should they leave coaching up to the unique combination of leader needs and coach style? Should they let leaders and coaches negotiate their own arrangements, processes, deliverables, etc.?

Surprisingly, we found about 51 percent of organizations felt that consistency was “somewhat” or “very important”. We thought that number would be much higher, given the number of horror stories we heard of a company’s right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing.

In fact, 37 percent of companies indicated consistency to be “somewhat unimportant” to “very unimportant”. These organizations appreciate that every engagement could be unique. We found this number to be a rather vocal minority, supporting the special one-to-one relationship of coaching and not trying to over manage it. Essentially, we have concluded that an organization’s tendency (or not) toward consistency is often related to how centralized/decentralized an organization is structured.

When do you think that executive coaching is most fruitful for organizations?

Our research found organizations with supportive leadership and “development-friendly” cultures were the most conducive to successful executive coaching programs. We highlight the work of Dell in our book, where Michael Dell himself receives 360° feedback and works with a coach. This has been publicly covered in the popular press. Consequently, Dell is a very coaching intensive culture. The book also covers other companies who were not very coaching friendly, and how practitioners in those organizations found ways to bring coaching along more subtly, nonetheless.

What does an organization need to consider before employing an executive coach?

An organization should be looking at areas relating to the executive, the coach and itself as an organization before embarking on an engagement.

Regarding the executive:

  • Is the leader a high performer/high potential?

  • Is he/she committed to engaging with a coach (a good sign when the executive him/herself requests the coach)

  • Are the coaching goals behavioral in nature?

  • Will the executive’s boss be involved/supportive of the engagement?

Regarding the coach:

  • Does this coach have a track record of results with your organization, or with other similar organizations?

  • What style is the coach (more directive/advice-giving or more passive/active-listening), and will that work with this executive?

  • How will results be measured?

Regarding the organization:

  • Will the organization hold the executive accountable for meeting coaching requirements?

  • Why type of support will the executive receive after coaching has been completed?

Are there any situations where you think executive coaching does not work?

Not long ago, I received a call from a famous retailer asking us for a coach. “This is for our VP in the supply chain,” they told me. “She is very forceful and driving, and she tends to leave dead bodies in the way.” “Sounds pretty normal,” I thought. But they went on: “She is on a 90-day performance plan, and if we do not see change in three months, she will be fired.” “Hmmm,” I thought, “this is not sounding promising.” Then they said, “We have not yet told her about coaching, and we are not really sure if she will be a willing participant.” And here was the kicker: “We also have questions around her ethics and integrity. She seems to lie a lot.” Well, there is a good example of where coaching will not work!

Coaching should be focused on the high-performing/high-potential leaders. Coaching should be behavioral in focus. Coaching will not help a leader with an integrity problem either. And most coaches will tell you that working with someone not committed to coaching is bad news.

What do you consider to be your biggest achievement in the field to date?

Most certainly, this book. It was a several year process, from the start of our research until publication. It was a story we had to tell. There has been so much confusion out there regarding this industry, we wanted to set the new standard. Hopefully we have done this.

What do executives look for in selecting a coach?

Executives only care about two factors: ability to build rapport and business experience. All the other choices we gave them were rated significantly lower (advanced degree, match with our organization’s culture, certification, cost, etc.). Organizations, interestingly, selected many of these other factors higher than executives did. As a screener of coaches, I still look at advanced degrees, consulting experience, client lists, etc. But I now place a much higher premium on business experience and rapport building, thanks to this research.

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