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Coaching an Executive Team


“The principle of building a great management team involves continuous evolution.”—Neff & Citrin1

“Top team and board development is often confused in organisations [sic] with concepts of training and education, increasing the likelihood of a rejection by senior managers who feel that they do not need to learn any more than they have already, given their extensive experience.”2

Our companies are constantly evolving. Research and innovation bring us new products, mergers and acquisitions expand our reach, and the competitive landscape shapes and re-shapes our strategies. In response, we search for new ways of thinking, operating, and organizing our businesses to gain market share and accelerate growth. As companies have grown more complex, for example, traditional, hierarchical structures have given way to more amorphous, flexible organizations. As businesses have gone global, more work has been conducted virtually. While developments like these have allowed our organizations to keep pace with an accelerating world, they have also created a more challenging landscape for the executives charged with leading these enterprises. Increasingly, companies are looking not to a single individual to provide that leadership, but to a highly skilled executive team that leverages the strengths and functional expertise of multiple leaders.

Membership on an executive team, however, has its own distinct challenges; work becomes more enterprise than functionally focused, requiring individuals who can inspire confidence and action among people at every level, who have greater self awareness, and who are highly effective communicators. By virtue of their position, executive teams wield an enormous influence; their actions shape the organization’s culture, impact productivity, foster innovation, and more. With so much riding on executive teams, organizations are increasingly looking for ways to accelerate and enhance executive team performance; the question becomes “how?”

Even very senior, experienced, well-educated leaders have much to learn about what it takes to work well in teams. And those chief executives who take education seriously and invest in their team’s development have better teams. Indeed, second to rewards, education about teamwork is the support resource that made the most difference between outstanding teams and all the rest.3

For the purposes of this white paper, I am going to ask you to abolish the term “team building” from your vocabulary. For many team members, classic “team building” carries with it the baggage of “event-based” activities that feel artificial or forced, and that have little connection to business outcomes. In its place, I’d like you to consider a new form of working with executive teams: team coaching. Executive team coaching is more closely integrated with the ongoing work of the team, blending individual and collective feedback to enhance the team’s performance. Team coaching embeds the coach with the team for a period of time, typically 6-12 months, and is more comprehensive than episodic in nature.

…team building is often a relatively shallow activity, separated by long intervals of “work as normal”. So while the deeper behavioral or interpersonal issues that create fault-lines within the team are temporarily addressed, they gradually re-emerge and find expression in other ways. By contrast, frequent coaching dialogue is able gradually to address deeper issues and revisit them to prevent symptoms from recurring…Team coaching can negate the downsides of traditional approaches to team building by helping people understand and manage the social dynamics of the team, by introducing healthy doses of realism when appropriate, and by sustaining members’ curiosity about the task, each other and the environment in which they work together.4

Executive team coaching should not be confused with one-on-one executive coaching. Though the two concepts are compatible and may be used in concert, teams cannot expect that individual coaching alone for each member of the team will necessarily improve the team’s functioning. The two processes are designed to target different skills: one is aimed at improving individual performance; the other is aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of a collective body.

…the team itself is an entity separate from the individuals who constitute it. For the team to get better, that entity needs to be coached while members are actually carrying out their collaborative work.5

While coaching an executive team can significantly accelerate their ability to operate more effectively, it is a methodology that is highly influenced by the style of the coach, the tools employed in its service, and the culture of the team to which it is applied. Therefore, teams must target the results they want to achieve and carefully consider which approaches will best suit their needs. To that end, this paper examines the process of executive team coaching, identifying the factors that have the greatest impact on success and providing a theoretical framework that has proven effective in practice. With this knowledge, executive teams can better determine whether and how to apply the methodology, and enter into a coaching process with greater intention.

>> Click here to download the full PDF.<<


  1. Neff, T. J. & Citrin, J. M. (2001). Lessons from the Top. New York, NY: Currency. p. 370. 

  2. Jackson, S., Farndale, E. & Kakabadse, A. (2003). Executive development: Meeting the needs of top teams and boards. Journal of Management Development, 22(3). p. 255. 

  3. Wageman, R., Nunes, D. A., Burruss, J. A. & Hackman, J. R. (2008). Senior Leadership Teams. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press. p. 152. 

  4. Clutterbuck, D. (2007). Coaching the Team at Work. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey International. pp. 108-110. 

  5. Wageman et al., p.161. 

Friday, May 1st, 2009  Tags: , ,
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