Executive Coaching: Rethinking Common Performance Gaps

When I first heard the phrase “executive coaching” I had images of secretive meetings behind closed doors where C-level executives worked with stealthy, mysterious outsiders to somehow learn to be more executive. It wasn’t until I started doing executive coaching myself that I realized how off-base I actually was, if only because stealthy isn’t a word my clients would ever use to describe me.

Over the past decade, I’ve seen an increasing number of people work with executive coaches—either on their own or with the sponsorship of their company—to accelerate their professional development. Unfortunately, there are even greater numbers of companies and professionals who haven’t been exposed to the many ways executive coaching can help them achieve their goals more quickly. This article is for them.

I don’t pretend to be able to speak for all executive coaches. Nor do I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the full range of offerings available. What I can do, however, is share a few of the experiences and insights that have caused me to rethink how we look at performance gaps and why this matters if you have thought about working with an executive coach. But first, let’s start with a broader view.

Who can benefit from executive coaching?

I would love to see executive coaching renamed “professional development coaching” or “professional coaching” because many of the companies I have worked with recognize the benefits coaching can provide at all levels of the organization. To these forward-thinking companies, coaching is no longer a benefit reserved for senior management. I’ve worked with C-level executives, senior management, mid-level management, all the way down to junior account managers, sales people, and associates. That makes sense when you think about it because, no matter what level we happen to find ourselves, we always have opportunities for improvement.

Before I get into specific examples of the coaching I’ve done and the lessons learned, it is helpful to take a step back and look at the scenarios that typically require professional development or intervention. In addition to these three categories, I’ve identified a fourth that has played a particularly important role for my clients.

Performance Gaps

For years, people have been taught to categorize performance gaps into three areas: Knowledge Gaps, Skills Gaps, and Will Gaps. This distinction is particularly useful for those of us who manage people. However, if you are objective and possess a high degree of self-awareness, you can also apply it to your own situation.

Knowledge Gaps

Knowledge Gaps are binary. At the most basic level, you either know how to tie your shoes or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s a Knowledge Gap that requires training. Many Knowledge Gaps can be addressed through self-study alone, but some cannot. In other cases, you may acquire the knowledge, but need practice to reach a higher level of performance. In that case, you are dealing with a Skill Gap. It’s also worth noting that some skills, such as technical proficiency, represent more of a training issue than a coaching one.

Skill Gaps

Skill Gaps refer to any gap in competency in which there is a range between where you are and where you want to be. For example, your skill in public speaking may be anywhere between novice and expert. Whatever your level, if your goal is to improve, there is a limit to how much progress you can make practicing on your own or with a video camera. For this reason, a coach who can provide objective feedback to help you elevate your performance would be an excellent investment.

Will Gaps

Will Gaps are all about attitude. Whether you are coaching yourself or someone else, a Will Gap is the most challenging to address because it requires uncovering the source of the resistance. If you aren’t naturally fired up about doing something, finding inspiration can be difficult. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but you may need the help of an outsider to talk through what you are thinking and feeling. This could be a coach or therapist. Either is a legitimate choice depending on your situation. Trust your gut.

For a long time, I thought the three gaps described above covered the full range of possibilities. However, it wasn’t until I’d been coaching for awhile that I discovered a fourth gap that is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to rate themselves on objectively.

The Communication Gap

Simply put, a Communication Gap exists anytime there is a disconnect between our intended communication and what people actually hear and understand. When I look back on the executive coaching I’ve done over the past 15 years, what strikes me most is that whether the goal was to improve business development, leadership, executive presence, or presentation skills, it was easier to achieve the desired results when we identified and corrected the Communication Gaps first.

This isn’t to say that teaching new strategies or helping people improve a process, such as a business development process, isn’t important. Instead, what this means is that you can be doing everything else correctly and unintentionally chip away at your credibility through the way you speak and the words you use. Unfortunately, this is a level of communication that tends to operate outside the conscious awareness of both parties involved in the conversation. In other words, the person speaking often doesn’t realize he or she is using particular words, phrases, or speech patterns. Similarly, the people who are listening don’t necessarily know why they are responding the way they are.

One of the best, and most disheartening, examples of this happened a few years ago when I was asked to observe a finals presentation for a financial services firm. The team had spent months doing an in-depth discovery to learn about the prospect’s business, financials, hopes, dreams, fears, and plans. Due to the distance and the difficulty coordinating schedules, the team and prospect collectively decided to review the proposal by phone. From a coaching standpoint, this worked well because it allowed me to be a silent observer in the conference room as the team shared their ideas.

Based on what I knew of the situation and what I had seen of the proposal, there is no question that the prospect would have been better off moving forward with the relationship. Unfortunately, the word choice of the person making the recommendation subtly communicated uncertainty. Eight times within a 10-minute presentation, the team leader used phrases that called his confidence and credibility into question.

The prospect’s response was fascinating because it clearly illustrated a Communication Gap that wasn’t easily identifiable by either party. After a few seconds of awkward silence, the prospect said, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m not feeling confident moving forward.”  This was a sad moment for both parties because the prospect had a genuine need to find the right partner and no doubt wanted the team to succeed. At the same time, the team had worked hard for months only to undermine their own efforts at a critical moment. Unfortunately, changing the mind of a prospect once you’ve raised questions about your credibility and confidence is more than a little challenging.

A similar scenario plays out at the other end of the process when the goal is to set up appointments with people we’d like to meet or with whom we’d like to do business.

What fascinates me most about appointment setting is that the word choice can’t be attributed to a strange verbal tick because the same insidious words show up in introductory letters and emails. Unfortunately, the impact is worse than the finals presentation described above because the underlying communication goes deeper than a lack of confidence. Instead, the unconscious communication is that the person asking for the meeting actually expects the other person to decline. And so they do. Predictably.

Follow the Leader

What makes Communication Gaps particularly dangerous is that they are also contagious. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to coach a large team of executives. As part of the engagement, I watched each manager lead their own team meetings. Then, I watched them in one-on-one coaching sessions with people on their teams. You didn’t need a formal statistical analysis to see how often leaders who demonstrated weak word choice and conversational styles had teams that did the same.

Other Communication Gaps

Communication Gaps impact more than our professional presence, confidence, and credibility. On a number of occasions, I’ve helped people identify ways of communicating that improved relationships by making them seem more approachable and less stern. This often occurs with executives whose communication style is direct. Direct and candid is fine. Abrupt and rude is not.

In cases like this, the goal isn’t to get people who are direct to embrace small talk or to suddenly become overly and uncomfortably warm. There are other, less radical, ways to tweak a person’s communication style and, at the same time, be true to what works for their personality. The same is true for presentation skills in general. People shouldn’t look at you and think, “Oh, you finally got some coaching.” Instead, they should think, “I’d don’t know what’s different, but I like it.”

Unexpected Gaps

Although this is never why people hire me as a coach, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share the most surprising challenge I’ve encountered. It’s sad that I even have to mention this, but by necessity I’ve had to become more adept at coaching people in areas I wouldn’t have thought an executive coach would have to address. I’m talking about grammar. Across a staggeringly wide range of companies and levels, I’ve seen people sabotage their own credibility and perception of professionalism using grammatically incorrect constructions such as, “Her and I have a meeting at 3pm.”

Grammatical issues are particularly disturbing because it means that the person’s parents haven’t corrected them. Their teachers haven’t intervened. And no supervisor up to this point has made an effort or impression either. Since I care deeply about the success of the people I coach, I am always willing to take a stand. But that doesn’t mean I like it. Delivering feedback like this is second only to asking people to be more particular about their personal hygiene. I’d prefer to never do either.

Coaching For Results

Over my career, I’ve been fortunate to coach people from CEOs to associates across a wide range of jobs including financial services professionals, advertising executives, media reps, IT people, pharmaceutical and medical device reps—even microbiologists, concert violinists, and a Hollywood script supervisor. Whatever the occupation, what I love most is the opportunity to learn about a person’s challenges, hopes, and dreams, and to find ways to work together to achieve the desired results.

If you are reading this and have a strong, gut feeling that uncovering a Communication Gap is key to achieving your goals, get in touch. Whether your goal is to attract new clients, perfect your presentation skills, improve your executive presence, or position yourself for a promotion, I’d welcome the opportunity to help you achieve better results. If what you need is outside my area of expertise, I will always give you an honest assessment and do my best to help you find the right coach.

Here is an excerpt from an email one of my coaching clients sent to the executive who sponsored her coaching:

“I wanted to give you some feedback on the benefits I’ve found in the one-on-one coaching with Rob Sullivan.  He worked with me by observing my sales meeting and sitting in with several coaching sessions for my direct reports. His feedback that day was very helpful. Even more helpful has been the fact that he has stuck with his commitment to assist going forward. I have reached out to him several times since to brainstorm coaching and sales meeting strategies and have gotten huge support and “real world” examples that are relevant for the company and my team.

“I can walk through any scenario with Rob and get a clear approach for the situation. In short, I just wanted to pass along my appreciation for this follow up step. While I enjoyed the training we had, the best impact for me has been this follow up piece and the ability to reach Rob for specific help with the sales process and coaching. That has been a tremendous help.”

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