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Are Some Leaders Uncoachable?

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Are Some Leaders Uncoachable?

Jenny Devine M.A., an Auckland based leadership and executive coach, is the President of the International Coach Federation (ICF) Australasia Chapter. She is credentialed by ICF as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC). Her background is in management and consultancy in the New Zealand health sector. Email:

Leadership development is a key priority in many organisations. But in current times where HR budgets may be shrinking, or at best, stagnant, the money that is invested into leaders must have a high probability of delivering effective outcomes, in particular – in a climate of economic volatility and unpredictability – outcomes that ultimately affect the leader’s ability to influence the bottom-line.

In many organisations coaching is considered integral to leadership development and considerable time and energy may be expended on ensuring that suitably qualified, experienced and competent coaches are engaged for the task. But the process of ensuring that the “right” employees are selected is not always carried out with the same degree of rigour.

A key question for HR professionals is whether or not the leader or potential leader they are putting forward for coaching, or who is being recommended to them, is a good investment; in other words, is that person actually coachable?

The International Coach Federation defines coaching as “Partnering with clients in a thought provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.”

From this definition two key concepts can be highlighted:

  1. “Partnering”, by its very nature, infers a joint responsibility. Thus, the coach and client must both contribute fully to the process in order for expected outcomes to be achieved. Self-responsibility along with self-awareness and self-accountability have long been considered fundamental attributes for a client to embrace in order for the coaching relationship to be highly effective.
  2. Inherent in the “maximising of potential” is some sort of movement, shift or change. Potential cannot be maximised if the individual chooses to remain static.

These two concepts are, of course, inter-related. To identify the need for change and to be willing to change requires a degree of self-awareness.

A number of research papers highlight that “change” is fundamental to a successful coaching process.

A study by Gavin Dagley (2009) on Exceptional Executive Coaching highlights that “A great outcome from coaching is “behaviour change” – complex, idiosyncratic, personally-demanding behaviour change.”

Bacon and Pool, 2008, in their study titled Can Coaching Effectiveness be Measured? also focus on client change. “Effective coaching is coaching that creates the right behavioural changes that lead to improvement in the client’s ability to impact bottom-line business results”.

So, if a willingness, inclination or readiness to change coupled with the presence of some degree of self-awareness is the key to successful coaching outcomes, how do HR professionals identify those factors or, in some cases, the lack of them?

While it is impossible to identify all of the factors that influence how readily people change (or how much they resist it), Bacon and Poole believe it is possible to identify some of the key factors in coachability including the following five:

  • Openness to feedback
  • The executive’s self-assessment of need, along with a sense of urgency
  • The executive’s perception of the value of the process and the likely outcomes
  • The strength of competing commitments (forces that drive stasis or change)
  • The executive’s fear of consequences if he or she does not seek and accept help.

Using Lore’s 7 Point Coachability Scale Bacon and Poole rate potential coaching clients from a zero factor (C0), “not coachable at present” through to the highest rating (C7), “excellent coachability”.

At the lower end of the scale descriptions associated with each rating include: identified psychological issues, narcissistic tendencies, the resisting or defying of feedback, complacence and unmotivation to change. Unsurprisingly, the higher end of the scale includes descriptions such as an earnest desire to improve and an intrinsic need to grow.

It’s worth noting that this highlights the issue that when a leader is a poor fit for coaching they are equally likely to be a poor fit for leadership, generally. In these complex and uncertain economic times, people who are inward focused, feedback resistant and unable to embrace change – be it within themselves or in external situations – are likely to struggle leading companies that may be in constant states of flux.

It should be added that these people could still be highly competent in their work and of value to the organisation – just currently inappropriate for leadership development.

Although a number of tools, such as 360 assessments and performance reviews/evaluations, can be useful in assessing coaching suitability and readiness, the HR professional may still want to determine whether a professed desire to grow/change in the potential coachee is genuine or could be a “perceived” desire to change based upon fear of the consequences should they not.

In these cases the two essential coaching skills of active listening and powerful questioning can be put into practice. Some possible questions to field include:

What does effective leadership look like to you?

What are your thoughts on this regarding your own leadership skills?

Is there room for improvement/growth?

What would that look like?

Are you ready for that?

Getting coachability right 100% of the time may be a big ask for any HR practitioner, but by being aware of the factors that influence and hamper successful coaching relationships, getting it right most of the time is much more likely.

ICF is the leading global organisation dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting high standards, providing independent certification and building a worldwide network of credentialed coaches. ICF has over 23,000 members in 134 countries including over 1150 in Australasia.