How Executive Coaching Feeds your Succession Pipeline

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Succession planning has been on the radar of CEOs for more than a decade. For organizations facing generational change through retirement, it is usually in the top 10 biggest issues keeping senior leaders up at night. A summary definition is the system (sometimes called a pipeline) that allows predictable transitions from one successful leader to another, for all key positions. Key positions are obviously CEO, COO and the rest of the C-suite, but can also include general managers and other growing operational areas. The best succession planning systems include the current, as well as the future, criteria for success in these key positions.

This takes forethought, investment of time and strategically connecting your people capacity to the future challenges the organization will face. The number of candidates ready for the next position determines the power of the pipeline. Executive coaching can jumpstart and add diligence to the results of succession planning. Currently, 17% of companies are planning to devote more resources to executive coaching to improve their pipeline strength, according to the Conference Board (2017).

“Mind the gap”

Every person moving up to a new, bigger position in the pipeline has a predicted performance gap, for six to nine months, on average, depending on how well they are groomed prior to promotion. For organizations with transparency to the candidate about their potential future, time can more easily be carved out for targeted development. But, either way, there will always be a gap. Executive coaching can effectively help close that gap in a cost-effective manner.

The gap can be skills based, such as skills a person needs to acquire or adjust in the next job. For example, one of my recent clients needed to understand finance better and didn’t know the gap was going to be a problem. Another needed to “let go” of a favorite skill of micro-analyzing every decision and problem under his growing bandwidth of functions. He also did not realize that this skill would become a deficit in the eyes of his new boss.

The gaps can also be a lack of executive presence or the tendency toward other interpersonal style preferences which, though appropriate at one level, are simply unacceptable at another. One client, a hobbyist photographer in her free time, would snap photos on her phone of cities she visited when in a junior manager role. Once in a senior role, she had to be admonished for posting photos from a sensitive meeting. She didn’t see it coming.

The fact that high-potential employees don’t see these gaps is not surprising. Having worked in business for almost three decades, I know first-hand that what you see is what you are responsible for in the current role and what you see ahead when looking at your own boss is through a “foggy glass,” only parts of the reality of the position.

Even the most promising high-potential candidate will have a gap, simply because the priorities change, styles change, the fishbowl is more visible and the time to results is shorter.

In my experience, just a handful of well-executed executive coaching sessions can help change the mindset and clarity of purpose of the candidate and put him or her on the path to faster success. I call this type of coaching “context shifting,” and it works quickly with the candidate who is truly “ready in one to two years” or sooner.

Context shifting – a powerful coaching technique

Context shifting is the process of increasing the capacity of a candidate to “think as though” they are in a higher-level role, specifically, coaching them to the gaps between the way they naturally have operated and the next position’s requirements. An example is a CFO who is a candidate for the CAO role, including finance, HR, IT, marketing and tax. Even if the CFO has worked at least briefly in all the functions that he or she will oversee later, a shift still needs to occur for effective leadership.

Specific skills and capabilities that coaching could assist with include:

  • Learning to collaborate with other functions vs. compete, and practice that is necessary in the larger role
  • Improved communications approaches, to prepare for the ability to shift gears with each functional head’s needs
  • Specific gaps in technical knowledge that will make the oversight of problem solving difficult
  • The overall strategic challenges facing the organization and how the functions under his/her direction must adapt to meet them.

Overtly clarifying these or other gaps in capability and creating action to reduce the gaps puts the candidate on the path to more rapid success. I’ve seen context shifting coaching work quickly with a talented and open-minded candidate for promotion. Just last week, after the first coaching session, a talented manager reported to her senior director that her viewpoint changed completely and instead of resisting guidance, she was ready to embrace it.


Succession planning is a broad topic with many interrelated facets. Though executive coaching is only one of the ways to enhance succession’s effectiveness, it’s clearly one which has a powerful ROI for the organization. Not only are candidates likely to see the investment as a reason to remain with the business, the clear direction for development is invaluable from an efficiency standpoint. Think of the difference in effectiveness between six months of executive coaching tailored to the individual and their fit to a future position, and say, for example, a course in strategy at Stanford, which runs $20,000 or more. The executive coaching likely costs less than half that amount and will result in an executable action plan with feedback and measurable results.

So, if you have a key position for which you think your best candidates aren’t ready yet, consider hiring a strong executive coach to help them get to “ready now” status. If you do, you’ll find it a good investment as well as a great retention device.

By Phillis Horner

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Editor, Community Manager, Social Media Manager

Kristen is the editor and community manager at Mainsail Coaches and Kristen's desire to ask questions and share information with others led her to pursue journalism. While she has worked at various publications, covering everything from municipal politics to local restaurants, it was her love of self-improvement and sharing inspiration with others that made Noomii the perfect fit. Connect with Kristen through Twitter.

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