Coaching in-house counsel helps perfect their game

Executive training can take in-house lawyers to the next level

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There’s no denying the effects of a coach on his pupil. The most readily identifiable analogy is athletics, in which a professional coach will drill, instruct and mold his athletes—sometimes young and raw, other times experienced veterans in need of further refinement or structure—into whatever their talents dictate their roles to be.

Ask any Chicago Bulls or Los Angeles Lakers player about the role Phil Jackson played in shaping those teams from underachievers into dynastic champions, or former Detroit Red Wings star Steve Yzerman about how Scotty Bowman deconstructed and recreated not only his game, but decades of franchise futility into a perennial powerhouse. In both circumstances, athletes had to take a hard look at themselves and their roles, answer uncomfortable questions, and painstakingly work, practice and mold themselves into a stronger, more-effective whole.

But the relevance of coaching isn’t simply limited to a given playing field. Business professionals can just as easily benefit from the same type of coaching as athletes. For many years now, corporations have engaged coaches to effect similar changes in their employees. While not every company manages the matching of employees and coaches similarly—and some may not do so at all, leaving the individual in charge of soliciting his own instructor should one be desired—most are eager to support their workers to maximize their potential.

What follows is an examination of the executive coaching process, investigating the purpose and various types of coaches available, an in-depth examination of the process and exercises once begun, the potential benefits for in-house counsel, and some advice from coaches and coachees.

Coaches’ Corner

The term executive coach has myriad meanings—both to the coaches and their students. Ten different coaches will likely describe their work 10 different ways. But while executive coaches come in all manner of forms and specialize in different areas, the intent is still the same: to mold an organization’s talent to suit its needs and maximize the skills and effectiveness of every individual employee.

“The primary objective of an executive coach is really to help individuals move from where they are to where they want to be in their careers,” says Dr. Kym Harris, CEO of Your SweetSpot Coaching & Consulting. “And that could be related to moving into some key leadership roles being viewed as a high-potential individual.”

Indeed, coaches may work with clients on a broad swath of areas, from leadership training for upper management, developing better psychological or technical skills, enhancing communication or general business coaching to help people overcome whatever impediments may be standing between them and their professional goals.

“Executive coaches, if they do their job right, are going to unleash potential and transform behaviors that then will empower people to really achieve whatever it is that they want,” says Trudy Bourgeois, president and CEO of The Center for Workforce Excellence. “I can’t make you a brain surgeon, but it’s about being able to get beyond those blockers that limit our capability to fulfill our vision.”

Typically, companies identify groups of high-potential employees that they want to develop—often as part of succession-planning efforts. Companies believe these employees have the capability to take on higher roles or expanded responsibility, but sometimes they need refinement. Once the candidates are identified, the company typically contracts a coach or group of coaches, or sends the employees to career- or personal-development types of workshops. Additionally, some companies even have their own in-house professional and psychological evaluation programs and tools, often as part of the human resources department.

Personal Drive

Sometimes, however, individuals seek out coaches on their own. People often desire help with conquering challenges related to interpersonal relationships with peers. They also regularly feel there are certain areas in which they can improve their abilities or want to learn better leadership skills to increase their teams’ effectiveness. Another reason individuals frequently solicit coaches is because they’re frustrated with their work situation and are looking to—or think they may want to—make a change.

“It’s my job to really help them explore the ‘why’ of that,” Harris says of clients potentially interested in leaving their jobs, “and often times we get to a point where they don’t actually want to make a change—they just need to do some things to work on themselves and their personal lives to have more balance.”

Bourgeois similarly says individuals occasionally come to her because they have some barriers that they haven’t been able to get through, or they’re not satisfied with their jobs. Often, she says, lawyers have a sense that there’s something more for them to be doing with their careers, but that they lack a blueprint for how to make that happen.

“A lot of people will come to me and ask, ‘Can you help me break out of this rut that I’ve worked myself in from the legal side?’” she says.

Bourgeois recounts a recent coaching relationship with an in-house lawyer who engaged her for help to change the “policeman” image of the legal department among her counterparts, and to get people to view the department’s work as valuable. The client also had aspirations to do other things in the business, and felt she had worked herself into a corner where people just labeled her as “the house lawyer.”

“We had to really dig deep to find out what was causing that perception,” she explains. “A lot of it is the way lawyers show up. They don’t articulate their knowledge of the business—they just articulate their knowledge of the legal part of the business. To really get leadership credibility and then springboard to other avenues, you’ve got to know the business.”

Game Planning

The coaching process varies widely based on a coach’s specialty and style, but clients typically should expect to spend at least six months to a year engaged in a program. The frequency with which the coach and coachee speak usually ranges from weekly to monthly, with sessions often lasting at least one to two hours. Most discussions between coach and client are conducted over the phone, but in-person meetings also are routine if both parties are local.

To begin, most coaches employ at least one form of initial evaluation measure, such as personality assessments and 360-degree feedback. The 360 assessment gathers feedback from all around the employee, including supervisors, subordinates, peers and even sometimes external sources, such as family members or spouses. The coaches then interview these sources and use that feedback to craft a blueprint for the client to follow.

“Nobody gets to hide behind bubble sheets,” Bourgeois says. “We’re really trying to get candid feedback. We ask for the brutal facts about the individual, and we ask really tough questions, like ‘What’s the highest level that you think this person can reach within the organization?’ and ‘Where does this individual stand in the succession planning process?’ It makes people really nervous, but we have to know the truth of it.”

After the assessment stage, coaches typically identify the critical issues on which the clients need to work and devise an action plan for them to go about improving in those areas. Once the plan is in place, it’s up to the client to put it into practice, testing out new behaviors and methodologies discussed with the coach in the workplace. This implementation phase takes time. Clients frequently report back to their coaches on how they’re progressing, and course corrections will be issued as needed. Concurrently, coaches will circle back with clients’ supervisors and other sources to check up on their development. This practice and assessment plan is repeated until the employee believes that he has mastered the behavior, and the coach and the employee’s feedback group agree.

“I just don’t let them go until I’m satisfied,” says Veronica Holcomb, founder of VJ Holcomb Associates Inc. “When I get a sense that they are managing their issues at a level that I think makes sense for them, and I’m confident that they’re confident and comfortable, then it’s time to let them go.”

Private Practice

Colleen Batcheler, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of ConAgra Foods Inc., underwent this type of training process after the company tapped her for the GC role. The HR department informed her that an executive coaching team was available to help with the transition, and she decided to meet with the coaches to see if they were a good fit. Ensuring there’s a solid rapport and foundation of trust is crucial, she says, to make the effort worthwhile. “There’s an element of vulnerability that you need to really show to make the most of the experience,” she explains.

After the first few meetings with the coaches and the initial assessments, Batcheler was given homework and asked to determine what it was that she really wanted to accomplish from the experience.

“At the end of the day, I ultimately created my own individual development plan,” she explains. “I said, ‘Here’s the goal that I have, here’s my current state, here’s the target state and, importantly, here’s what has gotten in the way of me being more like the target state.’”

Following that, she sat down with the CEO and showed him her outline for development. “I said, ‘Here’s what I’m holding myself accountable for, and from a personal development standpoint, this is what you should hold me accountable for.’ I also did the same thing with my team using a sanitized version and said, ‘Here’s where I think I have opportunity for improvement. Help hold me accountable for this if you think I’m not.’”

Tim Geckle, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Ryland Group Inc., went down a slightly different road. He and the rest of the company’s management personnel met with an executive coach over two days at the request of the company’s new CEO in 1993. As soon as the CEO took over, he expressed to his team that he firmly believed a company’s workers are the strength behind the organization. As part of this, he told them that they all had access to coaching. While his initial coaching experience was brief, Geckle found it to be a “remarkable epiphany.”

“It was really eye-opening in terms of what I learned about myself from him,” Geckle says of working with the coach. “It’s something that’s stayed with me to this very day, and I still work with [the coach] to this day.”

In addition to the ongoing relationship with that coach, Geckle went on to participate in a handful of other programs. The first was a weeklong workshop at the Center for Creative Leadership (see “Creative Coaching”), where he met a second coach with whom he still maintains a relationship. A few years later, Geckle attended performance psychologist Jim Loehr’s 2 ½-day Corporate Athlete Course after Loehr spoke at the company’s annual management meeting. The premise of the course is that professional athletes have it easy because they play for a short period of time but get to practice constantly. Corporate “athletes,” on the other hand, are constantly on the “field” with no opportunity to practice or work on their skills.

“The course teaches you that stress is really a life-actualizing event for people and can be used to make you more effective as opposed to debilitating,” Geckle says. “It’s a great program that teaches you new tricks, as well as an exercise program that I use to this day. I still use a lot of the nutritional advice, like drinking water all of the time. It’s really just a remarkable program that takes a look at the entire person.”

Geckle credits both of his longtime coaches as being instrumental in teaching him the skills that he’s used in his role as general counsel, and helped him to evolve into a more effective manager. “Having those guys as sounding boards and as coaches has made a big difference not only in my professional career, but in my personal life as well,” he says.

Because of his positive experiences working with coaches, Geckle makes it a priority to offer the same resources to the people in his department.

Stirring Results

The benefits of coaching for in-house lawyers are manifold. While it’s still very much a personal decision and journey, Batcheler believes in-house lawyers in leadership positions should really devote the time needed to hone their people-development skills. Doing so, she says, will lead to a more engaged team and more effective results.

Batcheler’s coaching experience led her to recognize that she needed to spend more time connecting with team members on a more individualized basis. Most legal departments often have a large number of high-performing members who come in every day, get their work done and do a great job. But given that each employee has a slightly different approach to his work and personal differences in style, she learned that she needed to better identify those style differences and get her team to maximize its performance.

“At first I had to spend a lot of time being intentional about looking for those things, and making sure that I was using different styles for each individual,” she explains. “Now, it’s very much second-nature because it’s something that I practiced. Coming into the job, that’s not how I acted. You get a whole lot more out of your team and keep them more engaged when you recognize those unique style differences. Learning this has been terrific.”

Similarly, her experience also helped her to identify a new approach to problem solving with her team. Batcheler realized that she occasionally was overusing certain stronger skills to compensate for other, weaker areas when faced with dilemmas. In order to change this, she started identifying and engaging other team members who could help elucidate alternative perspectives and force her to solve the issue in a different fashion.

“It got me to make sure that I am finding others on the team who can help bring that alternate perspective because I’m not going to completely change as a person just because I had an executive coach,” she says. “I’m still hardwired a certain way. But if you start identifying what your own strengths are, you can build a really effective team by grabbing onto other folks who have a style that’s different from yours and get a more complete perspective.”

Getting in the Game

While the coaching process is an arduous path and unique to every individual, there are a number of areas in which in-house counsel can begin work on their own to improve their daily affairs. One area in which lawyers may need help is in their overall understanding of the business.

“I just can’t stress this enough—study the business,” Bourgeois says. “Understand the business. You work for a corporation, you can’t just say, ‘I’m in the legal department; I’m not going to know the rest of the business.’ The best leaders have cross-functional knowledge. They understand the business from raw materials to end-user consumption.”

Harris regularly encourages her clients to share information about themselves with others. For example, she suggests that her clients buy a table or seats at a banquet or event held by organizations for which they volunteer in order to invite co-workers. Doing so can help their co-workers get to know them better outside of the work environment.

“Creating and looking for more opportunities for informal interaction helps build those authentic relationships,” she says. “Whether it’s an elevator conversation or walking down the hall or even inviting somebody for a cup of coffee, it always helps.”

Another area where many people can make strides is in asking for advice when they have a problem. Oftentimes people think that asking for help reveals weakness when, in many cases, people are anxious to offer help. “It makes them feel good to know that they can help us,” Harris says. “So become a little bit more vulnerable and be willing to ask for advice.”

But in the end, perhaps the most proactive thing in-house counsel can do is simply to embrace coaching. From it, Geckle believes, people can only grow and become more successful and effective in their jobs.

“The beauty of coaching is that when you face walls and challenges in your personal development that seem insurmountable, having a talented coach can help you to gain the circumspection needed to help you effectively deal with those issues,” he says.

Contributing Author

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