Why the Best Coach for a Senior Exec Could Be a Subordinate

Executives become isolated if they don’t get on-point coaching and honest feedback. But too often, their “coaches” are people outside the company who don’t seem them in action. Robert S. Kaplan of Harvard Business School says that the better tactic is to get coaching from direct reports.

Executives become isolated if they don’t get on-point coaching and honest feedback.

Image courtesy of Flickr user loufi.

One of the biggest risks for senior executives is isolation. One of the smartest solutions is coaching — from subordinates.

The problem for senior executives is that the people who give them feedback don’t usually see them in action. Robert S. Kaplan, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, writes that senior executives “may be ‘overseen’ by a board of directors or very senior boss,” but those superiors are probably not closely watching their daily behavior.

“One of the first questions I ask senior executives is, ‘Who is your coach?’ Many respond with a list of mentors who are outside the company or perhaps on the board of directors.” But these mentors have huge blind spots and only know the narrative they’re provided, Kaplan says.

In McKinsey Quarterly, Kaplan offers a counterintuitive suggestion: Seek out feedback and coaching from direct reports.

Subordinates actually observe an executive’s behavior on a regular basis. Normally, though, they don’t have any incentive to be candid. “Subordinates do not want to offend the boss and may believe that constructive suggestions are unwelcome and unwise,” writes Kaplan. “Many senior executives also unwittingly send off a ‘vibe’ that while they claim to encourage constructive criticism, they really don’t want to hear it.”

Asking subordinates for feedback is not a practice that has been modeled very much, which explains part of the resistance executives have towards it. But the value can be huge.

Kaplan tells the story of one CEO who agreed to talk one on one with five direct reports. Kaplan told him to ask just one question: “What advice would you offer to help me improve my effectiveness? Please give me one or two specific and actionable suggestions. I would appreciate your advice.”

After some awkwardness, “the CEO received some surprising, jarring, but very useful advice.” He was perceived as someone who didn’t care what people thought and who didn’t listen well. He was viewed as guarded. His leadership meetings were seen as procedural instead of a space for debate.

Result: he made changes based on the feedback. He held monthly leadership team dinners to discuss and debate key issues. He worked on his “soft” skills like listening better. Ultimately, “this CEO learned that asking for advice and coaching was a sign of strength rather than weakness,” writes Kaplan. “Using these techniques, he now found that he could rely more heavily on his subordinates for advice and as an early-warning system for his own performance.”

Kaplan's article, “Top executives need feedback — here’s how they can get it,” is available to anyone who registers for free at the McKinsey Quarterly website.

2 Comments On: Why the Best Coach for a Senior Exec Could Be a Subordinate

  • My links of the week (weekly) « lateral thinking | March 10, 2012

    […] Why the Best Coach for a Senior Exec Could Be a Subordinate […]

  • chris.channer | March 13, 2012

    I find this blog slightly confused, there is a world of difference between ‘feedback’ and coaching. I would also question the value of internal coaching, senior managers won’t share their issues with others if they think it might get back into the workplace. I would always recommend useing an external coach if you want to add real value.

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