By Whit Mitchell
My favorite method of executive coaching (and by far the most impactful for my clients) is called Inner Circle Coaching. It is a team effort that relies on feedback and partnership from a leader’s inner circle to help that leader see his or her blind spots, and to create long-term success and changed behaviors.
Why do it this way? In order to create change, I’ve found that it is extremely effective to involve the people who work directly with the leader I am coaching. The leader’s inner circle has better access to the leader, which gives them invaluable observations. The person being coached chooses five or six people as their inner circle—bosses, peers, direct reports, colleagues. These are people whose opinions matter to the leader.
The inner circle is aware of the behaviors that the client wants to improve upon, and they each also commit to work on one behavior themselves, which in turn creates widespread change throughout the group.
Every 30 days, I check in with the inner circle for feedback on how the leader is doing. I receive information that is both qualitative and quantitative in nature, and I’m able to dig down into their perceptions and observations, giving the client valuable information over the course of nine months.
This type of coaching requires four commitments:
Let go of the past. This is probably the most important commitment because when members of the leader’s inner circle are focused on past mistakes or wrongdoings, it holds the leader back from being able to grow into the future. It can be stifling to have someone holding what has happened over your head. By focusing instead on a better future, everyone involved can help the leader improve. We call this process “feedforward,” instead of feedback, to emphasize forward momentum, the vision of the future, and constant improvement.
I tell the group, if you have something from the past that you need to get out, it’s as if you’ve got a kernel of corn stuck between your teeth. Go get some dental floss and get it out with the leader in the next two weeks, before the coaching begins.
Be helpful and supportive. There is no room in this coaching method for attitudes that are overly critical or disparaging. If the leader is not supported by his or her inner circle, but instead feels judged, that person will have a difficult time progressing. I ask the inner circle to look for opportunities to recognize good work and progress, instead of focusing on flaws.
When you see the leader working on the new behavior, give some encouraging words, letting him or her know the impact each time. If he or she falls down, pick him or her back up again. Mistakes will be made.
Tell the truth. When you are asked to give feedforward, honesty is critical. There is nothing worse than giving a client a glowing report of responses from his or her inner circle, only to find out that someone was not being honest about the improvement they were seeing. It is important to be clear in your examples, and to be objective. If you don’t give an honest report, the leader cannot improve. They need to understand the impact of their behavior on you and others.
Pick something to improve yourself. My clients are open with their inner circle about the behaviors they want to work on, and they ask for ongoing feedforward about how they are doing. I also ask the members of the inner circle to pick one behavior to improve, and to ask my client for comments on that behavior. This makes the process a partnership of sorts. It helps the inner circle act as “fellow travelers” who are trying to improve, not “judges” who are pointing their fingers at the leader. There is a support system that develops from this method. I coach the inner circle on their one behavior also, and this way the high tide raises all boats.
It is easier to make a change when a group of people is also working toward change and committed to excellence.
To learn more about how Inner Circle Coaching works and the results it can have, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.