Coaching, executive coaching

The Key to Lasting Changes from Executive Coaching

(This article was first published on on May 2, 2019)

It’s hard to test the effectiveness of different approaches to coaching senior executives.

Most companies end up using a coach based on recommendations, research, and their best judgment, and, if the coach appears to get good results in the first engagement, they’re likely to use that person again.

But several studies1 do point to one element in the coaching relationship that is essential if coaching is to result in lasting changes: trust.

Executives have to trust that their coaches:

  • Are good at what they are doing
  • Have the best interest of the executive in mind
  • Will maintain confidentiality
  • Will not be judgmental

I’ve found that, absent trust, leaders tend to be defensive rather than candid, making it hard to identify the core drivers that underlie their performance. Without trust it’s also difficult for them to take the “leap of faith” necessary for considering alternative ways of thinking or experimenting with new behaviors.

No, coaches aren’t therapists. They only go as deep as they need to go to bring about positive changes in behavior and performance. But the value of coaching often goes beyond the initially stated objective (e.g., “Improve communications with direct reports”), which may be a symptom of something deeper.

One major challenge in coaching senior executives is that, for the coaching process to go where it needs to go, the executive’s trust in the coach involves ceding control. And ceding control is difficult for individuals who have gotten to their current position by being in control. These executives may want the coaching process to be effective but still be afraid that they will lose something of themselves if they let go and delve into the unknown.

When coaches are unable to get at the core drivers of executives’ performance, they may still be able to get them to make some changes. But those changes often end up being temporary or narrowly applied because leaders have only intellectually understood the rationale for change, without fully acknowledging the role played by their own deeper mindsets and beliefs.

They haven’t yet come to recognize how their actions are constrained by mental models that may relate, for example, to what it means to be the boss or to collaborate. They may have uninspected presumptions about specific gender, generational, and personality differences. Or narrowly fixed preferences regarding operations vs research, localization vs globalization, or centralization vs decentralization. The list of potential blind spots is extensive.

As a result, they try out a new approach on a few occasions and find it yields better results; but when they run into a situation where it doesn’t appear to work, they fall back on their previous behavior, the behavior that supports their more deeply held attitudes and expectations.

One thing coaches can do when they run up against executives who are willing to try new approaches but don’t yet buy into the rationale is use the obvious success of the new approach to draw executives into a deeper understanding of what drives their behavior.

At other times the success of the new approach has a revelatory impact all by itself.   Executives see that by trying something new–being willing to shelve a way of doing things that they thought essential to their success—they became more productive. Discovering that something they thought fundamental is unnecessary or counterproductive often opens the door to progress on other fronts.

The development of trust

In developing trust, there are two important considerations: the initial “chemistry” connection the coach makes with the executive, followed by the progressive establishment of the trusting relationship.

To move beyond the initial connection, the coach will usually have to build a combination of cognitive and relational trust.

Cognitive trust is primarily earned by showing executives that the coach knows what he or she is doing and is dependable, but it goes further. Coaches must also show that they have no agenda other than helping the person become more effective. This needs to become evident via the questions and observations coaches come up with and by their manner in communicating with the executive.

The other kind of trust is relational or affective trust. It develops through coach and executive getting to know each other beyond just what’s “on paper”. Coaches need to be willing to give-and-take, to talk about some of their own feelings, limitations, and concerns.


It’s up to the coach to initiate trust in the coaching relationship, and this requires at least a preliminary understanding of the executive. If an individual is not yet receptive to developing a relationship with the coach, he or she may feel manipulated or be uncomfortable with the coaches’ openness. Culture can also be a factor. Northern Europeans and Americans look more for cognitive than relational trust. Other cultures rely more on relational trust.

But even in cognitive-trust-oriented cultures and individuals, some degree of relational trust will usually play a part.
How does the coach know if the point of trust has been reached?

Recognizing that the point of trust has occurred is something we have to infer. In fact most people entering into any new relationship can tell when this point has been reached. The other person’s words and actions suggest they’ve become more open and relaxed.

But it’s not always obvious. Leaders can be receptive and engaged but still not trusting to the point where they’re ready to be open about their deeper motivations and concerns.

Once gained, trust can also be lost, at least temporarily. Sometimes I become aware that I’ve pushed a little too hard with individuals and sense that they are pulling back—and know it will take time to get us back to where we were.

With many senior executives, developing trust to the point where the real work of coaching can take place isn’t easy, but it’s far more likely to lead to lasting change—and stimulate further changes in the future.


1 A new model of sustainable change in executive coaching: coachees’ attitudes, required resources and routinization. Page seven cites three studies that point to the value of trust in the coaching relationship.

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