This is the second of two blog posts looking at best practices for leveraging interview-based feedback in executive coaching, which is powerful for helping leaders understand their strengths and growth areas – and how they might achieve critical growth.

First, some context: Online surveys are great for quantitative assessment of effectiveness in executive coaching engagements, but the ability to explore ways in which a leader could understand the impact of ineffective behaviors are very limited, even if open-ended comments are asked for in the survey. For that and other reasons, finding ways to optimize an interview-based feedback approach can dramatically accelerate development of key talent.

To recap, my first blog post explored how to use business-focused data in executive coaching to identify meaningful development ideas, identify the “right” feedback providers, and create an environment that supports development. Read that piece here.

In this blog post, I examine two more key areas that can help ensure that interview-based feedback has the maximum impact.

“Casting the Net Wide”: Feedback Questions to Expand vs. Limit

Many organizations opt for executive coaching because the return on investment for such individualized development is generally very high. Supporting coaching with qualitative, interview-based feedback makes coaching more meaningful – much more than using a 360 competency survey. To ensure that data gathering is useful, it‘s critical to define the interview protocol and formulate questions to explore in the feedback interview.

Some coaches create customized interview protocols based on specific focus areas (e.g., presence, communication skills, strategic thinking, etc.). While this is can sometimes be useful, it narrows the feedback and may not allow for the real issues to arise.

For example, a leader may have received feedback from their manager regarding their delegation skills (or lack of them). If the coach focuses on delegation, he or she might miss the fact that the culture does not permit errors and reinforces a high-control/no-fail environment instead.

For a leader who may have received feedback on his or her communication skills, a communications-only interview protocol could miss issues tied to strategic thinking or a need to better understand what messaging is needed.

Also, we often see feedback protocols that are populated by questions that are far too limited – questions such as “How does this leader get along with others?“, “What kind of strategic thinking capability does this leader have?”, “How collaborative would you say this leader is?”, or “How effective is he or she at delegating and collaborating?”

Such questions create too narrow a road for the stakeholders and do the opposite of what a truly effective coaching engagement ought to do: surface the critical issues defined by their stakeholders and how best to tackle their own development.

Drawing on more than 25 years of executive coaching engagements with global Fortune 500 firms, we have learned that a few simple, broad questions are far more effective than a dozen specific ones.

Asking about the most significant business challenges for the leader in the next 2-3 years, and then asking about that leader’s top 2-3 strengths and top 2-3 development areas related to those challenges crystallizes the key issues and development themes that become the focus of coaching. The open-ended, qualitative stakeholder feedback that comes from asking good follow-up questions to get examples of strengths and development needs is the color commentary.

Yes, this means more work for the coach to effectively analyze and theme the feedback, something many coaches don’t want to do. It’s easier to simply hand over a long list of comments, or worse, provide only a verbal briefing on the inputs from feedback providers. However, the investment of time to organize and synthesize the feedback into meaningful themes makes the feedback much more accessible and digestible for the leader, with clear messaging about he or she can focus to get the highest return on their own development.

Debriefing and Collaborating vs. Dumping and Leaving

Once the feedback is gathered and organized into a robust feedback report highlighted with the key themes, the next step is to present the feedback summary in a supportive partnership between leader and coach.

During the course of my own coaching career, I have repeatedly heard from leaders, managers and those responsible for talent management and executive coaching about failed feedback efforts: why feedback didn’t stick, and why nothing really happened because of the feedback.

Here’s what’s critically important: Patient, focused debriefs between the leader and their coach – helping the leader to understand issues, work through painful subjects or comments that trigger them emotionally, and come out on the other side with a solid understanding about what the key messages are and what they mean.

Too often, organizations dedicate only an hour or so per leader for this sort of work. That‘s rarely enough time for the processing that prepares a leader for real change!

Some coaches really don’t feel it’s their job to help the leader understand the feedback. Too often, the debrief becomes more of a perfunctory run-through, leaving the leader to figure out next steps on his or her own. Many times, leaders need to process information after completing a debrief with their coach and may need one, two, or even three discussions to vet what things really mean – especially if the feedback is difficult, surprising, or confusing.

A far more effective practice is to separate debriefing and creating plans for developing into different conversations over the course of a week or two. This allows the leader to integrate the data and invest time into thoughtful planning.

Many leaders do that in collaboration with their coach, allowing the coach to be a sounding board and challenger. Beyond this, taking the development plan to the leader’s immediate boss, and where possible, the HR director for that leader, helps cement a solid strategy with ongoing support from the coach, HR and the manager to help the leader stay the course and execute on the plan.

Checklist for Getting Strong Results with Interview-based Feedback

I have touched on several best practices here and in my other blog post on interview-based feedback. Here’s a quick checklist for ensuring it really delivers:

  1. Lead the feedback process with the business context
  2. Identify feedback providers who are most relevant to a leader’s intended development
  3. Deploy coaches who understand organizational development
  4. Develop feedback protocols that open the conversation to the issues that really matter
  5. Ensure adequate scope in coaching engagements for solid, supportive feedback debriefs

What do you think? What’s your experience using interview-based feedback?