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Executive Coaching and Debriefing for Corporate Leadership Development Programs

In today’s management environment, new forms of and tools for corporate  leadership development programs have emerged. One of the most popular  development tools is executive coaching. The number of executive coaches  has more than doubled in the past decade and corporate leadership  development programs are utilizing their services more frequently.   However, the fundamentals of executive coaching have actually been  around for many years in the form of debriefing.

In the U.S. Air Force, debriefing after every flight was an essential  process in my training and development as an F-15 fighter pilot. My  instructor pilot debriefed with me after every training flight.  Later,  when I became an instructor pilot and squadron training officer, I did  the same with my young pilots. After leaving the Air Force, I used the  basic tenets of the debriefing process I had learned, adapted the  process to a sales force I led in a civilian company, and further  refined that process over the next 16 years.

I was recently reminded just how broadly applicable the debriefing  framework is as an executive coaching tool when a professor approached  me at the end of a lecture to a healthcare team, thanking me for  explaining the process of debriefing to the team. She told me, “You’ve  given me the means to have a difficult conversation with a student,  allowing her see what, in herself, needs to change in order for her to  be successful.”

Corporate leadership development programs require both executive  coaching and debriefing practices, processes that utilize complex  discussions and deep analyses that resist oversimplification. Executive  coaches help their clients to see themselves more accurately, allowing  clients to establish actionable objectives for personal change.  Likewise, debriefing helps individuals and teams more accurately analyze  the work that they have done in order to make efforts to improve upon  their past initiatives. While executive coaching focuses upon the  individual, proper debriefing is effective in both individual and team  development. The principles are the same, but for the debriefing  process, the approach is more direct, objective, and simple.

Differences Between Executive Coaching and Debriefing Practices

Although corporate leadership development programs draw from both  executive coaching and debriefing practices, there is a significant  difference between the two processes: First, executive coaching  practices struggle to get to the actionable objectives for change. This  is where the highly subjective talent and skill of the coach comes in to  play. Second, coaching is less process-driven than proper debriefing.  Successful executive coaching is dependent upon the individual style and  skill of the coach and the character traits of their client. Successful  debriefing, however, is driven by a repeatable, structured process.

Let us examine some of the elements of a good debriefing process and  compare them to an executive coaching practice. The first of those  elements is what we call “tone.”  In the debriefing practice, setting  the right tone is critical. The right tone is nameless and rankless,  which gives everyone an equal footing.  Amy Edmondson, Novartis  Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, has  labeled such a tone “psychologically safe.”  In executive coaching, a  coach will take care to establish a trusting and psychologically safe  tone much like a professional therapist or physician would for a  patient.  This tone is essential in order to achieve the honesty and  truthfulness necessary to identify objectives for change.  In  debriefing, the proper tone is critical to uncovering mistakes and  isolating successes.

Corporate leadership development programs also require the correct tone.  With the right tone, debriefing and executive coaching practices can  enable teams and individuals to find the truth.  In the executive  coaching practice, obtaining the truth of how others see or perceive the  client can be a tough process, which is typical of the analysis of any  complex issue. This is the same in the debriefing practice.  Whether  we’re debriefing a team or an individual’s performance, we have to be  prepared to dig deep into the root causes of both successes and errors.  In order to do this, we only use the debriefing practice for clear and  measurable objectives.  One cannot debrief in any truly successful and  meaningful way without specific and quantifiable objectives.

Utilizing Clear and Measurable Objectives

In our corporate leadership development programs, we emphasize the  importance of stating clear objectives in both executive coaching and  debriefing practices. Clear objectives allow the debriefing process to  take two procedural steps in order to discover the root causes. First,  we take a look at how well we executed toward our stated objectives –  did we do what we said we were going to do? Did we execute this process  in the way that we said we were going to do it? Take a look at each of  the tasks we had to perform in order to meet our objective(s).  Was each  of these steps effective?  From this inquisitive process, we are able  to create a short list of successes and errors that form the basis of  our next step: analyzing the execution.

We analyze the execution by taking each of our results – the successes  and errors – and subject each to a series of “why’s” until we get to the  root cause.  We continually ask “why” until we get to the fundamental  root cause: Why did that happen? What really failed? Did we just get  lucky? We can’t fix something, replicate a success, identify a near  miss, or address a personal shortcoming until we know exactly what needs  to change and why.

The Importance of Actionable Feedback

As soon as we know what that root cause is, we can get to the real point  of debriefing and executive coaching – taking corrective action. We  need actionable feedback in order to improve ourselves. Corporate  leadership development programs help to continuously improve teams and  organizations by requiring actionable feedback. Research demonstrates  that feedback that is not actionable can actually result in negative  behaviors. The product of debriefing and executive coaching must focus  upon what can be done to address the root causes. Without a specific  course of action, reflective activities will be a waste of time at best,  and can potentially trigger negative behaviors at worst.

An effective debriefing process develops an actionable lesson learned  that addresses each of the identified results – each success or error.  A  lesson learned is a set of steps intended to resolve the error or  replicate the success of each of the root causes.  It is an objective  and clear set of instructions or actions necessary to improve personal,  team and organizational performance in the future.  Furthermore, in the  context of team debriefing, it assigns a single accountable individual  to take that set of actions or to properly store the learning for future  use.

Such are the basic processes, utilized by corporate leadership  development programs, for both debriefing and executive coaching.   However, there is one final secret to successfully using these  practices. In our corporate leadership development programs, we  recommend performing these processes frequently and in small, achievable  portions. Successful executive coaches help clients to tackle personal  goals a little at a time, meeting with individuals to assess incremental  progress relatively frequently, typically every two weeks.  The  debriefing frequency should also follow this timeline. If debriefing  occurs less frequently than once per month, the individual or the team  is likely to “choke on the elephant.” It is hard to change, especially  when you are attempting a great amount of change in a short period of  time. Aim to change slowly, a little at a time. This is the same  philosophy behind successful change methodologies.


There is a deep, meaningful correlation between the debriefing and  executive coaching processes. James Hunt and Joseph Weintraub, Babson  College of Management professors, argue that facilitated learning, such  as executive coaching, is leveraged to extraordinary results through  forms including the U.S. Army’s After Action Review (AAR) and the U.S.  Air Force’s debriefing process. Both executive coaching and debriefing  are forms of facilitated learning, and both are utilized in successful  corporate leadership development programs. However, in executive  coaching, a third party facilitates the learning for one member of an  organization. But the debriefing process allows the team to facilitate  learning for individual team members and the organization as a whole.

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