Hired for her track record, Sue joined a new company as chief information officer (CIO) in March. By September, a key information technology (IT) initiative was woefully over-budget and behind schedule. This situation surprised Sue, as it was a sudden departure from the updates she had received to that point. The project was launched a year before her arrival at the company, yet she was held responsible. On the one hand, Sue trusted the information she received from her team. On the other hand, she should have dug deeper. It was a crisis. Enter the coach.

About 50% of our coaching engagements are precipitated by one of three types of crisis, each type requiring a different strategy:

  • There is a real crisis, and the executive knows it.
  • There is a real crisis, and the executive is unaware.
  • The executive believes there is a crisis where one does not exist.

Common to these scenarios are two elements. The first is emotion, which the coach enables the executive recognize and manage. The second is pragmatism; the coach guides the executive to craft a plan that addresses and resolves the crisis.

There Is a Real Crisis, and the Executive Knows

Derek headed up the risk team for a business unit within a financial institution. His performance was stellar, so he was shocked to learn that his lateral colleague was promoted to become his boss. Derek was deeply disappointed and questioned his future at the organization.

In scenarios like Derek’s, the first imperative is to understand and acknowledge the upsetting emotions and the executive’s right to feel them. Until this legitimization takes place, the practicalities of how to move forward go by the wayside.

The next step is to put control in the hands of the executive by building a plan of action. Until this step happens, the executive can feel like a victim, which is paralyzing. For Derek, actions included making himself available for higher-level positions outside his chain of command and leveraging relationships with senior business leaders within and outside the organization.

The best-laid plans build in contingencies. It is worth discussing what can go wrong with the initial plan and lay out the alternatives. For example, if a favored power broker relationship does not bear fruit, the executive should identify others he or she can reach out to. Developing a plan and its permutations is empowering.

There Is a Real Crisis, and the Executive Is Not Aware

Luis ran a high-profile business unit that the board believed was the future of the company. Despite the unit’s not yet turning a profit, Luis expressed confidence that the right elements were in place and success was imminent. In reality, however, the business operated in chaotic fashion, and the CEO and board were losing patience with his explanations for slow progress. Luis had no idea the degree to which they were dissatisfied. The CEO and board hired a coach to work with him.

As with all coaching engagements, the coach first needs to establish trust with the executive. This process can happen quickly by dealing with issues that are salient to the executive, even if they are mundane when compared to the crisis. More significantly, the executive requires factual, concrete information that jars him or her into reality. The coach can deliver this information through a full or partial verbal 360-degree assessment and/or quotable content from the CEO and board members. In other words, the coach brings the crisis to the executive and elevates the level of emotion. Once they achieve this clarity, they can start working.

To say that Luis was shocked by the critical content of his 360 report would be an understatement, but it provided a powerful impetus for him to acknowledge and address the business shortfalls impeding progress. The coach steered Luis to take the necessary action to turn the corner and rebuild the confidence of the CEO and the board.

The Crisis Is Not Real

A high-flyer, Izzy was considered a member of the CEO’s inner circle. The function she headed was delivering results, and she was known as a selfless team player among her colleagues. While she was presenting to the CEO and his team, the CEO aggressively challenged her key recommendations. From that point on, she worried that she had lost the CEO’s favor and the power that comes with it. She was stuck and in a funk.

The first step for the coach is to ascertain the degree to which the crisis is real, which he or she can most easily accomplish by discussing with the client’s supervisor how he or she views the executive. If it is not a crisis, it is the coach’s role to talk the client off the ledge.

There are two to-dos in the aftermath. The first is to put the mishap into perspective and create a plan, with the understanding that these things happen and the client can manage them. The second is to explore the over-reaction to the inevitable disappointments that come with corporate life, with the goal of managing future emotion in the face of unanticipated, unpleasant events.

In Izzy’s situation, perfectionism got in the way of tolerating critique, which is common in scenarios of emotionally manufactured crisis. Through coaching, she came to terms with her perfectionism and gained comfort with the idea that no one can control all outcomes.

Even when executive coaching is not precipitated by crisis, it is likely that one will crop up in the course of an engagement. The key is to determine what kind of crisis it is. From there, the coach’s effectiveness centers on calibrating the emotions and launching the roadmap. Once the winds of crisis calm, it is time to discuss about why, in hindsight, it was a good experience: Wrestling with calamity both builds resilience and opens a window to wisdom.