What Should DEI Practitioners Make of Executive Coaches?

Oct 15, 2020

3 min read

In 2013, some 30 percent of CEOs received some form of executive coaching. Thanks to reduced stigma and enthusiasm from within venture capital, there’s reason to believe that number is now well north of 50 percent in the tech sector. The increasing demand for this coaching, historically driven by leaders’ insecurities around conflict management and listening skills, should make DEI practitioners wonder whether they are messaging at cross-purposes with empowered outsiders. Though research on what the proliferation of executive coaches means for DEI practitioners is scant, working coaches and relevant data sets suggest that executive coaches may represent an obstacle to effective change management on issues of racial equity.

“Executives often select coaches from their personal networks, and personal networks are structured along racial and cultural lines in the United States,” says engineering coach and speaker Anjuan Simmons.

Simmons points out the diversity is rarely front of mind for executives or coaches -- certifications for this kind of coaching training have historically been rare -- despite the well-publicized McKinsey findings that ethnically diverse executive teams are at least 33 percent more likely than non-diverse teams to outperform their peers on profitability. “Revenue, profitability, and other business measures will almost always be more top of mind.” he says. “Leaders should have coaches that help them understand how to model a healthy appreciation for DEI and change their behavior. Most don’t.”

This does not mean that white executives are unlikely to engage with coaches who focus on diversity, but it does suggest that DEI-centric conversations are unlikely to be challenging. According to research by Ariel Finch Bernstein, now an NBA expert on talent and people analytics, executive coaches are significantly less likely to push back on Black executives than on white executives despite generally rating white executives higher on their sensitivity to diversity issues. Bernstein doesn’t posit nefarious intent, but suggests that racial dynamics are clearly not well understood in the context of coaching.

Clients of color are likely robbed of developmental opportunities needed for professional growth and advancement. They may also hesitate to highlight the impact of workplace race dynamics when their coach appears to sidestep or ignore the issue…. The coaching community should heed these warnings, mandating supervision and incorporating diversity intelligence as a core competency.

This has not happened.

What this seems to suggest, given surveyed CEOs’ outsized confidence in their “soft skills,” including motivation, compassion, and persuasion, is that many coaches may speak to executives about the value of diversity, but will likely avoid more difficult elements of those conversation or, most relevantly for DEI practitioners, introducing the voices of BIPOC stakeholders. Executive coach Nilofer Merchant suspects this may be more of a feature than a bug. “If CEOs did want to change, they would have already done it,” says the former Apple executive. “It would take little for them to hire someone like me or even me as a coach to be a sounding board.”

Merchant recalls a recent conversation with a well-known white thought leader who spoke about the profound effect the death of George Floyd had on his understanding or racism. To illustrate the profundity of his experience, he offered a series of quotes from white men. “The reason I share this story is that I believe he wants to change,” Merchant says. “But he also doesn’t.”

Because CEO-level coaching engagements are largely driven by CEOs, not corporate boards, it stands to reason that most coaches aren’t fundamentally in the business of unwanted change. Executive coaches may offer welcome challenges, but they also, by design, serve up comfort or support -- something that may be specifically true in the context of conversations about historical inequities.

“Most people seek to be coached by people who challenge them just a wee bit to make iterative change,” Merchant explains. “On this topic of inclusion, though? Tectonic changes are needed. One has to be far more courageous to seek that out.”

For DEI practitioners working in the technology sector, the proliferation of executive coaches often represents the introduction of another known unknown, but it could also represent an opportunity. At the CEO level, HBR surveys suggest coaches are most frequently recruited and directed by the executive in cooperation with the most senior people ops professional in the organization. For many DEI practitioners, that means influence is already being exerted from within the business unit and more specific influence can be exerted around diversity communications and coaching via fairly immediate channels. (Though for DEI practitioners operating outside of a human resources unit, surfacing the question of whether coaching work is undercutting internal dialogues may be a more delicate matter.)

What’s clear to many coaches of color and scholars in the space is that coaches are a meaningful but little understood variable in the DEI conversation. As such, it behooves DEI leaders to be aware if not wary of those engagements.