Executive Coaching and Debriefing for Corporate Leadership Development Programs

In today’s management environment, new forms of corporate leadership development programs have emerged. One of the most popular development tools is executive coaching, as corporate leadership development programs frequently utilize these services. 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

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.