Alan Goldman Ph.D.

Transforming Toxic Leaders

Back Door Man: Confessions of an Executive Coach

A consultant remains invisible while coaching an executive, no front door access

Posted May 18, 2015


Confessions of an Executive Coach

Dr. Alan Goldman

            Lurking in the shadows and remaining invisible is not exactly how I pictured myself operating as an Executive Coach serving the COO of a San Francisco Fortune 100 company. I recently functioned as a back door man who alternately wore the hats of “executive coach” and “organizational consultant.” Simply stated, I was never to be seen by employees in the light of day.

            My corporate client hired me to work with an allegedly belligerent, temper tantrum prone and abusive COO. Grievances had mounted. The threat of legal action was seriously lurking. Human Resources and the Employee Assistance Program were both baffled and ineffective. I was ushered in as the outside expert who could turn this impossible COO around. The revenue stream generated by this COO provided impetus for the company to do whatever it took. But despite the hoopla my extremely limited and constrained access to COO and company presented a challenge. Let me explain.Part of my blueprint for assessing toxic leadership is to engage in on-the-job observation. I abruptly learned that an executive coaching contract was incomplete if it did not spell out the necessity of gaining some physical access to the workplace of the client for assessment and collection of necessary data. No matter who I spoke to at the company, my access to the site was denied. I could not observe the COO, Mr. Vincent, in action and I certainly could not administer 360 degree feedback to V’s colleagues and direct reports.

            I next attempted to arrange on site face-to-face coaching with the COO on company grounds. Access denied. I proceeded to attempt to schedule coaching time in neighborhood San Francisco cafes and restaurants. Access Denied. Why? Access was denied in any San Francisco venue where I might be seen by employees with the COO. The executive board strongly believed that seeing their leader with a professional stranger might lead to suspicion of an external coach. Besides, the COO’s controversial and abusive behavior was already an item and any new signs or news could easily wind up on social media. I was privy to round the clock concerns from the executive board surrounding “threats to brand” and its possible links to the COO.  I rapidly found out that the requirement that the executive coach remain invisible was non-negotiable. Clearly there were companywide issues lurking that seemed indicative of organizational pathology.

            I became the “back door man.” All coaching sessions were arranged to be held in the office suite of a San Diego law firm on retainer with the San Francisco company. San Diego became the hub of the coaching with Miami offering a second off the beaten path venue for meetings. Coaching was shrouded in mystery. Not a single one of the ruffled and concerned team of managers and players who had filed grievances and otherwise cast a negative light on COO Vincent was to be present or remotely knowledgeable of our sessions. The unspoken assumption was that Mr. Vincent was the “rotten apple” and he had to be diagnosed and treated separate and apart from his pristine corporate habitat and colleagues.

            I must admit that I was initially thrown for a loop as I was unable to view the client operating in his natural, organizational setting.  Faced with the ultimatum that I was to only have secret access to the COO alone and apart from his colleagues, I finally came to grips with facing the COO in the unofficial capacity of his “Back Door Man.”

            I pondered whether my Back Door Man existence could still yield positive results for the client and organization or whether I would be part and parcel of a seriously compromised coach-client relationship. Can an executive coach effectively lurk in the shadows as a back door man (or back door woman) or is this limited access arrangement necessarily doomed?

            Despite the odds I was able to work quite effectively with the COO as the executive coaching provided him with a “get away and safe harbor” and a means for reflection, innovation and constructive change. Immersed in a safe coaching environment that offered him humane alternatives to his reprimanding, command and control style, the COO cautiously and gradually considered empowering subordinates and relinquishing aspects of his old world dictatorial rule. Despite having serious misgivings about my back door man scenario I recognized that this toxic coaching scenario nevertheless provided me with exclusive access to the client, and the client exclusive access to his coach. Rather than aggressively challenging the company leadership on the workplace access issues I rather considered how their corporate culture cultivated mistrust and closed their doors to an outside expert. As a result I was able to successfully adapt to the client organization and viewed the experience as indicative of a company pathology that had at least in part enveloped the COO in question.

            Yes, we preach front door, 360 degree comprehensive access to client and company. But when a toxic corporate culture and client presents itself it is advisable to consider all the available means of persuasion, diagnoses and treatment. Viewing the COO as a patient in trouble I may want to gain some access rather than no access. In response to a rigid, non-negotiable client I offer flexibility. Welcome to the executive coach as a back door man.