I’m often asked by those looking to make a career transition into executive coaching what it takes to be effective in this role. My response always begins with a foundation of hands-on business experience from the inside. This increases the probability that the coach understands both the big picture and the intricacies of strategy, operations and leading an organization. Personal experience in the trenches is invaluable in bringing a well-rounded perspective and enabling realistic scenario planning.
Next up is certification through a robust coach training program accredited by the International Coach Federation. This ensures a coach has acquired and demonstrated a proficiency with professional coaching competencies and isn’t just showing up to dole out advice (which is mentoring or consulting, not coaching … but that’s another topic altogether!).
Exceptional interpersonal and communication skills are third. The ability to genuinely relate to others in a manner that engenders trust, confidence and partnership is essential.
There’s one characteristic, however, not defined by experience or listed in the ICF Core Competencies that I view as an imperative:
A Good Coach Must Be Prepared to be Fired by the Client
I view one of my most valuable roles as that of a mirror. I can’t support any leader’s development or success if I’m not willing and able to offer candid reflections of how she operates – whether those are my personal observations gained through the coaching relationship or the collective themes gathered through a 360 process.
Consider the times you’ve worked for a manager who sugar-coated their feedback to you or avoided performance conversations altogether. If you have common sense and are even remotely grounded in reality, you know you have opportunities to improve your performance … everyone does!
Not receiving clear, meaningful feedback and support that helps you identify your unique development areas and build capabilities to close these gaps can be extremely frustrating.
If all you’re seeking is safety and the status quo in your job, maybe watered down feedback doesn’t bother you. If, however, you’re a high performer with ambitions to grow and contribute at a broader level, you know that eventually, empty platitudes will run you straight into the proverbial brick wall.
So when you hire a coach to be part of a leadership development or performance improvement process, you certainly don’t want one who shrinks from an honest dialogue! And yet, I’m learning that seems to happen quite a bit.
I recently attended a coaches networking event that included a session with rotating groups assigned a variety of “table topics.” The intent was the exchange of best practices and knowledge. At one of my tables, I found myself with a mix of professionals who often work in high level coaching engagements.
Several were adamant that it just isn’t possible to share negative criticisms or “leadership frailties” as one put it, with top executives. Feedback that indicated a leader’s lack of character or integrity, an inability to build trust, or that the leader was a political animal were all labeled taboo. In their experience, such feedback is too sensitive and personal and has the potential to collapse an executive’s confidence such that it might derail the client altogether … and potentially damage or end the coaching relationship.
I’ve since talked about this with other coaches and have been shocked by how many struggle to provide, and will often withhold, critical personal feedback.
My position and my experience is the opposite. Giving complete and candid feedback – particularly when it’s tough – happens all the time in my practice. After all, this is one of the primary reasons an executive coach is sought out. If I weren’t capable of this core competency, then in my mind, I shouldn’t be doing this work.
I don’t mean to sound self-righteous, nor am I saying that I don’t acknowledge or understand the unease these discussions can present. Informing a CEO that his team or Board of Directors is losing faith in him, or telling a C-suite executive that her persona is one of a dictator and control freak, takes planning and consideration. And compassion.
Emotions are at stake. Personal identity is being challenged. Fear of what this means is driven up.
As a coach, I must take care to balance the humanity of the client with the reality of the message that needs to be delivered.
How else can I support that executive’s self-awareness, self-management and evolution towards effective leadership?
I never relish these types of conversations, yet I know I can’t be of any aid to my client if I don’t have the courage and confidence to tell them what they need to know. From there, they can decide if they’re ready to tackle what lies ahead and how much and how far they’re willing to stretch their own comfort zone.
And sometimes, they’re just not. That has to be OK. For them and for me.
As the saying goes, you can’t coach someone who doesn’t want to be coached.
Working with a client who is faking it, feigning commitment to personal growth and going through the motions doesn’t serve anyone. As a coach, it’s akin to torture! My role then becomes one of helping the individual and their management determine what the expectations and action plans will be so that they can make informed decisions and move forward together … without me in the picture if that’s what best serves the current situation. Most of the time, that “escape hatch” alone enables a client to open up to the process and engage, rather than feeling forced or coerced.
It’s an irony that to perform a job I absolutely love and am grateful to hold, I have to be prepared to get fired from that job every time an engagement kicks off!
It’s probably what I value most, though. Because once the client commits, it’s a beautiful process to witness a leader expanding his or her mind and heart in order to evolve into the best self they have within them.
If you’re currently working with an executive coach or contemplating an engagement, consider the following questions to help you achieve the most meaningful transformation from the process:
- Is there trust and transparency sufficient to enable you to be candid and vulnerable? What do you need in order to actively create that with your coach? Invite this discussion. You are equally responsible for the trust (or lack thereof) in the relationship.
- Is your coach providing you meaningful feedback that substantially informs your understanding of how you’re perceived within your organization and the impact you have on others and the business? If not, ask your coach how you can work together to obtain and leverage that depth of insight.
- Are your beliefs and ways of operating being challenged and stretched in ways that expand your thinking or capacity? If not, consider “re-contracting” the rules of engagement with your coach to ensure you’re learning new skills and perspectives … not just reapplying your existing ones.
- Look inward. How are you showing up to your coaching sessions? Are you defensive and resistant, perhaps fearful of surfacing what you’re experiencing? Are you open to taking risk and stretching yourself? If so, what boundaries do you need to push? Share this with your coach.
- Lastly, most coaching relationships run their course. Working with the same coach year after year can create too much comfort and codependency. If you aren’t regularly chipping away at the edges of your comfort zone, it may be time to shake things up and work with a new coach who brings different skills and techniques to the table.