Every day, top-level leaders have a direct impact on group survival. They make important decisions, influence key individuals and guard the overall health of the organization.
In exchange, presidents, partners and principals typically receive greater authority, status and monetary rewards. They also enjoy the privilege of coaching and mentoring their highest-potential employees.
But who coaches the person at the top? That’s a job best provided by an outside professional.
Senior leaders need outside coaches for three primary reasons:
All leaders have blind spots. Most subordinates won’t risk pointing out the unproductive habits and automatic reactions of their superiors. Although some "insiders" fancy themselves as confidants to the person in charge, that relationship usually (and wisely) involves "selective candor." As a result, the shortcomings of the boss often go unexamined.
Seasoned leadership coaches are not afraid to speak candidly with their clients. They deliver a healthy mix of understanding and challenge that enables high-trust and high-risk conversations.
All leaders can get stale. A seasoned coach brings cutting-edge ideas, references and contacts that can help leaders expand their knowledge. A coach who has worked with many leaders, organizations and industries widens a leader’s perspective, stimulating "disruptive innovation." Accountability to an outside coach accelerates progress by keeping a leader’s thinking fresh.
Most leaders spend too little time thinking about their own development. Focusing on others might be the most seductive tendency in leadership. A sharp-thinking coach helps the leader focus on self: Where am I going? What are my options? How should I respond? What do I want? Which of my important relationships need work? Leaders often find it invaluable to be in regular contact with someone whose job is to help the leader think more clearly about himself.
The "5 percent rule"
There is no sure-fire formula for finding an accomplished leadership coach. It’s possible, though unlikely, to bump into a crackerjack coach at a cocktail party. Sometimes, the best coach will be a friend or family member. But those are exceptions.
Because of their reliable neutrality and expertise, most effective coaches are proven, independent professionals. Of course, not all professionals are equal.
A few years ago, in the process of building a small retreat lodge, I hired numerous sub-contractors for specialized projects. I found that about 5 percent of the practitioners stood above the rest. This was true with masons, painters, finish carpenters, roofers and plumbers.
The "5 percent rule" also applies to coaches.
The best way to find a "5 percent" coach is to ask around. Check out reputation and experience. Ask to see each coach’s full client list. How extensive is it? Anyone can call himself a coach and provide three exuberant references. The most trustworthy coaches are recommended by numerous respected business peers.
A gold-standard coach
Some potential coaches will be unacceptable. Many will perform basic, good work. But only a handful will be capable of delivering superior value. Gold-standard coaches stand out in four ways:
They are experienced and genuine. The most envied coaches possess a rare combination of hard-won confidence and humility. They love to learn about self and about others. Their reputation is their primary value proposition. As in most fields, experienced, sought-after coaches charge more than rookies.
Instead of solving and fixing, they question. World-class coaches don’t give answers or solutions for client problems. They ask penetrating questions that help leaders consider decisions, attitudes and behaviors in a new light. A good coach stimulates clarity, responsibility and courage without the need to convince.
They balance connection and separation. Higher-maturity coaches connect closely with clients without losing their objectivity. They are not overly needy for praise and approval, so they can afford to stay loose and have fun. The best coaches are able to walk away from unmotivated clients. They define themselves clearly and work only with the most motivated leaders.
They adapt their approach to the needs of individual leaders and client organizations. Astute coaches do not rely solely on standardized tests, exercises and workshops. They listen and reflect before co-designing an improvement path based on the unique situations of each client.
The importance of "chemistry"
Though difficult to legislate, chemistry is a critical factor in the coaching relationship. A professional coach might advertise widely, belong to your club, hold an Ivy League degree or have worked in your industry, but that doesn’t mean he is a good "fit."
That’s why it’s important to "try on" the relationship with one or two meetings before making a long-term commitment.
After a test run, the best gauge of chemistry is the extent to which a leader believes, "I would work well with this person."
"It’s time for a change"
Nothing influences the search for a coach more than a leader who knows it’s time for a change.
That could mean there’s a problem that needs attention-floundering or superficial communication, rapid growth or a sharp decline, a recent merger, or the retirement of a founder.
The desire to make the good better also signals change-a yearning for "something more" in life or leadership, a desire for greater clarity in one’s personal or business direction, wanting to become a more effective mentor.
Whether its purpose is to build on strength or to address weakness, a successful coaching relationship is not a magical potion for leadership improvement.
But its track record is a lot more impressive than going it alone.
John Engels is president of Leadership Coaching Inc. and an international presenter on leadership communication, relationship management and emotional maturity. He is founder of the Advanced Leadership Course, which teaches coaching and mentoring skills to leaders within accounting, engineering, health care, manufacturing and other technical professions. He can be reached at [email protected].
2/4/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].