When it comes to helping others grow, I’m suspicious of formal coaching certifications and the view that reading books can teach someone how to coach. There’s a better way.
I’m sold on the importance of reflecting on experience and working on personal improvement with the help of a clear-thinking coach of one’s own. One of my golden rules is: “If you want to help or mentor others, work on yourself.”
I have had a few excellent mentors. My coaches have helped me reflect on the stories, struggles, confessions and questions of the individuals I have coached. Under the guidance of sharp-minded coaches, I’ve been able to sift many lessons from client interactions.
Here are some of the most valuable leadership coaching lessons I’ve learned:
Connection trumps expertise. The people we coach are looking for a trustworthy sounding board, someone who walks alongside them, holding the lamp that lights the path. Dispensing answers and solutions does the opposite, fostering obedience and dependence. Coaching is first about connection. The keys to connection are curiosity-driven listening, the ability to challenge and the willingness to self-disclose. In contrast, a fix-it mindset often produces an anxious, automatic response that bypasses connection.
Those who get the most value from coaching sessions come with a meaty agenda. When someone takes the time to identify a troubled relationship, get in touch with personal confusion or frame a problem he or she is having on a team, that individual is halfway down the road of a high-value coaching session. The most astute leaders put responsibility for setting the agenda of a coaching session where it belongs: in the lap of the person being coached.
Leaders discuss “coachability.” “Coachability” refers to the level of openness and eagerness a client brings to the interaction. Some managers and employees are not interested in growing or improving or having a coach. Leaders should require “coachability” and discuss its presence or absence. Coaching an unmotivated individual results in a time-wasting monologue.
Keep the focus on the client, not the problem. It’s natural to want to talk about the faults of others and not to own our part in the problems we face. But blaming and finger-pointing work against maturity. It’s the coach’s job to keep refocusing the conversation on the client: “So what does that have to do with you?” “I notice that most of what you are saying is about someone else.” “What are your options regarding his problem?” “How do you respond when someone doesn’t show initiative?”
The discomfort of the coach often blocks progress. A leader’s discomfort with directness and challenge weakens the coaching process. The coach’s discomfort produces “sanitized” questions and superficial interactions. For example, I notice that many coaches become uncomfortable when clients get angry or defensive, begin to cry or exhibit nervousness. Commonly, the coach changes the subject in an effort to “happy up” the client and might even end the meeting. That squanders an opportunity. Simply getting curious about the client’s response—letting her know that you can handle her intensity—usually helps that person regain composure and see more clearly what is really going on.
A coach’s discomfort can be overruled by courage. I don’t assume my clients have deeper conversations with too many others. This helps my boldness in asking a tough question, broaching an uncomfortable topic or giving feedback about something I’m experiencing in the here and now. In their conversations with direct reports, most leaders are too prone to playing it safe. Emotional courage is the alternative. Two ancient Latin sayings make the point: “Carpe diem” (“Seize the day”) and “Memento brevitate vitae” (“Remember that life is short”).
The voice lies much more easily than the body. Visual cues can reveal important data. It’s a coach’s job to notice deep sighs, flushed skin color, moist eyes, fidgeting, watch-checking, interrupting and strangely timed attempts at humor. Sometimes commenting on these signals is appropriate, sometimes not. Noticing such signals and considering their meaning is always appropriate.
Questioning my assumptions fosters curiosity. Coaches often have a pre-conceived idea about what’s going on with a client. An example would be assuming, “He doesn’t want to discuss it,” (Did you ask?) or “She has a bad attitude” (Is something difficult going on with her that you haven’t taken the time to explore?). The longer I have coached leaders, the more I’ve learned how wrong I can be when jumping to conclusions. The most enlightened posture for a coach is inconclusive, neutral and open.
Coaches play hunches. A hunch is an enlightened guess, not a sure bet. Good coaches discern whether a hunch is worth playing. Sometimes, a savvy coach gets a feeling that the real issue is not on the table or that this is not the best time to issue a challenge. How does a leader distinguish a legitimate excuse from a smokescreen? Hunches can develop quickly, and verbalizing a hunch is more an art than a science. As coaches gain more experience and work on their own improvement, their hunch accuracy goes up.
Sometimes, I cannot help someone. Every coach or service provider (accountants, attorneys, consultants, counselors or physicians) should develop the ability to know when a conversation or issue is beyond her
or his ability to be helpful. It’s wise and reputation-building to refer a client to someone with more objectivity or knowledge. Some leaders are so full of themselves that they cannot introduce a client to a professional with greater expertise. That’s shameful.
Every coach should have a coach. I’ve been in a position to watch a lot of “advice” from uncoached coaches send people down a destructive path. Having a clear-headed coach makes it less likely that you will lead people to a place you have not visited yourself. Sitting in the client seat helps you uncover your blind spots and develop a better feel for what your own clients are experiencing. Eagerness to work on self gives us the credibility to coach others.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected].
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