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Executive Coaching - Unleashing
I was recently asked by a client to help him understand the principles of coaching, so he can more effectively coach his staff. He performs as a COO for a major corporation, working with people who have been very successful in their own right. Yet, like all of us, he recognizes that his staff members still have opportunities for improvement.
My client's interest in becoming a better coach has given me a great gift. He's caused me to think more fully about what I do, and the principles by which I work. The information that follows is some of what I've learned over the last twenty-two years. I hope it will prove helpful to you.
When a client is engaging me as a coach, I'm often asked to describe my process, and what I'll be doing. I, like most coaches, explain my methodology, which sounds quite impressive, and I outline my objective. My objective is simple. My job as a coach is to create openings. Whenever I say that to a client, I hear an audible sigh. I believe that sigh is filled with relief and hope. Relief because the client realizes that I won't be judging him or her, and hope, because he/she anticipates movement. Both are desirable and often longed for feelings at senior levels.
If I do my job well, the client will feel an opening, and have the space for learning and growth. The more openings that are created, the more likely it is for a client to consciously choose his/her behavior in situations, instead of being forced into repeating old patterns and trends.
1. Hold the Container
Most leaders are used to holding the container for everyone else, and rarely let their guard down. It's important to provide clients with breathing room, and to do so, my experience has shown that I need to hold "the container" for them. I do that by assuring them that our work is confidential. They are safe with me. Their thoughts won't show up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, unless they chose to put them there. In addition, they decide which people in their organizations should know that we're working together. This gives them the opportunity to share whatever they'd like, and decreases the sense of aloneness often felt by senior leaders.
"Holding the container," also means providing a sense of acceptance, no matter what transpires. Leaders are often the target of scrutiny, and learn early on not to let down their guard if they sense danger, i.e., judgment, or rejection. These are smart people. The greatest gift I can offer them is a space of non-judgment. However, acceptance is not the same as always agreeing with someone. In fact, that's a mistake that a lot of coaches make. They agree with an executive to avoid conflict, and help an executive feel supported, admired, etc. Here again, these are smart people, and most of them know when someone is being false or has ulterior motives, even if they're well intended. When I offer someone acceptance, it's real. With it, they get truth. I present it in a balanced way so they recognize that it's not about someone being a good or bad person. In my book, people are inherently good. However, sometimes a person's behaviors may not align with his/her intentions. One of our goals is to align behavior with intentions, and provide an opportunity for the executive to make conscious choices. Some limiting behaviors are so engrained, that the client doesn't feel he/she has an option to behave in any other way.
It's also important to be sensitive to pacing. As a coach, I want to ensure that I'm working at a pace that will help create openings. If I try to move a client too soon, the process will shut down because at some level, the client doesn't feel safe. If we move too slowly, the client will wonder if the time is worth his/her investment. It's not that different from launching a new product. The timing and pacing must be right.
2. Model What You Want to Create
Assess your client's strengths and opportunities for development. Once development opportunities are identified, it's important to ensure that the coaching design applied helps create the desired state. For example, if a client is very focused and buttoned up, but lacks strategic thinking, I might ensure that each coaching session includes a blue sky component, identifying key questions that will generate a more complete solution to a problem/opportunity. Therefore, my style will emulate the outcome we are trying to achieve. If a client is great strategically, good at execution, but he is having a hard time maintaining interpersonal connection while on task, the greatest gift I can offer him is to maintain a strong interpersonal connection, while asking the tough questions, staying on task, and exploring possibilities. I'm modeling the ability to stand in the middle of opposing parts of one's psyche. The more I can wear both hats, the more it becomes a real possibility for the client.
Since active learners normally experience more movement than those that are stagnant, I also try to encourage and model active learning behaviors. I utilize a lot of different approaches and tools, and I encourage my client to try everything, use what he/she is resonating with, and let go of the approaches that aren't working. I make it okay to try something that may not work. Curiosity is the key.
3. Operate Within a Familiar Paradigm
It's important to assess each client's surroundings, i.e., the culture in which they operate, and his/her thinking style. It helps me understand how his/her style fits with the current culture. I also assess the desired state for the culture, and his/her appropriate fit for the task at hand. Having done so, it helps me ensure that our work will help him/her operate successfully in both the current and proposed environment. I then speak to the client's predominant operating style, hone in on core values and unstated principles of operation, and help each client enhance awareness of his/her style, principles by which he/she operates, and the correlation to the culture. Once that is recognized, I continue to approach the client in a way he/she is used to working/thinking. Yet, each time, I may add a new way of thinking or acting that may help him/her operate more effectively in the environment at hand. This allows the client to feel his/her style is being honored, while giving him/her more room to fully explore the new ways of operating, thereby enhancing his/her toolkit.
Perhaps an example would be useful. One of my clients became a senior leader for a Fortune 500 company that had previously been led in a more command and control manner. My client was more of a consensus builder. After he got the job, he built matrix management structures, and as we looked at the organization, it became apparent that the staff didn't have the skill set to perform within that structure. They were trying to manage with a command and control style in a matrix structure. He was being viewed as wishy-washy because he allowed disagreements to go on without end. It was important for my client to recognize his style and disconnect with the current culture. If he wanted to shift the culture, more than a structural change would be required. In addition, he would need to flex his style to accommodate the different levels of readiness in the culture. During coaching sessions, we worked with his desire for consensus, yet explored the cultural ramifications. My client found this exploration useful, and he began to find ways to influence the culture while minimizing the dysfunction.
4. Recognize That Repetitive Patterns/Trends May Offer Life Lessons
I like to begin my process by conducting a life interview, exploring accomplishments, disappointments and lessons learned, over the course of my client's life. We also discuss family dynamics and the role the client played within his/her family of origin. I find this especially useful, because we often play out early lessons learned, later in life, and the similarity we see at an unconscious level doesn't always ring true when we explore it more consciously. It's as if, we learned one part of the lesson, and the other half beckons us.
For example, one client that grew up in a family with an alcoholic mother and father had learned early on to manage the outcome of every situation. In his family of origin, he knew not to bring friends home for dinner or they'd discover his secret. In addition, it was important for his brothers and sister not to come home at night until both parents fell asleep. As children, they stuck together as if they were taking on their parents as a team. It was no surprise to learn that his management style was good with peers, but often distant with direct reports and bosses. He held things too close to the vest, and when he did share, it was with a few select peers that he felt he could trust. Trust itself was difficult. As adults, we have the capacity to recognize that the irrational behaviors we witnessed as children will not be automatic outcomes to the situations we face as adults. Additionally, we have learned a number of skills that allow us to more effectively confront things with which we disagree. Since my client's "realization," he has become an incredible mentor to his direct reports, and works much more effectively throughout his organization.
If you're anything like me, you're probably thinking that the above example is out of the ordinary because most executives haven't faced that type of family situation. Most of them were probably born into money and a life of entitlement. Am I right? Well, we're both wrong. Drive doesn't come out of thin air. Most of the executives I've met have dealt with trauma, hardship, i.e., family illness, a significant challenge or some form of dysfunction, and found ways of overcoming the difficulty, or coping with it. The few that don't fit that model have often come from families in which accomplishment is prized and rewarded, and they've rubbed elbows early on with people of great accomplishment, and similar drive. They have also seen people in trouble or those who are less fortunate, and have compared lots in life. In fact, I've found that most senior executives are actually quite humble.
I'm beginning to believe that we are all presented with life lessons, a theme that continues to occur until we make peace with it. Look for patterns and trends and the life lessons they offer. This will not only help your client resolve limiting behaviors at work, but in life.
5. Be Open to Your Own Learning
Being a coach doesn't mean I have all the answers or that I am done learning. In fact, I believe it offers me the perfect opportunity to learn continuously. Every time my client presents me with a dilemma, I get to think about it from a variety of perspectives and explore it with him or her. It never fails - there is always something in it for me too.
If I realize the client's issues are close to home, I state it. I tell him/her that I don't have the answer for this one, and we'll be exploring it together. I always get a laugh and appreciation for our joint humanity.
There are many kinds of coaches, with a variety of experiences, being asked to coach for a variety of reasons. Sometimes companies hire a coach to accelerate the growth of an executive so he/she will be ready for a higher level position, other times the coach is hired to help retain an employee, remove barriers, or help an executive assimilate into the culture, etc. All of these reasons may alter the coaching path slightly. Having said that, I don't recall ever shifting away from the above principles. These principles apply regardless of the reason for coaching. While I coach primarily at the executive level, I have a strong hunch that the same principles apply to coaching individuals who are at lower levels in an organization. I hope you will find them useful.
Many more articles in Coaching in The CEO Refresher Archives