Are you ready for executive coaching? Is it the right time for you to have it? It is important to gauge whether coaching is right for you before you seek funding or accept the offer of it from your organisation. Success in coaching is not only about finding the right coach, it is equally about you being ready.
As someone who has made a living as an executive coach for 15 years, I recommend considering these aspects.
1. Know what executive coaching is.
Ideally, executive coaching is a structured process lasting 6-18 months that focuses on achieving specific goals. Broadly, executive coaching focuses on the challenges inherent in managing and leading others, and developing your own career. It is most often used to help an executive transition into a new role, a high potential to develop managerial/leadership ability, or a leader to overcome limiting behaviours. A healthy coaching programme features:
- a written goal plan
- a specified duration for the programme, measured either in months or number of sessions
- active involvement with a coaching sponsor (usually your manager) in setting the goals and reviewing progress
- regular meetings between coach and client, at least once a month
2. Know what executive coaching is not.
Executive coaching is not talk therapy. Therapy focuses on the past and the present and treats dysfunction, whereas executive coaching focuses on the present and the future and works through the barriers to achieving clear goals. Some topics, however, may be addressed in both executive coaching and psychotherapy. A lack of confidence is a good example. Executive coaching clients typically gain more confidence through what they achieve as a result of coaching. They may also gain more insight into what undermines their confidence and how to manage these factors for the future, particularly if the coach has a degree in some branch of psychology. A therapist would be more helpful if lack of confidence is preventing the individual from functioning in daily life or hangs over the individual as a constant black cloud, despite their success as measured by others.
Executive coaching is not tips and advice. As an executive, you have knowledge and experience that is different from that of your colleagues, boss, and your coach. As an adult, you have learned much more from experience than from studying, though specialised qualifications could be a significant part of your knowledge. A coach does not have the same understanding of you and your situation as you do. The coach’s role, therefore, is to help you find the answers.
Sometimes a client feels “stuck” and invites the coach to give advice and tips. Working through that stuck feeling with the coach is far more productive than any tip a coach can give. Clients owe it to themselves to be candid with the coach about their fears, self-doubt, and frustrations. It is only by letting the coach in, that the coach can be fully effective. If a coach were to give a tip or advice, it could only result in dependency on the coach if the advice worked well, or create distance from the coach if the advice did not work. Coaching works on the basis that the client who discovers the answers for himself is a healthier, happier, and more effective executive.
3. Know what you want to achieve.
Coaching requires setting specific development goals. To be ready for an executive coaching chemistry session, you need at least a vague idea of what you want to achieve. For example, you might want to strengthen your relationships across the business, improve your ability to influence, or address team performance issues. Here are some typical reasons to work with an executive coach:
- Transitioning your mindset and behaviours to the next major level of leadership (e.g., Director to Managing Director, or Manager of a team to Manager of several teams).
- Leading a large change in the organisation such as AI implementation, or a merger or acquisition.
- Strengthening your gravitas and influence across the organisation.
- Fostering more engagement, accountability, and achievement-orientation in your team or organisation.
- Creating your image as a true business partner, rather than a functional support person.
- Letting go of a detrimental aspect to your performance, such as perfectionism, too much focus on detail, or problems with authority.
4. Be willing to share your innermost thoughts and the unvarnished truth.
You need a coach with whom you feel a sense of trust, can be completely safe, and whom you believe is professional as well as interesting. Unless you have met such a person, you will not be inclined to share your frustrations, doubts, concerns, and feelings. If you are the kind of person who finds it very difficult to share at this level, then coaching is probably not right for you.
5. Prioritise your coaching relationship.
In order to flourish, any relationship needs time and attention. So too, with your executive coach. A key part of being ready for an executive coach is the conscious decision that coaching is a priority. Even though your coach is paid to work with you, the coach is not your hired hand.* This means three things.
First, you need to believe the input from your coach is as important to your career if not moreso than the free advice from your friends and family. If you don’t, then you haven’t yet found the right coach. Second, you need to prioritise your coach in your calendar so that sessions are held regularly. (Once a month is typical in the UK, more frequently in the US.) Make sure your scheduling assistant knows the priority of coaching, too. And avoid continual rescheduling, as it may result in long gaps between sessions and disrupt your progress.
Third, you need to set aside time to complete assignments between sessions. This may include reflection on particular topics, reading articles your coach sends you, preparing for meetings with colleagues in a different way than you would have previously, and/or keeping a journal. The coach will agree assignments with you, according to your learning style, but most likely there will be assignments. And even if there are not any, you need to devote time to thinking about your coaching goals and progress between sessions. Clients who reflect make much more progress than those who do not.
6. Be open to feedback and change.
Most coaching programmes start with some kind of feedback gathering or discussion of recent feedback the individual has received. You may be sick to death of the same feedback you have been receiving for years, and frustrated because no matter what you do, you still get that feedback. If so, share that with your coach. But also be open to the coach’s interpretation of the feedback. Trust in his or her process to help you affect change. This includes being open to new ways of doing, thinking, and being.
7. Manage your need for control.
The coach manages the process of coaching, and the client manages the content of coaching. Executives typically have a lot of control over resources and other people. (Ironically, the more senior an executive, the less control they often feel they have!) Some executives may be in coaching to better manage their need for control. Even if that is your development need, you need to allow the coach to manage the process.
For example, the coach may recommend a particular psychometric, a verbal 360, or want to speak with your manager. If you have an issue with that, discuss it with the coach, but ultimately let the coach manage the process. If the coach has at least five years of organisation-funded coaching experience, she should know how to do that well. Clients who debate and delay a step of the process are shortening the amount of time they have to develop.
8. Have capacity to develop.
Executives never have enough time. That is common. There is a difference, however, between being thinly stretched and therefore motivated for change, and being so thinly stretched that you are too stressed to even contemplate change. If this is you, own up to that. You may not yet be ready for executive coaching. You may find it more helpful to work with a coach who specialises in resilience or mindfulness before embarking on coaching to adjust your leadership style.
Consider also the duration of the coaching programme. Will you be free from unique personal demands on your time? The birth of a child, a house move, or caring for an elderly or ill family member need to be factored in. I have had pregnant clients who achieve their coaching programmes with remarkable progress, but not everybody does. I have had male clients with stay-at-home wives who experience the birth of their first child and simply cannot focus enough to make much progress. Everybody is different. Consider what your capacity is.
These days, executive coaching is considered to be an investment in an individual. This makes it a mark of recognition more than a remediation. Consider if you are ready for executive coaching. If a coaching programme has been offered and you think you might not be ready, discuss this with HR or even with the potential coaches in your chemistry sessions.
Recognition from success in coaching can be a real career boost. Conversely, those who show little change at the end of their programmes risk removal from the high potential list and limiting their future opportunities. Prepare yourself by setting clear goals, prioritising time with your coach, making time between sessions for reflection, letting your coach manage the process, being open to new ways of being, doing and thinking, sharing your innermost thoughts, and embracing change.
Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures
* If you have issues with how you view hierarchy, coaching is a great place to overcome that. Many clients learn how to stop looking down on people or, conversely, how to stop putting others on pedestals by working towards an equal relationship with their executive coach.