As an executive coach, my ethos is to create deeper and broader understanding with my clients. If the client can have a broader view of the world, and deeper understanding of himself as a leader, then the capacity to continue to develop after our work ends is his (or hers) for a lifetime. At the heart of this process is self-discovery. In executive coaching engagements, however, there are two major challenges to self-discovery by the client:
- A client’s organisational conditioning that developmental insight is given, rather than gained through reflection.
Time—the increasing amount of change required in leaders by shorter and shorter coaching engagements.
Clients sometimes come to coaching in the hopes that mysteries about themselves or what holds them back from achieving their goals will magically be revealed by the coach. This most likely stems from the conditioning so many people in organisations have had about where developmental insight comes from. Accustomed to seeking out feedback from the organisation in the form of performance reviews, talent assessment centres, and employee surveys, it is only natural that at some point a client will ask for the coach’s analysis or interpretation, and is eager to have it. The client is an intelligent, ambitious person and keen to progress in coaching, after all.
It is too easy to assume when working with executives that if the client asks, the client wants, and is prepared for, a response. Not necessarily. Nor should responding be avoided.
“What do you think is happening when I ____? What is your analysis? What should I do differently?” asks the client. How should the coach respond to these questions? Any circumnavigation of a client’s direct question for insight from the coach is seen as evasive. For example, “It’s not so much about what I think,” ventures the unprepared coach, “as what you think. What do you think is going on?”
To formulate a more helpful response in these moments is perhaps one of the greatest challenges in session a coach ever faces–how to maintain authenticity and connection while still facilitating self-discovery. The coach must consider why the client asks, what purpose an answer would serve, how the client may experience the response, and how productive it is to the current work–all within the time it takes to formulate an appropriate response and deliver it! Maintaining objectivity and speaking truthfully without causing harm can only be judged in the context of the specific leadership change discussed, the personality preferences of the client, and the relationship between client and coach. I stand in favour of answering questions that clients ask, but with measure and while maintaining objective curiosity about the client and the client’s internal process. When the client asks for insight, it is fertile ground to plant a seed for their further reflection.
Clients need to be asked about their thinking and their progress on a regular basis. If they can’t articulate it to the coach, then there is little chance they will be able to speak to the gains they have made in their development when they are considered for further opportunity. Discussing self-discoveries normalizes reflection in organisation life. And if an executive can speak to his gains from self-reflection, he is more prepared for the lonely role of senior executive leadership.
The second challenge to self-discovery in coaching relationships is that there is not always sufficient time built into the coaching engagement for the client to self-discover. Organisations that limit coaching programmes to only four or fewer sessions so that more people can experience coaching, do so at the cost of significant change for any one individual. Client and coach must meet frequently enough so that there is continuity (at least once a month), and executives must be expected to focus on their own development between sessions. In a four session package, three periods of reflection and some parting thoughts are hardly enough to make lasting change.
Another time challenge is within the session itself. The moment in a session where a discovery may be made can sometimes get lost in the sea of competing priorities that the executive brings to session. Some clients simply have more to convey and explore than others do, and therefore they may require more sessions. As a coaching conversation can be intense, there is usually no benefit to sessions lasting longer than 2 hours maximum.
The final challenge to self-discovery from a time point of view is the impending events in business life. Self-discovered insight may come too late to avoid lost commercial opportunity. In these instances, should the coach step in before it’s too late?
Imagine a coach has a client who has not yet addressed his innate resistance to authority. The client faces a big negotiation in which he believes himself to be the underdog. The coach tries, through her questions and reflections, to explore the relationship between the client and the other party, in order to approach “the neighbourhood” of resistance to authority. The client, however, stays squarely in the realm of skills, tactics and tangibles about the negotiation. Hopefully the coach can present her concern to the client that his reluctance to discuss the relationship with the other party may mean there is something uncomfortable there to explore. Alternately the coach could observe that one tactic in preparing for negotiation is to “know your opponent,” emphasizing that the strength of relationship in negotiations often determines the strength of the negotiated solution. If the client does not then approach the neighbourhood of resistance to authority, there is little more the coach can do at that point without the client experiencing an over-stepping of boundaries and a breach of trust. To clearly state her concern that the client’s inability to work through resistance to authority may be negatively impacting negotiations could only work if all else fails and (to Freud’s point about revealing insight directly) the coach and the client have a long-standing relationship of deep trust.