You’ve Got Executive Coaching All Wrong
I dismantle 6 common misconceptions
I’m taking a momentary pause from writing about various and sundry leadership topics to do a bit of needed clarifying for my field. Pervasive misconceptions about executive coaching subtly steer leaders away from it, leaders whose businesses could really benefit. Today’s fun task is to dismantle those myths.
Misconception 1: Executive coaching must be like sports coaching because, you know, “coaching.”
Even though you’re a successful SVP of marketing, you hear the words “executive coach” and are teleported back to childhood. You’re being barked at from the sideline by an imposing adult authority figure. You’ve disappointed him again. That coach never really got you, anyway.
Memories from childhood playing fields do executive coaching no favors. The coach was the adult expert on how to win. The coach imparted skills, taught, and ran practice drills. The coach also corrected, scolded, and (in my experience) exacted consequences.
Executive coaching is absolutely, positively nothing like that. In an executive-coaching relationship, the business leader — the client — is the expert. The role of the coach is to ask the questions that no one else asks, draw out imaginative thinking, help the client turn that thinking into action plans, then help the client hold herself accountable.
It’s sort of too bad the executive-coaching profession landed on the word “coaching.” For plenty of people, the image it draws up is not great. Booo.
Misconception 2: Executive coaching is for remediation.
You’re the COO, and executive coaching doesn’t cross your mind until you have a manager in serious need. It’s your go-to last-ditch effort to throw at someone who needs fixed.
While executive coaching can sometimes be useful in such situations, that’s far from where it delivers its greatest return on investment. Coaching’s capacity to generate huge returns is with leaders who are at the top of their game — ones who are challenged to move mountains and trusted accordingly. When those leaders are open to feedback, as the best ones are, the coach helps them draw on their greatest strengths and account for their limitations in a manner that ideally situates them to achieve.
I fell prey to this misconception in the past. I assigned executive coaching to staff leaders who were struggling, but it didn’t cross my mind to extend executive coaching as a benefit to my top producers. I feel a little silly about that now. Sorry.
Misconception 3: Executive coaching is for truckloads of advice.
You’re the head of innovation, and you picture an executive coach pompously tells you what to do and how to do it. His suggestions would never work for your company culture, but he doesn’t care. Sure, you might pick up a useful nugget here and there, but generally you picture yourself picking at your cuticles as the coach blathers on, wishing for a lobotomy.
A good executive coach doesn’t talk much. She listens really, really intently. As you circle around and around the answer to that leadership question that’s been vexing you, she doesn’t say a word. When you finally veer close enough, at just the right vector, she poses a fantastically provocative question. Boom! The light bulb turns on, and you’re there. Problem solved, and not by someone else. The solution was in you all along … you, the person who actually knows your situation and its nuances.
Andrew Neitlich, author of book The Way To Coach Leaders, Executives and Managers, and my executive-coaching teacher, urges aspiring coaches to speak no more than 25% of the time. “The myth is that executive coaches need to provide answers,” he said. “The truth is by asking powerful questions, executive coaches can step back and let their already successful, equally smart clients come up with the answers.”
Denver-based Andrea Coleman would be a credible advice giver in her thriving executive-coaching practice. She’s a former hospital-system CEO. But she knows it’s not what’s most effective. “Great coaches enable their clients to discover the answers within,” she said. And she put this beautifully: “It is humbling to see the wisdom our clients carry, and to be part of the journey that elicits their gifts, answers, and growth.”
Executive coaching is not about getting advice. And that’s good, because advice kind of sucks, and it’s easy to disregard. Your own highly curated solution is not.
Misconception 4: An executive coach can’t help you unless they’ve walked in your fine Italian shoes.
You’ve been a CEO for 10 years, so you couldn’t possible benefit from an executive coach who’s never been a CEO. Or who’s never been a CEO at a company in your industry / in that other industry / that’s bigger / that’s more complex / that’s more diversified / that’s more global, etc.
If you believe executive coaching is about getting advice, then it’s natural to conclude that the only advice that would be useful is from someone who’s been in your cap-toed leather-soled shoes.
But if you accept that coaching is a process by which someone else skillfully equips you to tap your inner strengths and keep your limitations from tripping you up, then it doesn’t matter if that coach was ever a CEO (or CFO, or procurement director, or warehousing manager, or whatever). What matters is that they have the skills and personality to get you thinking and talking.
It’s not unreasonable to prefer an executive coach who can go toe to toe with you. By that measure, use someone who has some accomplishments under their belt. But a good coach is a good coach, no matter their background, age, or years of experience.
Misconception 5: Executive coaching is mere professional development, or worse, fluff.
You run customer service and you’ve pigeonholed executive coaching as a slow-return investment in an individual’s growth rather than a direct investment in your company’s business performance this fiscal year.
I asked Cleveland-based Ashleigh Miller, an executive coach whose background is in financial services, about this one. She said, “People tend to, wrongly, categorize executive coaching as therapy of sorts.” She’s right. It’s commonly perceived as a nice-to-have vs. a must-have. Yet where executive coaching really shines is as an investment in achieving a business result that is very specific and measurable.
Imagine a sales chief whose new revenue target represents 22% year-over-year growth, a crucial jump for her company. She’s wildly talented and uniquely qualified. But hitting the goal will require her to loosen her grip on key vertical accounts.
Trusting her key-account managers is something she’s struggled with in the past but can’t afford to this time. It’s the sort of situation in which executive coaching is a perfect match. There’s a professional-development benefit for the individual, sure. But the investment is made to achieve a 22% revenue increase. That’s not fluff.
Misconception 6: Executive coaching is best behind the veil.
You’re the director of strategy and want to work with an executive coach, but you should definitely do it on the down low because … well, I mean, what would people think?
The people who must deal with you every day, those individuals whose workdays are affected by you, want you at your best. So you working at being your best is not something to hide. It’s something to talk about! And your peers and team can help during executive-coaching engagements.
Great coaches often use techniques that have the client routinely solicit feedback from their staffs or peers about how they’re doing in the area in which they’ve chosen to work. That requires you to be vulnerable, of course, which we know is a really good thing.
Executive coaching doesn’t require you to be cagey. Tell your story and share that journey. Lead by example.
Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.