Who needs an executive coach anyway? Three questions to ask yourself
Updated: Sep 29
I would be excommunicated from the Secret Society of Professional Coaches* if in answering this question I didn’t quote the unofficial patron saint of coaches, Bill Gates, who said:
Everyone needs a coach... We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. Bill Gates
OK but why exactly would you choose to invest in a coach with all the other things vying for your time, attention, and cash? Here are three questions to consider. There are no right or wrong answers in coaching, because coaches leave their judging poncho on the coat rack before all sessions. But if the answer to any of them is "no", a coach could help change the answer to a "yes".
1. Do you know how you make others feel?
I originally thought of this question as "how others see you". But actually, when it comes to being a leader, there is something much more important. I will hand it over to Maya Angelou:
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Maya Angelou
I first learnt coaching skills as part of a leadership development course, way back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth in 2002. I have to admit that before I started I was pretty skeptical about some of the curriculum: peer feedback and personality assessments, like the point was to learn about who you really were. I know who I am, I spend all day in my own head, I distinctly remember thinking… But the course leader said something that sticks with me to this day. To be a leader you really should have a good degree of self-awareness, that's table stakes. But you can never truly know what it feels like to be around you. That part you need to be told.
One of the skills of coaching that sounds deceptively simple, but really is an art to do impactfully, is to play back what you hear to be a client’s own beliefs and say, is that what you meant? Hearing your own words from another person is, for some reason to do with human psychology that I won’t pretend to understand, an incredibly powerful tool. It helps you to understand how it is to be on the other side of your own assumptions and behaviors. A coach can help you see this objectively, and we can tell you like it is, because our one and only job is to help you make the progress you tell us you want to make. You give us the permission to have conversations you may never have with anyone else in your life, and in return we give you the promise that we will do it unflinchingly.
Something worth mentioning at this point that applies to the top 10 myths about coaching that I’m sure to write one day, is that coaching isn’t necessarily about fixing a problem. I have had clients tell me that they have no confidence in their leadership ability, and in the same session tell me, apparently without realizing it, about situations that demonstrate their exceptional leadership skills. We tend to take for granted our own abilities because they're fundamental to who we are, and. familiarity makes them unremarkable. A coach can help you see your strengths from an outsider’s perspective. And, for those who struggle to hear good things about themselves, the value of our objectivity is that we don’t have any incentive to curry favor. So if we tell you that we observe a strength, you can believe us that you actually have it.
2. Can you put your hand on your heart and say – this is everything I can give the world, and I have everything I want in return?
As this seems to be my quotes week, I will share with you one of my favorite strings of words ever uttered. Hearing it for the first time was one of those moments that is the reason that we use quotes: a statement from another person, that encapsulates so well what you believe yourself that you wonder how they looked into your soul and saw it.
"There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. Nelson Mandela
We are all of us born with limitless potential, but two factors get in the way of being everything we could ever possibly be. First, there are practical restrictions; for example, if you are my modest height and you want to become a world class basketball player, it’s probably not going to happen. There are some limitations that we can do nothing about, and pretending otherwise, for example, that by adopting a positive attitude you will get taller; or dwelling on, or bemoaning, the obstacles that you can't anything about, is not what any good coach will ever do.
What they will focus on instead is the second factor, of which there tends to be many, many more: the restrictions we put on ourselves because of what we believe is possible. The limiting beliefs (as they’re known in the trade) that we so often take to be facts, but aren’t. The beliefs that we have about ourselves that are self-fulfilling prophecies, because if you believe it to be an immovable truth, then why are you going to even try? For a long time I believed that I wasn’t the sort of person that could run their own business, so I didn’t even consider it an option. Then one day I thought - what am I basing this on when I've never even tried? It’s far too soon to call victory in this case, but to date it looks like the assumption that I took for a fact might have been wrong (there’s a first time for everything…)
What brings many clients to an executive coach is the recognition that they are somehow getting in their own way. Maybe their career is going OK, but they have a feeling it could be so much more. Maybe they set themselves career goals but haven’t found themselves reaching them. Maybe they see recurring patterns in their careers that they want to change. Maybe they have given everything to their career but they don’t feel like they’re getting back what they’ve put in. Maybe they have a dream job but know they’re on a path that doesn’t lead to it. Maybe they’re recognizing that the path they’re on is one that was great five years ago, but they don’t like where it’s headed any more.
There are a thousand more maybes, but they all have one thing in common. What those clients are looking for is a shift. An opportunity to stop the scooter they’re aimlessly trundling along the sidewalk on, dodging pedestrians and cracks as they appear. If you will tolerate the metaphor, what they might need is the chance to stop wandering and putt an actual address in Google maps; decide that now is not the time to scoot and they would get there much faster if they drove; or to realize that scooting isn’t ever going to get them where they need to go, but maybe they first need to get their pilot’s license before they try to fly.
Awesome, you may be thinking, so if I hear myself in that list of maybes, a coach will tell me what to do to fix everything? Sorry but that’s not how it works. The thing we coaches most believe in is you, because there is nobody as expert on you as you are, and we believe that you have all the answers you could ever need. But as those answers might be buried in a dusty corner of your brain somewhere, in a drawer labeled "deal with that one day", it’s our job to help you drag them into the light. If that sounds like something of an easy option on the part of the coach – what, you mean I’m going to come up with all my own solutions??!! – it really isn’t. The ownership and commitment of a client coming up with the thing that works for them is infinitely more than when being told a potential answer by someone else. If you’ve never seen it happen… why not try a trial coaching session and see what I’m talking about?
3. Do you want to always have to figure it all out on your own?
At the simplest level, there is a mysterious power in getting the things that float around your head out into the open by saying them to another person. There is something about hearing them as words, not thoughts, that transforms them and makes them tangible and actionable; it’s the starting point from them being “what if I”s to “I could”s. There’s benefit one of being in a partnership.
Benefit two. Let’s be real. If you’re an executive and a people leader, you have to be pretty damn good at your job. You’ve been there and got the T shirt, before you went around the block a few times and got to this rodeo, the one that’s not your first. You also likely spend most of your day helping other people figure out how to come to solutions to their problems, because that’s what leaders do. So it would be crazy to think that you don’t know where to start solving your problems on your own, because of course you can. But, do you really want to have to have that weight on your shoulders? Sometimes we all need someone to share the burden, and that’s what coaching is. It’s a maybe the only relationship in your life where you’re encouraged to be selfish, because it really is all about you.
But I believe the biggest game changer is encapsulated as follows:
One piece of log creates a small fire, adequate to warm you up: add just a few more pieces to blast an immense bonfire, large enough to warm up your entire circle of friends... Individuality counts, but teamwork dynamites Master Jin Kwon**
Is solving a problem on your own going to give you the best possible solution? Or might it help to have another perspective? All coaches have their own coach. And I think one of the reasons is that, when you see for yourself what an enormous difference it makes to have another person prod at your point of view on the world, you realize that it never fails to strengthen the answer you come up with.
As an ex-VP of Marketing, can I design my own marketing plan? Sure I can. But does it help to have someone else ask me about the channels I haven’t even considered? Immensely. Can I think of my own blog post ideas every week? I could. But can I also listen to the people around me, what they struggle with, what they are thinking and feeling right now, and ask what might be more important in the moment? That tends to work out much better. Have you had a situation in your life where getting impartial input hasn't helped? I can't think of one myself.
Everything is easier with a partner who believes in you
I am not what you would call an unbiased source. I’m a professional coach, so you would hardly expect me to write a compelling article saying that coaching is an optional extra that you can walk away from in a difficult economy. But here’s the thing. Professional coaches fervently believe in coaching; not because of what it does for them, but for what they see it does for their clients. At the holiday party for Secret Society of Professional Coaches*** if I ran a survey with the guests as to why they coach, I know what the answers would be.
It’s the privilege of seeing the effect that coaching can have on the lives of the people on the other side of the Zoom screen; their lives, not just their jobs. It’s the enormous pleasure of seeing a client’s confidence in themselves grow. It’s the joy of being part of the aha-moment when a client realizes the thing that they believe and holds them back is just a belief, and they can choose to believe whatever they want. It’s the knowledge that you can be part of making huge positive changes to someone’s life, by listening and asking the right questions.
Was Bill right, does everyone need a coach,? You can get by without one, of course you can. But why would you when the alternative has the potential to transform your life?
*note: a fictional entity that I have invented for the purposes of this article
***note: honesty moment, the Jin Known I know was from the TV series Lost, so I had to look up this Jin Kwon who was a martial arts instructor with a particularly wise perspective on life
***note: a fictional event that I have invented for the purposes of this article