A lot has changed since I first started coaching leaders. Twenty years ago, when I finished my PhD in psychology and switched careers from HR to executive coaching, my first assignments were usually remedial. I was seen as the “shrink” who would be brought in as a “last resort”. Today, not only is coaching no longer considered a last ditch effort to “fix” a wayward manager, it is fast becoming one of the perks of being good. At a certain point along your journey from individual contributor to manager and beyond, if you are considered “high potential,” you may be offered a coach. This is a good thing. A great coach can be hugely beneficial — helping you to elevate your self-awareness, deepen your knowledge about evidence-based leadership practices that bring out the best in the people you lead.
Yet, as coaching becomes more commonplace, I’ve noticed a growing risk for both coach and coachee: that both will view the engagement as a quick hit “work-out” that checks off goals the way you would tweak a few muscles or drop a few pounds with a fitness trainer. When coaching is a short-term, a rather ordinary “rite of passage” for high achievers, it is far too easy for the coachee to put “accomplish coaching” on the to-do list and check it off like one more step up the ladder to success. For a coach who is committed to pushing the envelope with his or her clients — and the coachee who really wants to up their game as a leader — I say, “not so fast.”
Let’s look at an example. Recently I was hired to work with Andy, a top performing manager of a product design team at a fast growth tech startup. Given feedback from his boss that he was doing great but needed a coach in order to “become more visible and supportive” with cross-functional peers, Andy attacked this goal like the high-achiever he is: Within a few weeks we had put a plan in place, devised strategies, and he had begun chipping away at his goal. I’m sure the coaching was useful, but not life-changing.
Here is the rub: the coaching goals were not particularly difficult, nor did they require deep reflection on his part. As his coach it would have been easy for me to go along supporting the process, keeping him on track and declaring the engagement a success. But along the way I had to ask myself — and him: are we really digging deep into work that might transform you as a leader?
As coaching becomes more commonplace and high achievers use coaches as one more tool in the tool box, both parties need to “stay on point” and be sure that that they step up to that cliff edge of growth. If real transformation is to occur, then at some point the engagement should become downright uncomfortable — for both the coachee…and the coach!
If you are fortunate enough to be offered a coach, here are five keys to getting the most out of the experience. It is not just about getting your money’s worth. It is about keeping the coach on his or her toes, and truly accelerating your growth.
- Focus on what is hard. Too often these days I see clients who design their coaching goals based solely on the bosses feedback, which makes sense, as a starting point. But what the boss wants to see should not be the end point of a valuable coaching experience. Instead of just focusing on the “assigned” goal, ask yourself: what do you most fear? What triggers anxiety in you? What one thing, for example, if you could do it well, would fundamentally transform how you show up as a leader?
- Get direct feedback. Most coach training programs drill into their students that the key to effective coaching is asking the right questions. This premise is not wrong — being curious, asking and following up with exploratory inquiry is a key attribute of successful coaching. But it can also be a crutch, a way of avoiding delivering tough or uncomfortable feedback. A great coach will, at times and when appropriate, offer you his or her direct experience of you — sharing what he or he sees with feedback such as: strengths you overuse; “good” habits that undermine your flexibility; areas you may be blind to. If they don’t do this at some point relatively early in the coaching, ask for it.
- Don’t ignore the somatic. Talking with someone candidly about how they show up — dress, hygiene, physical presence, gestures, tone — can be delicate territory. Far too many coaches tend to avoid what can be a fault line due to cultural or gender concerns. Yet, if your coach is not giving you, with a high degree of sensitivity, direct feedback about how you show up in the physical realm, he or she is doing you a disservice. Tendencies that may initially seem slight — posture, eye contact, or vocal tone, for example — are actually crucial aspects of interpersonal dynamics. Neuroscience studies show that trust and safety are all determined within micro-seconds between people — not by words, but by physical signals. Being aware of how you are perceived on a somatic level is crucial to any leaders’ ability to build empathy and connection.
- Minimize time spent on assessments. Coaches may want you to do a battery of assessments at the early stages of a coaching engagement. Some of the developmentally focused assessments are quite valuable, like LeggUP's Career Pulse Assessment. “Personality” tests, on the other hand, are not only questionably helpful, but can actually be detrimental to your growth, if they put you in a “box” of identity that may or may not be accurate. Don’t let your coach avoid tackling tough issues by hiding behind tests and tools. Whether assessments actually lead to changes in behavior is highly questionable — it is the coaching conversation, and the practices that emerge from it that changes lives.
- Don’t get attached to your goals (even the ones relayed to you by your boss). Initial coaching goals may be relatively easy to accomplish. Instead use your coach to dig deep into conversations about your deepest fears, your dreams, what frustrates you and how you manage your triggers. These domains, both big and small, are where a coach can help you unearth unconscious beliefs about yourself — or others — that may ultimately hold you back from breaking into another level of awareness — and effectiveness.
To see how this might work in real life, let’s go back to my work with Andy. A few weeks into our engagement he was feeling quite satisfied with his progress at building cross-functional bridges. It all seemed to be going well, but I was feeling uncomfortable. It all seemed a bit too easy, not quite the stretch that would challenge Andy’s growth edge. So I asked him straight out: “As you peer into the crystal ball and envision your future with this organization, what do you fear the most?” Andy was taken aback at first — and a bit cavalier (e.g. what, me worry?) as you might expect from someone whose upward trajectory had been relatively smooth — to date. But I pressed him to reflect. He came back to me a week later and, much more vulnerable, shared, “I have a feeling I’m going to be asked to manage a virtual team at some point. And when I think about managing technical folks in India or Ireland or Eastern Europe, my initial reaction is ‘no thanks’ — too hard!” Bingo, I thought, too hard? And we were off.
You can imagine how this story ends. It was a big deal for Andy, as he did balk at the idea managing a global team. It is, as many of my clients discover, a task of a different magnitude to build a high-powered team across the globe, with cultural variations, time zone challenges, and limited face time for personal bonding. But it can be done. Uncovering his fear that it would be “really hard” signaled to me that sweet spot where coaching could make the biggest difference.
Today, Andy manages many technical folks all cross the globe. He regularly coaches his team leaders on how to lead multi-cultural teams across multiple time zones without burning out. Bottom line: Andy had to truly stretch — in his beliefs, his style, his presence, his communications, his time management — almost every level of leadership came into play when it came time to manage a geographically dispersed team. And I think it safe to say that coaching helped.
So when you get the opportunity to work with a coach: go for it. Push yourself into that place of discomfort or vulnerability that brings out the best in the coach…and in you.
Dr. Jeffrey Hull is a psychologist, leadership coach, Harvard faculty member, and author of “FLEX: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World”.