Most people I’m currently coaching are familiar with coaching as a professional practice. Occasionally, someone will be referred to me who has no experience with it. Whether you are experienced with coaching or thinking about beginning, this blog post is for you.
People enter into coaching with different expectations depending on how they got there. Those who seek it for themselves normally show up eager and ready to work. They have a general idea of what they want to work on and need only a few guidelines to begin.
Those who are referred, particularly if it’s from HR, are normally hopeful but might be apprehensive. Are they in trouble? Is this intended as a step toward their dismissal? I seek to reassure them that coaching is an investment by the organization, usually offered to someone whose work is highly valued yet, to be a successful leader, they require additional skills in working with others. Our job is to get them there.
Here are a few examples:
Alix’s manager thinks she has a personality problem and asks HR to get her a coach. Her work is impeccable, but her attitude is turning off her peers. When I meet her, she explains that the real problem is that her manager is playing favorites, and she’s not it. His favorite, she explains, is a hypocrite who sucks up to him. She tries to submit her best work but doesn’t get the same attention or feedback. When she speaks up, he cuts her off. She asks: what can I do?
Santos grew up in a culture where respect for his elders and the higher-ups was imperative. In meetings, even when asked for his opinion, he hesitates to speak up for fear of appearing presumptuous. Work hard and keep quiet, his mother tells him. Why isn’t my respectful silence working? he wants to know.
Latrelle is keenly aware of being regarded as a diversity hire, and believes her peers think she’s not qualified. The only Black person on her team, she has no idea whether she should address the issue and risk blowback or stay silent and risk being forgotten. I have value, she declares. How do I get them to acknowledge me?
What do these three have in common? They are engaging in self-talk that limits their performance. They have a dilemma that their best efforts haven’t solved. And they either are not asking for feedback or are ineffective in seeking it out.
How might they each gain maximum benefit from a leadership coach?
Coaching vs mentoring vs therapy
First, let’s distinguish between coaching, therapy, and mentoring.
Professional coaching focuses on achieving goals and improving performance, and may be sponsored by the organization or arranged separately. When the focus is on leadership, goals are often to gain greater influence and respect, form a coherent team, or set a vision, and learn how to induce others to buy into that vision.
Therapy is focused on improving mental health and well-being by addressing underlying psychological, emotional, or behavioral issues. It is based in the person’s psychology and looks back in the person’s childhood to understand dynamics that may be creating the current difficulties. Therapy is considered a health-related intervention and may be reimbursable by medical insurance. It is typically offered outside of the workplace.
Mentorship is normally offered inside the organization by a decision-maker higher up in the organization who can ease entry into the culture and has a direct window to the person’s performance. Optionally, the mentor may be an expert in the field outside the organization who can provide instruction, training, and tips. Mentors inside the organization are invested in the results of the mentee’s work as well as the success of the mentee as a professional. Sports “coaches,” while referred to as coaches, actually function more like mentors, in that they will provide direct guidance: “move your feet an inch to the left for a better golf swing.”
Unlike mentors, coaches have no direct accountability for results and the person being coached has the final decision on what steps to take. Some clients enter coaching expecting me to tell them what to do. I explain that it’s their lives, and I’m not inside the organization to see what’s going on. They have tacit knowledge and nonverbal cues that I don’t have. Therefore, while I may sometimes offer suggestions based on my life experience and leadership expertise, we partner together to talk through the best courses of action and they – and they alone – are the decision-makers.
Admittedly, the line between these three fields can be blurry in real life coaching. Often I have experienced a similar dilemma my client is facing and I share my experience as a mentor would. Still, unlike a mentor, I only share my experience. What the client does with the information is up to them.
Sometimes my leadership clients will question whether personal issues are relevant, since the coaching is about work. To them, bringing up personal issues makes the coaching more like therapy. I respond that if they are wondering whether some personal dilemma is relevant to a workplace concern, it probably is. More often than not, what is happening in their personal lives is being reflected in their work lives. Alix may be considered abrasive by her friends and family and is carrying forward the same behavior to the workplace. Santos must learn how to be effective as a leader while maintaining his cultural beliefs about respecting hierarchy. Latrelle likely has a history of being devalued as a Black woman, so her internalized oppression may be amplifying the voices of those who are imposing their stereotypes on her and impeding her effectiveness.
Even though personal issues may be relevant, our discussions about them are still not therapy. The focus remains on the workplace and moving forward as a leader; personal issues are discussed with that goal in mind.
Why seek a coach?
Individual coaching provides a place for reflection – to step back and take stock. Professionals are going-going-going; coaching is a respite to gain additional insight and identify what’s working, what’s not, and how to improve. Coaching is for getting unstuck, achieving professional growth and development, and realizing potential.
Here’s an example from the medical field. Surgeons work alone: no one in the room is telling them how to operate. Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon, wrote about a time he felt stuck because his rates of complication remained higher than he wished. Having done thousands of surgeries, he writes: “My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be. But doctors don’t.”
So he hired a medical coach, his retired mentor and a respected surgeon. His coach noticed small things that were literally outside Gawande’s field of vision (the angle of the drape, the position of the light). Changes led Gawande’s rate of complications to go down.
The need for the outside voice, the outside eyes, becomes more important, not less, as people gain expertise and experience.
In a similar fashion, I will sometimes ask my clients to describe to me the person they are having difficulty with, the arrangement of the room in which a critical meeting is held, or the formal line authority among the people they bring up in a coaching session. I need to “see” the situation to provide some outside perspective and ask questions from that point of reference. Armed with this knowledge, I am better able to partner with the leader I’m coaching in deciding how to advance their goals.
What can derail coaching?
Seldom am I told to my face that the coaching overall isn’t working. Rather, my clients generally will tell me what I’m doing that is off-putting before it gets to that point. I am always grateful when that happens.
Marshall and Kelly Goldsmith1
described what can go wrong in a coaching engagement. They attribute the problem to ineffective goal setting, leading to premature termination.
Ownership: I didn’t ask for it
When coaching is imposed from above, the worker is coached so the company looks better and the owner can make more money. The worker has no stake in the outcome. Without buy-in there will be burnout.
Time: I didn’t know it would take so long!
Clients may look for quick fixes for long-term, ingrained problems. In short coaching engagements, we focus on a specific issue that can be addressed in one to three sessions. Most engagements, though, last longer. And some clients have continued working with me for years, disappearing when things are going well, and popping back up when they encounter new difficulties.
Difficulty: This is harder than I expected
Even people who go into coaching willingly get discouraged by how hard it is to make those changes. Discouragement sets in when people expect their willpower to win out over entrenched patterns of behavior. People seldom make fundamental changes through willpower alone. Rather, willpower is needed to stay with the coaching program.
Distractions: Things are crazy around here right now. Let’s do this later.
In the middle of a coaching engagement, people can be suddenly transferred to another location; the company can enter a period of downsizing; the person may get hit with an unexpected divorce. Things change.
Rewards: Where is the benefit?
Either my client or the organization may expect immediate results.
This is where buy-in from leadership and dedication of the client counts the most. Rewards must be personal, meaningful, valued, and supported.
Maintenance: When is it over?
As with any other long-term changes, the best results from coaching aren’t things to do, they are ways to live. They’re not diets, they’re changes in living habits. If the person is waiting to go back to the way it was before, it won’t work.
Fortunately, with clear contracting and frequent monitoring of how the work is going, those derailers won’t interfere with successful coaching.
How can you use coaching effectively?
Now let’s talk about how to increase the chances of success. Jen Joyce, a transformation coach/consultant listed three keys to a successful engagement in an earlier blog post.2 These are:
A clearly articulated goal
Depending on the length of engagement or number of allocated coaching sessions, coaching normally entails a longer term goal, such as improving one’s ability to manage a team, creating a successful relationship with the boss, or positioning oneself to be considered for increased responsibility.
Specific examples of stories from work
Let’s go back to Alix who may begin coaching by talking generally about her ethic of being forthright. This is useful to set the stage, but after that I need specifics to be of maximum benefit. Tell me names, job titles, what you actually said and what the person replied. We need to discuss the specifics so we can figure out the particulars of what needs to happen. If we discuss the goal in a general fashion, you won’t have the information you need to figure out why the same problem keeps popping up.
A willingness to look at self
Coaching is always about helping us find our power to create the results we want in life. If we think that power lies outside ourselves, with other people or situations, then there is nothing we can do.
Remember Latrelle who thinks she is being disregarded by her peers as a “diversity hire”. Let’s say this is real, not in her imagination. She can rail about how this isn’t fair, but her peers aren’t tied up in knots, she is. The question is what does she need to think and do differently so she can gain the respect she deserves. And once she has it, what actions are within her sphere of influence, so the problem can be addressed at the systemic level and others after her won’t have to endure the same thing [blog #45, Are you blaming people? Gain more traction by revealing the system].
J. D. Meier amplifies these points.3 He, too, emphasizes staying goal-focused and being willing to look at and change yourself. He also notes that change can feel awkward, even hurt, and to regard any feedback as a gift.
It bears repeating that you are the decision-maker. If I disagree with your decision, it’s my duty to let you know so you can reflect carefully on your options and the possible impact of your decisions. And if I say something that you disagree with, it’s your duty to let me know. You have tacit knowledge about your situation that I don’t have, and that should always take precedent. You are the decision-maker and if you feel your decision is right for you, I will support you in achieving the best possible outcome.
Value of the coaching partnership
Embedded in the coaching relationship is a strict policy of confidentiality – I tell my clients that I am paranoid about confidentiality. I can’t do my job without their trust that I know how to keep a secret, especially if I am coaching more than one person at the same organization.
Concurrent with confidentiality is a deep feeling of humility of having the honor of being entrusted with someone’s hopes and dreams. It feels like a sacred trust each and every time.
So far, I have only talked about individual coaching. Group coaching abides by virtually the same principles. Whether you would benefit from individual or group coaching depends on what you aim to achieve. At Leading Consciously, we offer individual coaching engagements and group coaching through our Pathfinders and ChangeMakers programs. If you are interested in knowing more, see below.
How might Alix, Santos, and Latrelle benefit from coaching? All three have experienced hurt, discouragement, and a lack of appreciation of what they bring to the table. They each are in situations that they regard as unfair and from all indications, they are correct in those assumptions.
Yet, we all live in an unfair world. If they choose to stay in the organization, their challenge is to understand how their habitual responses to the unfairness has not worked for them and to choose new behaviors. To benefit from coaching, they must open themselves to another way of viewing their experience, and to a deeper understanding of the dynamics that are swirling around them.
When I work with clients who are willing to open themselves up to do this type of reflective work and experimentation with new behaviors, the results can seem magical.
Questions to ask yourself
Have you ever been coached for leadership? Did it help? What are some insights you gained?
How might you benefit from coaching where you are now?
Conscious Change skills covered in this blog post:
We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.
It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.