On Becoming a Coach: Three Behavioral Competencies

Originally posted on executivecoachingbook:

No consensus exists on which behavioral attributes are most important for executive coaching. However, there is little question that possession of certain behavioral attributes, when present, will enhance the effectiveness of coaching. I will comment on three attributes that I believe are critical for anyone thinking of becoming an executive coach. They are emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself into another person’s situation, and intuitive thinking.

Much has been written in the last decade about Emotional Intelligence, often abbreviated as “EI.” The key components of EI related to coaching are self-awareness, self-control, and the ability to relate to others. Let me explain why these are important.

Self-examination is not limited to coachees. Every coach has a balance sheet of assets and liabilities. Awareness and understanding of one’s balance sheet allows the coach to manage the coaching relationship. Every coaching relationship is different, and the coach must be aware of…

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On Becoming a Coach: Three Behavioral Competencies

No consensus exists on which behavioral attributes are most important for executive coaching.  However, there is little question that possession of certain behavioral attributes, when present, will enhance the effectiveness of coaching. I will comment on three attributes that I believe are critical for anyone thinking of becoming an executive coach.  They are emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself into another person’s situation, and intuitive thinking.

Much has been written in the last decade about Emotional Intelligence, often abbreviated as “EI.” The key components of EI related to coaching are self-awareness, self-control, and the ability to relate to others. Let me explain why these are important. 

Self-examination is not limited to coachees.  Every coach has a balance sheet of assets and liabilities.  Awareness and understanding of one’s balance sheet allows the coach to manage the coaching relationship.  Every coaching relationship is different, and the coach must be aware of how to deal with these differences. 

The urge to project or impose the coach’s values or biases on the coachee needs to be controlled. Unless the coachee’s values or goals are the problem, coaches need to work within the guidelines of the coachee’s values and goals. While it is natural for a coach to want to help a coachee, restraint is needed to keep from offering solutions.  Having the coachee do the heavy lifting is an essential part of the coaching process.

I have commented many times about the importance of the coaching relationship.  A coach needs to establish rapport and earn the trust and confidence of the coachee.  A coach must also be able to empathize with the coachee.  This will allow the coach to understand the coachee’s thought process and provide the insights needed to develop change.

A coach needs to be in the moment, totally in touch with what is going on in the coaching process.  Continuous monitoring of the verbal and non-verbal responses of the coachee will allow the coach to help the coachee create a balance sheet of assets and liabilities, identify gaps between desired goals and current behavior, and create plans on how to change behavior. Not everyone is capable of immersing oneself in another person’s problems and differentiating one’s own needs from those of the coachee.

It took me years to realize that success in teaching needs to be measured not by how the teacher performs but how the student performs.  The same applies to coaching.  I needed to come to terms with how I judged my success.  Early in my coaching career, I allowed my own biases to dictate how I engaged with coachees.  Today, I use staying within the coaching process and improvement in coachee performance as measures of internal and external success.

Coaches are investigators.  They search for clues and integrate them to form hypotheses. These hypotheses are tested by asking probing questions with the intention of finding the core problem that needs to be addressed.  I strongly believe that coaching is most effective when the coach thinks intuitively.  By this, I mean a coach must work with many unknowns. By asking questions that clarify the challenges confronting a coachee, the coach is able to better understand the coachee.  The ability to ask good questions, knowing when to probe deeper, and piecing the clues together is an intuitive process.  For people who need more detail and more certainty, coaching will become cumbersome for both coach and coachee.  Coaches are continually creating new algorithms.  The “Zen” of coaching does not lend itself to highly structured or predictive formulas. 

I have worked with many executives and students who wanted to become executive coaches.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks to their success was the need to prepare questions in advance.  They were afraid of not knowing what to ask the coachee.  They also wanted to control the coaching relationship by guiding the coachee toward their solution, without regard to whether or not it was the best solution for the coachee. It takes a great deal of confidence and discipline to be able to rely on one’s intuitive skills to guide the coachee toward self-improvement.

It was not my purpose to identify all of the behavioral skills that lead to successful coaching. My book Executive Coaching and the Process of Change discusses many more behavioral attributes that affect coaching.  If I were asked to name three of the most important personal attributes that a coach should have, they would be emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself in another person’s challenges, and the ability to ask probing questions and use intuition to piece together the clues presented by the coachee.




On Becoming a Coach

There is no simple pathway to becoming an executive coach. Unlike other professions, there is no degree program or widely accepted certification process that qualifies a candidate to be an executive coach. I will answer the question of how to become an executive coach in three parts. In this blog, I will demonstrate why it is important that executive coaches understand business. In my next blog, I will identify some of the behavioral skills needed to be a coach. Finally, I will identify several programs that help the aspiring coach to acquire and perfect coaching skills.

I believe executive coaches need to understand business at multiple levels. I will use my own experience as a case in point. The experience of having studied, taught, consulted, and started several businesses has been invaluable in my journey to becoming an executive coach. I gained knowledge in the areas of leadership, strategy, operations, financial analysis, and organizations. My experience with organizations included heavy and light manufacturing, a variety of service organizations, not-for-profit organizations, starts-ups, family businesses, financial services, distribution, and medical delivery. I worked with most functional areas of businesses from early entry jobs to the CEO. I also believe that teaching organizational behavior, entrepreneurship, and leadership solidified my knowledge, allowing me to articulate what I had experienced within a larger body of research and theory. But this is just one person’s journey. Many executives, particularly those who had multifunctional responsibilities, may have sufficient business knowledge to coach. Certainly, former CEOs have an edge in understanding the role of the top executive.

Let’s examine why an executive coach needs to understand business. The majority of the issues that the coachee brings to coaching sessions are business related. Therefore, it is important that both the coach and coachee speak the same language–the language of business. Most executives want practical, results-oriented, efficient, and customized coaching. They are comfortable with a coach who speaks their language rather than one who is primarily theoretical, abstract, and didactic.

Related to using a common business language is establishing credibility. Having a business background adds tremendous credibility to the coach and the coaching relationship. Remember, the goal of coaching is to help the coachee find ways to improve his or her performance. Familiarity with the business issues that the coachee faces will greatly enhance credibility, which, in turn, will facilitate change.

As I have stated many times, coaching is a process. It requires that a coach know how to identify gaps, create tension, move the coachee toward important goals, and find ways of sustaining the change. Much of this is done through asking questions that help the coachee to actively pursue ways to improve. Knowing which questions to ask cannot be prepared in advance; they cannot be scripted. Coaches act on clues the coachee offers and integrates these clues into a hypothesis that leads to deeper questions. Understanding the business issues that challenge the coachee is central to asking relevant questions of him or her.

To summarize, the first task of a coach is to establish rapport with the coachee. Knowing the language of business will strengthen credibility, trust, and acceptance. Understanding business will help the coach ask relevant questions that will guide the coachee in changing and improving performance.

The Power of Reflection

In previous blogs, I have advocated the use of reflection as a method of creating change. In this blog, I would like to elaborate upon why reflection is such a powerful tool. In my book, I share a quote by a former major league baseball player, Vernon Law: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.” When we reflect about past experience, we not only review the test but we can analyze it to better understand why the experience worked or didn’t work–i.e., the lesson it provided. This analysis allows us to reinforce what worked, but it also allows us to explore options that may have made a difference if they had been part of the reflected experience. Allow me to offer an example to illustrate this point.

Jim was in line to take over the family business. In his mid-30s, he was still learning. His CEO father recommended a coach to help Jim prepare for his future role as the lead executive. An early reflection supported a stated liability that Jim was continually interrupted and approached for advice from supervisors and machine operators. Jim had become an expert in the operations area, although his current role was in sales. He was conflicted about responding to requests for help from operations and his role as sales manager. He was keenly aware that these interruptions interfered with his effectiveness as a sales manager. By reflecting on specific instances where he was approached for advice, Jim was able to replay what he did to encourage being approached for advice and what he could have done to reduce interruptions from his current role. He realized he had created an easy way for others to get help from him while creating a problem in time management for him. After exploring several options, Jim was able to use his strengths of focus and achievement to break the habit of being the first source of advice in operations. He was able to communicate with the plant manager and director of engineering to have them take on these responsibilities. Always aware of maintaining strong relationships with all associates, Jim was able to tactfully guide advice-seekers to executives in engineering and operations. With fewer interruptions and more control of his time, Jim was able to focus on his role as sales manager.

Analyzing a reflective experience and trying out new options is the first step in changing behavior. Applying the new behavior in future situations will allow for a good test of the effectiveness of the change. Jim was able to try his new approach with great success.

The ability to analyze, alter, and apply a new approach to similar situations is one reason why reflection is so powerful. A second reason is the relevance of using a personal experience. As a professor, I used reflection to help my students learn and apply new concepts. In my MBA course Managing Change, I required students to apply what they had read to a reflected experience that did not go well. They wrote papers about their reflected experience and how applying the wisdom of what they had read would have made a positive difference. The results were impressive both in the insights gained and from the student response to this assignment. Some students responded that this approach to learning was life changing. I believe the relevancy of applying new principles and concepts to personal experience is a major reason for the success of this approach. New behavior immediately becomes embedded into what is already known, thus enhancing what is learned and retained.

A third reason why reflective learning is powerful is that it uses all three learning styles described in my last blog. Reflections are visualizations of the past. We can see them through the rear view mirror of our accumulated experience. Reflections also have a way of speaking to us. We can often recite the dialogue, not always exactly as originally stated, but within the context of how we understood the dialogue. Finally, reflections by definition are kinesthetic. Recalling a reflected experience is reliving what we originally experienced.

In this blog, I hope I was able not only to emphasize how reflection works but why it is such a powerful tool for the coach. I always encourage my coachees to come to coaching sessions with their experiences. The insights gained from this approach can lead to significant, sustainable change.

Individual Differences Make a Difference

I am sure you have heard the expression “One size fits all.”  Not so in coaching. A coach needs to acknowledge individual differences if he or she is to be effective. This is one reason why it is helpful to have assessment information prior to engaging the coachee.  Assessments reveal valuable information, allowing the coach to tailor coaching to the needs of the coachee. Understanding individual differences and how they determine certain behaviors can help a coach approach the coachee in a much more meaningful way.  For example, if the coachee’s personal style is very direct, the coach’s approach can be more direct, identifying the tasks needed for change.  On the other hand, if the coachee has a highly inspirational, persuasive style, the approach may be more conversational, allowing the coachee to explore multiple alternatives.  This in turn, will help the coachee to understand how to use his or her style more effectively to obtain better results as a leader. 

Sometimes the personal style of the coach clashes with that of the coachee.  I have sometimes been challenged with coachees who are very concrete, highly analytical thinkers.  These individuals need a lot of information before making a decision. They also view the world in black and white terms, not gray.  They struggle to understand broad concepts that are more abstract than concrete.   One of my coachees had great difficulty understanding the concept of a vision. No matter how many examples I presented, he just didn’t get it.  We settled on a goal with a step-by-step plan, abandoning the “loftier” concept of a vision.  In situations like this, I look for ways to be as concrete as possible. This can be difficult, given my own style, which embraces more general, abstract thinking.  Coaches need to be flexible, adapting to the coachee’s style of thinking.

Coachees also vary in how they learn.  Research suggests that people learn in three different modes: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.  Visual learners represent a significant percentage of all people and respond best to visual cues.  In a coaching session, reflections can serve as visual cues because the situation can be recalled and the coachee can visualize what happened. Auditory learners respond well to dialogue; they are able to learn by listening.  Again, reflections produce auditory cues as well as visual ones, providing a rich medium for learning.  The third style is kinesthetic, or “hands on” learning.  Those with a preference for kinesthetic learning need to actually do things in order to understand them.  They need to apply what they have learned and experience the verification that occurs through action. Recalling and reflecting about past experiences have a built-in action component.  I believe we all can benefit from kinesthetic learning. John Dewey, a pioneer in the field of education, demonstrated the power of kinesthetic learning by challenging his students to tie a simple knot with a rope.  He repeated this demonstration several times until his students agreed that they could perform the knot-tying themselves. When given rope and asked to tie the knot, most failed.  When allowed to practice while they were given verbal instructions, most succeeded.  The message was clear:  doing enhances learning. Ironically, the dominant teaching style in college classrooms is the lecture.  If auditory learning is not your dominant style, you will be challenged to understand and process what you heard in that lecture. Perhaps college professors who want their students to learn and retain more subject matter can vary their approach to include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic pedagogy.

Body language can make the coachee more comfortable in what can be a stressful situation.  If a coachee is leaning forward, the coach may also do the same–not to mimic the coachee but to respond to him or her in a similar fashion.  Reflecting the body language of the coachee may have a subliminal impact in making him or her more responsive.  This use of reflective body language is similar to verbal paraphrasing, only with body movement rather than dialogue.  The impression and value it provides supports the coach as responsive and fully engaged with the coachee.

It is important for a coach to be aware of how personal style, learning style, and body language can affect the coaching process. Tailoring the coach’s approach to the coachee’s uniqueness will enhance the coaching engagement and establish a much stronger rapport between coach and coachee.




Creating an Organizational Brain with Teamwork


If you were asked what allows the different systems and appendages of your body to operate in a coordinated manner, you would respond, “the brain.”   Of course you would be right. If you were asked what allows the different divisions and departments of an organization to operate in a coordinated manner, you might have a more difficult time in finding a response.  Organizations do not have brains. But organizations do have the need to coordinate their different functions. 

I use the above metaphor (one of my assets) to underscore the importance of coordination in organizations.  Even deeper, it exposes what many organizations lack: a team of executives who are proactively engaged in communication, coordination, and cooperation.  Such a team would constitute the “brain” that organizations need to function effectively.

Sometimes it is necessary to work not just with a senior executive but with the whole team. This was the case of Bill, who was the CEO of a mid-sized insurance company.  Bill held a staff meeting every Wednesday morning at 8:30 sharp.  The stated purpose of these meetings was to review strategic initiatives and communicate how each executive was performing on his or her goals. Unfortunately, what was really happening at these meetings was a freestyle critique of team members, who blamed each other for failing to reach stated goals.  The meetings were tense and frustrating for Bill.

After the meetings ended, executives were known to continue talking about each other and critiquing what was said or not said at the meeting.  Not surprising, low morale was permeating the organization.  Following an organization-wide survey that revealed a high level of dissatisfaction among associates, Bill decided to confront this issue head on.  He shared the situation with his coach and asked for help to open up communication and develop ground rules for more effective meetings.  After several meetings in which executives engaged in open conversation about their group process, they committed to a better process that embraced healthy conflict.  Discussions were not personal but, instead, constructive and focused toward goal attainment.  They even agreed to help each other on overlapping projects.  All participants agreed not to complain about the meeting after it ended.  With a few exceptions, the team embraced this new process and showed progress in meeting their individual and organizational goals.

The role of the coach in this case was twofold. He was the coach for Bill, helping him address a dysfunctional executive team.  He was also a coach/facilitator to the executive team, helping them engage in open dialogue about their need to create the process that allowed for more open communication and coordination of important initiatives.

Bill continued to work with his coach to develop better communication with each executive on his team.  He responded well to tailoring his communication methods based on the individual styles of each team member.  Most of all, Bill engaged in active listening, helping him develop a deeper understanding of his executives.  Many of Bill’s sessions with his coach involved reflections of situations, allowing Bill to continually monitor his communication and team leadership. Not surprisingly, two of the most critical members of his team left the organization–in part, due to their lack of effectiveness as team players. The latest organizational survey of his associates showed a marked improvement in satisfaction and morale. The company revenues and bottom line also showed significant improvement.

This case serves as a good example of why coaches need to be knowledgeable in the challenges that confront the coachee.   Bill needed help in an area in which he did not have expertise.   A coach should have enough knowledge of team development to help an executive like Bill develop an effective methodology that can lead to improved teamwork.   Whether or not a coach facilitates the team development depends on the coach’s facilitation skills and experience in team building.  A different team facilitator could have accomplished similar results.  In this case, the coach was an experienced team facilitator. 

One final point:  whenever possible, a coach should help the coachee to be a coach with his or her associates.  Coaching may start at the top, but it is far more effective when it cascades throughout the organization. 





Creating a Context for Executive Coaching Communication

Communication needs to be addressed both for its content and its context.  The major content issues in coaching relate to creating gaps and tension through information acquired from assessments and coaching sessions and then asking probing questions that help the coach to create enough tension to motivate the coachee to action that will reduce the tension.  These have been discussed in previous blogs. The context of communication is more complex.  I will discuss four context dimensions that are critical to a coach’s communication with the coachee. They are: rapport, being in the moment, active listening, and reflective learning.

Rapport involves establishing trust, confidentiality, perceived respect for the coach by the coachee, and sensitivity by the coach to a very personal situation involving major consequences for the coachee.  Transparency is very important.  When I meet with a coachee for the first time, I make the goals and my approach to the coaching engagement very clear.  I talk about the importance of confidentiality.  I pay particular attention to aligning the interests of the coachee with my interests as a coach. 

Being in the moment is one of the most difficult skills to learn as a coach.  Being in the moment can sometimes feel like being unprepared.  It seems natural to want to prepare questions for the coachee in advance and to anticipate areas to explore in coaching sessions.  Preparing questions, however, defeats the process needed for coaching to be successful.  Coaches need to be active listeners and observers, identifying clues that signal tension and areas for deeper probing.  They must rely on what they hear and see in order to know what questions to ask. Scripting questions in advance will be counterproductive.  Remember, the coachee is the subject, not the coach. Coaches need to concentrate on what is going on emotionally and cognitively with the coachee and less on themselves.

Much has been written about active listening. The main lesson for coaching is that active listening is a process, beginning with readiness to paraphrase what the coachee is saying. Active listening will signal to the coachee that the coach is spontaneous and in the moment.  Rephrasing what the coachee says will provide an opportunity to verify and obtain feedback on the coach’s understanding of what was said, adding to the clarity of communication.  Active listening will aid the coach in identifying tensions and gaps that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Reflective learning uses past experiences as a method of learning.  By analyzing past experience, the coachee can assess successes and failures, using the coachee’s experience as a personal case study. Learning takes place not as an added lesson but as a reflective insight from the analysis.  The coachee can explore what could have been if a different approach to a past experience had been taken. This is a good time to use the coachee’s balance sheet to explore what assets could have been used and what liabilities needed to be managed.  What is gained from reflective learning can then be applied to new experiences.  Having the coachee apply reflective insights to new situations will reinforce learning and allow for practice and feedback to the coach, further solidifying positive changes in behavior. Coaches should encourage coachees to talk about their experiences.  These experiences are live cases, relevant and ripe for analysis and fertile ground to try out new, more effective behaviors.

Most discussions about communication address the process of creating clarity and mutual understanding.  These are important.  In coaching, communication must also serve the purpose of creating change.  The goal of this discussion is to identify important contextual factors that influence the communication between coach and coachee, ultimately leading to positive change.