Here’s a short scenario to start us off. An HR department has decided that its marketing director needs some coaching sessions. They are an exemplary director – indeed a potential CEO when the present incumbent retires in around 18 months – but some of her colleagues feel she’s not collaborative enough. Some executive coaching – six sessions in total – have been booked, and it’s your job now to sit down with this experienced director and over the course of these six one-to-one sessions get them to explore collaboration.
Tricky? Yes it is. It’s hard sometimes not to judge some aspects of coaching as being ‘remedial’. A skill is ‘lacking’ and six sessions will help ‘remedy’ that lack. But that’s not how effective coaching should work. The process is itself collaborative. While HR may well have a goal in terms of the outcome of these sessions, the sessions themselves are a private interaction between two individuals: in our scenario, a director with possibly 25 or 30 years of business and life experience, and a coach whose own skills will be put to the test in order to successfully meet the needs of the individual sitting in front of them with the needs of the organisation which has brought them both together.
So what are the real critical skills needed to ensure that these six executive coaching sessions will provide all of these stakeholders with a successful and happy ending? I’m now going to outline five crucial skills which I believe ensure that coaching sessions, such as the fictional one we have outlined, have successful and rewarding outcomes which meet everyone’s needs.
Deep Listening. We all have ears, but there’s more to deep listening than that. We have to hear – and that means listening to what is not being said as well as what is openly spoken. As well as hearing, you need to be able to read body language. How someone sits, changes position, or alters their tone of voice. These are all clues as to how engaged they are. You need to establish a private and confidential space between you where someone becomes comfortable and is happy to ‘release the truth’.
Feedback. This might well be the first time a senior executive has had honest and non judgemental feedback. More even than they’d get from husbands, wives, siblings, friends, work colleagues. Each of these are either familiar with the traits of an individual, or have a vested interest in giving responses that are filtered in some way, so that any feedback becomes easy to dismiss.
As the executive coach you are free from those viewpoints and in a position to give open and honest comment. That comment doesn’t have to be negative either. Very often you’ll find that positive feedback is far more valuable in terms of building trust and taking the conversation forward. Indeed, positive feedback in the workplace is more unusual than you might think.
Above all, you need to set the individual free to explore and analyse their own behaviour. It’s about creating sustainable change in an individual – and if that comes from their own self-discovery, it’s more likely to be internalized and ensure they are better equipped to deal with it themselves in the future.
Questions. Clearly the more open the question the better. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ answers will quickly close down any conversation. But as with listening, questions need to go far deeper – and come from the moment – which all re-enforces that first skill – listening.
But above all good questions are generated by the coach’s own curiosity. You need to ask questions which find a way to unlock the subject’s own thinking and aid their self-insight. Questions should be guided not by your own perspective on the situation, but from the subject’s own perspective. It’s not about you, it’s always about them – and your questions must reflect this.
Presence. This is harder to describe and easier to observe, which probably doesn’t sound very helpful. In many ways it’s a combination of some of the other elements outlined above – not least listening. Because what you want is for the person being coached to feel your full attention is upon them. They cannot feel for a second that you, as the coach, are simply going through the motions. Your questions should not sound pre-prepared. If they think you’re ‘faking it’ then why should they trust you with their deeper reflections? Presence begets presence. You need to concentrate on them and empty your mind of everything else except your client.
Experience. There is no reason, on paper at least, why a 22 year old should not make a successful executive coach. I’ve just never met one yet. Coaching at this senior level needs more than just organisational experience, more than just an MBA from a good business school. It needs gravitas and that comes from the experiences life has brought, as well as business. Would you really be comfortable opening up to a coach who has fewer candles on their birthday cake than you have years of hard won senior level experience? Because it’s important that the person you are coaching knows you have shared experiences in business, if not in life. The best executive coach I ever knew was a highly experienced finance director who retrained in later life. So sorry if you’re just out of university and want to be an executive coach. Just give it time and you’ll eventually get there.
Can these skills be taught and learned? Of course they can, but there is no substitute for experience – both of life and of the business world in all its forms – both good and not so good. And if you have that – and couple it to the skills I have outlined above – then there’s every reason why a very rewarding career as an executive coach could well be yours.
Ana Karakusevic is a programme director of the postgraduate certificate in coaching at Roffey Park Institute