What is a Coach?
A coach is someone who can help you leverage your personal strengths and untapped opportunities, manage challenging situations more effectively, increase your sense of confidence and self-efficacy, develop and maintain a proactive, prevention mentality, and break down your goals into actionable, concrete steps to effect lasting professional and life-enhancing change.
The most powerful aspect of coaching is that the coach provides the coachee with an unconditional relationship, a relationship in which the coach’s only goal is to help you achieve your goals – whatever those may be. The coach is trained to suspend judgement about what they might think the coachee “should” or “shouldn’t” do and to support the coachee wholeheartedly in mapping out the best path and course of action for them. Your spouse, children, parents, friends, or boss - all likely have some opinion or judgement about what they believe is right for you. Most likely, they also have some attachment to or are impacted in some way by your decisions and outcomes – they have “skin in your game,” so to speak. The coach has no attachment to your outcome. The coach’s only aim is to support you in figuring out what you really want and to help you to achieve it.
What does coaching entail?
The work with each coachee is completely individualized based upon that person’s goals, needs, style, etc. Coaching is an iterative process that involves the same steps for the overall engagement and for each coaching session. The first step is to develop the relationship between the coach and coachee and understand our respective roles. We then work to identify goals and define success. Next, we flesh out current state – this is where the coachee tells their story and the coach asks lots of questions to gather information and clarify what’s going on for the coachee. We clarify the coachee’s values and strengths, identify obstacles and examine any of the coachee’s beliefs and assumptions that might be getting in the way of their achieving their goals. We then work together to create vision for the preferred state – and again the coach asks lots of questions to help the coachee get really clear on what they want. The next step is to create an action plan to achieve the desired state – which may involve defining or brainstorming options, weighing pros and cons, and making choices between alternative courses of action. The coachee implements the action plan, with the coach supporting them throughout that process and helping them evaluate their results and make adjustments as needed.
It’s important to reiterate that while the general process is the same, the specifics are individualized fit the person being coached, depending on their style, goals, pace, etc. It is also important to note that the coach is bound by a code of ethics to maintain complete confidentiality of what is discussed in coaching sessions.
How does executive coaching differ from other kinds of support, such as mentoring or therapy?
Generally, a mentor is someone with experience in the area in which they are mentoring who gives advice based upon approaches that have worked for them in the past. A mentor typically offers solutions and answers and the relationship with the mentee is training-driven. A mentor’s guidance is usually based on experience rather than formal training or proficiencies in mentoring skills.
A certified coach is an expert in people and personal development with formal training in coaching process, adult learning and development, and coaching tools and techniques. A coach manages a process of non-judgmental inquiry, relying on well-crafted questions to facilitate the coachee’s learning and growth, and to enhance his or her problem-solving skills. The coach provides structure, feedback, and support to enable the coachee to self-generate desired results. The focus of the coaching process is on the whole person within the context of the issue coachee wants to address. The process and techniques of coaching are supported by neuroscience.
As someone with 3 decades of experience as an executive, I’m happy to provide advice if that is what is most helpful to the client, but I will always encourage them to consider whether that advice is right for them or whether it will work in their situation. The coachee will always have the option to choose their course of action. Only you know what it’s like to be you, in your current circumstances and therefore only you know what is ultimately going to work best for you.
Sometimes people will ask what the difference is between coaching and therapy. Therapy tends to focus on what is wrong, is generally back-ward looking and aimed at making a person feel better. Coaching is strengths-based, meaning it focuses on what is right, is generally forward looking, and is aimed at making a person do better.
Why does coaching work?
The process and approach of coaching is based on the principles of developmental and positive psychology, adult learning, and human systems thinking and is anchored in neuroscience. The basic premise is that the coachee knows what is best for him or her and has the ability to generate solutions and actions that will work best for them. The coaching engagement is completely individualized based upon the coachee’s goals, needs, style, etc. – i.e. the coach “meets the client where they are.” Coming to his or her own conclusions and saying things out loud make them more “real” and shifts the coachee’s energy from unproductive to productive pursuits. They feel an increased sense of confidence and self-efficacy, control and choice, and courage to take risks. The coach manages the process, and the coachee is responsible for decisions and actions. That ownership leads to lasting changes and an enhanced sense of personal and professional challenge and fulfillment.
This is where the neuroscience comes in. The areas of our brain associated with emotions and memories such as the pre-frontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus are not hard-wired - they are “plastic”. Circuits in our brain change in response to experiences and simply imagining activates the same neural pathways as the real experience. Since both genetics and the environment interact in the brain to shape our brains and influence behavior, coaching can be a strategic and purposeful “environmental tool” to facilitate change, and shape neural pathways. These changes don’t occur when we are simply given advice or instruction.
Advancing or refocusing their career tends to be a common theme among my clients whose goals are to seek promotion, take on new leadership responsibilities, or change their job or organization. Many aim to develop or improve their expertise, agility, and presence to lead with more confidence. For some, this includes honing “technical” skills such as productivity and time-management, communication, presentation and public speaking, prioritizing and delegating, managing conflict, dealing with difficult people and delivering challenging news, leading organizational change, strategic planning and business development. Others want to develop their emotional intelligence and executive presence. These are such skills as self-awareness, self-management, empathy, emotional agility, listening, relationship-building, inspiring, influencing, and motivating others, and the ability to read an audience or situation. Some seek support in overcoming obstacles, or addressing crucial issues, conflicts or situations. Establishing stronger boundaries on their time and energy and cultivating positive habits and behaviors are also common goals especially for those who tend to be natural care-givers and focus on supporting others’ needs and goals ahead of their own. Some of my clients engage with me to serve as a confidant and thought partner. A lot of CEOs have coaches for this reason – it can be lonely at the top.