How to Work with an Executive Coach

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By Stefan Kalt
December 01, 2020

The benefits of working with an executive coach have been widely touted: honing leadership skills, sharpening strategic thinking, increasing productivity, boosting overall job performance, and so on. Less has been said about how to work effectively with a coach. If you want to get the most out of coaching, keep the following points in mind:

1. Articulate your goals for the session beforehand. The most successful engagements follow an action plan. This describes your most important goals, indicates crucial steps that you will take to reach these goals, and lists start dates and deadlines that you and your coach have decided on at the beginning of the engagement. Before every session, review your action plan to remind yourself of these goals and to gauge your progress towards reaching them. This will help you choose specific goals for the session. If you have trouble fleshing them out, your coach can help you, but your sessions will be more fruitful if you’ve already given some thought to what challenges you want to tackle.

2. Take Notes. Have a pen and a notebook handy. When you take an active role recording insights, suggestions, and information, it ups the chances that you’ll benefit from them: you’ve captured the results of the session in a form that is familiar to you, hence immediately useful. When I started coaching, I sent clients detailed session summaries, including a list of action items that we’d agreed upon. Many clients thanked me for these notes, but then ignored them. At first this stumped me, but then I realized that my notes, no matter how “clear,” still reflected a different perspective (mine) expressed in a manner which was not the client’s. This, combined with the annoyance of having to absorb another incoming document, caused clients to defer reading it. Deferring easily turned into forgetting. In short, taking your own notes will make it easier to appropriate and implement what you learn in session.

3. Stay the course. Issues that have nothing to do with your goals will pop up and distract you. Resist them. Of course, a genuinely important issue may emerge and indicate a new direction for the session. However, if sessions repeatedly veer off course, pay attention: there may be an underlying problem that needs addressing. The same is true if the goals of your sessions frequently depart from the goals of your action plan. This may mean that your plan should be revised.

4. Remember that you’re working with a coach, not an instructor. It’s tempting to lean back and let your coach tell you how to reach your goals. However, the best coaches facilitate your search for answers; they don’t simply provide them. Paradoxically, this is an important reason why coaching is successful. Research shows that people are more likely to implement solutions which they themselves discover than solutions which are handed to them. Co-created solutions produce greater buy-in, the necessary spring of action. As John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead report in Buy-In: “Our research has shown that 70% of all organizational change efforts fail, and one reason for this is executives simply don’t get enough buy-in, from enough people, for their initiatives and ideas.” [John Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead, Buy-In (Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press, 2010), p. 181.] The same holds true of personal change: the greater hand you have in shaping your self- improvement plan, the more you’ll buy into it and the more likely it is that you’ll implement it.

There are times, of course, when it’s reasonable to ask for advice. For their part, coaches frequently offer suggestions or make observations informed by specialized knowledge. First and foremost, however, coaches ask questions which help clients use their own knowledge or expertise. Keep this in mind, and when you’re inclined simply to ask the coach for advice, turn the question around: “How can I dig deeper into my own experience, knowledge, and awareness to find an answer?”

5. Don’t drown in the past. Many clients dwell on the past, focusing on how they handled a problem before and why that approach didn’t work. This reflection has its proper place, especially if you have a history of dysfunctional problem-solving or problem avoidance. Identifying these patterns is usually crucial to overcoming them. However, if taking a historical inventory turns into a fixation on the past, it can take the wind out of a session. I’ve worked with clients who repeatedly slip into plaintive reviews of their week, month, or life. If I determine that these are not urgent cries for help, I gently nudge the conversation towards the client’s stated goals. If you notice that your sessions are getting derailed in this way, don’t wait for the coach to step in. Instead, take the initiative: think of how best to drive the conversation forward, perhaps by proposing a new way to meet the challenge you’re facing. If you do this, it’s likely that the session’s voltage will rise noticeably as you begin moving in a more productive direction.

6. If it isn’t working, say so. Be honest with yourself and your coach about the success of the session. Some sessions are rich in “aha” moments; others less so. Some sessions may seem unhelpful at first, but bear fruit down the road. From time to time, you’ll have a frustrating, dead-end session. If your coach could be more helpful in certain areas, bring this up. At the end of the session, many coaches ask clients to list their most important or useful takeaways. This is a great opportunity for a frank conversation about how things are going. I worked with a client who repeatedly seemed disappointed during end-of-session review despite her progress. When I first asked her if anything was wrong, she insisted that everything was fine, but when I prompted her again, she opened up: our sessions were moving too quickly to the problem-solving stage – she wanted to spend more time processing her week and not feel rushed. We tweaked the structure of our sessions accordingly. Problem solved.

The most successful coaching engagements I’ve had have been with clients who’ve taken an active role – articulating their goals ahead of session, taking notes, staying on course, helping to create solutions, focusing mainly on the present and future, and communicating about how sessions are going. If you include these proactive habits in your work with a coach, you’ll benefit too.

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