How to Effectively Leverage Executive Coaching: 3 Steps to Hiring a Coach

user Darren Gold

I lead the executive coaching practice at The Trium Group, where we serve senior leaders and their teams from many of the world’s most influential, recognizable, and late-stage growth companies. The question I’m asked most frequently is, “How do I know which coach to hire?”

Let’s begin with a few basic facts.

  • The field of executive coaching is booming. More and more leaders are recognizing the need and benefit of an outside resource to help in overall leadership matters.
  • The number of executive coaches is, not surprisingly, expanding to meet this growing need.
  • The quality of executive coaching is mixed, making it difficult to know who to hire.

Here are the three steps I recommend to anyone considering getting coached.

Step 1: Be committed

Getting coached (particularly when you have the right coach) can be a life-changing experience. Many people talk about their experience with a great coach as the most rewarding part of their professional and personal lives. Coaching has the potential to transform how you think and how you see the world, resulting in massive changes to how you lead and live your life.

Besides the quality of the coach, the number one variable that determines the quality of a coaching experience is the degree of commitment that the leader has to his or her own growth. By commitment, I mean the willingness to prioritize the time it takes to engage with a coach and (perhaps more importantly) practice between sessions, be vulnerable and open, and have the courage to really take yourself on. A leader with a high commitment to being coached will have better results every time than a leader who is ambivalent about getting coached, even if the coaching is provided by an average vs. a superstar coach. Coaching done well requires commitment. If you aren’t committed, don’t waste your time and money.

Step 2: Identify where you need support

In your development as a leader, there are two primary tensions. The first is the tension between being and doing. The second is between leading self and leading others. The effective leader figures out a way to leverage and integrate these tensions. She is able to master her way of being without sacrificing her ability to perform and execute. And she is equally focused on self-development and inspiring and leading others.

Every leader needs to play four fundamental roles that are born out of these two tensions.

As a psychologist, you need to be a master of your mind and the minds of others. You need to understand the basic principles of psychology so that you have access to powerful levers to shift your behavior. You need a working understanding of neuroscience and neurophysiology. You have to understand cognitive bias (particularly your own biases) and how they affect and distort decision-making. And you must bring to bear the timeless, ancient wisdom that leaders throughout history have drawn from. Most leaders have virtually no capacity in this area. It is thus one of the primary areas where leaders seek support. Every effective executive coach will have some depth in psychology. Most importantly, he will be a master of his own psychology. If not, steer clear. See Step 3 below.

As a philosopher, you must have a clear set of leadership operating principles that guide how you lead. Most leaders have a few implicit assumptions that subconsciously drive their behavior. Great leaders make these assumptions explicit and intentionally evolve them into a coherent philosophy. They draw on a combination of historical examples and things that are more personal in nature. And they leverage their role as psychologist in making sure they understand what motivates the people they are tasked with leading. The right executive coach in this domain will be a leadership philosopher herself. She will serve as a Socratic sounding board for you to develop this essential aspect of your leadership.

As an operator, whether you’re leading a team or an entire organization, you have to get stuff done. You have to know how to have skillful conversations. You need to know how to run effective meetings. You must develop an eye for talent and the skills for evaluating performance. Most importantly, you need to manage your time effectively, ensuring that you constantly focus on the things that really add value and minimize or avoid completely those that don’t. These are of course a shortlist of the many tactical skills you need to lead effectively. You also need to get stuff done while investing the time in cultivating and strengthening relationships. A coach with depth in this domain will be able to leverage significant business experience and/or years of coaching experience to help you develop the capabilities to become a world-class operator.

Finally, as a strategist, you need to build your capacity to inspire. This is about developing a clear and compelling vision for the future of your team, function, and/or organization, and a thoughtful roadmap for getting there. To do this well requires a strategic mindset, mastery of narrative and language, communication ability, and a way of being that inspires people to act in new and different ways. Your role as a strategist will draw on all of your other capacities as a psychologist, philosopher, and operator.

Before selecting a coach, know which dimensions of leadership you want to focus on. Very few, if any coaches, will have real depth in all four quadrants. At best, a great coach will be strong in two, maybe three. Being clear about where you need help will allow you to target the right coach for you and develop your bench (see next step) to build out your competency in all four leader domains.

Step 3: Build a bench

At the beginning of a coaching relationship, the biggest mistake leaders make is expecting the coach to play every role they need – mentor, psychologist, business advisor, accountability partner, etc. As we saw in Step 2, this is unrealistic. While you will likely need help in all four leadership domains, you should reasonably expect a coach to provide effective help primarily in one or two of those areas. For example, say you select a coach who has incredible depth in the upper quadrants – psychologist and philosopher. They should have enough experience and pattern recognition in the lower quadrants – operator and strategist – to contextualize the coaching, but you still may feel that you need coaching and advice from someone who has greater depth in these two lower quadrant domains. Here’s where you need to build your bench. Perhaps you know a particularly talented operator or strategist who has had the same role as you do. Maybe she sits on your board. It’s a great practice to ask this person to be a formal mentor. You could agree to have monthly calls where you come prepared to ask the right set of questions and to report back on what you’ve learned since the prior call. The most effective executives I know have intentionally built a bench comprised of formal and informal mentors with and from whom they engage and learn regularly.

Coaching can be one of the most rewarding, transformative experiences of your life. But it has to be with a talented coach who is focused on the intersection of providing real value and addressing your most pressing need. An upfront investment of time in selecting the right executive coach will make all the difference.

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