The Art and Science of Choosing an Executive Coach

user Jonathan Rosenfeld
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Choosing an executive coach, much like executive coaching itself, is both an art and a science, comprised of many trade-offs. Where did he get his degree? What is her specialty? Does he understand our business environment? Has she worked with other business leaders facing similar challenges? For every tangible data point, there is also an intangible one to consider. As in all real relationships, it’s a given that not all of your needs will be met. But if you frame your search with the following things in mind, you will have the tools needed to choose the executive coach best suited for you.

Chemistry is Important, But it is Not the Only Thing

It all starts with chemistry. And while it is essential to have chemistry with your executive coach, it is also highly overrated as a key indicator for a successful engagement. Of course, you need to click with your coach, and thus feel confident and comfortable in them—on this you should not compromise. Still, you need not find your coach the most charming person in the world.

Many people select a coach based on a good first impression. These same people, often retrospectively, question the value of coaching. Why would that be? It could be that they worked with a coach more concerned with developing a connection than with challenging them to be their best. Don’t put comfort ahead of optimal frustration. Growth is frustrating. It’s hard. And while having a good connection with your coach is critical, don’t make the mistake of placing an excessive emphasis on comfort at the expense of personal and professional growth.

You Should Be Pushed, and Not Held

Your coach is not your advocate. Although they are your ally, you need to champion yourself. Optimal growth requires spending the better part of your time outside your comfort zone. If you are truly serious about raising the quality of your game, you should primarily want to be pushed, not held.

I’ve trained scores of coaches and hundreds of psychotherapists. I tell my coaches, “You want to push your clients as hard as you can, without pushing them over.” How do you do that? Figuratively speaking, you have one hand on their chest, and the other behind their back. One could say that the hand behind the back is chemistry…connecting, reading, tracking, and responding in real time to who they are, what they need, what they can handle, and what would be most useful at this particular point in time. The hand on the chest is the skill, experience, presence, and confidence the coach brings to the relationship. They use this to challenge you to step up, speak up, take smart tactical risks, stretch, and eventually grow. But don’t confuse stretching and taking risks with growth. Growth comes with the consolidation and integration of new experience and new learning. This means your coach needs to first understand some basic principles of neuroscience. 

I used to tell my psychotherapy students, “Most people are like onions.” (It’s not original, I know). “You are going to systematically peel away the layers, eventually getting down to the truth of who they are and what they need. But some people are like balloons, prick that first layer and they can pop. And just like Humpty Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men won’t put them together again.” In psychotherapy, you go slowly as you focus on the individual in front of you and their needs.

In executive coaching, it’s first and foremost about action and mindsets. Actions drive business outcomes. Mindsets inform the perception of data and perception of opportunity that determine actions. And, by whatever standard you follow, executive effectiveness in driving outcomes must improve if a coaching engagement is going to be deemed successful. In psychotherapy, one is agnostic about the journey one’s client/patient travels. In executive coaching, it is the responsibility of the coach, in collaboration with their client, to discern where professional/personal growth lines up with the needs of the business they are helping to run.

It’s Not Brain Science…But it is

While in most cases, the phrase“it’s not brain science” is true, in the world of executive coaching, neuroscience is relevant. While top coaches need not be fluent in it, they must be conversant. Neuroscientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Growth only comes when you consolidate what you have learned from the coaching experience and integrate it into day-to-day habits, which essentially become your best practices as a leader. Bottom line, it takes hundreds of repetitions dispersed over a period of 18 to 36 months, before the wiring is complete and new ways of being both in mindset and action (behavior), become second nature. Your coach needs to understand how to match up new actions with the right work situations and challenges (so that the correct neurons fire together and wire together), to optimally leverage the phenomenon of neuroplasticity to your advantage. Basically, they need to understand how one rewires and/or re-architects parts of the brain, to help you permanently take your game up to the next level. Ask your potential coach what their post-coaching integration strategy is. If they don’t have one, you might end up with zero net gain over time. And how demoralizing is that?

Systems Thinking Improves Awareness

The best coaches talk to individuals but coach systems. It’s a paradox. As individuals we have our most clear agency when we take responsibility for our actions and for the performance of our teams. And yet, our roles only exist as part of systems that are greater than ourselves. As leaders, we have the most impact on the teams we lead, and our own behaviors influence them in ways both seen and unseen.

One simple example. I’ve seen sales leaders and other leaders, over and over, parachute in and “rescue” deals. This can yield critical short terms wins while leaving direct reports feeling inadequate and intimidated. This type of overfunctioning on the part of the leader, can have the de facto consequence of normalizing and encouraging underfunctioning on the part of the team.

By understanding the dynamics between individuals and systems, the coach can help the executive anticipate unintended consequences by sharing constructive new actions and initiatives on their part. When predicted, negative consequences can be mitigated, and positive consequences can be optimized.

Business Acumen is a Must

Business acumen is even more critical than chemistry, and cannot be overrated, particularly in the C-suite. But what is business acumen? Don’t mistake business experience on the part of your coach for competency, even though it is relevant. Central to business acumen is the capacity for rapid fire, real-time critical thinking and a passion for practical problem solving. And yes, understanding context is essential, at first generically, and then as your coach gets to know you and your business, with greater and greater degrees of sophistication and nuance about your unique situation. A forward-thinking and sufficiently experienced coach knows where the client is developmentally, both as a person and as an executive. They understand the transitions, such as moving from Director to Vice President (VP) or joining the “C team.” At the same time, they can appreciate the context of team, company, and marketplace through a macro lens. They know, for instance, what it means to be a 30-year-old first time VP, versus reaching that level when you are 40…or what it means to work in a rapidly scaling startup vs. a stable and staid Fortune 500 company.

And context is both the tangible nuts and bolts—how to give feedback, how to onboard, how to manage up, what good meeting hygiene looks like, how to determine who should be in the room, what smart accountability/ performance systems look like, etc.—and the less tangible interpersonal—how to build a strong team culture, how to inspire, etc. Business acumen is critical for a coach, not because they are telling people what to do, but because their ability to challenge a client is only credible if the clients have confidence that they appreciate the context and constraints within which they operate.

Executive Coaching and Business Advising are Different

At some point, you may need to know if you are looking for a business advisor/consultant to mentor you with their domain expertise and experience or an executive coach to help accelerate your development as a leader and manager, irrespective of your specific domain. While the skill sets you need may be present in one person, the purposes for seeking an advisor versus a coach are radically different.

If you are looking for a business advisor, you will want someone with enough experience in the corporate world to provide you with the counsel required to help you advance professionally. Many of the best have successfully led operational teams, had responsibility for P&Ls, and earned their corporate chops with decades in the business world. They may also hold advanced degrees. A great business advisor can help with certain business decisions and guide you through tough situations. As consultants, they have often seen the same challenge with dozens of clients, so they possess deep historical knowledge that can provide transformative business results.

A great executive coach may have worked their way up a corporate ladder. Or they may have principally concentrated on being an organizational development professional or clinician of some sort with an advanced degree in behavioral sciences. Either path can yield you an excellent executive coach, but mastery in this area requires extensive training, certification and credentials—often in addition to, or as an alternative to a Ph.D. or Masters. A great executive coach will have devoted years to developing skills and experience around communication, organizational dynamics, and learning and development. They will also have an incredibly high level of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence (EQ).

That is not to say that an excellent executive coach has no business experience or that an excellent business advisor has no coaching expertise. The best executive coaches and the best business advisors have skill sets and experience that overlap to a high degree…and both routinely refer to themselves as executive coaches. While their peak strengths may diverge, they are both rock solid in developing you as a leader and in providing savvy advice to your business. Just consider your purpose—the right coach for you right now may be driven by whether your focus is on the organization’s needs or your own. Of course, an excellent coach will always direct your personal development in a manner that serves your company well, and assess the needs of the company as opportunities for you to grow and add optimal value.

ROI is Measurable…Even in Coaching

If you are committed to coaching and know you will be spending the majority of this time outside your comfort zone, it’s good to have evidence of a high return on your investment (ROI). How do you and your coach evaluate your baseline performance ahead of the coaching process? How do you measure progress during coaching, and use it as one more tool to motivate and support you doing your best work? Ask your coach these questions. 

Prior to any sessions, many coaches do a 360° assessment tool, as well as diagnostic interviews. Other coaches may use surveys that evaluate personality type, adult development stages, or some other measurement system. All of these techniques make good sense, and yet, they can also influence the coachs beliefs and feelings about you before getting to know you in any meaningful way. For that reason, some coaches use a different approach. Make sure the coach you select has a crisp/smart explanation for why they do what they do and how they track your progress. Their tracking system should be both robust and simple. They could do a periodic pulse survey with a single question. They could repeat the 360. Or they could set up a system where you track and hold yourself accountable, with the assistance of your peers or direct reports. While there is no right answer, they should have a wellarticulated philosophy and strategy. 

I like the last approach in particular as it integrates performance evaluation directly into coaching. For instance, let’s say you are working on more “reflective listening,” which shows up through your ability to actively articulate what you hear, empathize, show compassion, etc. If you tell your staff that you will be practicing reflective listening in all your one-on-one meetings with them, your team can hold you accountable, and you will have a metric to track that is integral to practicing new mindsets and behaviors. 

It’s a Relationship

One final thought on selecting an executive coach…this is a relationship that will hopefully last for a while, so don’t shortchange yourself in the selection process by believing that a single 30-minute meeting is adequate. First impressions provide too much risk for both false positives and negatives. You might find that after a few sessions the coach you “hit it off with” in your initial meeting lacks the necessary substance to help you. Or, the coach you found “so so” on the charm scale may grow on you as you develop rapport and see how much value they offer. Before you engage someone on a long-term basis, ask them to hold a mock coaching session with you. If that goes well, hire them for an initial four-session engagement and if at that point you are not completely satisfied, go look for another coach. It will be better for both of you in the long run.

At the end of the day, make sure you are comfortable enough with this person and find them credible enough, that you can trust the wisdom of their perspective and lean into the questions they ask. Then look at yourself developmentally. Do I first and foremost need an advisor, given my business experience, or lack thereof? Do I need to make fundamental changes in my business? Or, do I need someone to challenge me on my executive presence, and help me to become more sophisticated and emotionally mature as a leader of people? Take the time you need in the selection process, because making an investment in an executive coach will pay out dividends for you not just as a leader, but as a person for the rest of your life.

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