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The (Contradictory) Qualities of a Good Executive Coach, Part 1

As an executive coach for nearly 20 years and a trainer of coaches, I’m often asked what qualities a good executive coach must have—especially compared to the qualities of a “life coach.” It’s a more complicated question than one might suspect if one is willing to look beyond the generalities.executive_coaching

Sure, one must be a good listener, be ethical, etc. But I have found that the best coaches seem to have an ability to manage the tension between what might, on the surface at least, look like contradictory qualities.

Take listening—yes, coaches must be able to listen and they are working to facilitate a client’s ability to think deeply about an issue and attempt to reach a conclusion him- or herself. This is one of the most common lessons people tell me they are taught in coaching schools—ask, don’t tell.

However, too many coaches, especially new coaches, use that lesson to cover up the fact that they may not have any practical advice to give a client in the situation the client is facing. And while the “ask, don’t tell” advice is generally appropriate, it undermines the coach’s credibility if it is over-used it.

Here’s one example of how:

Liz was a driven and aggressive CFO of a $3 bn segment of a large multinational industrial manufacturing company. Upon engaging me as a coach, she explained that she saw the value in having an executive coach, but had been frustrated with her last coach.

“She was great in a lot of ways,” said Liz. “But every time we would talk I would explain some issue I was going through and she would just keep asking me ‘How do you feel about that?’”

“It made me crazy,” said Liz. “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how I feel and it doesn’t matter what happened in my past. I’m not looking for a therapist—sometimes I have a problem and I just want to be told how to solve it.”

Liz is like most clients I have worked with—she appreciated the idea of self-development and the role of self-inquiry and self-awareness in becoming a better leader, but she was also faced with tremendous pressures to perform against ever-shortening deadlines and failure to do so meant she could get fired. Her coach needed to understand that sometimes she has the luxury to reflect on her past and her deepest motivations, but that other times she needs to take some course of action but doesn’t know what to do. She needed a coach who had experience with clients who had faced similar situations and could offer advice based on that experience.

Executive coaching is a very different environment from life coaching, but most coaching schools focus on principles and techniques that work in life coaching. If a coach doesn’t understand this difference when they move into executive coaching, they will harm their client and lose credibility.

This is not in meant to denigrate the reflective listening that a coach must do to help clients think for themselves and create their own paths for growth. A coach needs to work to make themselves, if not unnecessary, at least less-necessary to their client. They cannot simply spoon-feed their client solutions for the rest of the client’s career in the hope of extending the coach’s income.

Even if that client-dependency path to financial gain is not the goal of the coach, too many coaches get stuck in a misinterpretation of the old saying that if you “give a person a fish you feed you feed them for a day, but if you teach them to fish you feed them for a lifetime.”

This saying is true, but it would be silly to deny a starving person a fish today. Yes, coaches need to teach their clients to fish, but they also need to give the client a fish when the client has failed to catch one on their own.

So, a coach must have the ability to listen and to tell, and to know when to do which.

This places a great deal of responsibility on an executive coach, particularly one with a background as a therapist or a life coach—they have an absolute responsibility to make sure that when they give advice it is good advice. People without a background in corporate leadership must be very careful what advice they give corporate leaders. They must also make sure that they do not err too much on the side of advising and fail to teach their clients to think for themselves.

(It is for this reason that I am not a fan of open-ended coaching engagements, preferring to establish a program with a specific number of sessions or a specific end date in mind. That puts the responsibility on me to ensure that my client learns ways to continue growing without me solving their problems for them. I’m always available for tune-up sessions and to serve as a sounding board, but my clients need to initiate anything beyond the terms of our initial agreement.)

The ability to give good advice comes from experience, either your own or that which you have seen in your clients over time, but it can also be accelerated through study. I always encourage those who want to be executive coaches to immerse themselves in the best business literature they can get their hands on (while avoiding the books on the management fads of the moment). I recommend some invaluable books in this article. I also encourage budding executive coaches to stay current on business developments in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Economist, etc.

Mario Sikora is an executive coach and trainer of coaches who advises leaders around the world. He is a leading innovator on the theory and application of the Enneagram model of personality styles and teaches the system to coaches, consultants, and HR/OD leaders on five continents.