By Tom Ucko
First, think through the results you want to achieve. You might ask yourself, "What do I want to be able to do better or differently?" Be specific. "Improving my leadership skills" is too vague. Do you want to improve your ability to inspire others? To develop people? To deal more effectively with change? If you have difficulty identifying the specific results you want, the coach you work with can assist you.
What results do you want?
Asking for feedback from colleagues
Say you're in a company where coaching or feedback from colleagues isn't customary. Asking your peers and direct reports to rate your leadership skills, or even to using a coach at all, may create the impression that your performance needs "fixing." What to do? Simply tell your associates that in the spirit of continuous improvement, you've chosen to enhance your leadership skills towards becoming the best leader you can be. This conveys a powerful message about your integrity and models your commitment to professional growth.
Identifying the results you want is important, even if the decision to bring in a coach was made by others. Sure, your boss will have some desired results in mind, and it's important that the two of you sit down and discuss them. But it's equally important to come up with your own goals for the work. (Later on, you'll also want to have a three-way meeting with your boss and the coach to ensure everyone's on the same page.) Even if you're dead set against being coached, and are only doing it to go along with the boss's agenda, try to find something you want from the process. Maybe it is a validation of your existing strengths, or picking up some pointers on coaching so you can do a better job of working with your reports. Building your own personal goals into the process will help you to feel more in charge, making the process more valuable and enjoyable.
The right coach
How do you find the right coach for you? One of the critical factors is that you trust and feel comfortable with this person-comfortable enough to let your guard down and talk openly about your aspirations, your concerns, and your political dilemmas. If you don't have a high level of comfort with the company-endorsed coach, talk to your boss or your Human Resources department; you will often have some choice in the matter. Remember: the coaching process won't work if trust cannot be established from the outset.
What is an executive coach?
An executive coach is a consultant who works with executives and senior managers to help them realize their full potential as leaders. Coaches typically start with an assessment of the client's strengths and limitations, help the client create a development plan, then work with the individual over time to implement the plan. A qualified executive coach will combine solid business experience with specific education and training in psychology, coaching, or a related discipline.
Let's suppose you get to make the choice. Where do you start? The best approach is to ask for referrals from colleagues who have had a positive experience with coaching, or from your Human Resources department. Find out who they recommend, and interview two or three likely candidates. Ask the coaches how they work. Do they start with 360-degree feedback? If so, do they use interviews or survey forms? (Forms require less consultant time, but interviews can provide more in-depth information.) What will respondents be told about why they're being asked for feedback? (See sidebar: Asking for feedback from colleagues.)
What organizational level do the coaches usually work with? How often will they meet with you? In addition to the one-on-one coaching, will they bring you together with your staff or peers for feedback sessions? To what extent will your boss be in the picture? You should have a clear picture of what services and experience to expect from your coach.
Don't forget to check references. You wouldn't hire an employee without checking references. And the same goes for someone to whom you are entrusting your professional development. There are many people calling themselves coaches these days, some with limited business experience or superficial training. A good coach can accelerate your development or get a derailed career back on track, while a mediocre one can make things worse with bad advice. So ask for references and make those calls.
How will you work together?
After you've selected your coach, you need to clarify your needs-not just the results you want but how you and the coach will work together. Before you start is the time to work out such details as:
- How often will you meet, and over what period of time?
- How long will individual meetings last?
- How will feedback be collected?
- How will confidentiality be assured-yours, and that of your respondents?
- How can the arrangements be terminated if either of you is unhappy?
- What fees will be payable and when?
Additional tips to ensure you get the most from your coaching experience
- Don't push back against the feedback. You'll get feedback from your colleagues as well as from your coach. Some of it may be difficult to take in-perhaps even the positive feedback about your strengths. Feedback is especially hard to hear when it reveals some imperfect aspect of your work and your work style. It can be hard to accept. Yet we all have blind spots, and honest feedback can shine a light on yours and help you to grow, to improve as a leader.
- Be open to trying new things. Your coach is likely to encourage you to experiment and try out new behaviors. For example, if you give out insufficient recognition or "strokes," your coach may ask you to go out of your way to praise people. If you tend to dominate meetings, your coach may ask you to remain silent. Only by trying out new behaviors, sometimes overdoing it at first, will you be able to build greater flexibility (and a greater range of options) into your leadership skills and style.
- Persist. Trying out new behaviors is necessary-but it's not enough. New, unaccustomed behaviors often seem awkward and unnatural at first. And they may not achieve the desired result. (Remember the first time you tried to drive a stick-shift car?) Any new skill or behavior change requires practice and persistence until the new way of doing things becomes a comfortable part of your repertoire.
Working with an executive coach need not be a difficult or painful experience. On the contrary, most coaching clients-even those who were "sent" by their bosses-find it a productive and rewarding experience. In many cases, clients even find that the positive effects spill over into their personal lives as well. ("My wife and kids are thrilled that I'm far less critical with them now.") By clarifying your intended results, carefully selecting the coach, and being open to learning about yourself, you can enjoy significant gains in your leadership style and career potential.