Everything you wanted to know about leadership coaching
If you’re a regular reader who makes it through to the bottom of my weekly emails, then you’ve surely seen my standard footer. This newsletter was inspired by my executive coaching practice focused on the unique needs of high-achieving working parents. I love writing this newsletter, but I really love my coaching work, and there’s no doubt that these two endeavors are highly synergistic.
I’ve had several requests to write a post about executive coaching. There’s so much to say, but I thought I would answer some frequently asked questions. I solicited questions through my Instagram, emails from readers, and conversations with perspective clients. If you have a question that I didn’t address here, drop it in the comments and I’ll answer it for you. Let’s dive in…
What exactly is executive coaching?
Executive coaching is an individually-tailored method of leadership development. The coach and client work together to cultivate new insights, skills, behaviors, and perspectives to improve performance and overall satisfaction. Coaches do not tell clients what to do, but rather ask questions to help them harness their own expertise and agency.
The type of coaching I do is transformational, as opposed to transactional. Transactional coaching is focused solely on skill development. Transformational coaching focuses on foster self-awareness, exploring underlying beliefs and values, and digging below the surface for the deeper issue. This type of coaching is not only more powerful, but it also leads to more sustainable change and growth.
Who benefits from working with a coach?
Anyone who is interested in continued growth and development. Executive coaching isn’t just for “executives”. I work with senior leaders, rising leaders, and high-potential individuals. Additionally, I work with many clients outside of the corporate sector including physicians, professors, higher education administrators, attorneys, and nonprofit leaders.
One of your specializations is in coaching working parents. What does this mean?
Traditional models of executive coaching view the leader primarily within the context of their workplace, but my approach acknowledges you as a complete person with complex and—what can often feel like—competing needs. As any working parent knows, life is not compartmentalized; our work-life influences our home-life and vice versa.
This is personal for me. Back in 2017, I was asked to apply for a Dean-level job at my former university. My first instinct was to laugh (seriously). I had only been an Assistant Dean for a few years and didn’t feel ready—or interested in—that kind of responsibility. More importantly, my son was a toddler and I was about to start infertility treatments after suffering repeated miscarriages. I worried about the toll that being a Dean would have on my family. I wanted to spend my evenings and weekends with my own kids, not college students. And yet, I worried that I was sacrificing the professional opportunity of a lifetime.
To help me sort through my ambivalence, I met with a coach. This guy quickly “diagnosed” me with imposter syndrome. In his estimation, I needed to bolster my confidence, “lean in”, and become comfortable learning along the way. He missed the boat. Since becoming a mom, there was more to my life than solely climbing the proverbial ladder. Yes, I wanted to achieve great things in my job, but I also wanted to be an involved parent. I really could have used someone who understood that complexity—who understood all that was at stake for me—and who was willing to question some of the assumptions I was making, expand my thinking, and lead me to greater clarity.
And that’s what I offer my clients—an understanding of their complete lives, and the willingness to partner with them to ensure we’re meeting all of their goals.
Do you only work with working parents?
No! I work with anyone who is interested in becoming a more authentic leader and is interested in doing transformational work. I like to say that my overarching goal is to humanize the workplace. If that resonates, then we’re probably a good fit.
Can you give examples of the types of goals people work on in coaching?
Coaching goals are driven by the client. At the beginning of every coaching engagement, the client and I work together to develop her or his personalized development plan. Here is a sampling of goals from recent clients:
Develop a sense of identity as a leader.
Consistently make decisions that align with priorities and values.
Gain clarity on the next chapter of my career.
Identify how I can create the most impact and meaning from my work, over the next 3-5 years and gradually reallocate my time towards those things.
Understand leadership strengths and blind spots. Leverage strengths and compensate for blind spots.
Decrease tension around my experience of working motherhood.
Approach feedback and change from a place of curiosity.
Foster better relationships at work.
What should I look for in a coach?
Appropriate training is a prerequisite—the person needs to be qualified to be doing this kind of work. The coaching landscape is a bit like the Wild West. Anyone can hang up a shingle and call themselves a coach (which is actually pretty scary). You should first ensure that the coach you’re considering is properly qualified (more on this below).
The second crucial component is rapport. Decades of psychological research tells us that the number one predictor of treatment success is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. Coaching is not therapy, but the quality of the relationship remains central in coaching. Do you trust this person and feel that she/he can help you? Do you feel that they understand your life and aren’t imposing their own judgements, biases, or solutions? Are you comfortable sharing your challenges openly?
How do I find a qualified coach?
In my opinion, there are two pathways to qualification: ICF accreditation or graduate-level training in psychologically-related fields. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the coaching accrediting body and they take efforts to ensure that ICF-certified coaches meet certain training, testing, and continuing education standards. Are there qualified coaches who don’t have an ICF credential? Absolutely. But it is an indicator that the person has met certain training thresholds.
When it comes to transformational coaching (as opposed to transactional coaching, where specific content expertise may be more important), I have a personal bias towards coaches who have psychological training. Having completed both graduate training focused on social work and organizational psychology (MSW and Ph.D.) and an ICF-approved coaching program, there is no doubt that my graduate training and experience as a therapist gave me the most comprehensive understanding in motivating human beings to change. Just make sure that the person has training/experience in organizational psychology, not just psychotherapy.
When is a good time to hire a coach?
Generally speaking, clients come to coaching when they are experiencing a gap between where they are and where they want to be (e.g., “I want to be more effective at leading my team”, “I want to find a new job that better aligns with my values”, “I would like to feel more in control of my life”). Clients also frequently come during major professional and personal transition points, like a new job, a promotion, the birth of a new baby, etc.
How long does a coach work with a client?
The short answer is that it depends on the coach. I believe that sustained behavior change takes time. For that reason, I ask my clients to commit to multi-month packages. I currently offer 4, 6, and 8 month packages (with sessions occurring every other week).
How do I know that coaching will work?
I think clients are often surprised by how helpful they find coaching. I’ve found that many of my clients choose to extend their package for monthly or quarterly “tune-ups”. Based on my experience, I believe there are certain characteristics that are common among successful coaching engagements:
The coach and client establish clear goals. There should be both overarching goals for the overall engagement and a goal/focus of each individual session—without this agreement, it can be easy for the sessions to meander.
The client accepts responsibility for achieving his or her goals. Coaching is predicated on the belief that individuals are whole, healthy, and capable of making change. If someone is committed to seeing themselves as powerless/helpless, they are not a good candidate for coaching at this time.
The client understands that change takes time. If a client comes in looking for a bandaid, hack, or quick fix, they will almost certainly be disappointed.
The client needs to be willing to act on the insights and skills gleaned through coaching. There’s no point in investing in coaching if you aren’t interested in making a change. I end each session by asking clients to state what actions steps they want to take in the next two weeks. Sometimes that action is reflecting further on something we discussed, sometimes it’s committing to trying a new technique/skill, sometimes it’s taking a concrete action like having a difficult conversation they’ve been dreading. Since the client selects the action that most resonates with them, the expectation is that they will at least attempt it. (And if they don’t, that’s when it’s important to have a coach who is willing to hold them accountable).
Who pays for coaching?
Sometimes the client pays directly and sometimes she or he is sponsored by their company/organization. When an organization is paying, there is typically a designated sponsor (usually the client’s direct supervisor, but sometimes it can be another leader or someone from HR). The sponsor sometimes has input into the coaching goals, although many coaches let clients augment those objectives with their own professional/personal goals.
I always encourage clients to ask their companies to cover all, or part, of their coaching engagement. Most organizations allocate money for employee professional development, and the return on investment for coaching is usually much greater than a conference, since the content is individually-tailored.
Is coaching confidential?
It’s crucially important for the coach to clarify their confidentiality policy before beginning an engagement (usually this is spelled out in a contract that the client signs). Clarifying confidentiality expectations is particularly important for clients being sponsored by their organization. For example, the only information that I share back with a sponsor is attendance and participation. The content of those coaching sessions is strictly confidential, unless the client discloses illegal activity, a serious breech of organizational policy, or there is imminent risk to self/others.
I’m ready! How can I learn more?
I would love to work with you! I’ve met several clients through this newsletter, and it’s been a delight to work with every single one. I feel like we start with a common understanding since we both hold values around meaningful work and engaged parenting.
The first step is to schedule a complimentary 30 minute consultation call. The purpose of this call is to ensure that there is a mutual good fit and for you to learn more about the coaching process.