So, You Have an Executive Coach…Now What?

This article was born from my latest podcast espisode in which I interviewed two clients about their experience with executive coaching. David Clapp of CarterBaldwin Executive Search and Virginia Neiswender of Cox Enterprises kindly spent time with me to help other leaders understand the benefits of coaching and share some of the best practices for maximizing its impact.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast, as they each offer a wealth of information that is not repeated here. Since then, I continued to reflect. There are myriad books and training programs for coaches to advance their professional skills, and organizations that set ethical standards of practice. But we don’t always offer guidance to clients to help make the most of the experience. Here are four practical things I want my clients to know (and do).

Get started now. Over the years, I have had clients tell me, “I wish I had gotten started sooner.” These leaders achieved good results from our work. They weren’t talking about hiring a coach sooner in the year, or earlier in their career. They were referring to what podcast guest Virginia Neiswender talked about when she said, “I was very transparent and intentional about what I wanted from the coaching engagement from the moment I began interviewing coaches.”

Some of my most productive coaching engagements have been those in which the client was upfront about their needs at the very beginning and were willing to extend trust—even before it was literally earned, which is a tall order of course. Virginia told me early on—it might have been our first official meeting—that she didn’t intend to waste any time, so she was going to open up right from the beginning. My long-time client Dave Clapp, who joined Virginia on the podcast, said it well: “You have to get in the deep end of the pool really fast.”

Say what you think and feel. All of it. Frequently, people will say: “I know I’m not supposed to say this but…” What? I am not your employee, your boss, or your mother. You’re safe here. You can vent. You can get defensive, blame, and make excuses. You can tell me about the accomplishments you are so very proud of but hesitate to tell anyone else about because you believe you sound boastful. Please do tell. Because my job is to help you hear and see the patterns of thinking and behaving that create success for you, as well as those that keep you stuck. If I don’t see and experience them, I can’t help you see them. Of course I hold what my clients tell me in confidence. Make your confidentiality agreement with your coach explicit.

We are here together to do transformational work. Listening to you is the first step in transformation.

Consider your feedback. Notice that I didn’t say “heed your feedback.” Not all feedback is created equal. Feedback is a critical part of an executive coaching process because we rarely have the objective, fine-tuned self-awareness to assess the ways in which others perceive us. As an executive coach, I gather feedback via live interviews for my clients from literally hundreds of people each year.  Much of it is relevant and even essential to the recipient’s success. Some can be extraneous, outdated, and even inappropriate. I help my clients look for patterns. While every comment is feedback, even if it is sentiment held from a perceived offense years prior, I discourage ruminating on outliers. It helps tremendously to have spoken with feedback providers, because I can protect anonymity yet often can provide context that would not exist with an online survey. To further help, I use a practice called “Feedforward” that Marshall Goldsmith touts in his book by that name. It significantly reduces the amount of “old news” I get, though I still have to keep my ears peeled for this. Feedforward is simply a practice of asking future-focused questions about what leaders can do, vs. what they did in the past. For example:

  • What leadership strengths does Martina demonstrate now, that you suggest she continue or leverage?
  • What suggestions or advice do you have that would make her more effective?

I believe that the feedback recipient must consider those suggestions, and with the assistance of the coach, can decide which ones to put into practice.

Be patient and compassionate with yourself. This one is harder for some than others. I have worked with many clients who are extremely high achievers, some of them self-described perfectionists. They often want to move fast. Good coaches do help you create breakthroughs. And, as Author Maja Djikic says so well in her new book, The Possible Self, “Self-development is a long game.” Sometimes the work is identifying where the work is. Maja says: “Compassionate self-acceptance of our current state is the most elastic jumping board from which to leap toward self-development.” Getting to that place takes time and self-compassion.

If you are working with an executive coach now or have in the past, perhaps you can add to my thinking. I would love to hear from you!

What Leaders Need Now podcast: Why Have an Executive Coach | Episode 12

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