Management Consulting News, March 2006
By Omar Khan
Coaching is as much art as science. So much of it is a sense of how to connect with and enable people’s success.
To stimulate our coaching potential, keep six key steps in mind, in heart, and in interaction.
If, as Heisenberg suggested, we alter reality by perceiving it, then we certainly affect it even more by participating in it. Coaching is a shared dynamic, it is a “dance of possibility.” Because it is, I must be aware of how I am showing up and who I am showing up as.
Many is the time, weary after yet another overnight flight, I have to get ready to engage a leader who really expects and deserves my very best. These are critical hours he (or she) has allocated, requiring my imagination, energy and alertness. Therefore, I have to do whatever is necessary – physically, mentally and emotionally to be fully present.
At home this means ample rest, maybe a good work-out. I need time to organize myself to make sure my mind is clear and to reve up emotionally for this person and this particular set of challenges.
On the road, I need, at least a quick nap, a brisk walk to get my blood oxygenated after a depleting flight, a light but nourishing meal. I must be mentally clear and ramped up to be of service.
ENSURE EACH COACHING ENGAGEMENT HAS A LARGER FUTURE TO ACTUALIZE
In order for coaching to hook both coach and coachee, the stakes have to be big enough. If we assume that the current trajectory of the person’s leadership life will take him to a predictable future, then we are hoping to intervene to make possible a larger, more creative, and more expansive future.
Therefore, we have to identify this breakthrough, this larger self, this extraordinary future and agree together, to call it forth, to take a stand for it, to commit to it.
Our homework becomes our report card, ongoing dashboard, and metric for success.
I remember coaching a nervous new leader who took over from his mentor and worried about articulating a vision that honored the past while also painting a compelling future.
We agreed that the way things might unfold would achieve: “An uneasy handover, doubts about his maturity, strategic confusion, and performance sputters while he and the organization got used to each other.”
As this excited no one, we instead decided to commit fully instead to the following statement: “A handover that honored the wisdom and relationships of the past; a creative and inclusive visioning and strategizing process that enrolled the intelligence and commitment of everyone; and a powerful set of priorities for him to take aim at that had collective buy-in for him.”
When, in the midst of an early session, one of the most jaded old-timers said, “In my 25 years of corporate life, I have to say this is the best vision communication I’ve ever been a part of,'” we knew something important had been achieved.
CONNECT TO THE PERSON
Once a breathtaking future has been envisioned or at least initially ignited, coaching lives and dies on the strength of the relationship we forge. We have to connect deeply with the person we are coaching. We have to not only learn to see our client, but also look outward with him and see the world as he sees it. We may not agree with every aspect of his perspective, but we can’t help him shift it if we can’t first appreciate it.
A key skill involved is called ‘pacing’. This means taking the lead from the coachee, entering her world as suggested above, and even adjusting our own tempo and rhythm to her needs. When we can meet clients where they are, then we can invite them to experiment with other paradigms, cadences and reflexes. Bridging from who they are and not seeking to bulldoze are key.
I coached a global leader whose style was bombastic, larger than life. He was mercurial, intensely bright, highly intuitive, sharp-witted and, for many, very intimidating. While they venerated him, they often didn’t want to cross swords with him. As a result, some highly talented next-level leaders became acolytes rather than the type of allies the leader needed.
By engaging with the client, first in his preferred modality, “I was able to help him channel his extraordinary energy and insight into mentoring others. He learned to use his intelligence and insight as healthy provocation, and to make his statements more invitational and less magisterial.
Part of his genius is his larger-than-life persona and we left that there. But he’s learned to mellow it at times, redirect it in a more collaborative way. He has shifted from scaring people to stimulating them.
BE ALERT TO THE SITUATION AND SENSITIVE TO THE CONTEXT
Though you build rapport with leadersand have a larger future to actualize with them, there are still days where something else is on their minds, in their hearts, or just ‘in the air’. You may notice they are not in the game.
We have to be flexible enough, empathic enough, and aware enough, not to get frustrated. We have to create space to let them tell us what’s up.
Invariably there is the coaching agenda and, overall, it helps to bring focus back to it. That is the ultimate deliverable agreed. However, a person is not just a task, no matter how heroic or admirable that task may be.
Therefore, we have to find out what is most important to that person that day. Although this may be an off-ramp, ultimately it will wind back to the larger purpose.
The coach as a partner in progress, in growth, in leadership evolution, has to be ready, willing and able to use the vagaries of life as a lab for the shared work to be done.
I worked with a global leader who was required to travel up to 15 days a month, while simultaneously performing as a wife and mom to three. One particular day, when her husband was on a trip and it was assumed she would be in charge of their move to a new house, she reached the limit. She doubted her choices, maybe even herself. It would have been inhuman for us to try and stick to some pre-fabricated agenda.
We spent time letting her emote and realize there were some conversations she had to have with her husband about their roles and some requests she had to make of her bosses who valued her highly and had no reason to make it vexing for her to contribute. She left a little more ready to move forward.
I don’t want to suggest at all that this happens only with woman leaders. Just a fortnight back I had to help a male leader who was wracked with guilt at not seeing enough of his own family, and wondering whether his distress made him ineligible to be a ‘strong’ leader. We took a larger look at worth, at priorities, and helped him to liberate some compassion for his own courage and sensitivity. He went on to lead a very powerful marketing drive, as well as a pivotal session on HR issues for his team the week after.
What did I do? Spend time with him in his pain and doubt, help challenge some of his negative self-perception, help him reconnect to his vision and values, and support him in finding some next steps he could take. Without that first step, the rest of it would have been hollow.
ALWAYS BRIDGE FROM TODAY TO THE LARGER FUTURE
Not every coaching interaction is so emotionally charged. However, charged or not, our job is to always link it ultimately to the larger aim. That “end in mind” has to jolt us out of ruts, challenge our progress, inform our judgments, and validate the energy we’ve expended that day.
Our job is to make today’s achievement a building block for the larger success at which we aim. Otherwise we may pep up our coachees; we may even serve as an important emotional support. But nevertheless, we are short-changing them.
I always ask, “As a result of our time together today, as a result of what you’ve been doing, is that larger future more real? If so, in what way?”
It also helps to ask, “Despite the progress, in what ways is that future less real than we might have wanted it to be?’
We have to take aim at both: amplifying progress and continuing to explore and challenge constructively areas of inertia and avoidance.
AGREE ACTION AND CLARIFY SUPPORT
Finally every coaching session should conclude with specific actions agreed upon and a clear plan about the support needed from us.
These actions should flow from the current discussion, be holistic to where the person is (actually, as well as mentally and emotionally), and clearly link up to the larger future at which he is aiming.
Those actions should have a specific date for initiation, perhaps also for completion. Moreover, we should get the person to consider what support they will need to rally, including specific support needed from the coach in making this happen.
When someone reports: “I’m excited by the next steps, I feel empowered to take them, and I feel good about what we’ve done,” then coaching has succeeded both as science and as art.
We have then been what we should be as coaches: trusted advisors, important catalysts, and co-architects of larger futures that matter to those we’re coaching.