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May 2009


Coaching effectively 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, it helps to keep six key steps in mind, in heart, and in interaction. While this is being shared from the perspective of a global consultant and coach, virtually everything shared here applies to coaching by business leaders as well.

Prepare Yourself

If, as Heisenberg suggested, we alter reality by perceiving it, then we certainly impact it even more, by participating in it. Coaching is a shared dynamic; it is a ‘dance of possibility’. As such, I have to be aware of how I am showing up and who I am showing up as.

Many is the time, that weary after yet another overnight flight, I have to get ready to engage a leader who really expects and deserves my very best. For them these are critical hours they have allocated, and they need 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, organizing myself to make sure my mind is clear, and emotionally revving up for this person and their particular challenges.

On the road, at least a quick nap, a brisk walk to get my blood oxygenated after a depleting flight, a light but nourishing meal, clearing away any messages so I’m mentally clear, and again emotionally ramping up to be to help engage, connect and catalyze.

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 them to a predictable future, then we are hoping to intervene to make possible a larger, more creative, and more expansive future.

So we have to identify this breakthrough, this larger self, this extraordinary future and agree together to commit to it, to call it forth, to take a stand for it.

This then becomes our report card, ongoing dashboard, and metric for success.

I remember coaching a nervous new leader, taking over from his mentor, worried about articulating a vision that honored the past while also vividly painting a compelling future.

We agreed that the way things might naturally unfold would produce the following state: ‘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 fully commit instead to the following: ‘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 that had collective buy-in for him to take immediate aim at.’

When one of the most jaded old-timers said in the midst of one of the early sessions, ‘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 and thereby at least initially ignited, coaching lives and dies on the strength of the relationship we forge. We have to deeply connect with the person we are coaching. We have to not only learn to see them, but to look outward with them and see the world as they do based on who they are. It doesn’t mean we agree with every aspect of their perspective, but we can’t help them shift it if we can’t first appreciate it.

A key skill here is called ‘pacing’. This means taking the lead from the coachee, entering their world as suggested above, and even adjusting our own tempo and rhythm to their needs. When we can meet them where they are, then we can invite them to experiment with other paradigms, cadences and reflexes. But bridging from who they are, not seeking to bulldoze it, is key.

I coached a global leader whose style was bombastic, larger than life. He was mercurial, intensely bright, highly intuitive, sharp-witted, and hugely intimidating for many. 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 he needed.

By engaging with him 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 a bit more invitational and a bit less magisterial.

Part of his genius is his larger-than-life persona. We’ve left that there, it’s part of the fabric of his identity. But he’s learned to mellow it at times, redirect it in a more collaborative way, and has shifted from scaring people to stimulating them.

Be situationally alert and contextually sensitive

Though you build rapport with the person and have a larger future to actualize with them, there are days where something else is on their mind, in their heart, 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. This may be an off-ramp, but 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 was working with a global leader who had to travel up to 15 days a month, while being a wife and mom to three. There was 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, that she had just reached the limit. She doubted her choices, maybe even herself. It would have been inhuman to try and stick to some pre-fabricated agenda.

We spent time just letting her emote, to realize there were some conversations she had to have with her husband about their roles, and even 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). We also spent some time teaching her to appreciate her courage and not to interpret as “weakness” the need for better support. She left feeling lighter, looking 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 as 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 though, the rest of it would have been hollow. We have to accept things before we can change them.

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 constantly 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 being aimed at. 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 continually exploring and constructively challenging areas of inertia and avoidance.

Agree action and clarify support

Finally every coaching session should conclude with some specific actions agreed and clarity as to 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 being aimed at.

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 truly matter to those we’re coaching.

Great leaders value coaching. They know that enabling full potential, in their businesses and their people, is one of the key ways that leadership is best defined…and measured!