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BW Businessworld

Finding The Right Coach

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Explosive global business growth has raised a huge cry for talented top leaders, and with that, the need for highly skilled coaches. Professional coaches, who can prepare leaders to come through as peak performers over and over again, are in demand as never before.

The question often asked by dozens of senior executives and HR professionals who attend developmental programs at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), is this:  "What qualities should I look for in a coach"?

Some common but misguided assumptions are that qualified coaches should have 'significant leadership experience', 'experience in my industry', 'experience in my functional area'. The truth is that many coaches who meet these criteria are simply not very effective.

Why not? Let's explore what highly effective leadership coaches do, in order to understand the qualities you would want to look for in a coach.

It would be good to start by defining coaching, since a Google search for 'definition of coaching' returned over 23 million results. Business Leadership Coaching is a series of engaging formal discussions between a coach, coachee and their key stakeholders intended to increase the coach's leadership capacity.

Think of a time when you had a good experience where someone helped you learn a new skill and you were clear that this person had your best interests at heart.  With that experience in mind, reflect on which of the following coach behaviors were most helpful to you: problem solving, listening, giving advice, challenging you are thinking, providing feedback, or making suggestions? Chances are the behaviors you selected as more helpful to you as a learner were providing feedback, challenging your thinking, and listening.

These three behaviors put the onus on the learner to do the work. While it can certainly be helpful to have someone solve problems, give advice, and make suggestions, this does not help to develop leadership capacity. Instead, these behaviors reinforce dependency on the expert.
So one caution that must be followed when you are looking for a leadership coach is to avoid the person who overplays the "expert" card, does more telling than asking, and offers advice and recommendations freely. Leaders who have left organisations and hung up coaching shingles may be much too directive in their approach, with the result that the coachee misses out ondoing the work that would stimulate his or her learning and growth.

Based on the Coaching Effectiveness 360 assessment instrument (CE360) which has been mapped to the CCL coaching framework, here are five questions you can ask to guide your selection of a coach:

Is your coach trustworthy? Trust is critical to an effective coaching relationship. Effective coaches build trust by making sure that the objectives for the coaching are clear. They discuss what is or is not confidential with their coachee in advance so that personal information is not shared inadvertently with the coachee's stakeholders. Trustworthy coacheshave the reputation of being ethical, patient, fair, and someone who follows through on promises.

Will your coach help you to assess yourself honestly and accurately? Lookfor a coach who is adept at providing feedbackby asking questions thatcreate self-awareness. This is less about telling and more about collaborative exploration toencourage reflection, self-discovery, and a realistic appraisal of gaps between current and desired leadership performance.

A good coach spends time on helping their coachee look at whether theirintention, actions, and impact on others are in sync. To illustrate, consider themanagerwho wants to delegate more, build up her team's skills and show that she has confidence in them. Her coach would explore how she can talk with team members so that they feel good about the additional responsibility, rather than feeling that she is just piling more work onto their already full plates. 

Will your coach challenge yourthinking and assumptions? By asking powerful questions, a coach helps the manager think through the consequences of what they want to do, and practice different approaches they may not have considered. Effective coaches work with the manager to design small experiments which produce new ways of thinking about people and situations. For example, the managercould start to compliment subordinates for their achievements much more than before, see how that plays out, and discuss this "experiment" during their next coaching session. After all, we know that leaders learn best from their own experience.

Is your coach a curious and supportive listener? He or she must not be "too helpful", or prone tooffering themselves as a support,while ignoring yourresources as well as that which others in your environment can provide. Supportive coaches also explorehow self-improvement can continue over time, by managers setting up ways of getting feedback and staying accountable.

Does your coach establish early on what "success" would look like once the engagement is complete? Clarity aboutthe results wanted from Business Leadership Coaching is the key to success. Look for a coach who will collaborate to set goals with significant impact.This might mean that he or she will take more time to ask questions sothat you, the manager, aredoing the work to come up with goals.

This results in buy-in and "ownership" of goals. If it's the coach's goal, how likely is it that the manager will be motivated enough to do the work to achieve the goal?

An effective coach ensures that the manager's behavior changes can easily be observed. For example, if three ten year olds were asked to rate a manager on whether they have achieved a goal, would they all say "yes" based on observing the manager's behavior?

Business leadership coaching is a highly customised process for learning and growth that can have tremendous impact — on the individual, their team, and the organisation. Top leaders, managers and HR stakeholders need to be well-informed about what to expect from a coach. Next time you are on the lookout for a leadership coach, keep the five pointers in mind and you'll be well equipped to make wise choices when selecting a coach.

The author is Coaching Talent Manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)