One of the fastest and most efficient ways to accelerate your growth and address developmental challenges is through the use of a coach. Having an independent and objective resource at your disposal to act as both sounding board and catalyst is tremendously powerful. Considering the range of unprecedented challenges leaders are currently facing—like navigating a hybrid work model, incentivizing a leery workforce and sustaining business amid near-record inflation and chronic supply chain issues—having a coach can offer a much-needed new perspective, a confidential and friendly ear to bend, and perhaps even a hint of therapy, for a weary leader.
A good coach—and we’ll define that shortly!—should expand your capabilities and provide expert insight
on both your immediate needs and your long-term career trajectory. I think a somewhat helpful analogy is to consider a personal trainer. Given enough time investment, research and self-discipline, any of us can make good use of a gym membership and see some level of results over weeks and months. But if your goal is to transform into a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, you likely need some professional help. The coordination of fitness and diet knowledge, as well as efforts to keep abreast of the latest science in both fields, is an exacting discipline and you can be forgiven if this falls beyond your time constraints or level of know-how. By comparison, having a professional resource who themselves have operated in senior roles and navigated the many demands of executive leadership, and, further, is trained to help you achieve your highest level of performance, can make a world of difference in accelerating your timeline for development and overall professional growth.
In our work over the last thirty-six years, we have developed a list of 44 commonly occurring themes that occupy our coaching engagements. While not exhaustive, it is difficult to imagine a developmental need or professional problem that would not intersect with one or more of these themes, making coaching one of the most robust approaches to handling developmental needs. Further, the focused attention you receive from this type of one-on-one engagement ensures development is tailored to your needs and lends more confidentiality to specific challenges or problems you may face than is typical in group, or cohort, settings.
Whether in a new role, new organization, or simply in need of new thinking, coaching can be an excellent way to handle key transitions and re-spark your own personal development. The current focus on creating effective hybrid work models, and for supporting and developing employees operating remotely, or in a dynamic combination of remote and in-office work, is an excellent theme for a coaching engagement. How do you best support each of your direct reports when those reports may need dramatically different types of support and time investment from you? How do you coach and develop someone successfully through the narrow window afforded by ZOOM or other video solutions? Having an experienced resource to tackle these challenges and provide an independent and objective space for these topics can be hugely helpful.
The coaching approach is designed to place the burden of development on you: to stretch you in a constructive way that ensures real growth and sustainability of insights. A good coach drives development through challenging you with really good questions, not simply providing ready answers to your needs. Telling someone the answer is never as impactful as having the individual figure out the answer for themselves. Good coaches prompt these questions and lead you to different ways of thinking about your development and your approach to problem solving. Like a good guide, a coach doesn’t walk the path for you, but ensures you don’t go astray on your journey, can help you recognize dangers along the way and will highlight sights that you don’t want to miss.
Given all that a coach can offer, the question is not why to use a coach, but why don’t more leaders explore this option? Most organizations have become very comfortable with the concept of coaching, and a growing number are offering access to coaches as a further incentive for their senior executives. There was certainly a period, commensurate with smoking in the office and downing a couple of high balls after lunch, when having a coach would have been unthinkable. Lay on a couch and talk about your mother to a shrink: sure. Admit to a coach you’re having workplace challenges? Not so much. Even into the 1980s and 90s, when coaching really started to emerge as a viable resource, the stigma associated with a failure to perform was not completely extinguished.
By contrast, as Mike Morrison notes in his article, “History of Coaching – A True Insight into Coaching”, the early 2000s saw an explosion of coaching, becoming a mainstay in developmental literature and flooding the book market with approaches and “how to” guides. Not surprisingly, this growth in interest fostered a corresponding increase and availability of coaching resources too. It is estimated, via a recent Ibis World market analysis, that the number of coaching businesses has grown by an average rate of 1.1% annually over the past five years, with more than 57,000 businesses currently categorized as coaching businesses in the US alone.
Obviously, coaching is readily available, and the number of coaches continues to grow. But with this surfeit of coaching resources comes the problem of identifying the right coach. A lack of regulation and a relatively low start-up investment means there are a lot of individuals coaching that may not be sufficiently experienced or innately effective as coaches. My colleague, Tom Cox, recently published an article exploring how to choose the right coach, including insight into coaching certification and other key factors that influence efficacy.
As Tom’s article relates, the experience a coach brings to the engagement is ultimately the most important factor in tackling developmental needs or issues a coachee may have. This experience is twofold: the professional experience they possess; and their experience as a coach, developed in the practice of leading coaching conversations.
For a coach to create meaningful outcomes, he or she must have a sense of what the coachee’s challenges include. For a coach that has never been a leader in an organization, who has never had concrete experience working in a corporate business, but perhaps has only been a consultant or coach in a professional capacity, this can be a serious impediment in their work to help a coachee overcome challenges and develop their professional skills. How can someone who has never experienced the demands of leading and operating in a corporate environment help someone else to do so?
Similarly, it takes hundreds of hours of practice to really become a proficient coach—a typical requirement for coaching certification bodies. You wouldn’t hire a piano instructor who was only a few weeks ahead of you in development; why would you hire a coach that lacks sufficient experience in the art and science of coaching?
But when you find a coach with appropriate professional and coaching experience, their impact on you can be transformative. Helping you to assess current challenges you are having; working through problem areas in your professional development; being a non-partisan sounding board for ideas, or even just an ear to bend when frustration or anxiety seem insurmountable, can be truly valuable. This is someone squarely on your side, without reason to provide a biased or politically-motivated opinion, whose efforts are guided by a legitimate desire to help you succeed. Nearly all of us could stand to have this type of help!
If you’ve stepped into a new role or new organization, or simply need to refuel and gather fresh thinking about how you continue to grow and develop, consider exploring coaching as a resource. A seasoned coach can make a huge difference in helping you to navigate the increasing demands of our workplace and provide an objective voice to guide both your decisions and your long-term career pathway.