Working with leaders in business, whether senior leaders of organisations or talented contributors within them, can be highly stimulating and rewarding. They are often bright, passionate and inspiring people with impressive track records of success. For the same reasons, coaching these leaders can be scary. It’s easy to feel intimidated by power and talent. This article covers three areas in which gaining the respect of your leader coachees can lead to their stronger commitment to working with you. The three areas are credibility, confidence and challenge.
Leaders want to know that you’re a person worth their time and effort before they commit to the process. Success has come to them from using their time wisely, and you’re just one of many choices they could make to fill their day. Accept that they will start judging you as soon as you meet (or speak on the phone or exchange emails). Every interaction is a moment of truth for them about you. Establishing your credibility is essential for them to trust you and we know that trust is vital for coaching to be effective.
As well as your professional credibility as a coach, learning as much as you can about your leader before you meet them shows them you take your coaching clients seriously. This sounds obvious, but I’m still surprised at the number of coaches who pay scant attention to this step. “I don’t do any preparation as I don’t want to pre-judge the person,” a coach once told me. I know of at least one contract she lost because the managing director she met thought her unworthy of working with. She knew little about his company and even less about him. One or two conversations and a search online might have produced a different outcome. Study the organisation’s website to understand their business niche, approach and successes. Many display profiles of their leaders. Some even give contact details. Recently I was researching a financial software company. The CEO’s email address was on the website, so I sent him a brief hello. This led to a friendly phone conversation. No immediate business resulted, but our relationship is now established. One thing he did say was how few approaches he gets directly in this way. The fact I’d bothered to look and contact him, as a result, was unusual and welcome (why would he have his email in a public domain if he didn’t want people to reach out?).
Speaking to people who know and work with your leader is also very useful. I find a simple, open and honest approach works best, something like, “X and I are meeting soon to see if there’s value in working together. What could you tell me that might be helpful?” Sometimes I’ll ask a more specific question such as, “What strengths do they bring to the business?” or “What are some of the qualities you admire in them?” Don’t ask about failings or shortcomings. You can guarantee this conversation will get back to your leader at lightning speed. You don’t want your motives to be questioned. Keep it positive and respectful.
You need to convince your leader that you believe in the value of what you’re doing. If there’s any doubt, you can forget continuing to work with them. Remove the risk of coming across as hesitant or tentative by having a clear coaching pathway to travel along. Point out the reason for and the value of each step, and include a couple of real-life vignettes to illustrate. When I met the no-nonsense MD of a business consultancy, “Convince me this will work,” was one of the first things he said. I showed him a simple one-pager entitled, ‘Your Exit Strategy In Four Steps’. On the page were four key questions for him to wrestle with. All of his answers related to his achieving retirement as soon as possible. My research had revealed this as his key goal. I explained each step simply and clearly, and emphasised the thinking effort and committed action he would need to bring to make our coaching relationship worthwhile. “OK,” was all he said and we started right away. He retired within five years of the conversation.
Giving your leaders an easy ride is not helpful to their development. They welcome and rise to challenge, and they will want it from you. I adopt an assertive coaching approach with business leaders. As long as that does not stray into rudeness or insult, often they find somebody standing up to them refreshing. Pick your battles, however. Nit-picking is just annoying. Put your foot down on the big stuff, the thinking, assumptions, opinions and judgements that could sabotage your leader’s progress. During one of my last coaching sessions before writing this piece, I interrupted my coachee. “You are blaming someone else for what is your responsibility,” I stated. He was taken aback and a bit annoyed by this. I explained that three times he had told me of the importance of a key deliverable’s success, each time adding that he had little faith in one of his manager’s ability to play their part. The message I got was, “I’m just waiting for things to fail so I can justify my opinion of the guy.” When I said that to him, he became silent, looked at the floor and then reluctantly agreed. It was a breakthrough which allowed us to move towards how he could support that manager more strongly.
Coaching leaders is a great test of your own leadership in action. People like people who are like themselves. When your leader coachees experience qualities in you they can relate to, admire or to which they want to aspire; they will have a natural tendency to connect with you. How you coach them, therefore, is arguably just as important as what you coach them on. By building your credibility, displaying confidence in your coaching and not holding back with a helpful challenge, your leader will be even more minded to take you seriously as a valuable asset on their leadership journey.
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