An executive’s role is often described as a lonely journey, which is why they often hire a coach to help work through a challenge or to develop professionally. Being a coach can be a similarly isolating experience, so we meet to discuss new research or best practices. Recently, however, I was meeting with a group of coaches in Seattle and was appalled by what I heard: “When my conversations with a client start to lag, I just dive in and start to tell stories.” As heads nodded around the room, the coach went on to share how nervous he felt and asked, “What happens if we run out of things to talk about?”
I sat there dumbfounded. I have never met a manager who has run out of problems to solve. Have you? Nor have I ever (true confession) solved all their problems for them, dusted off my hands, and said, “That’s done. Now what?” Let’s be clear, a coach is not an entertainer who needs to jump in any time there is a lull in the conversation. There is always something to talk about in executive coaching conversations. The key is to establish a partnership at the beginning of coaching and agree that you both bring material to your conversations. The executive brings questions, problems, and issues. The coach brings perspective, tools, and advice.
For about five years I have been coaching a Chief Financial Officer for a Seattle-area educational institution. Every time I worry that we have exhausted my advice or expertise, she brings some new challenge to the coaching conversation. We talk about it, find a new perspective or approach, and tie it back to her original learning goals. She is a good partner in our coaching relationship who brings out the best in me.
Part of the reason we are so successful is that at the outset of our coaching engagement, we started with a mutual understanding of what we needed from each other. We discussed her needs and what she wanted from the coaching. I shared my expectations and explained that there are three things that allow me to be an effective coach. I expect that a client…
- Is non-defensive and open to learning.
- Does their homework.
- Brings grist to the coaching mill.
For over 20 years, I have used this exact framing and it has been critical to building a strong relationship with each client. We emphasized the importance of both bringing material to the coaching sessions because coaching happens in conversations. And the best conversations are two-way. While it is easily taken for granted or overlooked, establishing the shared responsibility for learning is critical. If the manager only brings content, then I am just a listening ear and do not provide value. If only I bring content, then we likely miss the actual issues that we need to address.
Our conversations focus on what is truly needed. Sometimes we stop conversations because we have covered enough territory. Perhaps the executive has reached saturation or it is time to switch from talking to implementation. This is when I ask, “Is that enough for today?” I don’t fill the rest of the time with stories. I don’t entertain. We work together and when the coaching conversation reaches a natural conclusion, we stop. We’ll still have plenty to talk about next time.