Why you can’t coach Dracula to stop biting, and five other takeaways from a coach training seminar

Following are six takeaways from a recent coach training seminar I led for the Center for Executive Coaching. Each seminar we lead has a unique flavor thanks to the different challenges that participants bring up.  The six themes that follow were particularly interesting and useful. I hope you enjoy them.

One: You can’t coach Dracula to stop biting people. One coach kept bringing up prospective clients that she thought needed help. However, on closer inspection, most of these alleged prospects are in companies where ex-employees and current middle-level employees are complaining that senior management has problems. In this type of situation, there is almost zero probability that senior management will engage anyone for coaching. Perhaps the only possible engagement is to coach middle managers to be better at coping and managing up, and that is unlikely.

A coaching engagement comes when decision makers are the ones who acknowledge they have problems and want to solve them, not when non-decision makers wish that decision makers had coaches. An apt metaphor is Dracula. Dracula will never come to a coach asking to stop biting. The townspeople of the nearest town that he terrorizes might wish for that, but not Dracula. Now, Dracula might want to learn to communicate in a more seductive way, influence more people to become vampires, or get help handling conflict among his minions. But why try to sell Dracula on a coaching engagement to stop biting if he doesn’t want to be coached on that outcome?

Alternative: Work with prospects to find problems that they want to solve. If they don’t have any, don’t waste your time.

Two: Make business development about them not about you. Don’t be like the religious groups that knock on doors every Sunday trying to proselytize people to their views. If you do, people will pretend they are not home or tell you to go away. So, stop pitching the things you care about and wish everyone wanted, like emotional intelligence, transformation, and better leadership (whatever that ethereal term means). Instead, ask great questions to learn about what the client wants, and develop a scope to provide value as defined by the client.

Three: Embrace your unique style and personality. Many coaches have found that their thinking, communication, and behavioral styles are unique. When they work with clients, or talk to prospects, with a different style, they sometimes feel frustrated. Either the client doesn’t connect, or the coach doesn’t enjoy working with that type of client.

Alternative; Embrace who you are. Go after clients that are a good fit, instead of going after everyone. I made this shift in my own practice. I used to think that I could work with anyone. However, my profile includes a rapid thinking style and bottom-line approach. I tend to work best with clients who also share those attributes. Rather than swim upstream, I shifted my marketing to find those types of clients. Since then, I have been much happier.

Four: Do less with clients to get more. Stop trying to do so much for your clients. Ask great open-ended questions, and let the clients do the work. Stop directing. Stop telling. Stop writing reports. Stop making action plans. Stop sending your clients forms to fill in. Instead, let the client tell you what he or she needs, and use questions that move the client forward. If you have to share an insight, ask permission to do so, and let the client react without debating or fighting. If the client hits a fork in the road with multiple topics or alternatives, ask what the client wants to discuss; don’t choose a direction based on what you think makes the most sense. The less you do, the more the client will take over and appreciate you. It sounds paradoxical, even lazy, until you try this and see for yourself.

For instance, when I used to do consulting, I would put together huge and beautifully written strategic plans for clients. They sat on shelves. Now, as a coach, I require the client to create an action and accountability plan for strategy that works for them, and that the organization can implement. Now they take ownership and implement their strategies!

Five: Stop trying to be so smart. Colombo was a great television detective who solved cases by acting like he didn’t know anything. Coaches who do the same are likely to get better results than coaches who have a need to come across as super smart. Clients are savvy leaders who know their organization better than we do. They can come up with the answers if we get out of the way. Coaches who feel the need to make recommendations often end up annoying clients, who already know much more than what the coach recommends. If you want your clients to think you are smart, ask great questions that help your clients have new insights and move forward based on their own experience and wisdom.

I graduated from a top business school and worked for a top consulting firm. When I started out as a coach, I prided myself on providing great recommendations based on proven best practices. However, clients rarely implemented any of them. I left coaching sessions thinking I was smart and did a great job. Clients didn’t agree. Meanwhile, when I changed my style and didn’t need to show how smart I am, clients told me they got much more value from our work together. They engaged me longer. They implemented and got better results.

Again, it is paradoxical, but true: Ask questions and let the client be smart. They will get more value than if you have to be the smartest person in the room.

Six: Online marketing is more of a black hole than a panacea. We talked a lot about business development in the seminar. Many coaches thought that they could attract lots of clients online, and were ready to pay thousands of dollars in fees to companies making promises about generating leads for them using online hocus pocus. In my experience, online marketing can suck coaches down a black hole and distract them from the real work of getting clients. Yes, you need a professional website to prove credibility. Yes, you should be all over LinkedIn to connect with alliance partners, find speaking and writing opportunities, and identify and research prospects.

However, online marketing is over-rated. The best way to get clients is by having conversations with people in your target market who can either connect you to decision makers or who can hire you. There are three ways to do this: 1. Build your network and know how to ask for connections or form alliances when you carve out time to meet with people in your network; 2. Conduct educational marketing, such as speaking, writing, doing webinars, and doing research about your market; and 3. Be a leader in industry or other associations where your target prospects hang out. Online marketing supports the above, especially when you use LinkedIn effectively by going online to take conversations with new connections offline. However, you can’t hide behind online marketing and avoid the old-school business development tactics that worked before the Internet existed, and are as important as ever even as the Internet consumes us.

I hope you found the above to be useful. Our members are smart, successful, dynamic people who understand that coaching has to bring value to clients. If you are interested in learning more, please contact me at andrewneitlich@centerforexecutivecoaching.com after you review our offerings.

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