A coach training student’s perspective on learning to become a coach

This past week we trained and certified a group of internal coaches to become executive and leadership coaches for their $1.5 billion organization. It was fun to watch them develop coaching skills over the course of the week. As the program progressed, they shared what they found most valuable. Following is a summary of how their learning evolved.

Level I Coaching: Core Competencies

At the Center for Executive Coaching, unlike other coach training programs, our training starts with the ICF core competencies — and that is only the beginning. Most other programs start and end there.

As we introduced the foundational coaching conversation, which we call active inquiry, the coaches had some initial challenges, as most coaches do.

First, many experienced professionals, as well as coaches with technical, functional, or industry knowledge, fall into the trap of checklist coaching. Checklist coaching means hiding a bunch of suggestions in the guise of questions: "Have you tried X? Have you tried Y? Have you tried Z?" This is not very good coaching, because it doesn't give the coach and client the chance to learn about how the client is thinking about the issue. Rather, we only learn about the coach's own world view and checklist for getting things done. There is no room for any more than basic problem solving.

Second, some coaches might ask a few really good initial questions to learn about the client's issue and start getting to the root cause of the problem, but then they can't help but jump in and solve it. Again, we learn more about what the coach would do if they were in the client's shoes. The coach's recommendations might be perfectly correct. However, we don't know whether the client has the skills, style, values, comfort level, or perceptions to implement the coach's ideas. Often, a client will politely agree with the coach's forcefully argued approach and never implement it. Worse, the client might try it, fail, and blame the coach for a poor recommendation.

In both of these situations, the coaches discover that they are welcome to provide their own observations and suggestions. However, the best time to do this is after they have taken time to explore the client's world with powerful open-ended questions. They should think of the client's mind as a steam boiler that is full. Until they give the client a chance to let some of the steam out, the client is unlikely to want to hear the coach's perspective. Strong coaching questions and inquiry can often lead the client to their own insights and conclusions. At that point, or if the client is stuck, the coach is welcome to step in with some observations to keep moving the conversation forward.

Third, some coaches understand the principle of asking powerful, open-ended questions to get the client to have their own insights. However, they struggle to come up with questions that have voltage, that move the conversation forward and bring value to the client. Effective coaching takes time, and these coaches need to keep practicing, especially as we move to the next level. We do give these coaches some tips on some great questions to ask when they get stuck, questions that get the conversation flowing easily again.

Level I Coaching: Adding Structure

After getting grounded in some foundational coaching conversations, the coaches learned about how to structure a coaching engagement. They learned how to know whether a client has a need for coaching or not, what it means to be "coachable," how to set scope and boundaries, how to maintain confidentiality, and — most importantly from our perspective — how to bake value into each and every engagement and coaching session.

At the Center for Executive Coaching, we believe that coaching should bring the client at least five to ten times the coach's fees and the client's time in value back to the client and organization. Otherwise, the coach should not accept the engagement and the client shouldn't be coached. This is equally true for internal and external coaches.

During this part of the training, coaches learned how to structure engagements so that both coach and client are clear on the coaching plan, how to track and measure results, and how to re-negotiate goals and scope as needed. This process included reviewing sample coaching contracts — again, something that many coaching programs don't even include in their curriculum. How can a coach training program not provide examples of real contracts?

Level I Coaching: The Orientations of the Coach

Next, coaches spend time reflecting a bit about the orientations, or attitudes, required of the coach. A coach is a consummate professional. He or she has to balance results and relationships, stand for the client's commitment and potential, be on equal footing with some pretty powerful executives and managers, and remain positive and focused on possibility. This is not always easy.

During the training, we spend a bit of time reflecting on challenges coaches anticipate with these orientations. Often if a client relationship is weak, it is because the coach is not showing up with the right attitude. This is some pretty profound content, and the coaches had some powerful insights about what it really means to be a coach and in a trusted relationship with a client. .

Level I Coaching: Assessing the Client and Situation

The final part of Level I coaching involves assessing the client and situation. Interestingly, the International Coaching Federation does not allow training hours about assessments to count towards its training hours. However, every top coach uses assessment tools. We hope that at some point the ICF will change its opinion of assessment tools and core coaching hours.

We teach 11 different ways to assess a client situation, and off-the-shelf validated assessments are only one of them (note that we discuss the fact that many common assessment tools coaches use today are not well validated, are used improperly, and do a huge disservice to many coaching clients).

During this part of the training, coaches learn about how NOT to conduct the assessment (e.g., with a thick manila envelope full of random assessment tools, like "If you could be any kind of sandwich, what kind of sandwich would you be?"), how to conduct an efficient assessment based on the goals of the engagement, how to do an old-school 360 degree verbal assessment (not the kind that goes through Human Resources, but a safe and confidential process), a great tool called the Leader's Dashboard, the development plan. ways to observe and assess the client in action, competency models, and other key ways to assess the client based on the situation.

Level II Coaching: Situational Coaching and Methodologies for Results

A major problem in the coaching industry is that too many coaches don't know how to have measurable impact with clients. Part of the reason is that many come from a fluffy life coaching training background. That's how the industry started and the profession is still suffering from this genesis. Second, many coaches tend glom lemming-like on to the latest pseudo scientific fad or best-selling author, without the technical background needed to be credible representatives of the work, assuming the original work is valid in the first place. Third, some coaches have tended to prefer academic jargon over a focus on practical, measurable results and value from the client's perspective. 

For these reasons, along with the fact that most coaches rarely get trained past the basic core competencies required by the International Coach Federation, our training next moves to situational coaching scenarios and methodologies. We developed our curriculum based on actually coaching clients in the field, and we are grounded in what it takes to delight clients and show results that leads to referrals and ongoing work.

The coaches in the program next learned how to work with clients to change behaviors and perceptions that are holding back their performance and perhaps their career advancement. The approach they learn is based on cognitive psychology. It is a simple process that, over time, focuses on identifying the one behavior that will have the most impact on a client's performance. Then the coach works with the client to layer in easy-to-implement tactics to help the client make the new behavior (and associated perceptions when appropriate) a habit. This process is super-easy to learn, and works beautifully with the assessments taught earlier.

From there, coaches learn to work with clients based on a number of common challenges that leaders face. Unlike other programs that push a particular leadership methodology onto clients, we focus on the client's situation and challenges. That way, the coach is ready with an efficient approach to coaching when a client has a specific issue. We don't force feed the client with leadership principles or approaches they don't need or didn't ask for.

For instance, coaches quickly learned some key methodologies and approaches when clients approach them with the following issues:

– My team is not working well together.

– I am overwhelmed with too many priorities.

– I need to make a career change.

– I need to get my work and life back into balance.

– I have two bosses and can't figure out how to manage them.

– I am not getting enough from my employees,

– I need to change the culture here.

– I am in a new role and need to make sure I succeed during the transition.

– We need to set strategy.

– We have a strategy but it is not getting done.

– I am leading change, and it is not moving fast enough.

– We are not executing effectively.

– I need help resolving a conflict.

– I need to influence someone or give tough feedback.

– I need to influence the organization to embrace my idea.

– We are going to merge with another entity and I need help making it work.

– I have been given feedback that I have a behavior that is disruptive and I need to correct it.

There are more and the above are only a few examples. However, by having existing methodologies and frameworks, the coaches quickly became more confident compared to where they were at the start of the training. Now they have a much better sense of how to work with their clients on specific issues. They know the lines of inquiry that can most quickly yield results, while still being flexible about when to let the client guide the best direction. This added layer of having toolkits accelerates their learning and ability to bring value to the client.

One coach who had been through another training school before said at this point, "I had been exposed to the basic coaching conversations before, but these toolkits are new and really valuable!"

Level II Coaching: The Plan

Now that the coaches were becoming skilled and confident, they could start to develop their plan. In this case, because they are an internal group, we started shaping the coaching programs that they can offer to their organization. When we work with extrernal coaches, we start shaping the coach's focus in the market and solutions they can offer.

Here, the coaches identified a number of opportunities to help the leaders, manager, and up-and-coming talent in their organization be more effective. The opportunities included work on existing strategic initiatives, supporting high-potential managers to advance in their careers, a coaching academy for supervisors to improve performance, coaching to improve employee engagement scores following some training in that area, coaching during the strategic goal-setting process, and coaching to support a major performance improvement initiative.

Level III: Developing Customer Coaching Methodologies

Finally, the coaches in the training concluded with the third level in our program. Here, we challenge the coaches to identify an issue and brainstorm their own coaching methodology or framework. This is what the top coaches, consultants, speakers, and business experts do. This is one of the key attributes that sets the most successful coaches apart from the run-of-the-mill ones.

What is wonderful about this process is that it ties all of the above work together. Now the coach realizes that they can come up with their own powerful questions for a situation that a client might face, and also organize them into an efficient and effective framework. That way, the coach doesn't have to reinvent the wheel every time. Meanwhile, the coach realizes that the framework is only that — a high-level overview of the approach. The coach knows that each client is unique, and with good listening knows when to go in new directions as the client guides the process. As one of my own mentors taught me, "The client ultimately tells the coach the question to ask." But now, the coach is armed with an efficient process that the client will appreciate, while also being a great listener who is ready to go where the client needs to go.

By the end of the training, the coaches felt energized and ready to coach. At the same time, another things that sets the Center for Executive Coaching apart is that we never cut you loose. We don't have a formal graduation (although of course we do give you our Certification and are a Level 2 organization – formerly called ACTP – with the ICF so we can help you get their designations, too). You are a member for life. You get ongoing guidance, access to our weekly live teleclasses, and personalized support whenever you need it. So these coaches know that when they get their first clients, they can set up a call with us to prepare, review progress, discuss challenges, and debrief how things went. No other program offers that kind of support, along with the emphasis on practical results, tools, and depth of content.

There you have it — a perspective on what it is like to learn to become a coach. Please contact us anytime for more information. You can visit our website at http://centerforexecutivecoaching.com or contact Director Andrew Neitlich at andrewneitlich@centerforexecutivecoaching.com

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