When I decided to become an executive and leadership coach, it took six months before I started to get any traction. I still remember the key moment when everything changed.
I was sitting in front of a coffee shop, meeting with someone whose name I have long forgotten, but I wish I knew so that I could send her a long thank you note. After I told her about my practice, she looked at me with disappointment and disgust, like I had a piece of spinach in my teeth, and said, “Based on what you just told me, there is no way I could introduce you to anyone in my network. I have no idea who you help or what you do. I don’t mean to be blunt, but I just don’t see how you can help anyone in my network. You just aren’t coming across in a way that tells me anything unique about how you bring value to people.”
I thought it was obvious that I could help any leader in any organization be better, that I had an MBA from a great school and experience with a major consulting firm, was super brilliant at solving complex business problems, and that anyone would be delighted to have me on their team.
Normally I would have been too arrogant to have listened to her, but it had been six months, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. At this moment, her words sunk in to this arrogant skull. In fact, they hit me like a ton of bricks, like I was suddenly reliving every rejection I had experienced since that sixth grade dance that you don’t need to know about right now.
That conversation changed everything, and I resolved to start doing things differently from that point on. Fortunately, I took action.
Six months later, I had enough clients to quite my full-time job and never look back. A year later I was making more money than I ever did as a management consultant. Five years later, I was making more money than I ever would have as a managing director – while working half the hours with a fraction of the travel.
To get to that point, I had to overcome three challenges. When you register for the Center for Executive Coaching’s Certified Executive Coach training programs, you will learn to overcome these challenges. If you come to one of our in-person seminars, you will learn in three and a half days what it took me six months to start to learn and a year to fully realize. If you join the distance learning program, you can learn this as quickly as you want.
Here they are:
Challenge #1: Marketing Challenge — Executive Coaching alone is not a niche.
Some coach training programs call Executive Coaching a niche. It’s not and if you are in one of those programs reading this, you should ask for your money back. Executive coaching is a field unto itself. If you want to attract clients, you need to be able to tell people about the value you bring to them, in specific language that resonates with them. You can’t say that you help leaders to perform better. That’s too vague, unless you are already a best-selling author, on the national speaking circuit, or have a syndicated radio show with millions of listeners.
After I met that wonderful woman whose words stung me with the force of each and every rejection I had ever experienced in my life, I got serious about choosing a niche.
I decided that I knew a bit about non-profits, especially about non-profit strategic planning and helping executive directors of non-profits balance management of their boards and staff. I formed a relationship with the head of a non-profit chamber of commerce in the area. She let me lead a seminar about strategic planning for non-profits, and marketed that to her membership. Twenty-five people attended, and two of those participants came up to me after to discuss the content of the workshop in more depth. The invited me to work with them.
At the same time, I went after a second niche, which was helping technology leaders get better at engaging their teams. You know that many clinical and technical people are brilliant in their field of study, but not always so great on the critical soft skills. It’s a great niche and, 20 years later, is only growing even more. I found an opportunity to speak to a group of leaders in Silicon Valley about this issue. Out of 18 participants, one CEO of a $10 million technology company came up to me after and hired me as his coach.
A year later, I could trace half of my clients to a full practice to these first three clients. Only by focusing was I able to fill my practice.
Challenge #2: Selling fears and panic — You CAN sell without any gimmicks or formulas.
Selling scared the crap out of me. I thought there was some magic formula to it, as if we could magically sell anything to anyone if we just had the right script. I remember choking during a college interview when the interviewer handed me a pencil and said, “Sell me this pencil.” I had no idea what to say, and concluded I would never be able to sell anyone anything.
This fear of selling delayed me from jumping into my own business. That’s too bad, because I could have started much sooner if I knew the truth: When it comes to “selling” coaching, you don’t have to sell anything. You simply coach the client through the buying process. We know how to coach by asking great questions. That’s all we have to do. Just coach the client to find out if they have a need or not, if they have the money or not, how they want to work with you, and whether or not they want to move forward.
Of course, being me, I had to mess up first. I assumed I had to make brilliant pitches. So my first six months I tried to do what I saw some of my consulting colleagues do. I created PowerPoint presentations detailing the benefits of my services, my unique value, and solutions to problems my prospects never told me they had. Of course, I left feeling brilliant, but didn’t sell a thing.
I only became successful when I learned to shut up and listen. When my first client came to me, he said, “I need to get strategy done, but don’t know where to start, and my Board can’t even agree on what strategy is.” Instead of launching into a speech about strategic planning, I asked him a question about how he wanted me to help him. I listened to his answer and asked a question about what we should do next. And I kept asking questions until we agreed on a price and an engagement. I got my first client by coaching him through the process! I had learned to sell by doing what I did well — coaching and being natural — instead of by trying to be a salesman.
Challenge two solved!
Challenge #3: Coaching instead of being the smartest person in the room
Finally, and this one came a bit later, I had to learn how to really coach.
As a management consultant, I knew there was demand for coaching. Clients already knew how to describe their problem and its causes intellectually, and didn’t really need those huge PowerPoint decks with our analyses. What they seemed to really value was the one-on-one time with us to discuss the difficult decisions they had to make and how to move forward. They wanted an objective sounding board that they could trust. They wanted someone to be there with them as they navigated very hard changes.
However, I soon realized that the more I talked and directed, the smarter I felt, but the less likely the client was to actually implement anything or get results. They nodded politely and I (once again) felt like a genius, but nothing got done. That’s a fatal flaw at many consulting firms: Consultant are long gone, patting each other on the back and calling each other “Thought Leaders,” while their clients have nothing but a bunch of PowerPoint decks in exchange for hefty fees.
Now, twenty years later, I notice that former consultants, leaders, business owners, and executives who get into coaching all suffer from the same issue that I did. They often direct their clients, whether by telling or by hiding suggestions in their questions, rather than letting clients come up with their own ideas and ways to execute them. It feels natural to them initially to do it this way, but they don’t see that clients don’t get maximum value from this approach.
It takes longer for clients to come up with their own ideas and insights, but it works better that way. As coaches, we have to get great at listening, letting the client guide the process, and asking questions that let them come up with their own way. Of course, we can and should offer our ideas and observations when appropriate. Otherwise, the client will get frustrated — and this is another issue that many coaches, often from more of a psychological or clinical background have. We have to find the right balance.
Once I did, the process was almost sublime. I did less, and the client got amazing results. They loved the process and our time together. Referrals started flowing, and I didn’t even have to worry much about marketing or selling. It takes a while to make this approach a habit, and it is worth getting the training to learn how to do this.
Over time, I streamlined a lot of the coaching conversations by developing specific processes and methodologies for the most common problems that came up for leaders. These became the Coaching Toolkits that professionals come to the Center for Executive Coaching to use. They make a huge difference in accelerating your learning as a coach, because you can use them when you need them to help the client move forward efficiently, and still let the client come up with their own ideas and go where they want to go. Clients get great value from this streamlining.
By the way, by getting good at this , you also get better at closing engagements, but this same type of approach works great in business development/selling conversations.
There you have it. Once you overcome these three challenges, you can have a successful executive coaching practice — most likely in much less time than it took me to do it. The Center for Executive Coaching gives you the tools and support to make it happen, whether you are an internal or external coach. Join us for our next in-person seminar, or join our distance learning program anytime!