Seven myths about leadership that keep executive coaches from getting results and attracting clients

Many coaches believe in certain myths about leadership and coaching. Believing these myths keeps them from having the impact on clients that they want and deserve. Following are seven of them:

Myth One: Coaching happens through huge epiphanies, like transformative lightning bolts that shake the client's foundation to the core.

Truth: While coaching clients occasionally have the Eureka moment, the majority of a coach's impact happens over time, with a focus on nuts and bolts, key habits that make a difference, and exploring issues in depth. For instance, let's assume you are coaching a leader about how to better engage and mobilize employees, perhaps a technology CEO who acknowledges that this is an area for development. Solid coaching will involve listing each and every direct report, helping the CEO understand that person's style and aspirations, and developing specific strategies to engage that unique individual. During this time, the CEO will also have insights about new behaviors to learn or strengths to build on, and work to make those a habit.

Whether coaching a client on executing more effectively, communicating with greater impact, changing the culture, improving customer service, or leading a performance improvement initiative, the best coaches roll up their sleeves with the client and get into specifics. In contrast, superficial coaches rely on fortune-cookie-type affirmations and sayings that might provide short-term motivation, but little else.

Myth Two: Leaders spend most of their time making huge decisions and setting strategy.

Truth: While leaders spend some time on the big decisions and on setting strategy, most leaders in organizations spend well over 80, even 90, percent of their time coping, relating to people, and dealing with conflict, overwhelm, and organizational friction. Therefore, top coaches are skilled at helping leaders not only with the make-or-break decisions related to setting strategic direction and implementing strategic initiatives, but also on making the other 80 to 90 percent of their time more productive. This is not always glamorous work, but when done right it helps the client focus on what really matters, improve relationships, and feel more satisfied and fulfilled at work.

Myth Three: Leaders care deeply about the organization's mission, vision, and values.

Truth: While good leaders certainly have a dialog with employees to share and shape these crucial pieces of an organization's strategy, most leaders care first and foremost about their own careers, compensation, and status. Coaches who focus inordinately on mission, vision, and values can bring huge value. However, the best coaches see beyond these things and also help the client succeed on a personal level. Sometimes coaches wear rose-colored glasses about what leadership is all about, and forget that we are coaching very real human beings with selfish aims. Once we understand this reality, we can get to the bottom of what really drives our clients and help them align their personal goals (like wealth and status) with the goals of the organization.

Myth Four: Coaching and other formal development activities like training are the best way to help leaders get even better.

Truth: Coaching and training can play a role in developing leaders. However, research proves again and again that leaders — and employees at all levels — develop primarily through challenging assignments first, and learning from other key people second. Sorry coaches! By understanding this truth, we can coach leaders to get the best assignments for their development, and also build a power base of people who can help them succeed.

Myth Five: Leaders constantly think and talk about leadership, just like coaches do.

Truth: Too many coaches obsess over vague, ethereal words like "leadership." I have never known a leader to wake up and say, "I really need to improve my leadership!" Real leaders talk about performance, goals, strategic initiatives, competitive edge, the ability of the organization to adapt and move quickly, and how to find and develop great people. Coaches need to get into the heads of real leaders, and start talking their language more and "coach speak" less.

Myth Six: Because coaches usually have completed workshops that make them feel vulnerable and result in what they perceive to be transformation, their clients must love this kind of approach, too.

Truth: Very few leaders have the level of self-awareness that coaches do. Even fewer want to be vulnerable when they first work with a coach, or deal with concepts like transformation. It takes time for an executive to open up to a coaching professional, often only after the coach and client get some initial, promising organizational or team results. After that, the client is much more likely to open up and be willing to be vulnerable. Therefore, coaches should first find a logical, safe opening to bring value to the client. Once he or she does, the client will allow much deeper conversations, including at the emotional level.

Myth Seven: Leaders care as much as coaches do about whether you call it coaching, consulting, training, facilitation, or something else.

Truth: Leaders care about solving their most pressing problems and improving performance. They want objective outside advisors who can help them seize opportunities and eliminate hassles. How you structure the engagement is secondary to the value you can bring. Therefore, start by understanding the client's challenges and opportunities, and then figure out how you can bring value worth 5 to 10 times your fees. Don't get caught up in whether what you do is coaching or consulting or something else, unless the client does. Focus more on how you can deliver great value and impact.

Some of the above truths seem obvious, especially to those of us with executive-level backgrounds. We need more coaches who understand these concepts, who are able to think like a leader and executive, and less like a life coach or lightweight coach who brings lots of jargon to the table but not much substance.

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