Should the Executive Coach be directive?

One of the tensions an executive coach faces is whether to be directive or not.

On the one hand, there are a number of coaching programs that emphasize the need for coaches to conduct what is called “inquiry” — the asking of many open-ended questions to understand the client’s view of the world and, done well, to have the client have their own insights about how to improve.

On the other hand, many coaches are seasoned executives, and clients hire them for their knowledge and even mentoring. Clients pay good money for advice and insights. Coaches at this end of the spectrum have trouble with the discipline of inquiry, and even find it to be lazy.

Our program suggests two ways to handle this tension:

First, executive coaching is situational in nature. Sometimes the most effective approach is to listen and ask questions to understand. Other times, the client would benefit from some hard-won advise and guidance. Just as we train our clients to be more adaptive and flexible in their styles, so must we determine the right time to be directive and the right time to inquire.

Second, in my experience the coaching relationships that have achieved the most impressive and sustainable results have done so through a dialogue between the coach (myself) and the client. Sometimes I propose ideas, or even give some hard-to-swallow advice. Sometimes I ask questions. The client does the same. Eventually we arrive at a solution that is better than either of us could have developed alone.

As with any kind of high-performance coaching, there is no formula and every client and situation differs. There are signals about when you may be being too directive (the client drifts off, or passively agrees with everything you say), and when you may be being to indirect (the client gets frustrated and asks for your point of view). It is up to you to guide the conversation towards commitment, action, and results that your client will achieve.

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