Three levels of expertise every executive coach should have

This week's business journals seemed to cover a common theme. Whether discussing what winning sports teams have in common or what makes for great CEOs and companies, the theme seems to be that great organizations are about more than a single fantastic leader. The implications for what makes a great coach, and what makes for the (far too many) poor coaches, are crucial.

This Sunday was Superbowl Sunday, and many analysts were explaining why the New England Patriots have achieved excellence for so long, regardless of the scandal known as Deflategate. They have been doing the same for the Seattle Seahawks (despite their last minute loss), and many are bringing in other outstanding sports organizations, such as the San Antonio Spurs from the NBA. The conclusion seems to be that the great teams are not about a highly-paid draft pick or superstar, or even a roster of superstars. In fact, the great teams often do wonders with a rotating group of players that others have overlooked. In the case of the Patriots, you have a quarterback that was chosen late in the draft, many unknown players (including an undrafted, unknown rookie who made the winning play of the game), and a coach who initially had what looked to be a miserable career. However, when combined with an owner (Robert Kraft) committed to long-term success, team values based on humility and adaptability, and some brilliant coaching strategies, success followed.

Similarly, research on great companies, including Collins' work in the Good to Great series and Katzenbach's research on what makes great teams, shows that a charismatic leader is not the difference maker. Instead, it is about a clear focus on a goal, clarity and alignment about mission and purpose, and clear strategic intent about what sets the organization about and how it will achieve its vision and purpose. The leaders see themselves as part of something much larger than their own careers and self-serving yearnings — although those seem to take care of themselves when the other pieces of the puzzle come together.

These findings have crucial implications for current executive coaches, those wanting to get into the field, and also many coach training programs. The fact is, many coaches and coach training programs are way off the mark in their approach.

The traditional coach/coach training program starts with some sort of philosophy that focuses solely on the individual. The coaching program is about individual transformation, whether through positive psychology, ontology, or new models rooted in neuroscience (side note: isn't all personal development rooted in neuroscience, given that our brains are where we process information, thus making this another fad to which coaches so easily attach themselves?). As a result, the profession tends to attract people interested first and foremost in doing work on themselves and learning  "secrets" to personal growth. They then want to take these lessons out to the marketplace, and hopefully make a living in the process while being seen as a respected expert who shares wisdom with all.

This approach is, in the opinion of the Center for Executive Coaching, well-meaning but backwards at best, and narcissistic and incompetent at worst. It is a solution in search of a problem, like the square peg trying to cram itself into any type of hole it can find. 

A better approach is to start with the challenges facing leaders today — at the individual, interpersonal, and organizational levels — and work from there. That way, we can understand the real issues facing our clients and help them get results in a way that works for them — without pushing a preconceived agendo onto them.

Clients of executive and leadership coaches face a daunting number of challenges. They are worried about how to engage their people, how to improve their relationships with their manager(s), how to communicate and influence with greater impact, how to overcome the overwhelm they feel with so many competing priorities for their time and so many forces out of their control, how to juggle work and other aspects of their lives, how to set strategic direction, how to develop leaders and strengthen their organizations, how to resolve conflicts, how to achieve aggressive goals with fewer and fewer resources, how to respond to challenges from competitors who seem to be moving faster and more aggressively every day, how to keep customers loyal when there are so many options in the market, and how to keep advancing their reputations and careers.

To address these challenges with a client, the Center for Executive Coaching teaches coaches to work on three levels, as appropriate. Sometimes we work on one level, sometimes two, and sometimes all three. It depends on the client's needs and the situation. Regardless, we meet the client where he or she is, and tie everything back to practical solutions and results that matter for him or her and the organization. There is no room for fluff, jargon, or the current best-selling fad of the month.

The three levels include:

One: The individual level. Here, we can look at the client's behaviors and perceptions, and make one or two key changes to help him or her get even better on an individual level of performance. What is one strength to build on? What is one behavioral blind spot to eliminate? What is one new habit to form that can have a huge impact? What is a limiting perception that might have served the client well in the past but is now holding him or her back? Any change we identify should solve a problem or seize an opportunity. It must have a measurable and significant impact on the client's current job performance, future career trajectory, and impact on the organization.

Two: The relationship level. Next, we look at how the client is relating to others up, down, across, and outside the organization. This is where we explore the client's communication style, informal influence, power base, ability to resolve conflict, ability to have high-stakes conversations, and ability to get things done by engaging other people. We explore how well he or she engages employees, earns the trust of colleagues and managers, and moves people and initiatives forward towards results. Again, coaching here must solve a problem or seize an opportunity and have a measurable, significant impact on performance, career potential, and on the organization.

Three: The organizational level. I don't know any other executive and leadership coaching program that touches on this level, let alone do a deep dive here, and yet it is a crucial area for coaches to make a difference. This is the level of excellence that started the article off. Here, we work on coaching the individual on the key areas where a leader really plays: how to set strategic direction, how to plan for succession, how to create a high-performing culture, how to lead change, and how to improve performance by instilling key habits and disciplines for success throughout the organization. Many coaches fear treading in this area, and therefore lose credibility with their clients. However, this is the world in which our clients swim, so why wouldn't we go here? Even if you don't want to coach a client on these issues, you must be versed in the language. This is the level that the research shows again and again leads to excellence in organizations, and yet most coaches don't have a clue about how to discuss it with clients, or serve as a trusted coach and sounding board to them. Until more coaches do this, we will not be perceived to be as credible as those from other professions.

The Center for Executive Coaching is unique because we give you toolkits, methodologies, and processes to work with clients on all three of these levels in a deep, robust, and profound way. The goal: Get results for clients, and help them and their organizations succeed!

While the majority of coaches think more about which fad to follow and can barely articulate the value they bring to clients, we insist on thinking first and foremost about clients and how to serve them so that you are delivering value worth at least 5 to 10 times your fees, while helping them build outstanding organizations, advance their careers, and enjoy lasting fulfillment. If you do that, you will succeed, and "transformation" will take care of itself.

As you think about what really makes a great leader and organization, please do not get sucked into fads. Please do not be a lemming and go with a school that has been around forever but is now out of style, or has thousands of graduates struggling to make a living. Be courageous enough to seek out a coach training program that understands the new and evolving market for what clients want and expect, and that has the tools and methods to meet their needs.

As you can conclude if you have read this far, we are not for everyone. I doubt that more than 10% of professionals thinking about getting into coaching at the highest levels can handle our content. We seek only professionals with a track record of leadership and/or academic success. You will do circles around the other 90% who have no right being leadership or corporate coaches at all, and together, we can knock them out of business!

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