What Makes an Executive Coach Great?

qualities of a good executive coach
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May 18, 2022
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“Change is hard. Ask anyone who has tried to switch careers, develop a new skill, improve a relationship, or break a bad habit. And yet for most people change will at some point be necessary—a critical step toward fulfilling their potential and achieving their goals, both at work and at home. They will need support with this process. They’ll need a coach.”

Such a beautiful and simple description of the point at which one needs a coach! As I thought about it more, I realised just hiring any coach will not do for an individual – the coach will need to be good at what they do – to indeed have the hope of helping their client make worthy changes in their life. 

And because I am an executive coach, it got me thinking – what makes an executive coach good, specifically – what are the qualities of a good executive coach? In my decade-long experience as an executive coach, these are the attributes I’ve usually seen come through in enabling change and transformation in clients. Some of these points may be relevant for all types of coaches though, regardless of the niche they belong to. Let me begin.

1. The Ability to Listen with Empathy

Asking open-ended questions and allowing the client to have space to think and articulate her thoughts properly in words and creating an unhurried way of conversing with the client is an essential part of what makes for a good coach. The client leaving the coaching session feeling heard and understood is already half the battle won. This sets the right tone in ensuring the rest of the engagement goes in the right direction.

2. The Ability to Relate to the Client

At specific points in the coaching session, when the coachee is speaking about their life and experiences, the coach can also bring in their own experiences to better relate with their client. This could be in the form of stories and anecdotes from other contexts that allow the client to again feel heard and understood – and also feel secure in knowing that the coach truly knows and understands where they are coming from.

3. Being Authentic in Conversations

Once when I was coaching a senior executive, he asked me a simple question, “Does coaching work?”. I paused for a bit and answered, “Coaching always works – but in the long term. Sometimes, when a certain situation arises, the coach may need to take actions which are immediately needed.” As an example – at the operating table, a senior surgeon could guide or coach an intern on how to progress in the procedure, but if there is an emergency, the senior surgeon will step in and do what is needed. And that itself becomes a coachable/teachable moment for the intern. It is precisely the same in the executive coaching context as well.

4. Accepting What the Client is Saying as Is

There is no need to exaggerate or underplay what the client is saying. As an executive coach, it is imperative to take what the client is saying at face value without adding your flavour, bias or judgment. This skill takes practice and time to build as a coach and is one of the toughest challenges for me when I coach executives – to not be judgmental of my client’s actions or think about what I would’ve done if I were in their situation. That is not the coach’s role – the coach is not there to provide answers. So, in essence, a good coach should not judge, let the client speak freely, and guide the conversation skilfully to help the client achieve her desired goals.

5. Setting Clear To-Do’s and Action Points

Considering the coaching engagement will be spread across several weeks and several sessions, it is crucial that before closing each session, the coach helps the client come up with a clear set of to-dos and action points before meeting for the upcoming session. This ensures the client is headed in the right direction regarding their goals and is consciously taking steps to achieve them – impacting the entire coaching engagement experience.

6. Having Patience

Clients have many things on their minds when they come for a coaching session. As coaches, we cannot expect them to come and turn a switch on and get into the mode of being coached. A good coach can gradually bring the client into the conversation and hold them there for the length of the conversation until they are ready to take a step. And the coach has to be patient with the time it would take to see a change. E.g. I worked with a senior executive in one of the world’s leading digital marketing companies, which had a fair amount of focus on quarterly business metrics. At that time, the company was dealing with many people attrition challenges. And so, it took quite some effort in our fortnightly sessions to draw the executive into a space where he was not complaining about the challenges he had in the organisational context and instead help open himself up to making personal changes that would help him get the longer-term perspective in his thoughts and actions.

Essentially, we have to recognise that all coaching is about change, and sometimes change takes time. The coach must be patient in reiterating the set of expected modifications till the client internalises it. 

After all, neither coercion nor haste will lead to good change!

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