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Executive Coaching: Can Coaches Give Talent Leaders What They Want?

I recently had the opportunity to ask an HR Executive, responsible for talent development in a large investment bank, what she looks for in a coach.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing),

  • Someone who is practical. I don’t want someone to just let the client explore something until they figure it out on their own – most of these people need to learn what to do. Sometimes you just need to tell someone, “Don’t do that, do this.”
  • Someone who gets the nuances. The problems aren’t simple (well, usually) because the person wouldn’t be where he/she is if it were simple.
  • Someone who gets our culture. Not just [our industry] but our specific business. You have to spend time here to get it, but someone who focuses on that.

I spoke to several talent leaders over the next few weeks and all of them told me essentially the same thing – what they look for in a coach for their senior leaders is someone who can get to a solution quickly that will work within their business context, and will work with the client to implement that solution.

Are they right? Is it our job to be pragmatic rather than exploratory?  The answer is, “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” It depends on the model of coaching that is called for in that particular case.  I wrote about different types of coaching several years ago.  Those different types of coaching call for different approaches:

  • Developmental coaching: If the client needs to develop new skills, get control of derailers, or shift their focus and priorities to be more effective, then yes, we need to be pragmatic.
    • These leadership challenges are practical problems that should be solved by practical tools and known activities.
    • Certainly there are times when the question, “How can you find out more about that?” or “Are there resources in your company that can help you address this problem” is the right thing to do.
    • More often, our clients are looking to us as experts in leadership and behavior change to help them find the answer.
  • Strategic guidance: If the client needs to articulate a new strategy, shift the organizational structure, or improve operational efficiencies, then we need to be pragmatic in helping them find a solution.
    • If we, as coaches, have expertise in these areas, then we can bring that to bear.
    • If not, then we do need to ask thoughtful, challenging questions, and help them find ways to answer them, including other resources (team members, colleagues, consultants, etc.).
    • And we probably should learn more about business to augment other skills.
    • One client of mine took over a business that would, eventually, become a niche business rather than its current mainstream state.  I helped him find a strategy-consulting group that could lead that strategic effort, and then I stepped away.
  • Professional growth:  When a client has to make decisions about goals, priorities, or career direction, they may need a more exploratory approach.
    • If they need a thought partner to think through complex business decisions, then our role is likely to be less pragmatic and more reflective.
    • Here, our value comes from listening carefully, understanding complexity, tolerating ambiguity, and challenging our client to weigh options and develop their own insights and judgment.

Coaches:  What do you think?  When is it our job to be pragmatic? Are there times that practicality is an impediment?

Executives:  What do you look for in a coach? What has been particularly valuable for you?