Working with an executive means being able to understand his or her work world and psyche as well as being able to speak this leader’s language. With these considerations in mind, here are seven key tips, tactics and things to remember when coaching an executive:
1. Lonely at the Top. Executives often have assistants and consultants as sounding boards and idea people. However, even with insiders, some executives are careful about what data or psychological angst is shared. Having an objective voice--a person that the exec can share with on a more personal, intimate level--is invaluable. In addition, executives often appreciate a coach who can also interact with and discreetly take the pulse of the frontline troops and officers.
2. Having to Preserve a Persona. A related dynamic involves the executive’s feeling that he or she may have to present a very confident and "in control" image. A coach must not just be a good listener, but must also create a level of trust in the relationship that allows the executive to feel it’s safe to open up a Pandora’s box.
3. Arrogance, Narcissism and Denial. Some execs take their successes too much to heart and head; praise and flattery confirm their uncommon stature. While the emperor may have some clothes, he still may need a coach who can empathetically yet strategically dress him down. While big egos don’t take well to being totally undressed, many leaders appreciate the coach who won’t back down in the face of an aggressive manner or self-defeating attitude. A haughty State Department executive once challenged me at a retreat: "What do you call it if you don’t have any stress?" My immediate reply, with a twinkle in my eye: "Denial!" His laughter broke the ice between us.
4. Helping a Leader Ask for Help. For many executives, asking for help connotes weakness or perhaps is seen as a negative reflection on their competency, experience or leadership qualities. Helping a leader understand the toll he or she is taking by not seeking some outside support is critical. Surely, a coach wants to reinforce the areas of expertise of the executive. At the same time, the coach must help an executive understand, for example, that certain kinds of interpersonal tensions or team dynamics or morale (if not productivity) issues after a downsizing or reorganization often require a sophisticated intervention by a coach with expertise in group grieving, team conflict and EAP referral.
5. Seeking the Right Kind of Intervention. Once, a department executive finally admitted that the level of interpersonal dysfunction in his shop was beyond his comprehension. He went to his superior and asked permission to hire a conflict and team-building coach/consultant. The entire organization had recently started classroom "Covey Training." This superior suggested holding off bringing in a consultant, advising the executive to give the Covey Training a chance. This was a serious mistake, as the level of dysfunction required hands-on organizational-development intervention by a conflict specialist. I was finally brought in after charges of mental abuse and sexual harassment forced top management’s hand.
6. Using Peer Intervention. Sometimes the executive coach also must possess humility; that is, he or she must call on others for help. A coach may have to call on the peers of the executive for a small-group intervention. Some executives have to be supported and/or confronted by fellow executives or friends before they "get it." Clearly, this high-level intervention method must be used with real discretion. And, of course, a coach who can also ask for assistance is acting as a role model for that rigidly independent executive.
7. Coach as Systems Observer/Player. Unless the relationship must be kept under wraps, a coach should attend at least one executive committee, staff or "all hands" meeting. First, this helps the coach get an up-close look at how the executive interacts with his or her personnel. Second, a coach may also want to share some observations on content issues and, especially, on the group dynamics of the meeting. This gives other group members an opportunity to evaluate the personality and competency of the coach. People want to know that the coach is not a Svengali, manipulating or controlling their leader. Along this line, an executive coach might consider brief one-on-one meetings with management, supervisory and/or department personnel. This step helps folks get to know the coach and may also dispel some concerns regarding mission and motivation.