Leadership Coaching . . . A Contact Sport

Published in the San Francisco Examiner, April 30, 2000

Author: Terry Pearce

Leadership coaches are gaining tremendously in popularity. This phenomena could be seen as a re-naming caper, a ploy to replace consultants, therapists and gurus as the deans of self-employed business helpers. Or it might…just might…be a way for ne’er-do-wells to practice all or some of these more esoteric disciplines without a license.

There is some truth in both propositions. How does someone who wants to improve their leadership profile sort through the linguistic maze and find someone who can really help?

Start with self-examination. Do you simply want verbal advice, or perhaps someone to ask "how long have you felt that way?" Or do you want someone to actually impact what you do through demonstration and criticism? Before proffering a hasty answer, remember that there are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.

The leaders of the new economy have to be able to inspire commitment, not merely require compliance. If you are a command-and-control leader, either through training or preference, change will be painful, and even the most skilled coach might have to nick your ego…..and it can hurt. But if change is really what you want, a skilled coach could be your best answer. Here are four elements to look for:

First: Broad Perspective
The Internet makes every company global, so today’s leaders compete in the entire world. They have to see their business as part of bigger whole, expressing a set of values in the world rather than merely producing a product in a particular market. Your coach should have a broader cultural and psychological context than your own. He should be able to put your challenges in a perspective that forces you to expand your own point of view. If you are your coach’s only client, or if they don’t demonstrate through their own activities and references that they maintain a sense of your business and life as part of something larger, then look elsewhere. They won’t inspire you.

Second: Communication Competence
The leadership coach needs minimal knowledge in your particular business, but maximum skills in listening, writing and verbal communication. Assuming that you are competent in your field, 90 percent of your challenge will be in communicating with others, personally. Your coach has to appreciate that fact and be skilled in execution.

Third: Trustworthiness
This one is essential. There is a certain connection that has to happen between a coach and her client to make the whole thing maximally effective. The great coaching relationships have always had this connected quality. Ted Sorenson was John F. Kennedy’s Chief of Staff and primary speechwriter. He had the U. S. President’s trust, was a communication expert with a broad perspective, and of course, was available. There are other magical pairs: Basketball greats Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, movie director Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Each of these pairs agree on basic values, and they have committed goals for the person being coached. The greatness of the "player" is the ultimate goal of the process.

Coaches have their client’s best interest as a first priority. If your coach wants all of the headlines, find other candidates.

Finally: Availability
Coaching is a contact sport. If your potential coach suggests that you meet a couple of times a month and review your performance, forget it. Imagine Glenn Hoddle only talking to UK World Cup team on the phone, skipping practices and games, and then meeting with them to get a report on how they did. The coach can see things from a different point of view, and accordingly, has to be at the practices and at the games. Metaphorically, you are inside of your own leadership box, and the instructions for getting out of the box are written on the outside. A coach has to be able to see what is happening first-hand, from a different perspective…..because you can’t.

This means that you will have to explain the coach’s presence at meetings and in your office. You have to be able to provide real credibility to him and he has to be able to add value that is recognized by the other members of your team. If he can’t, you have the wrong coach.

Coaching may be new in popularity, but it is old in concept. Professional coaches display the qualities of perspective, an ability to communicate, trustworthiness and availability. They are in their field to serve you. If you want to change to meet the needs of the business times, a leadership coach just might be for you.

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