Do you know when to fire your executive coach?

You are getting an executive coach (Hooray!) Or, you may already have one. But, could your coach actually cause your career more harm than good? Are you aware of the danger signals of executive coaching?

It’s commonplace these days for a leader to have a coach. In fact, at more senior levels, they may have more than one. Coaches seem omni-present in today’s workplace but many people will spend more time planning a vacation or buying a car than evaluating the credentials of someone who will be giving them guidance for their work or career. Is this you? If so, you might want to read on.

First of all, do you have the right coach? While this could be an entirely separate discussion, I am already assuming you have some kind of interpersonal connection with your coach. In addition to that here are a few other things to look for to ensure you have the right coach for the job at hand.

  1. Are they an expert in their field? Check out their qualifications. Make sure that their expertise is what you need and that they are indeed knowledgeable. You wouldn’t hire a golf coach to work on your tennis backhand would you?
  2. Teachable point of view. Here is a tip: When you meet your coach for the first time figure out what is their ‘teachable point of view.’ This is the set of values or core beliefs that guide their consultation. These come from life experiences that shape our point of view….not from the books we read or the theories we follow.Let me provide an example from my own experience. Early in my career I left the US and went to live in Budapest. There I had the opportunity, for the first time, to work with people from many different countries — for whom this was their first time to work with people from many different countries. I was able to see first hand that what was taught in the books about cross-cultural differences was very different from actually having to manage those differences in real life. So, one of my teachable points of view is that if you want to understand how things work in another culture you need to go experience it.‘Common sense,’ you say? Well, I can’t tell you the number of executives I have worked with who, in order to prove how ‘global’ they are show me a passport full of stamps and can count how many air miles they have flown. The not-so-remarkable thing about globalization is that a Sheraton or Hyatt tends to look the same whether you are in Boston, Budapest, Bangkok or Barcelona.What life experiences shape your coach’s view of the world?
  3. Continuing Professional Development. Finally, what do they do to sharpen their own saw? Continuing professional development is important, and all too easily ignored, unless it is required by a regulator. How does your coach stay informed of the latest trends and research? Or, are you paying ‘money for old rope’ as the saying goes. Is your coach relying on outdated models or ideas? For many years I practiced a mainly ‘deficit’ approach to coaching. I would figure out what was wrong with you and then we would devise a plan to fix it. Over the past few years I have moved to a mainly ‘strengths-based’ approach, meaning,  I will find what makes you successful and help you amplify this to the level of an Olympian.

The bottom line: Your coach will influence your decisions….learn what is influencing theirs!

So, let’s assume you have your coach and things have been going well. How do you know when to end this relationship? From my experience in developing and managing coaches here are several situations where you should end the coaching relationship. Unfortunately their occurrence is more common than not.

  1. Pinstripe Counseling. Sometimes the coaching relationship turns into a kind of ‘pseudo-therapy’ or, maybe, the leader is using coaching to avoid therapy. Coaching and therapy are different disciplines and should not be confused with one another. Therapy is regulated in many countries. If you need, or think you need, professional therapy, don’t get it from your executive coach.No pills, either. I used to work alongside a corporate psychiatrist who would leave behind a prescription for ‘mothers little helper’ whenever he re-booked his next coaching session. Don’t allow your experts to multi-task!
  2. Gossip. It’s pretty much standard these days that coaches meet with some or all of your team members during the course of the engagement. Is your coach sharing information between parties that would best be shared directly by the individuals themselves? Be on the watch for ‘triangulation’ of communications or when your coach is ‘trading’ on gossip.
  3. Paid Friendship. Executive lives are busy. No doubt about it. Is your coach replacing the natural and human need to have social relationships outside of work?
  4. Emotional Affair. Similar to paid friendship but much more personal. Be wary if you find yourself discussing things with your coach that you should be discussing with your partner or spouse.
  5. Selling. Is your coach always finding more opportunities for their firm to work with your team or organization? Some consulting firms reward consultants for ‘business expansion’ in addition to ‘new sales.’ If you feel that your coach is looking at your organization as more of a meal ticket then you are comfortable with then tell them. You can also suggest they re-read David Maister’s classic work on managing the consultant-client relationship, ‘The Trusted Advisor.’
  6. Dependence or a personal ‘crutch’. Do you find that you are relying on your coach’s opinion before you make up your own mind? Do you need your coach? Do you rely on your coach to do things that you know you should be doing yourself (e.g., talking to your team about the tough issues)? There is a fine-line between having a trusted advisor and becoming dependent. A savvy buyer of coaching services will be aware of this and be sure to manage it appropriately.
  7. Are you still learning and being stretched? This is particularly true for long-standing coaching relationships. I know of some leaders who have continually used the same coach for years, if not decades. While I am personally not a fan of this approach I do recognize its’ merits. One of the most important criteria for evaluating coaching effectiveness is if you are still learning and being challenged and stretched. If your growth has become stagnant it’s time to rethink whether you have the right coach or even need a coach.

These are just a few tips gained from my time in the trenches. I hope you find them useful.

Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

Illustration courtesy of FlickrCC and Anne-Lise Heinrichs

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