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Before Working with a Coach, Challenge Your Self-Assumptions

Harvard Business Review

Working with an executive coach can be a large investment of time and money; it seems a shame to waste either. If you're considering coaching (or have, ahem, been asked to consider it), make sure you get the most out of the experience.

People sign up for coaching for all sorts of reasons — perhaps it was their own idea, and they genuinely want to improve. But often, coaching is not something an individual chooses willingly; someone senior to them, maybe even on the board of directors, has suggested it.

Someone in a position of authority may make it known that if the executive wants to be promoted, win a bonus, or even keep his job, he must change behaviors that hinder his performance, turn others way, or do not instill confidence in his abilities.

And so the coach arrives — the outsider, hired to speak truth to power — and can't make any headway, because the person being coached doesn't really want to be there. Or the person being coached doesn't have a specific goal in mind, and so coach and coachee meet a bunch of times before parting ways, neither really knowing what they tried to accomplish.

As I was talking the other day with a colleague — Mark Goulston, M.D., author of Real Influence, which he co-authored with John Ullmen — it occurred to us that there were some things we wished executives knew about coaching before signing up for it.

Effective coaching is often a matter of challenging assumptions, and the biggest assumptions often reside in the mind of the person being coached. Challenge your own assumptions about what you need to improve so that you can lead your people in ways the organization demands and they expect.

Before you meet with your coach, ask yourself what specifically you want to get out of it. The need for coaching could be remedial, that is, you are doing something that bothers others — being too abrasive — or you are not doing enough — too much indecision. For example, the executive may admit that he is focusing too much on details and not enough on big picture challenges. Or the executive may recognize that her failure to make timely decisions is wasting time. Such admissions serve as points of recognition that can leader to greater self-knowledge. What issues are getting in the way of your ability to achieve your potential, or the potential of the organization?

Even if you don't want to work with a coach — but you have to, because your boss or the board has asked you to -- you must enter the engagement willingly. Try to find some way of framing the challenge of improvement so that it feels more palatable. That might mean focusing on the outcome you want, like winning a promotion or avoiding being let go. Acknowledging that you need to improve in one area or another isn't easy, but it is necessary to letting coaching be successful.

Don't let your coach ask all the questions. Ask them some questions. And ask yourself, "Why do I want this person to be coaching me?" Often a coach comes recommended by others. The coach's track record and reputation may be outstanding, but that doesn't mean he or she is right for you. The coach must be able to demonstrate an awareness of the issues you're facing and a willingness to help you confront them. Yes, executive coaching is a journey of self-discovery — but the coach is your guide. Make sure you get someone you can connect with.

Give yourself some early wins. What are you willing to change — right now? Coaching occurs over a period of time, but long-term growth must have a starting point. Why not today? For example, if the executive needs to loosen up his heavy-handed management style, a coach can ask what he is willing to give up. First steps may include speaking less and listening more, or learning to ask open-ended questions that are designed to elicit information, not intimidate. He can take those small steps right away and start making progress towards his big goal. That's incredibly motivating.

Truth be told, our self-assumptions protect our self-image. If we knew how often we irritated others, or failed to deliver on expectations, we might lose faith in our ability to do our jobs. We are human after all.

But a coach's responsibility is to encourage self-examination. Unexamined behaviors can cut us off from the very people we need to engage and inspire. You'll get a lot more out of your coaching experience if you start the process by examining and challenging your own assumptions.

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