Six years ago I had no idea what leadership coaches do and I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that it would become a calling for both Alia and myself. Back then I had visions of coaches as toxically positive cheerleaders exhorting clients that ‘they can do it!’ or offering tough love pep talks.

Turns out I had it 100% wrong.

So what do coaches actually do?

  • Perhaps above all we listen. We provide safe non-judgmental space for leaders to explore their challenges, clarify their aspirations, and gain new perspectives.
  • We create a structure for leaders to identify and pursue deeply held aims and goals. A three-or six-month coaching arc is like a hero’s journey in miniature. How do you want to be different at the end of this? What inner and outer dragons need to be tamed?
  • We help leaders sort between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ challenges. One of the titans of the field, Robert Kegan distinguishes between ‘doing’ or technical challenges, which one can address through learning a new process or technique, and ‘being’ or adaptive challenges that require new ways of making sense of your world. Adopting a new meeting style or using DARCI or MOCHA to clarify a team’s roles and responsibilities are technical ‘doing’ approaches. Overcoming your fear of giving or receiving feedback or controlling your temper requires more of a ‘being’ or adaptive approach. Our society has a strong bias in favor of taking more of an engineering/doing approach to problems, even when what’s really needed is a whole new way of thinking.
  • We encourage leaders to connect with their whole selves. My own coach, Amanda Blake, calls the body ‘your social and emotional sense organ.’ Sounds spooky or new age-y perhaps but it’s deeply rooted in neuroscience. There’s a lot of information and a lot of wisdom our body has for us that we’ve somehow learned to ignore.
  • We hold a compassionate mirror up to leaders so they can more fully see themselves in their beautiful complexity. “We’re all effed up and we’re all beautiful” is how one coaching colleague puts it. For neuroscientific reasons we are naturally much more in touch with the ‘effed up’ part than the beautiful part. Shifting that negative bias can lead to dramatic progress.
  • We practice servant leadership. In coaching, the client is always in charge. A metaphor one coaching teacher likes to use is of a car trip. You, the client, are the driver and you choose the destination. The coach rides shotgun and helps to navigate and perhaps point out interesting scenery along the way.

There are some cardinal ‘don’ts’ as well. We don’t tell leaders what to do. Instead we’ll help foster conditions for leaders to work out solutions to their challenges, but how you do that is up to you. We don’t diagnose. Coaching isn’t therapy. In many cases coaching and therapy can work powerfully together. And we don’t hang on. If we’ve done our job right, you’ll become self-sufficient, learning how and when to be your own coach.

Still wondering what the heck coaching is or whether it’s for you? Give us a call.