Transitioning to the Executive Coach Role 

  1. Identify the Leader’s Understanding of Your Role

(1) Look for misalignment in expectations about your role between you and the leader.

(2) Avoid taking on Rescue Model activities.

  1. Get the Right Contract

(1) Work for sponsor-agent alignment.

(2) Ensure all change agent duties come from the Client Responsibility Model.

  1. Get in the Right Conversation

(1) Evoke stronger sponsorship in the leader.

(2) Use guidelines for conversation:

Act as though you are in the Client Responsibility Model.

Talk about the leader’s goals.

Provide a sample of what you offer.

Find a way to say yes to the leader’s goals.

Find moments of immediacy.

Have goals for managing yourself.

(3) Offer loyal resistance, a form of advocacy, if necessary:

Partner with the leader’s goals.

Articulate your differences.

Offer alternative ways of approaching the goals.

(4) Pace yourself.

I have these executive coach traits: I am, I know, I can do:

(know) how business functions operate and interrelate;

(be) business and results-focused;

(do) make connections between bottom-line results and work relationship behaviors;

(be) excellent listener and well versed in basic coaching skills;

(do) steer conversations from the global to the specific;

(do) hold a systems perspective;

(be) have a strong sense of self; not intimidated by people in positions of authority {MC!};

(be) work in the middle of others’ anxiety {MC!};

(do) give immediate feedback;

(do) equally able to challenge and to support;

(be) have a sense of humor about human foibles – your own and those of others;

(be) let others create their own successes and mistakes.

Concerns About Making the Transition: Typical questions and dilemmas people have are, 

“What do I do when …?”

“What if …?”

“How do I do …?”

“How can I …?”

“I have an executive who doesn’t know how to use me as a coach …

” … start from where I am now … create an opportunity …

“The leader has a completely different map for change and my role within that change …

” … deal with the executive’s resistance to spending time on coaching

” … get the leader to view me differently

” … ensure an executive’s initial experience with me as a coach will be a positive one

” … I have a good idea before the leader does

” … deal with an inadequate or weak executive

” … help the leader see my coaching role as leverage toward the leader’s greater effectiveness?”

These concerns about role expectations boil down to three areas:

Your Anxiety that you do not see eye-to-eye with your sponsor about your role.

Your Need to get the right contract for coaching, so you can be successful with the executive and help them succeed.

Your Skill and Presence needed to get into the right conversation with the leader to address the first two concerns.

1. Concerns over Your Role

The leader may approach any work with you from the Rescue Model; they may want you to take things into your hands rather than help them address these issues. They may say, “So what can you do to get this implementation off the ground?”

“Just go tell them the deadline is unacceptable.”

“Why are you coming to me when you need to be spending your time getting the team going?”

The leader may be unable or unwilling to view you as a resource able to help them think through and maintain their sponsor activities, the most important ones being communicating the direction and goals of the organization, aligning stakeholders, ensuring commitment to goals, clarifying decision-making authority with key players, managing performance expectations and consequences, and providing resources.

2. The Contract

Negotiate the right contract as a change agent; offer to initiate conversations that would lead to executive coaching.

Client Responsibility Model: the executive understands their responsibilities as a sponsor and sees you as a resource to keep them honest about those responsibilities.

The sponsor may have to develop into their role; the coach can act as an effective change agent who evokes stronger sponsorship from the executive.

“Am I being a great change agent?”

“What can I do to be a stronger one?”

3. The Conversation

Embody the Client Responsibility Model without using fancy jargon. Get into the right conversation with the executive, shifting your sponsor into the Client Responsibility perspective.

Guidelines for the Conversation

Initiate and sustain conversations for the coach-client partnership:

Act as though you and the sponsor are already in the Client Responsibility Model.

Focus on the executive’s goals.

Provide a sample of what you can offer; demonstrate it in the conversation.

Find a way to say yes to the leader’s goals.

Have goals for managing yourself in the conversation.

Offer loyal resistance, a form of advocacy, if necessary.

I act as though we are already in the Client Responsibility Model:

I always focus on the executive’s responsibility for maintaining a strong connection with their people and establishing clear expectations.

I explicitly define how I will help them build greater clarity and stronger relationships.

I act as though my sponsor is capable of joining me in this perspective.

What do I discuss? I build credibility as a business partner. I talk about business goals and results, link business challenges to the leader’s challenges, and naturally, segue into executive coaching.

I discuss the executive’s goals, not my aspirations to coach. Concentrating on things besides what occupies executives is fundamentally counterproductive to my interests. I engage them in what they care about.

I define my role within the context of what they are motivated to achieve.

This is a realistic approach to leaders: they sponsor best when they have vested self-interests. I expand their horizons by linking new ideas, insights, and my capabilities to their passions, concerns, and interests.

Once we start discussing the executive’s goals, I get deeper into the conversation:

What do you want to accomplish in this effort?

What is your best thinking about this issue?

Have you met this type of challenge successfully before?

What are the barriers to surmounting the same kind of challenge this time?

How urgent do you feel this issue is?

How do you account for not being able to accomplish this?

Do you have any sense of your part in not meeting the challenge this time?

In your leadership position, what challenges do you personally face regarding this issue?

What outcomes do you want?

What would be achievable results in what specific time frame?

To what extent do the people who report to you hold the same perspective or urgency you do?

Does your team know as much about what you think as I do?

These are also conversation starters for the contracting phase providing opportunities for focusing on the leader’s goals and strategies for attaining those goals.

These serve to develop the executive’s thinking about their relationships with their team and the expectations they have of them. I ask these goal and relationship questions and open the door to coaching conversations and help the leader reflect on issues that may conceal ingrained challenges to the leader.

I do not define the discussion beforehand as a coaching conversation; instead, I give my potential coaching customer a sample of what I can do. The experience, plus a debriefing of the conversation afterward: what was helpful about it, what further clarity they now have, etc.

After several of these conversations, I can point to the experiences and offer to facilitate further coaching conversations about the projects the executive finds particularly challenging.

Other responsibilities of a change agent include facilitating, training, gathering data, mediation, and project management. The sponsor may draw me or us both back into the rescue perspective. This is the critical moment in the sponsor-agent relationship. I find a way to say yes to their goal by redefining which change agent tasks will better help them achieve their goal. I articulate my role and responsibilities in light of the sponsor’s goals and responsibilities and discuss the interplay between the roles. I attend to both of our roles and work to align these.

I bring my presence in managing myself to the leader’s urgency, anxiety, and impatience. I welcome with compassion their resistance to strongly sponsoring the very changes they want. I offer unbiased information related to the sponsor’s interests, paint pictures of outcomes the sponsor cares about most, describe my role relative to theirs, and link both roles to the desired results.

I solicit the executive’s reaction to my position. What is their best thinking about what I just said? What are its merits, and what are their nagging concerns?

I do not rescue the leader from their responsibility. I continue to let them struggle with it. I avoid becoming distracted by the leader’s frustration. Instead, I stay on course by keeping the challenge front and center with the leader and bringing immediacy to the conversation.

I stay focused on building the sponsor’s responsibility; even if I feel obliged to rescue them, I focus on being effective. Coaching moments happen outside a formal coaching contract but within the context of the executive’s work world and high-priority concerns.  I build my credibility as a resource for the leader.

Coaching moments can cover some of the same territories as the coaching phases, though in smaller increments:

I listen carefully to the executive; help them get more clarity about what the issue is, the goal they want to accomplish, and the next step; give feedback on their dilemma that can shed light on how they are leading this particular effort.

These conversations reveal their leadership challenges, and when I am calm, sturdy, and direct enough to have these with them, they are more likely to invite me into more of these conversations. Leadership challenge conversations are coaching conversations.

I have goals for managing myself within this kind of conversation. Goals keep me from getting sidetracked by my anxiety in the face of the leader’s impatience or irritation. Some examples of goals:

When the executive gets impatient, focus on results.

Don’t jump into awkward silences. Let the leader take the initiative with pauses in the conversation.

Stick with only one personal bottom line. Don’t complicate the picture with too many requirements from your side.

Find a moment to be immediate; the pattern “out there” is going on “in here” between the two of you.

The executive doesn’t need to hear how this project complicates your life. You must tell them whether you think it will work.

Don’t speak for other people. Speak for yourself, and invite the leader to seek out the opinions of others.

I do not pursue all these goals in each meeting. They are tailored to the executive, the situation, and my particular anxieties. It is best to have only one or two in a specific conversation.

Loyal Resistance is a form of advocacy

Advocacy: promoting an idea, solution, or role I espouse in a way that induces the leader to sponsor it as something they want and own.

I use loyal resistance when an executive chooses methods or approaches I judge to be counterproductive to the direction they want to take or an executive wants something from me I cannot support because I do not believe it will work.

Forms of effective advocacy show as activities such as focusing on the leader’s goal, tying my role and aspirations to what the leader wants to achieve, and finding ways to say yes.

Even as I position myself in a different, sometimes oppositional place from the executive, my intent is not to polarize with the leader; I show my willingness to support their deeper interests. I do three things simultaneously:

get on board the leader’s train and show I understand and support their goal; articulate how I differ with their approach, i.e., how they want to get there; offer alternatives that can satisfy their interests and my concerns.

When I articulate differences with how they want to get there, I make an effort to be thoughtful about my perspective and weigh its merits and obstacles carefully. I assume the leader is more likely to listen to me if I offer my viewpoint as useful information rather than a crusade or battle for the “right” position. I tie my thinking to the executive’s desired outcome. I highlight what they may not be noticing in a situation. I share my knowledge and reservations without holding out on the leader or withholding my best thinking.

Leaders are most interested in getting to a destination, not in the pathway to get there. I present ideas consistent with their goals, generating options and opening ways for brainstorming renewed energies. I join them in commitment to their goals, respectfully and robustly bring differences to the table, and offer alternative ways to think about an issue. 

Pace Yourself

Success is built on hundreds of these small conversations. Start with fifteen-minute discussions that veer in this direction; do not call it “executive coaching” until you have a track record with the leader and the two of you begin explicitly to call the conversations “executive coaching.” Take time to evolve your role. The leader needs time to change their expectations of you in your role.