6 traps in executive coaching

Executives are human beings, too — so really, should it make a difference if your client is a C-level executive? Not really, right? And we should not put people into boxes: there are as many different kinds of C-level executives as there are C-level executives. So please take what I am sharing in the following with a grain of salt. I will share what my personal experiences around some specifics of executive coaching are. You might run into completely different ones, but maybe my musings are helpful. Let me start with a positive:

C-level executives won’t like wasting time

It sounds like a bad thing, but really, it isn’t. When an executive commits to a coaching process, they usually want to use the time wisely. They want to see outcomes, development and signs of progress. Therefore, once they have bought into the process, they are engaged and a joy to work with.

There is different knowledge about what coaching is

In my experience, it is crucial to find out what the client already knows about coaching. Many executives I have met were a bit unclear and were expecting more of a mentoring or sparring process. I make a point and clarify and define coaching before we start and ask if they are interested in “coaching”. That does not preclude them forgetting mid-way, btw. It’s best to have the definition present more than once.

Coaching may not be what they want

When you explain that coaching is about asking questions and about clients developing their own solutions, executives sometimes perceive little benefit in that. They are used to develop their own solutions and usually are really smart people aware of their solution finding processes. Coaching may not be the best for them. What some do need is an honest conversation partner who is not enmeshed in the hierarchy of the organization. In these cases, I have sometimes relabeled what we are doing as “sparring”. I was very sure that the client would never take on board one of my contributions just because I said so, full responsibility is with the client. However, since executives do not have a lot of people they can talk to openly, this may be an invaluable service.

The client does not seem to prioritize the process

Executives are usually very busy people. Their schedules change constantly, priorities shift and they are not always masters and mistresses of their own time. They might have to cancel or postpone sessions frequently. Don’t take this as a sign of a deteriorating coaching relationship (and if you are unsure, ask). Make sure you have your cancellation policy clearly communicated and otherwise be flexible. Personally, I like working on a retainer basis — this way I am sure I will be paid and we can both roll with what life throws at us.

You feel like you have to prove yourself

A person in “high places” can feel intimidating. However, an intimidated coach is not very useful! So: you may not be the best coach in the universe, but you are the one who is there – stop feeling intimidated! (Ok, I know it is not that easy). I think the best advice I can give here is to get to know your coachee as a person. Jump over your fear and into the coaching relationship.

Trust may be difficult

Many executives live in worlds where a lot of people want something from them. It is smart to be a bit hedged and not trust everyone at first sight, when you live in such a world. In my experience it can take a while for an executive client to open up. Treating your client as a human being and showing up as a human being yourself are the best remedies in my view. Don’t take reservation personally — it makes sense for them!

I hope this has given you some insights into my experiences with executive coaching — if you want to share experiences and ideas, learn about our coach training programs or just hang out, why not join one of our free coaching meetup and exchanges?


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