“But what is it exactly that you are doing?” A question I get on a regular basis. The specifics of coaching can be kind of intangible. Let’s just hope there is a visible change at the end. Right? Although proven methods (as there is Marshall Goldsmiths’ stakeholder centered coaching) make questioning the ROI almost impossible (guaranteeing measurable leadership growth), and although I can show you my amazingly detailed BigFish4.me coaching process, there simply is no “one size fits all” once we start.

So what to expect from hiring an executive coach? Let me share with you 15 specific supports that will serve your process of leadership growth once you start working with an executive coach.

1. Support and challenge your “self-diagnosis”

My former boss used to encourage us to put our feet on the table for at least half an hour per week. To do some serious strategic thinking. Making a conscious stop to move much faster and in a deliberate strategic direction afterwards. Priorities set. Focus on. I used to love that time. On the other hand, when it comes down to our own personal development, most of us simply don’t make any time for self-reflection at all. At least not as long as everything goes right. An executive coach allows you (or need I say forces you) to take that time. Just as in the 30 minutes of strategic thinking: to move ahead at maximum speed afterwards. Knowing where you are going and why. Confident. In the lead. Satisfied. Happy. And strong

2. Link your goal to future opportunities

This is the story of the frog. Put a frog into cold water and heat the water gradually until it boils. The frog stays in and will be cooked to death. Put the same frog into boiling water and he simply jumps out. Here’s the second support you can expect from your executive coach: being completely unbiased towards your current situation, your coach simply has a different perspective. Where the parable of the frog was originally used to indicate that danger is more difficult to perceive when you are used to a specific situation, the same counts for perceiving opportunities if you ask me. Your coach is able to look further than your current challenges and goals. Not only because of being fresh, but because experience shows how fast things change when e.g. your ability to influence grows.

3. Clarify the benefits of change

You’ve started this leadership growth journey for a reason. It might have been your bosses’ reason. Or your teams’. Results from a 360. An assessment report related to that much desired internal promotion. Maybe sprouted from a situation of conflict. Or lack of results. Or, on the contrary, supported by the organization in your potential to grow to the next level. Company policy to support every transit to C-level. I can go on for a while. Unfortunately, you get nothing out of coaching if you don’t see the benefits of change yourself. And even along the way you may tend to forget your reason why. So your coach keeps you on track. Can be heavy or unpleasant. Or at the least a bit (or a lot) confronting, but you’ll always be glad someone has your back. Honest, open, and with respect.

4. Help you select relevant stakeholders

Leadership growth is not only about making the change, it is about making the change visible as well. Engaging your most important stakeholders, whether you “like” them or not, is the perfect way to maximize the results of your efforts. Just like a restaurant announces it will be “under new management” to positively impact their clientele. Your coach supports you in selecting the right stakeholders for your goal. Not just engaging your friends. Or the colleagues you know and trust the most. Your coach challenges you to take into account potential impact. Want to show more seniority on an international level? Ask the global CEO to be your stakeholder. Need I say your coach supports you in daring to put yourself out there in the open? Showing vulnerability and courage. What comfort zone?

5. Smart behavioural goal setting

More often than not the first draft of a development action plan (first homework) is about business goals and business goals alone. Reach this ebitda. Improve production time to. Gain market share of. Goal 2020. Or 2040. We are in fact very experienced goal setters. But how much of those goals are really strictly behavioural? In terms of “What do I need to change in my behaviour to reach my (business) goal? How can I act differently to close the gap between where I am today and where I want to be tomorrow”? Although the initial business goals might no doubt be the driving elements for the coaching process from a to z (and all of your leadership growth included), your coach obliges you to think purely behavioural. Because if you do what you’ve always done, you …

6. Distinguish ends from means

There’s a difference between objectives (ends) and actions (means). Let’s say you want to communicate more concisely (=objective), what would then be the action? Of course it is “communicating concisely” you could say (just do it). An executive coach helps you to break down your end goal into smaller action steps. Any idea on what those might be for a more concise communication?

Next to that, often there is some kind of bipolarity to what you want and what you need to do to get there. Let’s say you want more results from your team. You have been pushing them to the limit. But whatever you do, they are not getting on board. You get frustrated and push even more. The problem gets bigger. Your coach will no doubt tell you: to get there faster, you’ll need to slow down. Ends and means.

7. Tap hidden resources

How to deal with 24/7 incoming email in a global role? How do you get out of this seemingly never-ending jetlag when always traveling? How to behave as a European in a US board or company (or the other way around)? You are not the only one. Working with an external executive coach allows you to identify and tap hidden resources and assets. This might be one of my favourite parts of being an executive coach. I don’t have all the answers (and certainly not all the knowledge). So I tap all resources possible. Select a book for you to read (summarized or not). Explore the latest research. Bring cross-references from other organizations and executives. And sometimes you just have to clean your glasses. Hear the unbiased truth. Talk to your stakeholders. Understand the underlying principles. Or decide you had the competence all along.

8. Identify success measures

This one is simple. What is the return you expect from your effort (and time and investment)? Clear goals set you up for success. Nothing vague or intangible. As mentioned above, this is why I chose to adopt the Marshall Goldsmith stakeholder centered coaching method. The MGSCC method makes leadership growth measurable. But if you ask me, above all it is the “under new management sign” that makes all the difference for you as a leader. Better service. Better food. Simple. Let us know what you think. Bring your suggestions for improvement to the table. No complex communication plans. Focus on one or two areas of leadership growth. Regular alignment points. Monthly feedback and feed forward. Creating a culture of trust, openness and support to get the best out of every leader.

9. Behavioural rehearsal

As in anything, practice is the key to success. So you practice, practice and practice. Not one day. Or one week. But month after month. Small (or big) behavioural changes. To build trust. To improve your communication or your ability to influence. To behave more self-confident, or to delegate more effectively. I often compare this stage of the coaching with learning how to drive a car. From (un)consciously unable to (un)consciously competent (and often in between during the first stage of practice). With focus and discipline. Your coach works with you to identify the triggers that led you to failure, so you can work around those triggers towards future success. And towards reaching your goal: being able to drive that car without thinking about every step you take.

10. Push the schedule

In spite of all smart goal setting, stakeholder involvement and planning for detailed action steps, the thing is that our human nature simply prefers to unconsciously fight for keeping the status quo. So the ugly truth is nobody really wants to change. Next to that we are busy. Very busy. So although the one taking ownership for your leadership growth is you and you alone, your coach can push the schedule when needed. By following up on agreements, by holding you accountable, by scheduling regular sessions and alignment meetings (even if this means extensive and assertive negotiating with your assistant), and in my case by offering you an unlimited availability (phone/WebEx) along the way to keep the momentum going.

11. Construct actionable suggestions

Although the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching process of feedback and feed forward might seem simple (ask your stakeholders for behavioural suggestions related to your chosen area of leadership growth and integrate some of them in your action plan), it is everything but easy. Leaders need to simply say thank you for the stakeholder input with no further discussion on different perspectives or realities. And without openly and immediately evaluating each suggestion (positive nor negative). Experience shows this can be a real challenge. It demands courage, humility and discipline. After you listed all stakeholder suggestions, your coach works with you 1-1 to construct an actionable plan.

12. Encouraging development

Number 12. Leadership growth always means getting out of your comfort zone. Showing both courage and vulnerability in work and in life. In Dutch we would figuratively say: “get your buttocks exposed”, even if you are the highest in rank. First of all, if you’re not willing to put yourself out there, in the end you simply won’t get the results you were aiming for. From start to finish, your executive coach challenges you to question your own behaviour without letting you slip into self-doubt. Your coach encourages you to be both humble and strong as a person and as a leader. And all along the way, your coach has your back. Motivates you when things get tough. Challenges your thoughts. Supports you and listens to you. Unbiased. Non judgemental.

13. Increase the focus

Just like a top level tennis player can work on one specific thing as there is a backhand slice and practice the same movement over and over again for hours or even months (or years), making a growth plan as a leader means increasing this same focus as well. Most of my clients are successful already (or they have the potential to be), so often it is about fine tuning leadership behaviour or skipping a bad habit in spite of which they are successful. I prefer to work with only one or maximum two chosen areas of leadership growth. Decide what it is that stands between where you are now and where you want to be tomorrow and maintain that focus. No getting back to business as usual after one inspiring session but an on going effort to get the most out of that backhand slice of yours.

14. Accelerate execution

Throughout the coaching process I see leaders increasingly lead from the heart. Courageous, humble and disciplined. With this leadership growth process in the open, and all stakeholders involved in the process of feedback and feed forward, trust is being built in all directions. This means no further need for any behaviour of self-protection. Things are more discussable now. Next to that, as a leader you are able to use new coaching skills to motivate and support your team and even peers. Because of that, you are not only able to accelerate your leadership performance but to speed up execution for others as well. It is that same moment when you understand that political processes are a blessing, not a curse. Accelerate execution because of the necessary impact being created to reach your goals, individual an organizational.

15. After action assessment

So far, your coach worked with you to get the necessary insights in your leadership performance (assessment, self-reflection, 360, stakeholder interviews). After that you were motivated (and sometimes just plainly pushed) to make a visible behavioural change. You worked with your stakeholders’ suggestions to build your personal plan of action. And then based on that you started practicing. You succeeded. You failed. And you got up again to succeed more. Let me tell you this, growth without failing along the way is not even an option. So you learn to do a profound assessment of each situation. What went well? What went wrong? What was the trigger? Is it always the same trigger? E.g. you having too much on your plate. Or not getting enough sleep. Or being triggered by moral objections. Together we look at how you can eliminate this trigger. That is, if you want to. Because in the end, you decide.

Your work. Your life.

Author: Sofie Varrewaere
Image courtesy of RichVintage at Getty Images International

Are you still wondering if your question is fit for what we do at BigFish?
Book your free intake right now!

No time to lose?
Skip the meet and greet and start immediately by booking your first session below