November 26, 2019
The conventional wisdom in executive coaching has long been that coaches shouldn’t give advice: “Never tell, always ask.” By this principle, the best coaches should only put forth provocative and expansive questions in search of the wisdom and perspective already within their clients.
This approach is based on the often-incorrect assumptions that executive clients have the necessary answers inside them and have sufficient time for a lengthy “inquiry-only” coaching process. It also stems from people mistakenly equating executive coaching with fields such as life coaching and relationship coaching instead of the more goal-oriented academic and athletic coaching.
While the inquiry-only approach to coaching can be extremely effective and enormously worthwhile, it shouldn’t preclude executive coaches from offering clear, well-timed advice when needed. Such direction can be critical for leaders and organizations, adding tremendous value to coaching engagements.
Executive coaching is designed to help individual leaders take their organizations to the next level by developing skills and awareness they might have difficulty acquiring on their own. When effective, it can be invaluable, especially among those who have just joined a complex organization and are learning the culture. It can further assist those serving in top leadership positions for a long time who have an outsize influence on the direction and culture of an organization but are isolated from its inner workings as a result of their high-level responsibilities. Because of their power, they’re also less likely to be informed of hard truths regarding such issues as their management abilities and blind spots.
In this respect, executive coaching carries extremely high stakes. It represents a singular means of facilitating onboarding and piercing the bubble that often surrounds those in the loneliest top jobs. What’s more, its success can impact shareholder value, employment prospects, and the long-term viability of organizations. It’s designed to foster a specific kind of outcome: effective, efficient leadership, strategy, and operations, and positive, sustainable growth.
The goal-oriented nature of executive coaching makes it comparable to academic coaching (tutoring) and athletic coaching. In these fields, an experienced guide is tasked with helping someone reach a specific outcome—for example, an exemplary grade on an exam or an improved golf game. There are clear and measurable markers of success and failure.
And yet, executive coaching is often equated with other forms of coaching, such as life coaching and relationship coaching—fields in which experienced professionals help individuals who might otherwise feel stuck identify their goals and develop actionable plans forward. What’s notable about these types of coaching is that the problem being solved for has no right answer. If a person is determined to leave a lucrative job for the teaching field, his or her life coach will help formulate a plan to accomplish this goal. The same can’t be said for academic, athletic, or executive coaches.
Being equated with less outcome-oriented forms of coaching has led to the conventional wisdom that executive coaches shouldn’t give advice, but rather ask the “right” questions that allow people to discover their own answers. This inquiry-only model guides the practice of life coaching and relationship coaching, and it can yield great success. Yet it significantly limits the value of executive coaching, just as it would limit the value of athletic or academic coaching, because sometimes it’s most effective to simply show someone how to correctly swing the golf club.
Executive coaching shouldn’t be defined or measured by any set process or philosophy. As a goal-oriented practice, it’s effective simply when it helps an executive get to where an organization needs him or her to be, in the best and quickest way possible.
Imposing limitations on what constitutes “good” or “pure” coaching doesn’t reflect the needs of clients and the complexity of individuals who will sometimes respond to inquiry-only approaches and sometimes require clear guidance to overcome limitations and blind spots in the most expedient time frame. Adding the most value to a coaching engagement requires an openness and expertise in both methods. If executive coaching is best considered a craft, it works far better with the right toolkit.