If you’re ‘stuck’ in your career, coaching can be a lifeline – but how do you get the best out of the process?

Setting the scene

Coaching concepts are firmly embedded in some professions, like nursing, medicine and teaching, and in some cultures. In Japan, for instance, ‘senpai’ (senior colleague) and ‘kohai’ (junior colleague) are widely understood. The words literally mean ‘earlier colleague’ and ‘later colleague’.

Setting expectations

For both partners, coaching programmes require serious investments of time, commitment, and sometimes finances, so establishing intent early on is essential, perhaps even before finally deciding to take part.

In business settings, professional achievements are not always measured in quantitative terms. Marketing or HR success, for example, may be measured in qualitative ways, often less defined than sales or legal targets. Goals might include professional career development, effective succession planning and knowledge transfer, or addressing specific situations or occasions.

One-to-one sessions will offer the best results, and should stand outside the usual appraisal process. While sector knowledge is essential for some professions, different backgrounds can encourage fresh perspectives.

Role of the coach

For executive coaches, a particularly valuable function is as a sounding board. Coaching offers an excellent way to invest in the future of your organisation or profession. The ideal coach is neutral, non-judgmental and a skilled communicator. Active questioning and creative thinking techniques, and an understanding of psychology, will facilitate effective coaching.

You can also consider developing, updating and documenting your skills via accredited training and educational courses; many organisations or professional bodies also run programmes.

Role of the coachee

Establish whether your organisation offers coaching or mentoring sessions, and if so, how to access them. If this isn’t possible, what are your options? If you belong to a professional organisation, is there a mentoring or coaching programme you can access?

Consider different kinds of coaching. Many executive coaching programmes are quite general but specific options may include coaching for life, interview success, career development, NLP, public speaking, and even body language. (Did you know ‘Strictly’ contestants were coached in body language as well as dance?)

Coaching: a micro case-study

My own coach was a chartered engineer. Where I would over-think, theorise and agonise, he was practical and succinct. He provided a ‘safe space’ to explore and discuss issues, barriers, and potential solutions. I especially valued his ability to think outside the box – which, eventually, got me thinking outside my box too. In one session, his questions helped me realise I loved to put things in boxes. Although this wasn’t surprising, given my profession, the insight into my general philosophy was invaluable.

We set initial expectations around where, when and how often we would meet; session length; issues to discuss; and common sense ‘housekeeping’ and contact details. We explored pragmatic SMART goals. While this approach meant success was probable, we also discussed contingencies if I did not achieve those goals. In that case, should I pursue, amend, reframe, or even abandon those goals?
Regular reflective practice was also beneficial: what sessions worked well; what needed improvement; and would a future approach be different? We also analysed what we learned from one another.

Eureka! A breakthrough

Executive coaches encourage recipients to find their own solutions. In my ‘breakthrough’ session, my coach produced a crate of children’s building bricks. He suggested building scale models, representing work issues. These were then placed around the A3 sketch which represented my work landscape. These props helped identify my ‘blocks’. I would never have even considered this ‘playing with the problem’ approach before the programme, but have found it very effective since.

Coaching conclusions

In summary, how do you get the most out of your executive coaching experience?

Set expectations early on, and include practical housekeeping details. Define SMART goals; establish and work on trust; and be respectful, clear and honest.

Coaches should be realistic, approachable, friendly and open; use open questioning; and, if appropriate, hold or work towards formalised recognition of their skill. This may involve qualifications or participation in mentoring schemes run by professional bodies.

Coachees need to be realistic, pragmatic, sensible and honest; actively listen; and be open to new ideas. Establish the coaching that will benefit you most; explore organisational opportunities, and if necessary, external options.

Most of all, enjoy the experience.

Useful links

European Mentoring and Coaching Council

Several formal qualifications are available, usually at levels 2 or 3, 5, and 7: comparable to GCSE, ‘A’ Level, Higher Diploma or Foundation Degree, and Postgraduate Master’s Qualifications respectively. The Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) offers Level 2, 3, 5 and 7 qualifications in mentoring, coaching and coaching supervision. The content is regularly updated.

The Chartered Management Institute also offers coaching and mentoring qualifications, at levels 3, 5 and 7.

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