When I tell people that I am an executive coach, one of the first questions I hear is, what does an executive coach do? If you break down the words, executive means administrative or managing responsibilities, and coach means instructing or tutoring. At its most basic level, an executive coach helps individuals learn how to be better administrators and managers. But they really do so much more. An executive coach is an important partner that can help leaders reach their full potential by helping them to understand better who they are and who they want to be. Professional tennis players like Serena Williams who are looking to perform at their highest level work with a tennis coach. The same is true of top-tier singers like Beyonce, who frequently work with vocal coaches to help them expand their range, sing with more strength, and perform at a consistently high level. Professional athletes, vocal performers, and other professionals who work with specialized coaches know that no matter how good an individual is, there is an opportunity to be better and more consistent by working with a knowledgeable coach. Executive coaches can do for executives and managers what sports coaches do for athletes. Coaches help people to pause, reflect, learn, and continuously improve. One of the best-kept secrets of top-performing business executives and owners is that they work with executive coaches. Executive coaches are not discussed much but are essential to how talented executives and business owners reach their full potential.
My experience working with a coach
I worked with an executive coach when I was first promoted to Vice President of Operations. It was indeed a life-changing experience for me. The coach I worked with helped me to
Build new skills
The clarity I gained from working with a coach helped me feel more confident as I transitioned into a role that carried significantly more scope and responsibilities than any of my previous roles.
Clarify my professional goals
One aspect the coach helped me with was clarifying my professional goals. For most of my career, I focused on climbing to the next rung on the ladder. This served me in my career because it drove me to identify how I could excel in my current role. I knew I must first demonstrate mastery in my current role to advance. I would also take time to understand what skills, knowledge, and network were necessary to be successful in the next role, and I would spend time building toward those future needs. I felt like I had made it to the mountaintop for the first time in my career. I landed my ideal job of being an operations leader in geography close to my extended family. I could build an organizational culture, influence strategy, and run a multi-state business. With no next role to work towards, I had to re-evaluate how I would define success. My
coach helped me to explore my values, define my priorities and put words to what I wanted to accomplish going forward. For me, the goal was improving the quality of my employees' and Franchisees' lives. I knew that we had opportunities within our culture. Employees felt overworked and undervalued. Franchisees felt under-supported and unheard. I made it my mission to listen more than I spoke and to work on behalf of the employees and Franchisees within my zone to simplify operations, streamline priorities, and refocus our attention on serving customers and driving profitable growth.
Reflect on who I was as a leader.
After we explored what I wanted to do, we spent time researching how I would do it. As you move into higher levels of management, your role shifts from being
an individual contributor responsible for managing yourself.
to a manager of managers responsible for managing others
to a functional manager accountable for segments of a business
to a business manager responsible for the overall business
to a group manager responsible for multiple businesses
to an enterprise manager accountable for all operations
Each of these shifts requires developing new skills and changing how you spend your time. As you move up the ladder, you spend less time doing and more time leading. For example, one of the things that I greatly enjoy doing is building spreadsheets and analyzing data. This skill helped me stand out from my peers early in my career. I allocated hours weekly to building and analyzing data which enabled me to build my business acumen, improve my judgment and anticipate emerging trends. Now that I was in a senior executive role, spending time putting spreadsheets together was no longer the best use of my time. Every time that I built a spreadsheet myself, I was
robbing someone junior to me the opportunity to build their data analysis skills
reducing the amount of time, I had for other leadership activities
not leveraging the skills and knowledge of others
My coach helped me understand that what got me into this role was not what would help me thrive. That I was more than a data analyst. I was a strategic thinker, a communicator, a developer of talent, and an inspirational leader. For me to excel as a Vice President, I would need to be comfortable wearing many different hats and be purposeful in not wearing the hat that I wanted to wear but the one that was required at any given moment.
Define who I want to be
With a sound foundation for who I was, we were able to begin to craft who I wanted to be. This was one of the most enlightening parts of my working with the executive coach. I defined my leadership philosophy while pursuing my MBA and during other leadership development training. I felt grounded in my leadership approach and felt like it served me well, especially since it afforded me three promotions in the prior four years. As I began working with my coach, it became clear I was the leader that others wanted me to be and not the leader I wanted to be. To get ahead, I developed masks I would wear when dealing with Senior Leaders because I thought being myself would not be accepted. I need to be an "executive," which I had interpreted as being reserved, stoic, agreeable when dealing with senior leaders, resolute, never wrong, and willing to do anything to get ahead.
Wearing these masks was fatiguing. I
am not a stoic person
enjoy speaking my mind
admit when I am wrong
do not believe in winning at all costs
enjoy a good debate
care deeply about people
am a big believer in the health debate.
These are all aspects of myself that I readily showed to my direct reports but cautiously shared with company leadership. I am at my best in an environment that encourages creativity, the exploration of new ideas, openness to failure, comfort with conflict, and two-way communication. For the most part, this is the culture I had built underneath me. Through discussions with my coach, he encouraged me to define better the leader I wanted to be and try to help influence cultural change at the organization. He helped me believe that I could help be the change I wanted to see within the organization. It just required me to be myself, post great results, and communicate to others how leading differently could lead to better results.
Take on new perspectives
One of the skills that supported me in removing my mask was the time we spent exploring the different perspectives. He helped me to understand that I did not need different masks when dealing with people but different intentionality. When I interacted with Senior Leaders, they did not want me to be a yes-man that went along with everything they said. Being a yes man would lead us to make bad decisions because there was information that I had that Senior Leaders needed to lead the organization effectively. They did not want me to undermine their authority by challenging them during inappropriate times. If I was concerned about a policy or direction, they wanted me to address it at the proper time and place. In general, they preferred that I voice my concerns before making a decision. If a decision had been made and there was a need for a course correction, Senior Leadership's preference was for me to bring it to them privately and then to bring it up in group meetings. By slowing down and better understanding my leader's perspective, I was able to influence better and be more effective. My coach would encourage me to observe my actions from different vantage points.
How would my peers look at what I was doing?
How would my supervisor look at what I was doing?
How would my direct reports look at what I was doing?
How would my indirect reports look at what I was doing?
A leader's responsibilities were not to anyone stakeholder. Leaders have various stakeholders that are all looking to them for leadership. A leader can only perform at their highest level once they consider all of these perspectives and make the best decision based on the information they have. Leaders also need to be willing to learn and course correct when mistakes are made. Learning how to take different perspectives will help leaders to make fewer mistakes.
Be more strategic
One of the most significant changes you must make as you move up the corporate ladder is improving your strategic thinking. At higher levels of an organization, leaders must learn how to deal with scale, leverage, and resource constraints. The first and most important word that a leader must know is no. Learning to say no is essential because saying no, enables your organization to focus on the most critical priorities. When I took over the VP role, the biggest complaint of the team was
priorities changed too frequently
it was not clear what was important
that we were asking people to do too much
Too many priorities, lack of clarity, and inconsistent vision are common challenges for businesses. The world is pregnant with possibilities, but you only have so much time and resources. As a leader, you must set the direction and define what is important. Keeping the team focused on what is important puts your organization in the best position to generate sustainable results.
Build New Skill
As mentioned earlier, moving to higher organizational levels requires you to develop new skills. An executive coach will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses through the coaching process. Then they will assist you in developing plans for building upon your strengths and mitigating your weaknesses. One important skill for me to develop was scanning for opportunities. When I found them, I needed to do a deep dive into problems, communicating a need for action to the person responsible for the issue and then giving them room to work without my interference. Everyone within an organization has a role and a responsibility. The role of a business manager is to provide guidance and direction to their employees. It is up to the employees to determine the best way to address the opportunity. To excel as a leader, you must be comfortable delegating, trust others, ask tough questions, and allow employees to take action without micromanaging. Employees need the opportunity to try, learn, fail, and succeed on their terms. This is the only way that they reach their full potential. This requires leaders to better evaluate risk, define objectives, establish trust, and create open lines of communication. Employees need to understand their leader is there to support them in accomplishing their goals.
Working with an executive coach can help you perform at a higher level regardless of your professional development phase. A trained executive coach is taught to
Listen to their client and help them with self-discovery
Challenge their client to identify limiting thoughts
Engage their clients in thinking more deeply and from different perspectives
Understand the role that emotions play in interactions with others
Recognize stress and the impact that it has on decision making
Develop strategies to help facilitate personal growth
Identify values and the role they play in motivation
Business leaders seek out coaches because coaches can help them grow. This growth can be related to a new job, a performance challenge, or any other growth opportunity. If you are looking to grow as a professional, you should work with a coach.