On Being an Executive Coach
The CEO’s life is a lonely one. She cannot turn easily to people around her for advice
when she feels something is wrong, or at least, not quite right, with her management
style, or her way of dealing with problems. People around her may be sharks, waiting to
scent blood, in the worst case; in the best case, they may be simply indifferent to her pain.
So, whom can a CEO turn to? The same applies to most senior managers - their very
seniority becomes a burden when they need help and, perhaps a change in direction.
Hence the executive coach, an external advisor who can be your sounding board, and
much else besides.
Executive coaches are nothing new, of course. Krishna, the divine charioteer, was
executive coach to Arjuna, the great warrior. Machiavelli was executive coach to his
Prince, Chanakya to Chandragupta. The Panchatantra is nothing but a chronicle of an
executive coach, Visnu Sarma, trying to develop his young wards to be fit rulers.
Yet, even in these examples, we can see the different avatars of executive coaching. Why
was Krishna an effective coach to Arjuna? Because, of course, Arjuna had always looked
up to him and wanted to emulate him – which is why he wanted him as his charioteer in
the first place. Why was Chanakya an effective executive coach to Chandragupta? Here
the story is a little different – Chandragupta probably never thought of Chanakya as
someone who could do what he, Chandragupta, could do, only better. He knew what
Chanakya was good for, and what he was not good for. The young princes who studied
under Visnu Sarma were presumably placed under him by their father, the King, and so
had little choice in the matter. History does not record, so far as I know, whether they
want on to become good Kings or not!
But in each of these stories, there is a common thread: the coach, who is someone wise
and experienced, and the coachee, who is a great performer, but who needs grooming to
take him to the next level.
In today’s world, do these characterizations make sense?
The Fallacy of the Wise Coach
In today’s world, does the coach have to be ‘wise’?
My experience as an executive coach suggests that it is important for the coach to be seen
as someone who knows a thing or two, and has seen, if not actually fought, a few battles
in life, but he does not have to be as wise as Viswamitra. Executives are keenly aware
that the onus of learning, improving, changing, is on themselves, and external props can
only go so far. This makes it possible for anyone who is less than ‘wise’ to be an
effective coach, so long as she follows some simple rules (which we will discuss below).
What makes a good coach
The strength is in the process. A coach who follows a good coaching process will be a
good coach. It is really as simple as that.
Of course, it takes some doing, some skill, some special personality, to follow the process
easily and naturally. But anyone can learn to do it, I believe.
The Process and the Rules
‘Appreciative Inquiry’ is a term that captures much of this, but let us outline some of the
Rule 1: It is about him/her, not about you.
Actually this is THE rule. No other rules are necessary.
a) The coach does not have to constantly strive to be clever. The coaching
experience is not about how clever the coach is. The coachee does not even care how
clever the coach is, once the process gets under way in earnest.
What I am, what I have done, what I know, all these should be simply set aside by the
coach. The only personal element that should be allowed would be: yes, that is a mistake
I made too and this is what I did to overcome it. Sometimes, this helps to reassure the
b) all good ideas are his/her ideas, not yours’. Only if the coach takes this position
steadfastly will the coachee actually take the ideas to heart and run with them. The coach
must avoid even the very semblance of taking credit for anything that happens in the
c) never say ‘I told you so’.
Rule 2: Time the Message
The coachee must be in a receptive frame of mind if he is going to take any input from
anybody. Being human, he is not always receptive. If he has just come from a beating
from the boss, where he has been chastised for doing something he thought was the right
thing to do.. he may not be ready to listen to anything except reassurance that he was on
the right track. If he is tired and stressed out after a long hard day and looking forward to
going home, a coaching session is probably not what he is looking forward to.
The coach must be extremely sensitive to signals that the coachee is not ready to listen.
In fact, a good rule of thumb is to offer suggestions only when the coachee asks for them
himself. Until he asks for help, and is ready to acknowledge that he needs help, there is
little point in giving him any!
One implication is that it may not be terribly useful to schedule coaching sessions in a
very structured way, 9:30 am to 10:00 am in your office.. the coach’s time is valuable, so
it may end up being done that way, but it is probably not the best way to go about it.
Rule 3: Be specific, not general
Coaching sessions must center around specific ways the coachee wants to improve. Both
coach and coachee must be very explicit about what the issue is, and how the coachee is
going to improve. There is little point, for instance, in saying, ‘I have a short temper’.
The discussion must get down to specifics like: what kinds of things make you angry?
Why is this? What actions can you take next time someone behaves in a way that really
Rule 4: Focus on positives, it is not always about negatives
I am sorry to say that 90% of coaching sessions focus on ways the coachee is supposed to
improve. Weaknesses are identified, and an action plan outlined to shore up the
weakness. Well, Pete Sampras had a lousy backhand – did that prevent him from winning
14 Grand Slam titles? Everyone has weaknesses, the only way to become a champion is
to have great, world-beating strengths. I firmly believe 90% of coaching effort should be
devoted to identifying strengths and figuring out ways to take the coachee ‘from good to
This approach transforms the coaching process into a search for excellence, and
appreciation for the coachee, rather than a debilitating hunt for weaknesses, recognition
of which will only make him more weak. To give another tennis example, Chris Evert
had a mediocre serve, yet she never acknowledged it. In fact, when questioned on it, she
would respond, ‘what’s wrong with it? It is perfectly fine’. And because she never saw it
as a problem, it was hard for her opponents to attack it.!
Rule 5: The onus is on the coachee, not on the coach
There are none so blind as those who will not see; you can lead a horse to the water.. all
these aphorisms are well known. And perfectly true, as most aphorisms are. It is for the
coachee to recognize what he needs to strengthen, it is for the coachee to seek help, it is
for the coachee to find the answers! If the coach starts giving answers, well, they will
remain the coach’s answers. This is actually the one area where, my personal experience
tells me, the coach really has to train himself. A consultant (like me) finds it very easy
and natural to give the answers, for that is what consultants do. But it is not the coach’s
answers that count, it is the coachee’s. The coach has to learn to restrain himself even
when the answer is blindingly obvious to him.
Finally, let us turn to the qualities a coachee must have.
What makes a good coachee?
Very simply, the ability to recognize one’s own shortcomings, or, indeed, one’s own
strength which one is not leveraging enough. Next, the ability to be honest about it, the
risk-taking ability to talk about it to someone else, namely, the coach, and the self-belief
that weaknesses can be corrected and strengths honed to perfection. The desire to learn,
to change, can only come from within. The ability to trust someone else, and finally, the
ability to try something out seriously and evaluate whether it is working for oneself, this
is all it takes. .. all, did I say? It is a lot. But if you have it, if you can bring yourself to the
edge, you can take off and fly, and soar to the skies!