No consensus exists on which behavioral attributes are most important for executive coaching. However, there is little question that possession of certain behavioral attributes, when present, will enhance the effectiveness of coaching. I will comment on three attributes that I believe are critical for anyone thinking of becoming an executive coach. They are emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself into another person’s situation, and intuitive thinking.
Much has been written in the last decade about Emotional Intelligence, often abbreviated as “EI.” The key components of EI related to coaching are self-awareness, self-control, and the ability to relate to others. Let me explain why these are important.
Self-examination is not limited to coachees. Every coach has a balance sheet of assets and liabilities. Awareness and understanding of one’s balance sheet allows the coach to manage the coaching relationship. Every coaching relationship is different, and the coach must be aware of how to deal with these differences.
The urge to project or impose the coach’s values or biases on the coachee needs to be controlled. Unless the coachee’s values or goals are the problem, coaches need to work within the guidelines of the coachee’s values and goals. While it is natural for a coach to want to help a coachee, restraint is needed to keep from offering solutions. Having the coachee do the heavy lifting is an essential part of the coaching process.
I have commented many times about the importance of the coaching relationship. A coach needs to establish rapport and earn the trust and confidence of the coachee. A coach must also be able to empathize with the coachee. This will allow the coach to understand the coachee’s thought process and provide the insights needed to develop change.
A coach needs to be in the moment, totally in touch with what is going on in the coaching process. Continuous monitoring of the verbal and non-verbal responses of the coachee will allow the coach to help the coachee create a balance sheet of assets and liabilities, identify gaps between desired goals and current behavior, and create plans on how to change behavior. Not everyone is capable of immersing oneself in another person’s problems and differentiating one’s own needs from those of the coachee.
It took me years to realize that success in teaching needs to be measured not by how the teacher performs but how the student performs. The same applies to coaching. I needed to come to terms with how I judged my success. Early in my coaching career, I allowed my own biases to dictate how I engaged with coachees. Today, I use staying within the coaching process and improvement in coachee performance as measures of internal and external success.
Coaches are investigators. They search for clues and integrate them to form hypotheses. These hypotheses are tested by asking probing questions with the intention of finding the core problem that needs to be addressed. I strongly believe that coaching is most effective when the coach thinks intuitively. By this, I mean a coach must work with many unknowns. By asking questions that clarify the challenges confronting a coachee, the coach is able to better understand the coachee. The ability to ask good questions, knowing when to probe deeper, and piecing the clues together is an intuitive process. For people who need more detail and more certainty, coaching will become cumbersome for both coach and coachee. Coaches are continually creating new algorithms. The “Zen” of coaching does not lend itself to highly structured or predictive formulas.
I have worked with many executives and students who wanted to become executive coaches. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to their success was the need to prepare questions in advance. They were afraid of not knowing what to ask the coachee. They also wanted to control the coaching relationship by guiding the coachee toward their solution, without regard to whether or not it was the best solution for the coachee. It takes a great deal of confidence and discipline to be able to rely on one’s intuitive skills to guide the coachee toward self-improvement.
It was not my purpose to identify all of the behavioral skills that lead to successful coaching. My book Executive Coaching and the Process of Change discusses many more behavioral attributes that affect coaching. If I were asked to name three of the most important personal attributes that a coach should have, they would be emotional intelligence, the ability to immerse oneself in another person’s challenges, and the ability to ask probing questions and use intuition to piece together the clues presented by the coachee.