My name is Sari van Poelje, I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. In Intact Academy, we train up coaches from beginners to advanced, from executive coach to team coach to business coach. In Team Agility, I help businesses innovate more quickly than the products to accelerate time to market.
This is a series about executive coaching. We talked about definitions and levels and what steps you take within an executive coaching process. And now I just want to take you through each step one at a time. This first step is called the context step.
Usually, people call me up, they email me, they’ve seen me speak at conferences, they’ve read my articles, they’ve seen my vlogs, or I’ve given guest training somewhere, or most probably, between executives they’ve heard each other speak about which coach they have. So I am the secret weapon of a lot of executives.
From the moment an executive contacts me to be coached I am in some form of contract or alliance with them. Let’s say they’ve heard someone else speak about me and they call me: Hi, Jim, has talked about you. I’m looking for an executive coach, are you willing to work with me? I always ask to see them live the first time.
Sometimes they make the appointment, sometimes their secretary does it, which is a complication in your executive coaching relationship, which I’ll talk about later. Then we meet or they call. Nowadays, you can google them or LinkedIn, so I look at their profile before they call, because the more you know, the better it is. I look at their company, at their own profile, at some of their blogs to get some sense of who they are. Then they call me and they give me a story.
Every client comes with a story.
As a coach or an executive coach, you must know that every story is true, but it’s not necessarily what you need to work on with them. Because clients tend to come with something that’s in their conscious world. So they will say something like, I want to become a better leader, which is great, but it’s not something that will be enough to work on in executive coaching.
The push & pull of Executive Coaching
I have a very deep belief and experience that people only change if there’s a push and a pull factor. So clients usually call me up with a pull factor and that pull factor is their ambition. They will say I want to become a better this or that or I want to change the world. What they don’t talk about usually in this first contact phase is their push factor, which is the pain. But unless you have both the pull and the push, the chances are the change that you will help to make is not sustainable.
Listen for the silences & patterns
From that first moment of contact I’m listening for silences, what they do not talk about. I’m listening for patterns. How do they talk about the things that they’re experiencing? Is there some underlying pattern in that?
For instance, I’ve got a client now who every time he talks about what’s going on in his life, it’s someone else’s fault. This defensive pattern of blaming other people (I’m not judging it) is something that you have to listen for. He will never change until he accepts his sense of being responsible for his own life. But there could be many reasons that this man is not accepting that. Maybe he had too much responsibility as a kid and it’s weighing very heavily on him, so he is now so over responsible that he’s not accepting responsibility anymore.
Establish a working alliance
During the contact phase I want to establish a working alliance from the first get go. I don’t want to become a pawn in their usual story. I want, at the deepest level, to know them to know that I am powerful enough to deal with their demons. And empathetic enough to make friends with their most vulnerable part. And this mixture of being really powerful and really emphatic is what you have to do from the first moment.
Specifically with executives, in that moment of contact I speak very clearly about expectation. Have they ever been in coaching before? Was it a good or bad experience? How do they want this to be different? I give them information, about how I coach, what the structure is (10 times 55 minutes). I give them a very clear idea of what their responsibilities are and what my responsibilities are. I give them a sense of reliability by making realistic commitments.
Sometimes I say no to the things that they ask, and then they’re surprised, but it gives us a sense of trust. So if someone says, I have a problem with someone and I want you to help me get rid of them. I would probably say, I can help you have a conversation with this person. But the responsibility, if you keep them or fire them is yours as a leader, that’s not something that’s my role. So I’m quite clear from the get go what they can expect of me. And I tried to create a sense of reliability.
I am very clear about where my competence lies. So, this also gives a sense of trust. I am not a therapist, though, executive coaching can have a therapeutic effect. I’m not there as a consultant, even though I am a consultant. I’m there to support them in their role as executives. I give them examples of what I do and don’t do. From the moment you’re in contact in executive coaching I say, This is what I can do, these are my limits, it gives them a sense of security, but also of competence.
In this first contact the idea of compassion is I am not attached but fully committed. So that means that I’m not attached to the result of the executive coaching, it’s not me who has to get the result. It’s my client. So I can lead them to the door, but they have to go through it. I’m completely committed to helping them get to that door. But the choice is always theirs. And sometimes, when people realise the consequences of what they’re asking for, they actually choose not to do it. And that’s also fine. It doesn’t reflect on me, it’s their choice, always.
So being completely committed, but not attached is really important to have from the moment you step into contact. I’m also very clear from that moment, that it’s a contractual relationship, that it’s bound in time, in money and emotions. So I am not their friend. In some ways, I’m worse than a friend, but I’m also better than a friend because I can listen to the same story 100 times, and I will still be fully present, every time they say it. I don’t think you can expect that of your friends.
On the other side I’m not as emotionally attached to my client as I hope their friends are. That gives me a unique perspective, because in the moment of contact, I’m completely intimate. This intimacy is really special within the executive coaching relationship. But as soon as they’re finished with coaching, they go home and I do to.. And I hope they experience a different kind of intimacy than with me at home.
So, the first step in executive coaching is contact. And within that contact, the important thing is being fully committed, but not attached to the outcome. Be clear about your expectations, about where you’re competent, and where you’re not. And be very compassionate, but also reliable.
The question for you is: how do you set up contact? Do you allow your client space to make contact with you instead of immediately sticking out your hand in over enthusiasm? How do you set your expectations? How do you set your boundaries?