What on earth is an executive coach anyway?

What on earth is an executive coach anyway?

Have you ever had that experience where someone attempts to explain their job to you and you’re left totally none the wiser?

Example: “We leverage our clients’ non-core assets to ensure maximum market visibility.”

Say what?! I mean frankly I don’t know whether this person works for a niche PR company or something altogether less salubrious. You can tell it’s a sentence that was created and agreed by some kind of committee and then put through the Business Gobbledygook translation machine to make extra sure that absolutely no-one understands it. And yet everybody else seems to nod sagely when they hear it. Presumably because they don’t want anyone to know that they don’t speak Business Gobbledygook!

And as someone who definitely doesn’t speak Business Gobbledygook and isn’t afraid to admit it, I usually have to ask another 3 or 4 questions in situations like this to get to what the person in question actually does. And sometimes I even have to go as far as asking the ‘stalker’ question:

“If I followed you around at work for a day, what would I actually witness you doing?”

And then when I got into the coaching world and found that I had to spend an unexpected amount of time explaining what coaching is, I discovered how easy it is to fall into that very trap. And even the International Coaching Federation, the leading global coaching association, completely fails to avoid it:

“Coaching”, says the ICF, “is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.“

Wow. That really doesn’t help, does it? “Partnering in a creative process” could mean literally anything. And it goes on to expand on this at great length, none of which answers the question clearly as to what actually happens in a coaching session.

“So”, say you, “If I followed you around at work for a day, Nick, what would I actually witness you doing?”

Well I’m glad you asked me that.

The first thing to know is that coaching is a completely confidential and non-judgemental conversation between the coach and the coachee (terrible word, but it’s the best the industry has done so far to distinguish the person being coached).

The agenda for the conversation always belongs to the coachee, who decides in every moment what it is and isn’t useful to talk about. As the coach, I ask powerful open questions and listen with focused attention as the coachee fully explores, articulates and organises their thinking around their most pressing issues, bringing them a level of clarity that is hard to achieve by any other method. And through this exceptional thinking and further questioning from the coach, the coachee designs and commits to the actions that will be most impactful to their situation. And these actions, when taken, accelerate them towards their chosen objectives for the coaching programme.

The coaching conversation taps into people’s natural resourcefulness and inherent problem-solving ability, as opposed to them relying on the external advice which too often lands on infertile ground. Translation: you’re much more likely to follow through on something you came up with yourself, particularly if expertly supported in thinking it through with great focus and rigour.

The ‘executive’ bit in ‘executive coaching’ means simply that I coach business people on business objectives.

Well that all sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? And maybe that’s why people put this stuff through the Business Gobbledygook translation machine, because they’re concerned about how simple our work sounds if we say it in English. And that we won’t come over as grand or special or clever enough. But of course there’s a critical difference between simple and easy. In the case of coaching, whilst the principles of listening, not interrupting and asking exploratory questions are very simple indeed, the marked lack of all of those things in the world around you provides ample evidence that they are far from easy!

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