No, you haven’t done anything wrong

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm

Coaching isn’t about correcting; it’s about building on strengths

A new client said something the other day that reminded me that not everyone understands the nature of executive coaching. This client’s company hired me to coach him for six months as he assumed a new position, not an unusual practice these days. Here is his remark: "I’ve been getting nothing but praise from these people for five years, and now they want me to have a coach? What’d I do, suddenly take a bad turn after all those good reviews?"
His reaction was a wake-up call to me. The word "coach" has become a common part of business vocabulary in the past few years. I sleepily assumed everyone understood the concept of the coach/client relationship, so this client’s reaction surprised me. I assured the new client that organizations invest in coaching for an executive when they know he or she has promise. In his case, having a coach in his corner can shorten the time he needs to adjust to increased responsibilities and a whole new set of colleagues.
People in his spot used to be sent off to leadership schools; some still are. What we’re learning, though, is that whereas by attending one of those expensive schools, perhaps one-third of the content will be right on for an executive, and the rest of the stuff he feels competent about already. A coaching program is customized precisely to the client, so nothing is wasted.
This client’s misconceptions about coaching nudged me into writing a synopsis of a typical coaching program. With any client, the beginning entails elicitation of the client’s goals for the program. I will ask, "What will make this experience successful for you?" Especially when a corporation is sponsoring the coaching, I advise the client to be selfish. I tell him this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work one-on-one with a professional coach whose only aim is his success, with the expense borne by the company that employs him.
Whether the client is sponsored by a corporation or hires me on a private basis, everything between us is confidential. I will only accept coaching assignments from a firm if it is understood that I will report back to the firm with the client present, or with the client "signing off" on the feedback that I provide. That is a prerequisite for building the trusting relationship that is needed for the coaching to work.
The beginning stage includes some assessments of the client’s talents, and a measurement of where skill-levels lie compared to the level needed to achieve excellence on his particular job. I may use one or more paper-and-pencil instruments to help pinpoint the skills that need our attention, or highlight the client’s strengths or style of management.
Very often, with the client’s permission, I conduct an informal, verbal 360-degree assessment by interviewing a circle of colleagues. The data from these interviews is "sanitized" so it is anonymous, then given to the client. Together with the client’s own expectations for the coaching, this mirroring from others is woven into a set of goals for the program. Then the client creates actions steps to meet the goals.
The middle segment of the coaching program consists of a lot of action on the part of the client, with guidance from the coach along with resources I might add in to expedite the process.
Typically I meet once weekly with a client, by phone or in person. Between sessions, I am available by phone or e-mail for any questions the client may run into in the course of his work week. In some instances, I "shadow" the client at the workplace, noting his behavior during meetings, with customers, with his own team members. The intent here is to observe nuances and language the client is using that cloud his intent, that lead to misunderstandings. For example, I coached a physician who had become an executive in a large health-care organization, and noted that he closed his eyes when answering questions from his staff. The staff interpreted that behavior as arrogance. When I told the client about my observations, he said, "Oh, I hate it when people do that!" He had no idea.
Toward the end of the coaching program, I may again interview the original "circle" of colleagues to assess the changes they have observed in the client’s behavior. I have found that the client’s boss, peers, family members and direct reports take seriously their roles in the coaching process and most often become cheerleaders for the client.
The last phase of the coaching process involves celebrating the client’s achievements and reinforcing his confidence in using the new behaviors. Clients are always invited to re-engage for a "tune-up" or call me at any time if faced with a new challenge. As you might imagine, our relationship becomes strong during this process. I love my clients. I am energized by the work, whoop out loud at my clients’ successes, and never forget that it is a privilege indeed to be connected so closely to the thoughts, dreams and emotional make-up of a rising star.

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Milwaukee, and can
be reached at
414-271-5848 or The firm’s Web site is www.hawkins Hawkins Donovan will respond to your questions in this column. Her column appears in every other issue of SBT.

June 7, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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