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My relationship with my coach developed over time into one that was very comfortable and casual. We developed two main patterns
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of working. One was focused on attacking specific problems and issues. I would describe a situation and possible solutions and use my coach both as a sounding board and as someone to help me work through to an answer. He did a good job making clear that his role was not to tell me what to do, but to help me learn how to use a consistent process to analyze issues and deal with them. The other thing we did together was to work on more project-oriented issues, generally around organizational management issues. For example, when I was restructuring a new business unit and had a list of ten major issues to be dealt with over a number of weeks or months, he was there to help me set up the process, time line, et cetera. He also worked with me on a number of “offsite” meetings over the years where I would be working with my management team, or a particular business unit, on a particular set of issues. Having him actually attend, and even help run some of these meetings, was quite useful both for his expertise and for the inside look it gave him into my issues and my staff.
One thing my coach did not do was to act as a cheerleader for me. I noticed he rarely gave me more than a subdued “good job” when I was telling him about one success or another. I remember realizing this and thinking that a good coach must remain objective. If he were always on my side, like my boss or certain employees, I would not have gotten nearly as much out of the relationship.
I liked it when he would critique me. I rarely received the type of constructive, and instructive, criticism intended to help me improve my skills. I realized that for the first time in my career I had someone who was focused on giving me constructive criticism in order to make me a better executive, and that was his only job. While there were many people who had criticized various aspects of my work over the years, there is a big difference between straight criticism and objective constructive criticism. Most of what I received over the years was simply criticism.
The seminal coaching moment of our relationship was one time a few years into our relationship. My coach and I were having a
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meeting in my office. I received a call I had to take because of some sort of problem. I remember talking the fellow on the phone through a solution for the problem, while my coach sat and watched me “in action.” I hung up the phone very proud of myself for having so quickly and easily solved the problem. Then my coach commented on how I had just solved the problem, rather than having helped the person involved figure it out himself. Ouch! I knew better, even preached this to my own people, but here I was playing the hero as problem solver rather than being a good manager. If I had done some teaching instead, maybe the next time this person would be able to solve the problem on his own.
I still think about that situation often, constantly pushing myself not to provide answers, but to help others find them and, more importantly, to make it a repeatable process. Sitting on my desk is a card that reads, “Don’t Preach, Ask Questions.”
The lessons I took from my coaching relationship have lived on in my new career as a consultant in the financial service industry. While I am hired mainly to help organizations with sales management and product strategy issues, my clients get a “coach” thrown in as part of the relationship. I am particularly careful to focus on helping others learn how to solve their own problems and to teach them to create decision-making processes rather than trying to solve all of their problems.
Charlie's story is a complex one. In this case the client is a sophisticated, successful HR executive who is comfortable asking for and using help. He reached out for a coach at a time of transition in his life.
What led you to use coaching?
I came to a place in my life where I knew I needed to step back and completely evaluate the appropriateness of my life trajectory. I had spent twenty-five years in corporate settings and I knew that yet another corporate setting was not going to offer me the kind of life that I was seeking.
I have always believed that one lives best when one lives dialog-ically. These kinds of journeys are best NOT taken alone. The challenge is to find the right journey partner at the right time to accompany you on through that space.
What had been your history with coaches?
Having spent twenty-five years in human resources consulting and at the top of HR functions for four global companies, I have been both
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a coach and a hirer of coaches. Early on, I was an advocate for coaching in several environments and quite successfully used coaching to help individuals work through developmental moments. Sometimes the coaching was created by a crisis . . . sometimes the coaching was to prepare someone for greater responsibility.