After completing an eight month leadership coaching certificate program at Georgetown University, I remain with the question “what is coaching?” All of my clients want to know, and the answer is not so simple. The definition of coaching often gets muddled into mentorship (showing the path another has walked), consulting (telling you what to do) or therapy (fixing problems). A growing body of literature shows that coaching provides a healthy return on investment. Clients move forward with more clarity, interact more smoothly with stakeholders, and produce more for their organizations. At this point, the big four consultancies all integrate coaching for rising leadership to spark growth and increase retention. So what is leadership coaching?
As you huddle in the fog, your mountain guide is your leadership coach. A good guide will do the following five things to help you succeed: bring clarity, facilitate good decisions, balance challenge and support, provide calm and presence in the face of adversity, and offer tools to move you forward.
1. Coaching is all about asking good questions to help a client find meaning. The right questions lead to the right answers. Much like a guide might steer away from unseen cliffs or find cairns that mark the climbers trail, coaches employ curious, direct questions to partner with clients in finding the solutions that uniquely work in their situation. Imagine the joy your group feels moving through the clouds revealing the path you intend to take through crisp clean mountain air!
2. Some of the best coaching I have received was as simple as asking what a particular decision looks like. “Tell me more.” Verbalizing the expected consequences to another human made my path suddenly clear. Leaders constantly make decisions. They must navigate the unknown and usually accept responsibility for the consequences (good or bad). Having a partner in a coach to cut through the indecision and extraneous data allows confidence and serenity in decision making. Just as a guide helps a client decide on a path, whether to push on or not, when to take a break, when to accept objective hazards such as avalanches or rock fall, a coach becomes immensely helpful in navigating choices as a leader.
3. Twelve hours into a twenty six hour climb, I am often unsure why I am in the mountains. I struggle to remember to cherish the journey and that the summit will be amazing. Guides must balance challenging clients to reach a successful summit and realistically turning around when conditions are not right or downright unsafe. Guides belay and set up safety systems to keep clients alive, and at the same time push clients to go far beyond comfort zones. Great coaches will push leaders to attain far greater success than they imagined, while simultaneously offering support and assisting clients to find meaningful support elsewhere in their lives.
4. When an avalanche rockets down near a climbing group or a rock narrowly misses a rope team, guides exude calm. A guide who loses his or her cool in dangerous situations will inevitably cause clients to do the same. Leaders face stress and dangers daily, and people take their emotional cues from the leader. Having a coach to help center, focus and maintain presence under stress allows a leader to face challenges with poise and facilitate high functioning teams under pressure. Coaches constantly train in and learn new ways to calm the mind and promote equanimity. Like a guide managing emergency situations, a leadership coach helps you be your best under pressure.
5. Coaches rarely give unsolicited advice. We believe clients are amazing in their capacity to solve their problems, and we support them to find and own the solution that works best. That being said we study leadership and observe countless other leaders work through similar problems. Many of us have a great deal of personal experience leading and we know systems, theories and methods that have been tried and found true. Like a good guide who applies the right belay system to surmount a frozen waterfall, we can offer insights and thoughts to help leaders reach success. When you simply don’t have the answer or when you need something concrete to ground your progress, ask your coach for a hand!
People hire mountain guides to make dangerous, even impossible climbs a possibility and to make otherwise miserable summit attempts approachable, safe and fun! Leaders seek coaches to do much the same thing. Of course leaders are capable, coaches assume they have the answers after all. Still, when a climber seeks to climb a big mountain, he or she has a choice. Climbers can spend a decade learning skills, systems and the mindset to attain their goal, or they can ask a guide to help them along the way over a long weekend. Great leaders will inevitably figure out how to attain success, and a relationship with a great coach makes that journey to success faster, more fun and more fruitful.