Great Expectations: It’s the Secret to Coaching

Great Expectations It’s the secret to coaching.

By Gregg Thompson

The late Boyd Clarke, co-author of The Leader’s Voice, was a kind and generous man who treated everyone he encountered with dignity and respect. He was a wonderful friend. He could also be a royal pain in the butt. Conversations with Boyd were often challenging. When Boyd looked at you, he didn’t see you as you were but rather as you could be. This was quite disconcerting. Boyd had the knack of looking past your imperfections and shortcomings, seeing only a wealth of natural talent and countless opportunities ahead. Boyd had great expectations of others. He was a coach!

Boyd was fond of saying, “Our job is simply to help others become the best version of themselves.” Is this not the quest of all of us who seek to coach?

We do not automatically assume the mantle of coach when we become managers. Management is an assignment; coaching is a choice. In fact, it is two choices. The one we make to be coach-like and the one someone else makes to welcome us into the coaching relationship. Through my work as an executive leadership coach and my research into coaching within organizations, I have discovered that there is no perfect formula, no step-by-step process which results in exceptional coaching.

Three Principles I find, however, that great coaching relationships are based upon the principles Boyd employed in his relationships: appreciation; confrontation; and accountability.

1. Appreciation. Notable thinkers in the arena of Appreciative Inquiry such as David Cooperrider have advanced the theory that organizations change in the direction of inquiry. In other words, rather than focusing on flaws and shortcomings, if you seek out and identify the best traits of an organization, you will propagate more of these traits. So too with individuals. The effective leader coach is skilled at recognizing and promoting the natural talents of others. (In fact, we refer to the person being coached as the Talent to reinforce this idea.) This was one of the first things I noticed about Boyd when we met at graduate school. Many of the talents and abilities he noticed in me caught me off guard –they were things I had either never considered or had intentionally ignored –but I found myself liking the way I looked in his eyes and I wanted to see more of myself this way.

2. Confrontation. Boyd was a warm and gentle person but not one to be taken lightly. In fact, it was often quite painful to be in his presence. He would say anything if he thought it to be true. (How many real truth-tellers do we have today?) Boyd didn’t just see the greatness in others; he confronted them with it. A conversation with Boyd could be quite unnerving. Why? Because you could not unring the bell. The genie was out of the bottle. Once your talents and your potential were named, they were out there, and it was up to you to deal with the information. Aspirations and dreams that seemed too big, that I had worked for years to ignore, were back, and louder than ever, and the only choice I was left with was to acknowledge them, and to act.

3. Accountability. Occasionally I would find myself avoiding Boyd. If I had committed to making some kind of change in my management, my leadership, or my performance and had not followed through, I would usually steer clear of him. Boyd was not the kind of person to let you slide by on anything but your very best. He would hold you accountable, not to his standards but to your own. In my own coaching practice, I try to follow Boyd’s example. As presumptuous as it may sound, I hold the Talent I coach accountable for the commitments they make in our sessions. These are senior, very successful executives who are seeking to significantly increase their leadership effectiveness. This kind of change does not come easy and does not happen without the executive being accountable to someone. That person is frequently their coach.

Coaching is becoming popular because it works. When a person receives high quality, one-on-one coaching, there is often an increase in their performance. Sadly, there is a chronic undersupply of great coaches. We have found that managers who are asked to coach their constituents are often woefully unprepared for this task. They possess all of the basic interpersonal and management skills needed for their supervisory role but find that these are insufficient to facilitate sustained performance improvement in those they lead. Often, they fall back on the comfortable rituals of giving advice and telling war stories –the two practices we find most commonly confused with coaching. It is not because these managers lack the desire or the ability to become forces for positive change in the working lives of the Talent. They are simply in need of a better understanding of what great coaching is, and how they can practice it.

Being a great coach is not like being part of a secret society whose doors are open only to external professionals. Coaching effectiveness is achievable by anyone who has the selfless desire, in the moment of the conversation, to direct all of their abilities and expertise into the service of the Talent. Coaching effectiveness can be developed. I see it every day with my clients. To do so, leaders must move beyond basic supervisory skills and performance management processes into a different way of being. Coaching is not simply about doing more of the same. It is about becoming a person like Boyd, who refused to see others as anything other than their absolute best, confronted them with the greatness he saw in them, and held them accountable for living up to that greatness.

I’ve asked thousands of managers: “What are the qualities and behaviors of those individuals who have the greatest impact on your performance and career?” Responses include: “She saw something in me that I could not yet see in myself,” “He challenged me to step up to a bigger game,” “She held me accountable to a higher standard.” These responses describe perfectly the coach-like leader who really makes a difference in the performance and careers of others.

Are you this kind of a leader? Are you a true leader coach? Do you insist on seeing the best in others? Do you challenge them to live up to their own high standards? Do you hold them accountable for outstanding performance everyday of their working lives? And perhaps the thorniest question of all: If the people in your organization were asked to identify their greatest coach, would your name be on their lips?