Challenge in coaching

Over the last couple of months I’ve noticed an interesting theme as I’ve met new coaching clients. Increasingly they are asking for a coach who will challenge them, not just provide a ‘listening ear’.   I’m always pleased to hear this request, because it matches my own coaching style, however I’m curious about why I seem to be hearing it more now.

Perhaps there’s a growing realization that growth and improved performance come by getting out of the comfort zone. This is the obvious analogy from sport, where ‘putting in the hard yards’ and ‘no pain, no gain’ define the stereotype of athletic endeavor. In some cases I know that it’s because of dissatisfaction with a purely non-directive coaching approach that has not provided the rigor to hold people to account.   And I wonder too whether it’s because people aren’t getting the necessary challenge from their line managers. In today’s stretched businesses there are many demands on a manager’s time and, sadly, one of the first things to drop off the list is providing close attention to team members – especially when it’s assumed that a senior leader is independent and doesn’t need support and challenge.

Whatever the reason, and I’m sure there are others I’ve not considered here, the desire for greater challenge deserves attention because it is carries some risk. Executive coaching is a powerful intervention when it enables a leader to develop new resources, to expand their choices and to respond more creatively to business challenges.   Personal accountability lies at the heart of coaching, and there’s a dynamic balance between the coach and the client driving the learning process.   Yes, a coach can (and I believe should) challenge by asking direct questions, by providing insightful feedback, and by holding a client to account when they have said they will experiment with a change in their behavior. But the motive force for change needs to come primarily from the client not the coach. If the coach is solely driving the change, however positive the intent, then we risk creating dependence and distorting the client’s growth. The agenda can slip to become the coach’s not the client’s.

So, by all means bring on greater challenge in executive coaching. However let’s do it in a way that enhances the client’s self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.

Jonathan Males

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