It is no secret that many coaches — executive and otherwise — struggle. Following are seven critical mistakes we see coaches from other training programs making.
One: They shouldn’t be executive coaches in the first place, but they hang a shingle anyway. It is a privilege to be an executive coach. You earn the right, based on substance, achievements, and experience. This substance can come from many places — academic achievement, organizational leadership, entrepreneurial success — but it has to come from somewhere. Recently the owner of another coach training school called me because a big company wanted to engage him to bring his graduates in to coach some of their leaders. He confessed to me, “My graduates aren’t ready to do this. They are mostly into life coaching and many of them don’t know anything about coaching in the corporate world.” He wanted to partner with me to bring his coaches the substance they need to be on equal footing with executive-level clients. I’m not sure if I, or anyone, can do this, at least not in a short time frame. How can a training program replace the years of experience that successful executive coaches require? Center for Executive Coaching members have great backgrounds, whether as functional or organizational leaders, returning military leaders, scholars who have studied leadership or human performance issues in depth, elite athletes, clinicians, consultants, speakers, non-profit leaders, and public servants. To try to be a serious executive coach without substance is hubris.
On the flip side — and this is happening less and less as the market evolves — many former executives used to hang a shingle advertising their executive coaching practice, despite the fact that they didn’t bother to get any training to learn how to coach. Now that there are established competencies for coaching and clients have clear expectations about what a good coach should bring, these former executives are facing a much tougher road.
ALTERNATIVE: Become an executive coach if you have the achievements and experience to bring value to executive-level clients, whether C-suite, executives, middle managers, front line managers, or high potentials. If you have to ask whether you have what it takes, that’s a red flag. At the same time, if you have great seasoning as a leader, get the right training to make the transition to becoming a successful coach and learning the language and methods. It won’t take long once you land in a program like ours, which gives you a direct path based on what clients want (see the next point) and clear language without fluff.
Two: They don’t start by thinking about the client first. One of our members reminded me of famed football coach Vincent Lombardi’s opening line in a famous speech to his players: “Gentlemen, this is a football….” When we teach executive coaching, we start with the obvious: The client is the reason we are here. Everything we do is about bringing value to the client. As basic and obvious as this seems, you don’t hear this a lot in most coach training. You don’t see it screamed out loud and clear in most coaching competency models. I have sat through coach association meetings for hours and not heard the client referred to or mentioned once. Instead, many coaches focus on the latest fad or model being promoted about how the brain works, or human performance, or the newest intelligence quotient to measure. Those are interesting topics, but too often coaches neglect to tie these things to what clients want and value, and to results. It is a lot like the dot com days when technology companies would say: “We have this really neat technology; now, what is your problem that we can solve with it?” Of course, like many coaches, these technology companies went broke.
ALTERNATIVE: Start with how the client defines results and value. If you can’t work with the client to come up with a solution that can deliver those results and that value in spades, you shouldn’t coach them. Once you figure out the most pressing problems your prospective client has, and show how you can help, things are likely to go well for you.
Three: They charge by the hour. As soon as you charge by the hour, you become a commodity. Plumbers charge by the hour.
ALTERNATIVE: Charge by the engagement, like consultants do, based on the value of your solution. You can do this by embedding value added features, including assessments, metrics and ways to track results,ongoing support, mid-course reviews, and by having methodologies that you bring to the table. Most importantly, you can do this by offering a solution and not treating coaching like it is a task or a feature.
Four: They get stuck marketing only to Human Resource departments of huge companies, offering a few sessions to clients (and back to an hourly rate). If you want to guarantee that you feel like you are on a treadmill for the rest of your working days, target your coaching practice to work exclusive through the HR department of large companies. You will drive yourself crazy with long sales cycles, lots of competitors, difficulty setting yourself apart from the pack, and low fees. Unfortunately, this is where many coaches end up. A simple rule of thumb: It should not take you longer to sell an engagement than it does to deliver it!
ALTERNATIVE: At the Center for Executive Coaching, we teach you how to target companies where you can reach the end user and decision maker. That way, the sales cycle is faster, you have a bigger budget, and you can offer a more customized solution.
Five: They are only coaches. If you are only a coach, you hurt yourself in the market for at least three reasons. First, you are not at the highest strategic level you could be in your relationship with your client. You are not a true strategic advisor but rather a provider with a restricted role. Second, you aren’t offering the full range of solutions to your client that they might want from you in order to get maximum value from you. Most coaches know how to deliver these solutions, which can include: assessments, facilitation, retreats, consulting, training/workshops, organizational development work, and more. Why leave money on the table and your expertise unused? Third, you don’t have as many openings to get your foot in the door with clients. Sometimes a client wants to start working with a professional via a team retreat or a training workshop, not coaching. Why would you want to be unprepared?
ALTERNATIVE: Be more than a coach. Position yourself as a strategic advisor with a number of ways to deliver solutions. Be willing to offer hybrid solutions. That’s what the most successful so-called coaches in the market do.
Six: Fluff, fluff, jargon, and more fluff. Why did a client of mine tell me, “My last coach was an expensive waste of time”? He told me this because that coach came in with his own agenda, and the language he used made no sense to my client. It sounded more like something out of a New Age best seller than something that would ever be relevant in the board room. And then he just asked my client a series of open-ended questions that went nowhere. He fired this coach within a few sessions. Busy executives don’t want fluff — whether of the New Age variety or a bunch of jargon that shows the coach has only superficial knowledge of the latest scientific research.
ALTERNATIVE: The best coaches use direct, simple language to get great results with clients. No gimmicks are needed, although it helps to be trained in the most efficient and effective ways to help clients handle their most pressing leadership challenges. We show you the language that works best to attract clients in the first place, understand their needs so that they see you as credible and want to hire you, and then so that they enjoy working with you and get maximum value.
Seven: Forgetting that you are in two businesses, not just one. Finally, many coaches forget that they are in two businesses. The first is coaching, of course. The second is the business of being in business. Whether you are an internal or external coach, you have to know how to position yourself, attract clients, close engagements, when to write proposals and when not to, and generally how to set up your practice. Many coaches do not put in the time and effort required to succeed in the business of coaching. They would fail in this or any business based on the time they commit. Worse, they don’t show the required resilience, persistence, grit, commitment, determination, get-up-and-go or whatever else you want to call it. If you want to succeed as a coach, you need to know that you have to tend to two businesses: coaching, and the business of attracting and retaining clients in a coaching practice.
ALTERNATIVE: Join a coach training program that covers both the practical, best practices of how to coach and that gives you the support and guidance to set up a practice — whether as an internal or external coach. We guarantee that the Center for Executive Coaching has no match in the business development support that we provide our members. We have hours of online resources and webinars, live webinars, and we review your marketing messages. We are available ongoing to discuss new prospects and clients. For internal coaches we discuss the best way to set up coaching programs and maintain the support of senior leadership. Most other programs give you a few tips, maybe a small booklet, and then they cut you loose.