Executive coaching and mentorship is an interesting part of modern business, and sometimes people are not prepared for taking advantage of it. Here are some notes on the purpose and value.
So you’re working with a coach to get better at execution… what are you going to say?
As a potential mentee, start with outside boundaries, the Overton window. A corporate coach is not a therapist; the need is to find performance problems and optimize teamwork. More Dave Righetti, less Sigmund Freud. You may uncover reasons to work with a therapist, because leadership work involves you as a person far more than individual contributor work does. Your emotional resources are going to be used when you lead, inspire, console, and support others. The coach is not the person to help with personal maintenance, but they might be able to show you what you need. Fixing those problems is work to do elsewhere.
Within what you’re willing to discuss, locate the secrets. Why don’t you want that opinion known? Is the reason rational and explainable to an outside coach? Is that reason a you problem or an organization problem? Ideally you’re not trying to discuss anything that your team couldn’t already know, and the question is how to be more effective in communicating your thinking, persuading others to agree, or accepting that your opinion didn’t prevail and the team is going elsewhere. If the situation doesn’t look like that, there’s something to fix. Is it you, or is it the organization? Is it reconcilable, or will it end in parting ways? Might as well focus on figuring that out before you bother with unpacking whatever secret has led to this realization.
Now, back to the coach. This person fits into one of three boxes: A mentor who is helping you for charity and their own growth, a coach that your organization paid for, or a coach that you paid for.
Mentors may or may not be encouraged by the organization, and there may or may not be a formal mentorship program; in my opinion those parameters only affect the degree to which the mentor is actually willing and able to help. A mentor who is able to see problems and help you fix them is helpful, regardless of what structure the organization provides or does not provide. Notably, a mentor’s time is limited and you need to aim for efficiency. If you don’t have a specific and achievable improvement goal in mind, you’re not getting mentorship, you’re having coffee with a coworker.
The existence of an organization-paid coach may open some questions: why is this person assigned to me? Are they being hired for others as well, or am I singled out? You may feel like you’re being prepared, for greatness or for unemployment. It’s best to assume this is a positive investment on the organization’s part in order to make you (and potentially others) a better leader. There is little to be gained from indulging in paranoia. However, it is fair to note that a person hired by the organization has loyalty to the organization as well as to you. You should think, and communicate with the coach, about what information you are willing to share. Again, time is limited, but you probably don’t know what the budget is; it’s best to get what you need fast.
A coach that you pay opens a different kind of risk: they are potentially seeing the organization through your eyes alone. Even if they’re able to attend your meetings as your guest, they are always getting a filtered experience. Ideally the fact that you’re paying will help you focus, but that’s not always the case; you should plan for a fixed number of sessions up front and clearly state your immediate and achievable goal.
A good coach will see small and large blockers, and they’ll sound trivially obvious. You may even already know you have these issues. “Discussing the problem and constraints first is good for engineers, but bad for executives; start with your proposal instead of how you got there.” “Don’t cross your arms and look away when you’re asked a question, you look defensive.” It’s not helpful to discuss the existence of the blocker; move on to their recommendation, and sincerely try that recommendation at least three times so you’ll know if it was the right thing.
Bad outcomes can occur in mentorship and coaching, but by far the more common result is an ineffectual series of meetings. If the mentor is unable to provide helpful advice, or if the mentee is unable to act on the provided advice, or if the actual problem is outside of the mentee’s control, then coaching is really only relevant to a future situation where the mentee is hopefully able to use what they learn.