Oct 112008

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

My approach to leadership coaching is fundamentally different from the way I approach either executive or organizational coaching. The principle reason relates to the nature of the client. Executive coaching focuses on the client within the context of the organization – organizational coaching focuses on the organization as a whole. In both cases, the definition of the client includes both the individual and the organization. In each of these cases, funding for the engagement typically comes from the organization – and, ethically, that obligates me to the company as well as the individual. However, with leadership coaching, the individual is the client. Most of my leadership engagements are funded by the individual and the long-term goals that are set for the engagement focus on the improvement of leadership skills of that individual – independent of whether they are looking to stay with their current company or move on to greener pastures.

Many consultants confuse the definition of the client with the individual being coached and the results of that confusion can have negative effects. The good rule is that the source of funds for the engagement has the priority position in the engagement and, in that role, gets a senior voice in establishing the goals and milestones that drive it – and in determining whether the funds have been well spent.

For me, leadership coaching focuses on improving the skills of the client independent of the benefits that might be received by the company they are working for. Many of my clients end up realizing that improved leadership skills do not, per force, give them an avenue for promotion within that company. Others simply see the coaching as a way to open other doors.

My first step in most leadership coaching engagements is to run a leadership assessment for the client. I have found this very helpful for a number of reasons. It is quick, relatively painless and inexpensive. One of the most important results of the assessment is that it allows us to establish a baseline definition – based on the clients understanding of the role, skills and importance of a leader. Many times, it unearths serious misunderstandings of what constitutes a good leader. Here are some of the most frequently occurring errors:

  • Leaders get to throw tantrums: I call this the ‘I wanna be a leader’ syndrome. Many clients start with the assumption that they should be a leader and are driven to become one because they want to be a leader.
  • Messianic leadership: I have had clients tell me that they deserve to be considered a leader because they have a special insight into the way things should be done or that they have the ‘gift of vision’.
  • Type-A personalities: One of the most corrosive attributes that any person can bring to the role of leader is the ‘I’m the big dog, so I get to say’ syndrome. In my experience, type-A types are generally insensitive bullies that do far more harm than good and, because of that, are not easily trusted by others.
  • Hubris: One client told me that he was the leader because it was his company. This was an interesting formulation because his team and the investor group finally disagreed with him so strongly that he was forced out. The presumption of superiority because of position is a heavily counterproductive attitude in a ‘leader in waiting’.
  • Presumptuousness: There are two variations of this syndrome. The first I refer to as the ‘of course’ approach to leadership. The second is the ‘its my turn approach’. Both approaches make it very difficult for anyone to establish himself or herself in a stable leadership position.

The essence of leadership coaching is in the frank and open assessment of leadership skills and the development and implementation of a pro-active plan to improve them. Sometimes the first six or seven sessions of that plan focus on evolving a new and more useful definition of leadership. They always involve developing an improved self-knowledge on the part of the client. These advances are possible only if the coaching relationship involves a lot of trust and mutual respect. Many of my conversations with clients are very direct and touch on issues that are sensitive and close to their treasured self-image. Without that trust and respect, they will go off the track. However, there is a secondary benefit of these conversations. In the coaching relationship, I am acting as a leader and demonstrating leadership skills. The client gets to see how it is done. My ability to lead in this way is not rooted in my coaching skills but arises out of the fact that I have successfully build six companies – I have been there on the front lines and honed those skills repeatedly. In a real sense, the client gains a mentor as well as a coach.

Leadership coaching by a coach who has never lead – never built and managed a team – never had to test their own skills in the cauldron of corporate growth – is a risky business. It is like hiring a guide who has never been where you are going – only read the map. Leadership is developed over time and with great care and focus. My coaching draws not only on my understanding of what it means to be a leader but also on my experience of having been one multiple times. I have stepped into all the holes listed above and worked my way out – and learned not to make the same mistake repeatedly. I work to help my clients learn more quickly what it took me too long to learn.

© Dr Earl R Smith II



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