6 Steps to a Supercharged Coaching Relationship

Feb 16, 2013

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

A great coaching relationship is a blessing. Whether you need to work on your strategic thinking or your delegation skills; whether you need to learn to say no (or yes); whether it’s learning to work collegially or communicate better, there’s no substitute for learning from someone who has not only been-there-done-that, but is also a gifted teacher and mentor.

Problem is, many – if not most – coaching relationships don’t work out that way. Instead, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the coaching sessions seem tired and rote, the work you’re asked to do between sessions feels artificial or irrelevant, and eventually you find yourself rescheduling the sessions more often that not.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Here are 6 tips to supercharging a leadership coaching relationship:

1. Go outside your industry

Unless you’re looking for specific functional-skills based coaching (on how to be a better chemical engineer, or how to improve your legal drafting skills, for example), resist the temptation to hire an industry insider as your leadership coach.

Why? Because although you’ll share the same vocabulary and knowledge of the industry, you’ll also share the same legacy thinking, bring the same pre-suppositions to the table, and likely make the same category errors.

Yes, it can be more comfortable working with a leadership coach who knows your industry well, but being in a comfort zone isn’t what you’re looking for (or shouldn’t be) in a leadership coaching relationship – you want someone who will challenge all aspects your leadership thinking – including those shaped by so-called industry norms.

2. Commit for 6-12 months

It’s hard to achieve real behavioral change in less than 6 months, and – unless you know each other well – unfair on both parties to contract for longer than 12.

Commit to an initial time frame within those boundaries, and be prepared to stick with it through the inevitable dip in months two and three, when the initial excitement of a new relationship has worn off and the results you’re looking for are only beginning to appear.

3. Be clear and honest on your reasons and priorities

This may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but take time to write out the specific reason(s) you’re engaging with a leadership coach, and what you want out of the relationship. Share those motivations and priorities with your coach up front – don’t make them guess what you want out of the coaching relationship.

As with anything, the more specific you are about your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them. Start with a vague notion that you’d like to improve as a leader, and that’s all you’ll likely get at the end – a vague notion that you improved as a leader.

4. Drive the agenda in a committed and open manner

Once the relationship is up and running, don’t turn up assuming that your leadership coach will have the coaching sessions structured for you.

Some will, and some won’t – it depends on their coaching style – but either way, your coach’s structure is only a canvas for you to paint on. Arrive with a clear understanding of what you’ve worked on since last you met, what you achieved by doing so, what you want to discuss during this session, and any insights or observations you think would be helpful to share. Show up, engage, be honest, and trust the process.

5. Insist on accountability

Here’s the dirty little secret of leadership coaching: 90% of the work (and 100% of the results) is achieved by you, the coachee.

So what does a leadership coach bring to the table? Mostly, it’s accountability: being held to account while you work on a behavior, an approach or an attitude you know is sub-optimal, but which you also know that you won’t stay focussed on, if left to your own devices.

Agree with your coach up front to hold you strictly accountable for the commitments you make during the coaching relationship, and build an accountability discussion into every session.

6. Measure success by behavioral change

There’s only one way to measure the success of a leadership coaching relationship: observable behavioral change.

The number of sessions you had, the amount of work you put in – even the degree of pain you felt as you were pulled outside your comfort zone – are all useful metrics, but they don’t in themselves measure whether or not the coaching relationship was a success.

Go back to the reasons and priorities you wrote out in point 3. In the end, achieving real, measurable change in those areas is all that matters. I personally use a ‘quickpoll’ – a short, fast, easy to complete, mini-360 assessment to measure the coachees behavioral development at the end of the coaching period, but whether you use something similar, or simply speak with a number of your peers to get their feedback, check that demonstrable behavioral change has occurred – otherwise the entire point of the coaching relationship has been missed.