Greatness is rarely achieved alone—and almost never without guidance. Oprah Winfrey credits much of her success to insight gained from celebrated author and poet Maya Angelou; Bob Dylan sought (and acquired) the feedback, approval, and mentorship of singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie. Even Michelangelo learned at the feet of Bertoldo di Giovanni, himself an apprentice of Renaissance sculptor Donatello.
The point? Coaches are clutch.
When it comes to leadership development, coaches play a significant role in helping their clients grow their skills, achieve their goals, and become more effective and confident leaders. Positive, productive coach-client relationships can yield exceptional results and be extremely rewarding, but they’re not always easy. We asked our practitioner community for some of the most common challenges they face when coaching clients. Here are a few to inspire you in your practice.
Challenge 1: Generic Goals
Shows up as: A leader comes to you with a dilemma of the vague and nebulous kind. “I want to be a better leader,” they may say. Or, “I was just promoted and want to do well as ‘the boss.’”
What to do: Helping a leader find or grow into their own authentic way of leading is the joy and ultimate goal of being a leadership development coach. When your client comes to you with only a general sense of wanting to “do better,” it becomes your job to help them focus.
One way to set measurable, achievable goals is to first identify specific areas in need of development, such as time management, conflict resolution, or communication skills. Encourage your leader to reflect on challenging or difficult situations they’ve experienced and ask questions to help expose the blind spots in their current approach. This will pinpoint characteristics and behaviors around which you can work together to build clearly defined goals and action plans.
To help leaders craft a more specific goal out of the nebulous and complex world they come from can be a challenge. That is why feedback, unbiased and based in statistical significance, is not just good, it’s essential. The coaches we work with will often leverage the Leadership Circle Profile assessment as a starting point to help smooth out the rough edges of those ill-defined goals. After soliciting feedback—and with the data staring them in the face—it becomes much easier for a leader to see where they can increase their Creative competencies and manage their Reactive tendencies.
This work can also serve to clarify your leader’s values and ensure that the plan you build together brings areas of focus, development goals, and action plans into alignment.
Challenge 2: Cocky Clients
Shows up as: Your client seemingly dismisses your attempts to engage, preempts your feedback and ideas, or generally displays overconfidence and/or defensiveness. They may say, “I’m just here because my boss told me to be.” Or, “This whole coaching thing is a racket; I’ve probably read all the same leadership books as you.”
What to do: Whether they’re a seasoned pro with years of success or a new-to-leadership executive with more energy than experience, it can be scary for a leader to admit they don’t have all the answers. Their discomfort and resistance may stem from a concern that they won’t be able to adjust to new ways of thinking, or maybe it’s a certainty that they know what they’re doing and there’s no need for improvement. Most likely, that cockiness is born from a deep-seated fear of being vulnerable.
Therapists will tell you: When a person is faced with a threat to their identity, to the deeply held beliefs they have about their values, personality traits, skills, and abilities, they will react in the same way they would if their life and limb were threatened by a bear attack. They will instantly and subconsciously switch into self-preservation mode—which makes it nearly impossible to hear anything their coach is trying to tell them.
It’s a coach’s job to protect their clients from bears, especially the metaphorical kind. To do this, you must create a safe space, one which includes a cone of confidentiality and an absence of judgment. By cultivating such an environment, you’ll be a true partner with your client, a candid and honest facilitator who can help your leader recognize and embrace their vulnerability. Then, together, you can build a path for growth and accountability.
Challenge 3: Communication Catastrophes
Shows up as: A frustrated leader who is struggling to land their message. This may come out through remarks such as “I can’t seem to get my team motivated,” or “No one listens to me,” or “They just don’t seem to get it.”
What to do: High-level leaders must be equipped to communicate effectively across an organization, not just within a specific team or with a few select colleagues. The fact that most adults communicate on a daily basis—multiple times a day—for a variety of reasons does not guarantee that they do so successfully. So, even if it feels a little basic, a refresher on good communication skills is a good place to start.
Effective Communication 101
- Be an active listener.
Lean forward, make eye contact, and ask lots of questions. Periodically restate what the other person is saying to ensure you understand.
- Know your audience.
The way you communicate, and even your message, may change depending on whom you’re talking to. You wouldn’t send the same text to your boss and as to your spouse; you shouldn’t use the same methods or message to communicate with everyone in your organization.
- Focus your attention.
Especially when communicating in person or face to face, remove or silence distractions (like your phone) and pay close attention to the other person’s nonverbal cues, such as posture, fidgeting, and eye contact.
- Be relevant and concise.
Time is a precious commodity. Don’t waste others’ with communications that include extraneous, unnecessary, or irrelevant information.
No two coach-client relationships are the same, and coaches should expect challenges of every stripe to surface in their work with leaders. Ultimately, the success of your partnership will come down to how well you work together to meet those challenges and devise a way forward.