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What is the number one rule of executive coaching?

A question that I commonly get asked is:

"Rob, as an executive coach, what is the hardest behaviour or skill to coach or help others to develop?"

The answer is that it depends, or rather that there isn't one behaviour or skill because it comes down to how committed the person is to change.

I like to turn the question around and reframe it as

"Why are some people coachable and others not?"

I double click and delve into this space to gain an early assessment of whether someone is ready to be coached from the very first meeting with prospective clients (during the meeting or call commonly referred to as the chemistry session) by asking a set of questions. Questions such as:

  • What are the challenges and issues that you are facing? Coaching is about creating change, action and accountability. There needs to be something that you want to change, overcome an obstacle, solve a problem, develop new skills, or take your career to the next level or in another direction.

  • What is the ideal situation for you? If there were no challenges and no obstacles, where would your goals take you?

  • What have you tried before that hasn't worked?

  • What is at stake if nothing changes, and what is it that makes this important right now?

As Atul Gawande, the surgeon and author (The Checklist Manifesto), said in his 2017 Ted talk, "Want to get great at something? Get a coach." that has over 3 million views,

"It's not how good you are now; it's how good you're going to be that really matters."

The real value of coaching is conditional on the value of your goal. With this in mind, someone might benefit from a coach to:

  • Obtain new perspectives on a problem they have been struggling with.

  • Enhance their performance and impact to become a more effective leader.

  • Make a positive impact in a new role and quickly establish credibility.

  • Analyse and evaluate issues and resulting strategic options to improve decision-making.

  • Work with an independent and confidential sounding board.

Back to basics - what is coaching?

Coaching is about creating change in your life. If there is no desire to change, then no need for a coach. The change might be something big, something the whole world can see, or minor adjustments that most won't notice, and only those closest to you will appreciate.

Some changes may be immediate, and others will happen over the long term, as coaching shifts your trajectory by small degrees. The aim is for enduing positive, lasting change.

Coaching is about creating change, action and accountability.

So what do the admired experts in the field of executive coaching say?

One of the most widely respected and successful executive coaches is Marshall Goldsmith, author of "What got you here, won't get you there." And do you want to know one of his secrets?

Client selection.

He "...chooses to only work with clients who have an extremely high potential of succeeding." Marshall only works with executives that he deems are coachable - those who acknowledge the need to change how they behave.

Mr "Trillion Dollar Coach" - Bill Campbell only coached the coachable. The traits that make a person coachable include honesty, humility, the willingness to persevere and work hard, and a constant openness to learning.

Last but not least, Paolo Gallo (Author and Executive Coach) has a rule #1 for coaching, which is to "Never ever try to solve a problem for someone who doesn't think he or she has one."

The common element is that coachable people acknowledge that they can do better and desire to learn and improve while recognising that they need help as they don't have all the answers.

Why are some people coachable and other people not?

My experience is the following:

Some people like themselves too much. They are not open to making change because they like the outcomes they are getting. They have been very successful. When they look in the mirror, they like what they see. By the way, these sorts of people are often not open to feedback, so they get most of their advice and feedback from their internal narrative - (Why feedback is the best way to improve your performance at almost anything). They are comfortable with the kinds of responses and reactions they get from their peers, teams and bosses.

So their response to working with an executive coach is "sure", "yeah", "absolutely", but they will only flirt with making change but won't be committed to it. They are good enough. The reality is that some people have been rewarded well for doing the wrong things during their career. They draw the wrong lessons from good outcomes. They think their harsh, abrasive, belligerent approach is what drives high performance from those around them. Whereas their success often will be despite those behaviours. If they adopted different behaviours and varied their leadership styles (visionary, democratic, affiliative and coaching - How to motivate and get the best results from your teams) depending on the situational context, they would get even more from their teams.

But this cohort of people is not ready to give it up because they have been successful so far and think their trajectory will continue if they continue to do the same things.

This path, only having one approach - coercive or pace setting isn't necessarily sustainable in the long run for themselves and their teams.

Those sorts of people don't necessarily lack self-awareness (Self-awareness: the key to being a more impactful and successful leader). They are happy with the outcomes and reactions they get from their current behaviours and so are not ready, not committed to change.

In my executive coaching work, I often help my clients to assess their talent. I help them to become better coaching leaders for their people. As already mentioned, I also evaluate before I begin a coaching engagement to see whether a prospective client is coachable. Here are seven traits and signs that someone may not be.

Common traits and signs that someone may be uncoachable

To be clear - each of these traits represents a point on a continuum. It is rarely, if ever, binary. Ask these questions to help determine whether someone is coachable:

  • They keep putting it off, rescheduling or finding other higher priority things to fill their schedule. Do they always find something else more important to focus on?

  • They don't think they have a problem, are defensive and highly sensitive to feedback. Do they tune out when they receive feedback? Are they curious about themselves?

  • They think everyone else is the problem. Are they willing to take personal accountability?

  • They are looking for the easy way out - the hacks and shortcuts. Change is hard work that requires time, energy, motivation and experimentation. Are they willing to invest time, effort and emotions and put in the hard work that change often needs?

  • They are not interested in continuous learning and development and may be unwilling to try different things - to experiment. Coaching often requires trying out new methods and tools. Do they regularly seek out new knowledge or methodologies to improve at work?

  • They are not open to new ways of looking at a situation, seeking alternative views and putting themselves in other people's shoes to appreciate different perspectives. Do they try to understand different points of view?

  • They are unwilling to be vulnerable - to truly shift behaviours and develop relationships requires humility and vulnerability. Is the person secure enough to admit when they are wrong? Do they ask for help?

A person displaying a high number of the above traits means they most probably won't be coachable right now. But they may be coachable in the future. Timing can be an essential factor in coaching.

If you would like to double click to delve in further, then check out the following articles:


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