Glenn had no problem asking for support.  As CEO of a financial services firm, he was accustomed to asking people to do things for him. So I wasn’t surprised when he asked me to provide him with executive leadership coaching. But I was surprised at how challenging our relationship would become.

There’s a saying among coaches that ‘you are only as good as your clients.’ This is overly simplistic. In reality, a coach is only as good as their client is coachable. ‘Receiving coaching,’ like ‘providing coaching’ is a skill, and both require disciplined practice. A good coach ensures that this skill is developed in their coachee.  It is the same for leaders coaching direct reports: A good coachee is as essential as a good coach.

At first Glenn appeared the model client.  Prior to each meeting, his secretary requested from me an agenda. During meetings, Glenn was engaged, and eager to be provided with articles to read, workshops to attend, and other action steps for his development. He was quick to ask for advice, and took notes to ensure he could execute his action steps accurately.

But after a few months, I recognized a pattern in Glenn’s behavior. He started every meeting by reviewing and accepting my agenda. When I asked provocative questions, he frequently countered with “I don’t know” or a good natured “that’s what I hired you for…what would you recommend?” Too often, I took the bait and obediently made suggestions.  He then acted on my advice with the same efficiency as every other item on his “to do” list.

Our coaching relationship produced a lot of activity, but very little change in his leadership effectiveness.

Like many leaders, Glenn operated from the mindset of an expert.  Experts advise, instruct and provide answers. I realized that when he hired me as a coach, in his mind he was hiring someone like him, an advisor.  He was playing the role of coachee the only way he knew how, to be advised.

Coaches don’t advise. They listen. They “eavesdrop” on their clients’ thoughts to help them identify faulty logic or self-limiting assumptions.  Coaches earn their keep by asking questions clients don’t ask themselves. Profound improvement is reached when clients’ mental constraints give way to new ways of thinking and acting.

Ground rules for coachability

With Glenn, I temporarily fell off track as a coach. I hadn’t taught him to be coachable.  In our next meeting I disclosed my insight. That’s when we both realized that his mindset, and my coaching, needed to change for him to improve his leadership effectiveness.

So we recalibrated, and I set some ground rules that I now review with all new clients.  I also encourage leaders to use the same ground rules when coaching their own people:

1)     “I don’t know” is not an acceptable response. I’ll rarely ask you a question with an easy answer.  Expressing a point of view without having to know the answer is the source of insight. Responses reveal gaps in knowledge that can be filled, assumptions that can be corrected, and insecurities that can be bolstered.

2)     You own the agenda.  My first question in each session is always, “what do you want out of today’s conversation?” You define the outcome. My role is to help you get what you want, and need.

3)     Celebrate discomfort.   If you are comfortable, you aren’t growing.  My job is to help you go places you wouldn’t go on your own. Comfort zones constrain; discomfort opens new possibilities.

4)     Put your plans into action.  When we meet, we’re in the huddle.  When I leave, you’re in the game. That’s where improvement happens.   Your job is to bring your bruises and victories from the game into our huddle.

A new day

With clear ground rules, Glenn became a new client. He took responsibility for his own learning.  He stopped asking for advice, and instead asked me to challenge his thinking. We collaborated in his development.  He began looking for opportunities to push his comfort zone and try things that previously created discomfort.

In one of our last meetings, Glenn met me at his office door beaming. Yet another discovery:  “I’ve not only become coachable” he said.  “I’ve started coaching my own team using the same ground rules you used with me.  I never realized I could coach someone who was doing a job I’ve never done myself!”

Maybe it is true: we are only as good as our clients.