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The Way I See It…Skills of a Super Coach


Graham Alexander, is often described as a ‘super coach’, having been largely attributed with bringing business coaching to the UK. Here the founder of Europe’s largest coaching company, offers a unique insight into his methodology.

When it comes to developing current and future leaders, the most successful organisations are increasingly turning to executive coaching. In the last 10 years, coaching has become widely recognised as a valuable business tool, enabling executives to hone both professional and personal skills. Coaching at a senior level is particularly demanding, requiring a great deal of flexibility, adaptability and patience. However, motivating people to develop can be extremely rewarding.

A ‘super’ coach works solely with CEOs and as such, the challenges are far-reaching. At a senior level, coachees are seeking a confidante, someone they can ultimately trust and use as a ‘sounding block’. Part of this is providing a safe environment to discuss confidential issues, but also instilling confidence to enable the client to talk about any problem. As a super coach, it is important to ‘give as good as you get,’ most CEOs are idiosyncratic and outwardly confident so need a ‘big personality’ to stand up to them.

But it’s not just a case of building a good relationship. A coach should demonstrate sound business acumen and appreciate how and what it takes to make it to the top level of a UK/international company. Leading on from this, CEOs look for a coach that brings credibility and experience - being able to say you’ve worked at that particular level for a prolonged period of time.

Ultimately, a coach must be prepared to be extremely flexible as the demands on a CEO are extreme. Coaching en route to the airport for example or conducting a session on the telephone in between meetings.

Establishing an open, honest and mature relationship with your client is crucial, but how is this actually achieved? The key to coaching at a senior level is making your client feel valued and similarly ensuring the relationship is of value. The notion of going ‘beyond’ on an everyday level, to push boundaries, supporting your client to impart things they might not normally communicate is essential.

For example, I coached a woman who headed up the legal department for a U.S. based telecommunications firm who had been divorced for many years. She had no children and had dedicated her life to work, but then suddenly she met a man and fell in love. As a successful businesswoman, she worried that a relationship would get in the way of work and was anxious about what a change might mean. She simply needed somebody with whom to share her news. After talking through the situation, she felt free to pursue the partnership.
Once a relationship between coach and client has been established, focus can be placed on addressing specific objectives and developing skill sets. Supporting this is the ‘doing’ domain – which focuses on asking questions, giving suggestions and providing feedback. A successful coach will bring a tool-kit of various frameworks/models providing a different way of considering leadership, for example the GROW model and the ‘Inner Game’ methodology.

Establishing successful relationships and asking pertinent and probing questions are two fundamental dimensions of a good coach, achieving the third dimension can take a coach to a higher level. This third dimension involves an understanding of ‘the business of business,’ having a comprehension and empathy for someone working at the top end of British/global industry.

Securing enough time with each client is always the most difficult challenge; it’s not that CEOs aren’t committed to the coaching relationship, it’s just the demands on their time are exceptional. The only way to deal with this problem is to provide complete flexibility, adapting your schedule to fit theirs. This level of flexibility can only be achieved by being super organised, good time management is absolutely essential, ensuring you are always in the right place at the right time.

I was coaching a top executive of an international accounting firm. An important piece of the puzzle was getting feedback from his boss, so that I could be more effective in our sessions. When I called for a time to discuss this, the assistant said: “I can give you 15 minutes in five weeks time.” I was incredulous and asked: “You’re certain he doesn’t have any time on his calendar before then?”

“There are no other open slots.”

I went back to my client and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m having difficulty getting your assessment completed. Could you put in a call and smooth the way?”

“I can’t get him on the phone either, and he’s my boss,” my client replied.

The situation really became farcical when the assistant phoned the day before my appointed 15-minute slot. “Sorry, but he has to cancel,” she said, barely pausing for a breath. “I’ll print out your email and ask him your questions in my next meeting with him.”

Not even having 15 minutes to spare in five weeks to discuss how to help one of your top executives implies enormous stress on that individual and a maniacal business pace. He’d left no gaps for thinking, no gaps for dealing with the unforeseen. As the leader of the company, this relentlessly task-focused CEO was setting a tone throughout the business, and it wasn’t a good one.
The best way to manage your clients is by staying in regular contact, as well as keeping abreast of news in their industries. Keeping things simple enables adaptability in a job that involves a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty.

On a personal level, I have been coaching for so long now that it suits my own body rhythm. I start work at 5am which enables me to handle a lot of work before communicating with any of my clients, there is a tremendous need for focus.

Another challenge for a coach is knowing and understanding how much to stretch each client and establishing exactly where the boundaries begin and end. For new clients, this may involve explaining exactly how coaching works and how to gain the maximum from the experience, before establishing a relationship. Many coaches focus on telling their clients what to do, whilst it is important to provide advice and feedback, asking probing questions can often prove more effective, for example, people can learn a great deal from their own brilliance.

Building a successful and beneficial relationship with your client is one thing, measuring the results of your work as a coach is another. In increasingly competitive times, companies need tangible ways to measure the value of using an executive coach. One of the most effective ways of doing this is starting the relationship with a set of well-defined objectives. These can be structured by using background materials on the client (pre-existing appraisals, psychometric tests etc), conducting interviews with colleagues.

Once these have been completed, the feedback can be formulated into an agenda with specific objectives. Defining a measurement for success is key – considering exactly how the objectives have/can be achieved.

The more behavioural aspects of performance are more difficult to measure. For example if a client says – ‘I want to be more charismatic’ what does this mean? What would the outcome look like?

Despite these challenges, coaching is a valuable, effective and above all rewarding profession. More and more CEOs are using coaches to develop and improve not only their personal performance, but also the performance of their companies. As coaching becomes more mainstream, it is important that we continue to work at the highest level, the main focus should always be the client – striving to help them work to achieve their objectives - ultimately becoming happier and more fulfilled in their day-to-day lives.


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