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The 5 biggest executive coaching mistakes to avoid

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During the transition from the C-suite to executive coaching, there are a number of common mistakes that can put a new coach’s career on the back foot.

Highly experienced Vistage Chairs Marty Stowe, Steve Johnson and Kurt Graves learned some lessons the hard way. But with perseverance, their peer advisory groups, and one-to-one coaching endeavours, they found success. Now, they’re sharing their insights in the hopes of easing the way for others.

Here are five of the biggest mistakes they say executive coaches can make.

1. Confusing coaching and consulting

First and foremost, anyone trying to break into executive coaching must understand that it is fundamentally different from consulting work.

In a consulting relationship, a client comes in with a problem they are paying to have solved. In a coaching engagement, a mentee comes with a problem they need help figuring out how to solve for themselves.

Or as Stowe puts it, ‘Consultants answer your questions. Coaches question your answers.’

Moreover, the relationship between a coach and their mentee is far less transactional than a consulting gig. Treating an executive coaching client in the way one would a consulting customer can mar the relationship. That’s because coaching is based on trust, sincerity, and the coach’s desire to help the mentee find their own solutions and become the best leader they can be.

Coaching also requires more of a commitment to a single person. Graves compares how his consulting engagements would end with the completion of a particular job scope, while his coach-mentee relationships are renewed every month and can last for years. ‘It’s completely different,’ he says.

2. Letting ego get in the way

As former CEOs and business leaders, many coaches are used to being in the spotlight. But executive coaching is a form of servant leadership that requires a willingness to cede the stage.

‘Executive coaches are great guides, and they never forget that they are not the hero,’ Stowe says. ‘The client is the hero.’

A coach’s job is to prioritise their mentees’ voices and get comfortable with taking a backseat in a discussion.

‘It’s not the easiest thing in the world to submerge your ego in the group or submerge your ego in the conversation,’ Johnson says.

It’s necessary to be able to admit when you’re wrong and to not take it personally when a potential mentee doesn’t quite click.

‘It was very, very difficult for me to adjust to selling my services as an individual coach because there was too much attachment to my ego, and I took ‘no’s’ really hard,’ Graves admits. Fortunately, he found that letting go of his ego became easier over time — and his roster flourished.

3. Thinking you know it all

‘Coaching is all about not knowing. It’s about curiosity and questions,’ Graves says. A good coach should go into every conversation open to the possibility of learning something new.

Listening — carefully and consistently — is essential to good executive coaching. A coach who thinks they already have all the answers is usually not a great listener.

Though it is a mentor’s job to draw on lived experience and offer hard-earned wisdom, a mentee will just as often have a fresh perspective to share.

‘To me, coaching and mentoring is a continuum that has no beginning and no end,’ Stowe says. ‘It’s just a constant relationship. One that requires humility, openness, and no small amount of mutualism to thrive.

4. Failing to be flexible

When juggling numerous mentees, it can be tempting for an overwhelmed coach to approach each meeting with a formulaic structure. Too much structure, however, can bar coaches from getting to the heart of the matter. Instead, coaches must go with the flow of the conversation and tailor their approach from person to person.

The individualised nature of executive coaching discussions means that one size does not fit all. ‘Ultimately, you want them to grow and do the work and figure it out for themselves,’ Johnson says.

Sometimes, Stowe explains, flexibility means being willing to go the extra mile. Offer comfort during personal hardships; cancel another meeting and stay on the call a little while longer; don’t cut a productive conversation short.

In a career centered around relationships, executive coaches who cannot adapt to the unique needs of each mentee will often find themselves struggling to keep their clients.

5. Holding back

At the heart of the coach-client relationship is honesty. It’s important to never compromise that. For some coaches, the urge to be the nice guy can cause them to avoid raising tough truths that need to be discussed. That’s a mistake.

‘You can’t sugarcoat anything,’ Johnson says. ‘If it’s going to be a difficult conversation, it’s always good to start with, ‘I think both of us is going to find this a bit difficult.’

Sometimes a coach must sit with an uncomfortable silence or ask the same question twice. Effective coaching involves holding clients accountable. Both sides, therefore, must speak frankly without ulterior motives. For most executives, getting the unvarnished picture is a rarity — and not something a quality coach shies away from.

‘That’s what they’re paying for,’ Stowe says. ‘They’re paying me to tell them what they need to hear — not what they want to hear.’

By avoiding these mistakes, executive coaches can make a smoother transition from the C-suite to their new careers.

This article was originally featured in the Vistage Research Centre.

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