What Should You Look for in a Leadership Coach?


People often ask what makes a truly great leadership coach. There are five things I’d look for:

First, a great coach is truly invested in your success. A coach should help you think deeply about your strengths – and help you discover what’s holding you back from your next level of success. A great coach doesn’t define success in his or her terms; instead, he listens and defines it in your terms, and helps you think about and define what the next plateau of success looks like for you. And then the coach shrewdly helps you plan a course of action that will stretch you so that you obtain that next level.

Second, a great coach uses objective data to inform the coaching discussion. This could include direct feedback from peers or subordinates. It could be the results of an online 360 survey. It could include the results of other assessment tools. Bottom line, a great coach takes the time to learn about you – and doesn’t rely solely on impressions or self-appraisals.

Third, a great leadership coach needs to be an experienced leader and manager. He or she needs to have experienced first-hand what it’s like to actually lead organizations and juggle different goals, develop meaningful budgets, and resolve conflicts. But experience is only part of the equation.

The fourth quality to look for in a leadership coach is a natural affinity for the work. They need to be excellent listeners, quick on their feet, empathetic, compassionate, and, above all, highly trustworthy. In other words, they need high levels of emotional intelligence.

Fifth, a great leadership coach doesn’t shy away from actually coaching. Some coaches only ask questions. This is like a basketball coach who won’t show a player how to shoot a jump shot. A good coach uses information to figure out how to change behavior patterns that aren’t working. The coach has to first transmit the feedback so that it’s actually “heard” by the coachee. Sometimes you can simply name the behavior and describe its impact. But some coaching has to be subtler.

I recall one CEO who received the feedback that she needed to be more proactive in anticipating team conflicts. Here’s the catch. She disagreed with the feedback because she thought conflict was wrong. So we talked about the distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” conflict. I asked her where conflict might actually help move her organization forward. Over time, she slowly became more comfortable with naming where conflicts were occurring – and figuring out how to manage them. The other day, she told me she intervened with the Board president over an issue of conflict of interest. She said: “I realized I needed to solve this now before a really big conflict occurs.” I gave her much appreciative feedback.

In summary, look for five qualities in a leadership coach: a passion for helping people become better leaders, skill in gathering good feedback, actual experience in leadership roles, strong emotional intelligence, and, lastly, examples of how they actually helped people recognize and change their behaviors.

One last story: I coached a smart, analytical CEO who needed to be more open and communicative with his team. He recognized it was an issue for him, but he didn’t like small talk. He said it felt awkward when people asked him personal questions. We talked a lot about trust and the importance of personal self-disclosure in building trust. I gave him a book to read. And we practiced asking personal questions. Each week, he agreed to try something to build more rapport. Over time, he developed a more personally engaging style – and, as a direct result, his leadership team developed more trust. A year later he told me: “I so appreciate the work we did together. It helped me become a better leader. And it helped me grow our company.” I thanked him for his kind words. And reminded him of something Socrates said: “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”

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