Leadership Competencies

Why executive coaches don’t need to have all the answers

Why executive coaches don't need to have all the answers

Perhaps you’ve benefited from executive coaching and have thought about becoming one yourself. It’s a rewarding role, after all.

Serving as an anchor in others’ lives multiplies your positive impact in the world, as the people you coach use their enhanced skills and insights to build strong companies and strong, welcoming cultures.

Or as CEO-turned-executive coach Kevin Trout explains, “In my work, I influence the few that influence the many. I lead leaders.”

All that responsibility can feel overwhelming, however, especially at first. “Absolutely it can be intimidating,” says Ana Quinn, who coaches C-suite members and also helps organizations identify and develop talent at all levels.

How can an executive coach have an answer ready for every question, challenge or problem that talented, diverse business leaders could raise?

That’s impossible. But as experienced executive coaches will tell you, there are other things that matter much more.


Rest assured, no one has all the answers

Every person, company and situation is unique, and no coach can offer solutions for every case. As Chris Quinn, who heads Imprint Talent Readiness with his wife, Ana, highlights, coaches who need to know everything will quickly become frustrated. “They’re going to run out of answers and knowledge. These things have a terminal endpoint,” he says.

Damon Canfield, who came up through the hierarchy at General Electric, learned a lot by working with legendary CEO Jack Welch, but he also readily admits that his expertise is limited. Recognizing those limits, he says, is critical to success. “If your mindset is to have all the answers, you’d probably fail completely.”

The power of questions

If answers don’t define the makings of an effective executive coach, then what is the secret sauce? Powerful questions.

Canfield explains, “At the end of the day, I am no better than my ability to ask an insightful question.”

Chris Quinn echoes that sentiment. “Only when the questions become more important than the answers will the solutions emerge,” he says.

Asking the right questions at the right time is a skill developed like any other, from active listening to critical thinking. For Trout, quality questioning stems from a sense of wonder. “You have to stay inquisitive,” he says. “It’s crucial to be curious and open-minded. Try to uncover what hasn’t been said and what’s being avoided.”

The goal is not to lead clients toward a particular answer. “People need to talk through their challenges,” says Trout. If you’re seeking a preconceived response, “That’s not a question, that’s a directive.”

“Oftentimes, a leader’s issue is smoke and not the true fire,” notes Chris Quinn.

A great coach must help the client see through the smoke to escape the fire. This usually involves wide-ranging inquiry to uncover the issues that are really keeping the individual up at night and identify and work through the root causes.

“Don’t answer your questions. Question your answers,” recommends Canfield. He suggests that coaches start with the simplest question and then allow ample time to explore it before moving on. That way, the session delves into the most revealing territory.

A variety of resources

Another advantage coaches can offer clients — more resources. A coach may not have personal experience with a particular issue but few challenges executives face are truly novel. Relevant books, videos, articles, research and, most importantly, other people can offer insights and knowledge far beyond a coach’s own purview.

This is a key advantage of a peer advisory group. When a dozen or so business owners and CEOs meet with an executive coach facilitating the discussion, the ideas that emerge are greater than any member could offer on their own.

Many coaches find that operating in such group settings reduces the pressure they feel to have all the answers. When they understand their role in promoting meaningful conversations, they frequently gain confidence that the answers clients need can be discovered together.

Even coaches who prefer to work only in individual settings can share others’ wisdom. Simply devote time to building and leveraging a network so you’re better prepared to connect clients with people who can assist in specific situations.

Looking to others for insight isn’t just for clients, either. It’s a tactic that coaches should adopt for themselves. Seeking outside perspectives and feedback helps a coach grow their skills and confidence. Suddenly, you find that not having all the answers isn’t such a big deal.

Trust is a delicate thing

Coaches can’t know it all and pretending that they do will only cause problems. We’ve all met people who see themselves as better, more informed, or smarter than others. That kind of superiority complex is toxic to a coaching relationship.

“Those coaches will undoubtedly struggle because their behavior will facilitate a breakdown in trust,” says Ana Quinn. Without trust, a coach will find it nearly impossible to encourage the vulnerability necessary for discovery and growth.

Your energy is limited, too

For a coach, striving to stamp out every personal imperfection and acquire every scrap of information is unsustainable. “They will burn out quickly,” Chris Quinn says.

Effective coaching requires hard work, but it also means leaving expectations at the door. The good news is that coaches who get comfortable in their own skins can spend less time worrying about being right and focus more on helping others.

Chris Quinn reminds us that “coaches work with human beings, not human doings.”


Related Resources

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The 16 best executive coaching books (and a dozen great reads for clients)

Category: Leadership Competencies

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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