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Go Deep, Be Courageous, Emerge a Winner!

Serving the Business and Professional Community since 1983! 

N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.

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What is An Executive Coach?

When I tell people that I’m an executive coach, they usually need further explanation.  Generally I tell them that I work with CEOs, presidents, and their top executive teams.  I explain that my role is to help them to develop their leadership skills so they can run their companies more effectively.  Often, the ensuing conversation goes something like this:

“So are you like a shrink for organizations?”

This always brings a smile to my face, and I respond, “I like to think of myself more of a stretch  than a shrink.  Let me give you an example that may help to clarify the difference between a clinical psychologist and an executive coach.”

Imagine that you are in your car.  Now look in the rear-view mirror.  What do you see? 

Most of the time people respond, “What’s behind me.”

Correct!  And that is where clinical psychologists spend most of their time.  They look to your past to see what may be blocking you by delving into such things as your relationship with your parents, physical or emotional traumas, fears, or any other issues that may have occurred in your life that are stalling you or causing you unhappiness. 

As an executive coach, I work with very high functioning people who need help in moving from point A to point B.  So I have them focus on looking through the windshield because our goal is to move forward.  I do tell clients to periodically check the rear and side-view mirrors to see what may be coming up, so we can prepare for and resolve any potential issues.  If I were to detect that the client had psychological issues, I would refer them to a licensed clinical psychologist who can help them in those areas. While life-balance issues may come up, my primary objectives are to focus on the business and leadership issues.  Deeply personal issues or traumas fall in the domain of a clinical psychologist. 

If I were to be asked what arises as the most common areas where clients need help, I would say in my experience they fall into these broad categories: Communication Skills, Time Management, Employee Development, and Emotional Intelligence. In this article, we are going to specifically focus on Communication Skills.

Communication usually breaks down into three sub-areas:  addressing difficult conversations, active listening skills, and presentation skills. Difficult conversations are usually the one that tops the list. I find that even the most competent executives avoid difficult conversations because of the general discomfort they the feel.   This often shows up in the area of performance evaluations.  The angst they put themselves through is classic.  They typically will continue to tolerate intolerable situations just because they don’t want to deal with the unpleasant prospect of upsetting someone else and dealing with the blowback. To help them, I recommend they obtain Susan Scott’s book, Fierce Conversations.  It’s an extraordinary book that provides very practical, useful guides to restore their power.  (While you might think it is odd that someone who is running a business feels powerless, think again.  I see it all the time.  They are not only frustrated and upset, but also fearful.) Once the client has a clear framework for conducting these conversations, much of the fear and burden is removed.  The coach’s role is to help them plan for, draft and practice these conversations until they become a natural and normal way of doing business.  The first few attempts may be a bit rocky, but over time, executives get good at it. 

Next, active listening skills are a common area for development.  Top executives usually achieved their success because they are very bright, technically savvy, and produce outstanding results. Often these very bright people are impatient with others who don’t have their light-speed level of thinking.  These executives listen for key data points, make immediate connections, and leave others in their dust.  This approach may have worked for them in the past on the way up, but in an elevated role of broader responsibility, these behaviors have a negative consequence.  Executives can’t afford to leave others in their wake because it ultimately disrupts productivity.  They need to have a collaborative team who feels empowered, respected, and valued if their organizations are to maintain competitive advantage.

As their coach, I work with executives, to improve this in a variety of ways.  The first is through modeling my conversation with them.  A good coach must be fully present and an active listener by asking clarifying and probing questions to gain further understanding, using words and phrases that show genuine interest and respect.  As clients find themselves in situations where they are becoming more active listeners, they make me smile when they tell me, “I was in a conversation with one of my staff members and about to jump in with my conclusion when I thought, whoops… Elizabeth is going to ask me about this conversation and what I said and did to demonstrate active listening…so I restrained myself.  Much to my surprise I discovered I was off base in my thoughts about what they were saying and by waiting and asking some additional questions… I learned some important information. In the past I would have just cut them off thinking I knew what they were going to say. ”

The third piece in communication skills falls under presentation skills.  This involves both the development of the presentation and the manner in which it is delivered.  If the executive came out of sales and marketing, they are usually pretty good at this.  However, if the executive came from a technical or scientific background, we often have real challenges.  These individuals tend to be fact focused and not audience focused.  The best resource I have found to help with this is by Dan and Chip Heath, entitled Made to Stick.  It is written in a breezy style and is packed with great information.  I have personally applied their principles to my presentations with great results.

The authors use the following six-step model called SUCCESs

 • Simplicity: Identify your core message.

• Unexpected: Get attention with the unconventional.

• Concrete: Use language that activates the senses and paints a picture.

• Credible: Use outside sources.

• Emotional: People care about people. It’s the juice for action.

• Stories: Stories drive action by inspiring and motivating.

As a coach, I work with executives by asking them to stimulate their thinking about how to apply these six steps in an upcoming presentation.  Just priming the pump in this way helps them to get excited about what to put together and motivates them to produce a presentation with pizazz.

When it comes to delivering the presentation, if they need help with their demeanor, tone of voice, pitch, etc., then I may refer them to an acting or speech consultant to supplement them in these areas.   If their appearance needs help, I refer them to an image consultant.  My role is to help them identify what they need to improve and then obtain the ideal resources.  I will admit that on occasion I depart from the traditional coaching role and offer them my knowledge of a particular area if they request it.  But, that is the exception rather than the rule.

A current client, whose style tends to be relatively low key and was cited in his 360 feedback report as giving boring, uninspired presentations, is now totally jazzed about his upcoming “All Hands” meeting. As the CEO, he had always prepared these presentations by himself, using the standard PowerPoint, fact-based deck.  He focused on the current and project sales figures and the company’s plan for growth, using graphs and charts.  He knew he needed to change that and wanted my help.

Along with prior work we did on collaboration and communication and after he read Made to Stick, we discussed different approaches to this presentation.  At first he wanted me to review his initial draft and was going to send it to me prior to our upcoming session.  I never received it.  During the session, I mentioned I hadn’t received his outline.  He was grinning from ear to ear, practically jumping up and down with excitement.  He informed me that he had run his initial outline by his executive team and they gave him some great ideas and now he was going to make the presentation highly interactive. He was going to begin by focusing on the core values of the company and have the management team identify those employees who they felt epitomized those values.  Then he was going to have a video done of the manager introducing that employee and telling why.  He also wanted to include before and after photos of the new distribution center they were finishing up.  Additionally, he had some music in mind, saying he was thinking of using Cha cha changes… as it reflected the $30MM additional growth and product expansion they are planning for next year.   He was totally inspired AND inspiring…all this now coming from a man who was labeled in his 360 as boring and uninspiring!  Seeing this kind of transformation is why I love being an executive coach. 

Stay tuned for the next article where I’ll continue with Emotional Intelligence, Employee Development, and Time Management.