It is an old sore that it can be ‘lonely at the top’, yet a client – an influential Board member – made just such a remark recently. When asked how a coaching assignment had contributed to his work, among other things he commented how helpful it had been to have someone with whom to ‘kick the tyres’, going on to say that many of the challenges he faced revolved around people issues and how sensitivities made it more difficult to hold those types of discussions with internal colleagues.
‘Kicking the tyres’ – a useful phrase.
Consultants and coaches alike sometimes struggle to articulate where they add value and it is often overlooked that the simple, informed neutrality of a coach-consultant can bring real benefit, helping a leader think through challenges and formulate solutions to complex problems. After all, the spirit of inquiry underpins much of the code of conduct. Yet in some industries the choice of coach-consultant can be driven by the belief that to be ‘informed’ they must have prior working experience in the area, something that is frequently echoed in public sector, banking & legal services to name but three.
Experience suggests that too much weight can sometimes be placed on this criterion, and the best coach-consultants naturally build bridges. For a high-achieving executive whose main arena is their work, an industry-informed perspective can confer immediate credibility. But it all comes down to what the engagement is trying to achieve, and if the aim is to bring a fresh perspective there could be real advantages to not working with someone from the same background or profession. As one sage put it, ‘there is no perception without contrast’.
But this is not a licence to admit all-comers and the coach-consultant needs to work hard to gain the credibility foothold. They need to make full use of their strong all-round experience, commercial credentials, lively interest & ability to quickly assimilate & become absorbed in the things that matter.
What are the risks of ‘kicking the tyres’…?
Comfort, collusion & causes…
Immediate work challenges are the arena the client knows best; they may be intractable but they are likely to lie inside their zone of comfort. By contrast, being asked to address personal and behavioural dynamics – factors that could be keys to sustainable performance – can be seen as an uncomfortable & possibly unnecessary diversion. They are not seen as important, yet it is frequently the opposite for the coach.
So while the client may be more comfortable concentrating on the former and avoiding the latter, the coach who slavishly follows the maxim that the client’s agenda is paramount may find they are unwittingly in collusion. It could result in not taking enough time to address longer-term, performance sustaining strategies.
There is always the possibility that the coach may be tempted to shift the agenda into their own area of expertise. Trained in process and in behavioural techniques, they may be more at home addressing thinking patterns & inter-personal dynamics than engaging with the task details of a client’s working day.
It is a matter of balance. Too much of a ‘talking-shop’ can be counter-productive. It can result in fighting fires rather than the deeper causes of fires, and the effective coach-consultant needs one eye firmly on the wider issues if they are to help encourage longer-term, self-sustainable change.
So if ‘kicking the tyres’ has value – and clearly it does – what can the coach-consultant do?
Three things come immediately to mind.
- Make sure the agenda & ‘contract’ are explicit from the start. It needs to be clear that a balance will be struck between discussing specific challenges & exploring the underlying patterns of thought & behaviour that impact longer term, not just short term performance.
- Take time to stand back from discussing day-to-day challenges to ask what general principles the client notices about the way they think or tackle issues. From this can grow realisation about factors that help or hinder performance & that will have lasting benefit beyond the end of the coaching engagement.
- Be constantly aware of their natural reactions to the discussion and the way it is progressing. Experienced coach-consultants learn to trust their instinctive judgement, when to speak their mind & when to hold back, when to let the conversation run & when to ‘cast the net’.
Simple? Yes. Powerful? Certainly. Not only does the client get to ‘kick the tyres’ with someone who understands their world, they also increase their awareness of the patterns of behaviour that serve them well and those that hold them back regardless of the specific problem at hand.
The opportunity to talk about specific work challenges with an informed coach-consultant holds real value to the executive leader. Getting the balance right brings lasting & sustainable value.