Demystifying Executive Coaching: The Tenzing Norgay Factor

Michael Jordan is an outstanding athlete; Beyoncé sings like an angel; Serena Williams plays tennis better than any other woman in the world. While graced with talent and unique abilities, all of these stars got to where they are with the help of a good coach.

So why shouldn't the same apply for lawyers? Actually, it does. Allow me to introduce you to the world of executive coaching.

Now you might be thinking something along the lines of “I am an outstanding lawyer who is rising up the ranks according to my "plan", why would I need a coach? Obviously, I can do this myself.” Well, no one ever climbed a mountain alone. Have you heard of Tenzing Norgay? As Executive and Business Development Coach Stewart Hirsch has said, “Most people can be successful without coaching, but they are more successful with coaching.”

But let me back up. To truly understand the benefits of coaching, you need to understand what executive coaching really is. “There are lots of different kinds of coaching depending on your objectives and what you are trying to accomplish,” says Tasneem Goodman, partner at Akina. “You need to consider your objectives for your coaching and what you want to accomplish and then find a coach that fits based on that.”

Tasneem focuses on business development and sales in her coaching practice, which she considers more akin to personalized training rather than traditional executive coaching. Paula Edgar is more of a "traditional" coach, explaining that she generally works with “someone who is looking to progress in the place he or she is now—or to progress up and move on—and is looking for a partner in the process.” She is there to act as a neutral sounding board and help her clients examine where they are and where they want to be. She is not a therapist or a consultant. She is there to ask questions and suggest strategies that will help a client focus and start down a path toward the future.

If you are content with your career path, with the status quo, you can stop reading this article, but I suspect that you have a desire to grow as a professional even if you are in your dream job. A coach can help with that on a variety of levels. “It’s an incredible resource. I’ve engaged coaches at least three different times in my career. I look at my career as a work in progress and like to utilize coaching for different reasons,” explains Verona Dorch, executive vice president, chief legal officer and government affairs of Peabody Energy. “The first time I used a coach was for career coaching before I became a GC. I was trying to think through where I wanted to go with my career and what the next two to three years looked like. In another instance, I received business coaching. I completed a 360-review first and discussed the results with the coach. Then together, we worked through any areas for improvement or growth. Finally, there was transition coaching, which I did in the first 90 days in the GC role. I worked with a coach who helped with the transition, setting goals for both me and the company.”

Verona's company sponsored two of the types of coaching she engaged in. Sometimes your company will suggest, encourage or mandate coaching, which I’m sure raises more questions in your mind. For starters, this does not mean your company thinks you aren't fit for your role. (That's another article for another day.) Most good coaches won't get involved in company politics. As Paula Edgar put it, “It’s your coaching relationship, funded by someone else. If the company expects the coach to report back, that's a big red flag.”

Coaches operate under the strictest confidentiality. “We are pretty clear with our clients—both the individual and firm leadership—that we generally find that it is essential that a coaching relationship is best when built on intimacy and trust,” explains Tasneem Goodman. “In order to build that foundation, we have to have some level of confidentiality and a cone of silence. We understand the firm will want some visibility into what is working and how the firm can support the process, so we lay ground rules. We keep the specifics of coaching private and make it clear that at the same time we have a responsibility to give leadership visibility into the general trajectory of any coachee, so we will share progress updates. But the specifics of the individual relationship or situations/circumstances are kept quiet.”

And even if your company is calling the shots—and paying the bill—you can still have your choice of coaches. In some cases, the company will simply let you choose; in others, they will pick the firm and let you select someone from that group. Verona Dorch was told a firm to use, but was able to select the individual coach, "Someone in the coaching firm recommended a variety of coaches based on a discussion with me about what I wanted. I then picked three people and interviewed them. You should never do coaching with someone you haven't picked."

Now, not all coaches are created equal: Some are certified, some are not; some have practiced law, some have not. These are all things you should consider when you decide to take the leap and work with a coach. But the single most important thing is that “you have a good relationship, a synergy, that you feel like you trust this person and this coach gets who you are and where you are,” says Miriam Frank, vice president, partner and leader of the Legal Talent Management Consulting team for Major, Lindsey & Africa.

"When looking for someone to fill a job, you want someone with the right skills, experience and fit. Similarly, when seeking a coach, it's important to choose someone with relevant experience who can help you work through your challenges and with the ability to understand you. Chemistry is important, too. You are not likely to open up and reveal yourself and your concerns to someone you are not comfortable with," echoes Stewart Hirsch.

It's true that a stigma exists so much so that lawyers, in particular, cringe at the mere mention of executive coaching. Why? We must get over the notion that others will think we are broken or that our bosses are trying to find our Achilles' heel. We must stop saying “executive coaching” in hushed voices like it’s a dirty word or unspeakable curse. It’s time to open our eyes—and minds—to the real possibilities that exist when working with an executive coach. As Miriam Frank put it, “The most powerful learning comes from finding it yourself. The coach's job is to listen and ask powerful questions and then hold the coachee accountable, not to come up with the answers for them. If you are looking for a script on how this is going to play out, you are probably not going to get what you want out of coaching.” 

This feature originally appeared on 'In the House,' February 16, 2017. "Real Talk" is a monthly column focusing on career-development issues for in-house counsel.

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