Rethinking Whether Executive Coaches Should Give Advice
The conventional wisdom in executive coaching has long been that coaches shouldn’t give advice: “Never tell, always ask.”
Originally published in the summer 2019 edition of AMA Quarterly.
Executive coaching is designed to help individual leaders take their organizations to the next level by developing skills and awareness they might have difficulty acquiring on their own. When effective, it can be invaluable, especially among those who have just joined a complex organization and are learning the culture. It can further assist those serving in top leadership positions for a long time who have an outsized influence on the direction and culture of an organization but are isolated from its inner workings as a result of their high-level responsibilities. Because of their power, they’re also less likely to be informed of hard truths regarding such issues as their management abilities and blind spots.
In this respect, executive coaching carries extremely high stakes. It represents a singular means of facilitating such opportunities as onboarding and piercing the bubble often surrounding those in the loneliest top jobs. What’s more, its success can impact shareholder value, employment prospects, and the long-term viability of organizations. It’s designed to foster a specific kind of outcome: effective, efficient leadership, strategy and operations, and positive, sustainable growth.
The goal-oriented nature of executive coaching makes it comparable to academic coaching (tutoring) and athletic coaching. In these fields, an experienced guide is tasked with helping a coachee reach a specific outcome—for example, an exemplary grade on an exam or an improved golf game. There are clear and measurable markers of success and failure.
And yet, executive coaching is often equated with other forms of coaching, such as life coaching and relationship coaching—fields in which experienced professionals help individuals who might otherwise feel stuck identify their goals and develop actionable plans forward. What’s notable about these types of coaching is that the problem being solved for has no right answer. If a person is determined to leave a lucrative job for the teaching field, his or her life coach is tasked with helping formulate a plan to accomplish this goal. The same can’t be said for academic, athletic, or executive coaches.
Being equated with less outcome-oriented forms of coaching has led to the conventional wisdom that executive coaches shouldn’t give advice, but rather ask the “right” questions that allow coachees to discover their own answers. This inquiry-only model guides the practice of life coaching and relationship coaching, and it can yield great success. Yet it significantly limits the value of executive coaching, just as it would limit the value of athletic or academic coaching, because sometimes it’s most effective to simply show someone how to correctly swing the golf club.
ASSUMPTIONS DON’T ALWAYS PROVE TRUE
The inquiry-only model is championed by many executive coaching professionals because of prevailing assumptions that are only sometimes true. The first assumption behind the “never tell, always ask” conviction is that the coachee already has all the answers within him or her. In other words, it’s the job of an effective coach to bring out the individual’s untapped wisdom, perspective, and inner knowledge by asking the right questions. This approach can indeed be helpful. A series of deep and expansive questions can guide executives to see themselves and their situations differently. Prompted effectively, they can begin to think outside many of the boxes in which they’ve long been stuck.
The problem is that sometimes the coachee simply doesn’t have the answer, either because of limited knowledge, experience, or self-awareness or other factors impeding his or her perspective. Even the most provocative questions won’t help an executive overcome his or her blind spots, which can have enormous consequences for an organization, its investors, and its employees.
The second assumption is that there is always enough time to apply the “never tell, always ask” approach, which can be a lengthy process. It can even impede an organization’s progress if an executive’s so-called inner knowledge points him or her down a self-defeating path or one that will create unnecessary pain and dysfunction within a company. With time exceedingly precious, this route is best avoided by providing clear, direct guidance.
Let’s review two case studies that exemplify how these assumptions don’t always prove true and show the effectiveness of clear, well-timed direction and advice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris “Mitch” Mitchell is a principal at FMG Leading with more than 25 years of executive coaching experience. His methods bring a holistic approach to leader development, focusing on the tensions and gaps in leadership, while engaging individuals as complete, integrated systems. Mitch helps executive leaders thrive by managing essential habits and skills, such as the ability to compartmentalize personal and business issues, manage priorities, and overcome fear in performance, productivity and presence. He has guided numerous executives through times of upheaval and transformative change.