As a leader, how often have you been in a position where you had to start something new — whether it was a new role or a new project — and you knew you had to bring your leadership A-game in order to empower your team to achieve a challenging task?
As we, ourselves, stepped into new roles — Lora as Chief Talent Officer at Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Paul as Dean of Students at Achievement First Crown Heights Middle School — we found ourselves in this position. We had our sights set on success, held a vision we felt passionate about, and benefitted from a highly skilled team around us, but we knew that we would only meet our goals if our entire team was invested in that vision. We quickly learned that while having a vision is easy, bringing the team along can be really tricky.
In our experience, there are several factors that make it hard for leaders to achieve their goals or lead major reform efforts:
- Lack of candid feedback: In most organizations — and for entirely valid reasons (e.g., fear of retaliation for providing critical feedback, bad experiences with prior bosses, unconscious biases and race dynamics, etc.) — folks don’t often give leaders candid feedback. Indeed, the more a leader is struggling, the less likely they are to receive frequent critical feedback.
- Difficulty gaining perspective: It can be hard to understand the interpersonal dynamics that are constantly changing while you’re in the thick of day-to-day existence. Amidst a blur of meetings, deadlines, and reports, it’s challenging to get a bird’s eye view and understand the dynamics that are truly at play.
- Blind spots: Every one of us — leaders especially — has blind spots. By definition, these are invisible to us. It’s hard to just self-reflect your way into finding your flaws. Leaders who don’t receive candid feedback often find themselves dismayed to see their flaws mirrored back to them in their team.
- It’s hard to row alone: Even if you get great feedback and have fantastic self-awareness, who is going to help coach you to make that change? Who will hold you accountable? Who can you thought partner with?
While these challenges are real, each of us found one invaluable tool that helped our ability to grow as leaders: executive coaching. Weekly executive coaching from a trusted adviser helped Paul see how his “let’s get things done” approach disempowered and alienated some of his teammates. Since Paul still viewed himself in the role of “doer,” he did not give his team enough autonomy to lead their own work and instead stifled their energy and creativity. For Lora, coaching helped her navigate relationships and build trust with peers by listening more, asking for support instead of expecting it, and spending time in one-on-one relationship building. For both of us, coaching helped us to be stronger leaders and to empower our team to produce stronger outcomes.
Now that we sit on the other side of the table as consultants who help coach leaders, we see firsthand the advantages of external coaches. Here are some of the most important things to consider if you’re hiring a coach:
- Ease of perspective: Just as it’s easier to see the flaws in your in-laws’ family, identifying the dysfunctions in an organization is significantly easier when you haven’t lived in that environment. Likewise, an external perspective can be just as helpful in identifying unseen strengths that can be further leveraged. When searching for a coach, look for someone who can provide a fresh perspective on your work.
- Freedom: As external coaches, we have no “stake in the game” in terms of office politics or interpersonal relationships. This freedom allows us to voice the uncomfortable truths that are difficult for internal teammates to share and to focus solely on the development of a leader, not the advancement of any internal agenda. Beware of coaches who don’t share uncomfortable feedback with you.
- Trust: Because leaders often report to a boss who must both coach AND evaluate them, it can be hard to develop a rapport of trust. As external consultants with no evaluative role, it’s easier for us to build a rapport of trust with leaders because their development is the only thing we have in mind. What’s most important when searching for a coach is making sure they are someone you can deeply trust.
- Pattern recognition: Through our work with multiple leaders and organizations, it’s easy to develop an eye for patterns that repeat themselves time and again. In searching for a coach, look for someone who has worked in similar contexts or faced similar challenges as you. Their experience will allow them to spot patterns more easily.
If you find yourself in a situation similar to ours — taking on a new challenge that will require you to be a better leader — we encourage you to consider what’s riding on your success. In our experience, external coaches can be a tremendous resource in helping you to overcome some structural challenges to becoming a stronger leader and an extremely worthwhile investment, both for you and your organization.
Our closing question to you is this: what are you willing to do to become a better leader?