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Executive Coaching: Learning to Lead (and Draw) Outside the Lines

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Be Creative - Learn to Draw Outside the Lines Through Executive Coaching

Be Creative - Learn to Lead Outside the Lines Through Executive Coaching

In 1979, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Dr. Betty Edwards quickly rose to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, as readers were intrigued by the drawing activities designed to reshape their brains. This was a time in history when most were still coloring in the lines and following the rules while still many were confronting fears from the Three Mile Island disaster, the hostage crisis in Tehran, and the IRA. Kids were running to catch the Yes concert’s 9th album tour and flicking lighters in appreciation, or sitting “hooked” to their Sony Walkman devices while listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Perceptions were being shaped by the intensity and complexity of life.

Regardless of whether Edwards’ book, now in its 4th edition, teaches people to draw better, the fact is that there was, as there is today, the desire and the necessity to not just color outside of the lines but also inside of what is referred to as negative spaces. Readers learned perception and proportion, where light reflected and shadows muted, and mostly, the book sparked conversation about the importance of drawing the whole and not just the parts. That the picture emerges simply by shifting our mindset, being present with the subject matter, and not forcing the art to fit into what it “should” look like.

These exact same skills are increasingly important for leaders who engage in adaptive and sustainable change, who seek to be even more effective in their role, and who must navigate challenge and ambiguity as they support teams and pursue organizational goals. Applying these skills offers the chance to widen one’s perspective, which is at the core of the development process.

What is Executive Coaching?

Today’s workplace has a wider array of issues and global forces that place pressures on the organizational environment that increasingly contributes to the complexity leaders face. Executive Coaching has become a vital strategy to help these leaders explore their frames of reference and those biases that can influence decision-making; to build awareness of the strategies to maximize their strengths and the strengths of those they lead.

Ninety-five percent confirmed their Executive Coach helped them identify and focus on development goals that led to positive outcomes. Ninety-two percent specified that as a result of the coaching engagement, they were each better equipped to be an effective leader.  – CCI Consulting Executive Coaching Survey Feedback

And yet, even though the field of coaching has exploded over the last 20 years, not all coaches are Executive Coaches. And not all Executive Coaches bring rigorous training and the qualifications necessary to facilitate this process with those they engage with. Charline S. Russo, Ed.D., serves as the Senior Lecturer for the Organizational Dynamics Graduate Program of the University of Pennsylvania and is a founding member of the Organizational Consulting and Executive Coaching (OCEC) Cohort Concentration. Russo reminds us that, “Quality coach education includes the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ of coaching. To be effective, the coach knows the underpinnings of theory and practice, can communicate the process that will be followed, recognizes the role of learning and how to build and sustain skills and behaviors for the client to see her/himself more clearly.”

When we think of a coach, we often think of sports. We consider the coach to be the expert or the leader that applies influence and skilled judgment, and even sometimes coercion to help the team achieve their goal of winning. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a coach as, “someone whose job it is to teach people to improve at a sport, skill, or school subject.” While an Executive Coach may apply knowledge and expertise, and may teach or advise upon request, the practice of Executive Coaching is much more than that. According to the Graduate School Alliance for Education in Coaching (GSAEC), coaching is, “a development process that builds a leader’s capabilities to achieve professional and organizational goals.” But what does that really mean? And how does one identify a quality and qualified Executive Coach?

Coaching today is as varied as the people who practice it. The International Coach Federation (ICF) places a stamp of approval on coach training programs and credentials coaches, but ICF coaches practice career coaching, life coaching, business coaching, retirement coaching, and offer a wide variety of personal coaching specialties. The Association of Corporate Executive Coaches (ACEC) and its MEECO-certified Master Corporate Executive Coaches (MCEC) verify that each person passes through a rigorous process reflecting the common knowledge, skills, and abilities of a professional corporate Executive Coach. University-based coaching programs offer the theoretical background needed to approach leaders with a broad and comprehensive understanding of adult learning, theory, and practice rather than a one-size-fits-all coaching approach.

What Makes for an Effective Executive Coach?

Coaching programs and training may be necessary but are not enough on their own. A strong Executive Coach recognizes the uniqueness of each leader and has deep understanding of the theory that informs the learning and development process. An even stronger Executive Coach also approaches the often-disruptive executive coaching experience with careful attention to both the performance and development aspects of their client within the larger context of their organization and their life. It is this aspect that leads to a transformational experience where the Executive Coach and the client engage in a process that begins with challenging their personal perspective, often through feedback, that leads to critical self-reflection and a shift in mindset that underpins behavior change.

“From the onset, I knew my coach would give me candid/honest input without sugar-coating it.  It allowed me…it forced me to view things that I may say, do, process from a truly objective vantage point; thereby being more thoughtful in how I might face [and handle] certain difficult situations.”    – Regional Director

Adults can realize change, growth, and learning when they reframe their point of view; these are achieved when the person is truly willing to challenge their own assumptions and broaden their perspective. However, for an Executive Coach to truly facilitate this process effectively, the coach must also bring deep business experience to the coaching table.

Enhancing leadership capacity, drawing outside of the lines, and applying creativity, solution-seeking, and innovative decisions do not just happen because a coach applies powerful questioning techniques or sticks hard and fast to their client’s agenda. Behavioral shifts happen within the context of the client’s ever-changing organization, and for the Executive Coach to facilitate this process, the coach must also bring their own lived experience of senior leadership to reinforce the natural guardrails of the Executive Coaching relationship.

“To make the most of coaching, you have to get out of your assumptions and beliefs and get into an uncomfortable place. It is the only way to identify issues and take pro-active steps to improve/change. My coach helped me to get to that uncomfortable place and really identify the adjustments that I needed to make. It is an ongoing journey but I feel like she gave me helpful tools for going forward beyond the coaching period.”    – General Counsel

Leaders seeking an outstanding coach to support their development can look for a coach who is well-educated in the process and has learned to question assumptions. They can also look for a coach who brings organizational savvy, dynamic thinking, and someone who has a lived business experience to reflect context and strategies that work in the workplace. Whether engaging with a solo practitioner or with a consulting firm’s Executive Coaching practice, they should be proud to offer success stories, references, and feedback about the rigor the coach brings to the engagement. Ultimately, the rapport and trust between the leader and the Executive Coach will go a long way to build capacity and “draw outside of the lines.”

Adena Johnston, D. Mgt. MCEC
Vice President and Practice Leader, Talent Development
CCI Consulting


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