By the way… What IS coaching?

I had an interesting conversation this weekend with a group of friends and colleagues about what I’m doing now.  Although I’m still practicing law part-time (with no desire to stop, honestly), coaching — and specifically, coaching lawyers — has taken the prize as my top pursuit.  So I’ve told these folks about the Georgetown University leadership coaching program that I’ve just completed, about the mix of telephone versus in-person clients, why I think coaching for lawyers is so beneficial and how I got into it, what I’ve observed in working with my clients, and so on.

And then, after we’d been talking for a while, one friend piped up and asked, “By the way… What exactly is coaching anyway?”

Ah.  Because I’ve become steeped in coaching, I forget.  Not everyone knows what coaching is.  I’ve had the same question from people who’ve contacted me after reading my blog, so I thought I’d share the answer here.

In coaching, I work with individuals (primarily but not exclusively lawyers and executive directors/CEOs of non-profit organizations) to create professional and personal change, to reach sustained excellent performance, and to do the work so that my client can self-correct and generate his or her own processes for change.

For instance, I work with lawyers who are in the first few years of their career to map out what professional path they’d like to follow and to identify the steps to get there.  I work with more senior lawyers who’d like to make a change in the path they’re on now.  I support people who are over-committed and over-stressed in finding a way to maintain (or develop) excellent performance by managing their energy and being fully present when they’re at home just as they’re fully present at work.  I help job-seekers with their resumes, cover letters, and interview skills, and I help them to identify the kind of position that would be most satisfying for them.

Some clients hire me to fix a performance problem, and some clients hire me because they want to fast-track their success.

When I coach, I ask questions that cut to the heart of the matter.  What do youwant — you, not your spouse or parents or colleagues or friends?  How do you want to go about getting it?  What’s standing in your way, and how can you work through the obstacles?  I may offer observations (did you notice that your voice quavered when you said XYZ?  What’s that about?) and suggestions for reflection and action.  Because I’ve been in practice and have learned something about being a lawyer, sometimes I’ll also put on my consultant’s hat and give direct advice, if that’s what the client wants, about how some action is likely to play out.

I am results-oriented, because I want my clients to identify what they want, to figure out how to get there, to do the work (both external and internal work), and to learn through the process.  Although there’s a lot of variation, I usually tells prospective clients to expect to work together for at least 3 months, because that’s about how long it takes to see changes, and I usually work with clients for 6 months to a year.  And sometimes clients will stop coaching for a while and then return.  It’s client-driven, because my top concern is to work in whatever way will best serve my client.

And I offer these parting thoughts from What an Executive Coach Can Do for You, reprinted from the Harvard Management Update:

“Coaching has evolved into the mainstream fast,” says Michael Goldberg, president of Building Blocks Consulting (Manalapan, New Jersey), whose clients include New York Life and MetLife. “This is because there is a great demand in the workplace for immediate results, and coaching can help provide that.” How? By providing feedback and guidance in real time, says Brian Underhill, a senior consultant at the Alliance for Strategic Leadership (Morgan Hill, California). “Coaching develops leaders in the context of their current jobs, without removing them from their day-to-day responsibilities.”

At an even more basic level, many executives simply benefit from receiving any feedback at all. “As individuals advance to the executive level, development feedback becomes increasingly important, more infrequent, and more unreliable,” notes Anna Maravelas, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based executive coach and founder of TheraRising. As a result, she says, “Many executives plateau in critical interpersonal and leadership skills.”

. . .

More specifically, the experts say, coaching can be particularly effective in times of change for an executive. That includes promotions, stretch assignments, and other new challenges. While you may be confident in your abilities to take on new tasks, you may feel that an independent sounding board would be beneficial in helping you achieve a new level of performance, especially if close confidants are now reporting to you. More so, you may recognize that succeeding in a new role requires skills that you have not needed to rely on in the past; a coach may help sharpen those skills, particularly when you need to do so on the fly.

But coaching is not just for tackling new assignments. It can also play an invigorating role. Coaches can help executives “develop new ways to attack old problems,” says Vicky Gordon, CEO of the Gordon Group coaching practice in Chicago. “When efforts to change yourself, your team, or your company have failed—you are frustrated or burned out—a coach can be the outside expert to help you get to the root cause and make fundamental changes.”

So, that’s what coaching is.

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