Georgina Woudstra has built a thriving executive coaching practice over a career spanning more than 20 years and specialises in coaching Chief Executives, senior board members and top boardroom teams. Georgina is also the Principal of the Executive Coach Studio. In this interview, Georgina reveals her secrets of being a CEO coach.
How do successful Executive Coaches handle the chemistry meeting with a new CEO client?
As an experienced Executive Coach, I understand the significance of the first chemistry session with a new CEO client. A successful chemistry session will leave both the coach and CEO feeling that their curiosity about the other person has been satisfied enough and that they are willing to continue working together. It is all too easy for inexperienced coaches in their eagerness to impress and their enthusiasm to move forward, to inadvertently make the CEO more guarded during this initial session.
Does it get any easier after the initial chemistry session?
The first meeting with a new client is often the trickiest. As an Executive Coach, you need to move the relationship with the CEO from curiosity to a working alliance.
Both the coach and the client start with curiosity. The coach is curious to learn about what the CEO needs. The coach needs time to build trust so it is important to consistently communicate with integrity and authenticity. The CEO is curious to know that they are working with a whole person, someone who is going to fully bring themselves to the table and take risks with them. They want to get a sense of the coach’s personality. They want to talk with an equal and not feel they are talking to someone who has put on a coach outfit, asking inane questions with a nice and passive demeanor. They have sacrificed time in their busy schedules for coaching because they have a real need.
What are the most common needs of CEOs seeking coaching?
These are wide ranging, but the most common needs are:
- Concerns outside of work (relationship problems, health, lack of fitness, ageing, love life, children)
- Insecurity about how they are viewed by others – ‘imposter syndrome’
- Feeling the job is all-consuming and the rest of life is on hold - Loss of motivation or energy - Interpersonal difficulties within their team - Wanting to make changes in the business and feeling held back by shareholders
- Feeling the pressure of needing to re-invent the business
- Feeling the pressure of needing to ‘make-it’ this year, or die
- Concerns about dealing with the media
- How to make best use of their time? Where do they add value most?
- Getting ‘sucked in’ to solve every problem
- Wanting to change company culture but not knowing how
- Worrying about technological advances and artificial intelligence
- Worrying about their relationships with their boss, chairman, investors etc
- Feeling they are not charismatic or inspiring enough
- Questioning whether it is all worth it?
Many CEOs need to feel a sense of trust before they are willing to reveal what they need to get out of coaching. They want to feel the grit of me in there with them!
How do you make that transition from curiosity to a working alliance?
Trust and authenticity must be built over time. The capacity for you to provoke and ask challenging questions that evoke meaningful thought will rarely develop overnight. Deep listening skills are critical. The ICF core competencies of active, deep listening are the key to creating a working alliance. Using deep listening can help a coach decipher the CEOs’ verbal and non-verbal cues into what really matters to them and their fears, hopes and concerns. Making the CEOs feel they are really being understood is crucial in order to forge your new working alliance.
Before the working alliance is established, you’re still determining if you can work together. The client will be thinking, ‘what am I safe to say here and to what degree do I really reveal my vulnerability when I’m meant to be the CEO at the top?’
Can you give an example of typical coaching scenario?
Let’s consider the scenario of a Chairman who sets up Executive Coaching for a CEO who has the potential to be promoted to a Group Chief Executive role. The Chairman tells you, “he’s a diamond with rough edges that need rounding off”. During the first chemistry session between you and the CEO, the CEO is guarded because the Chairman’s purpose for the coaching is to fix something. The Chairman believes something about the CEO isn’t good enough for the role. The CEO feels the weight of this judgement from the Chairman and is hearing, “we want you, but you need repairing first.” Understandably, the CEO feels pressure and resistance. You need to work with his resistance and get in there with him and feel what this is like for him. Don’t push him at this crucial early stage. You’ll be thinking, ‘to what degree can I really ask the questions I want to ask? To what degree can I reflect back what I’m really hearing?’ Work with him at his pace to really understand and explore that resistance to establish a working alliance.
Can you give advice on how you have become a master at transitioning from curiosity to working alliance?
During your chemistry session with a new CEO client, authentically demonstrate that you are the CEO’s equal. Use your deep listening skills to observe resistance. Work with the Chief Executive at his/her pace to transition from curiosity to a working alliance. If you are working with a client who is very defensive or guarded, it can be very difficult to engage and get the most out of the intervention. The CEO needs to be willing to engage in the effort to make the change.
Don’t speed through building your working alliance. CEOs seeking coaching are looking for answers. Once you have established your working alliance, over the course of the first few months, they will be looking for answers. As a coach, asking great questions is the best way to help your CEO clients find the answers they seek.
‘Successful coaching involves working with not against – an individual’s resistance.’ Manfred Kets de Vries
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