During my early years as an executive director, I went without a leadership coach. I didn’t even know they existed. I was lonely and often felt like I had no one to turn to and no safe space to bring my biggest challenges. Later in my career, I had the benefit of working with leadership coaches. These were the most pivotal years in my own development as a leader. Many people ask me what it means to be a leadership coach. A coach is a thought partner, a supporter, a sounding board, a container for vulnerable emotions, an accountability ally, an objective perspective, a steady resource, and your biggest champion. If you are considering finding a coach (or encouraging an executive in your life to find one), you might find the following criteria useful.
You might want a leadership coach if…
You are committed to indeterminate growth.
Suzuki Roshi once said, “All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.” As leaders, we are often the teachers and the nurturers. But in order to tend to our own development, we must continuously seek out sources of support for our own improvement. Coaching is a resource that provides unique and bountiful nourishment. And no matter the hurdles you overcome, there will always be more ahead and more to learn. If you approach your leadership embracing this reality, your growth will be infinite.
You are passionate about innovation.
Don’t be scared of the word “innovation.” It its simplest form, it means to do something new or to try something old in a new way. Innovation is cultural and leadership must embrace and model it. It is shaped considerably by diversity and new perspectives. If you, as the leader of your organization, want to drive progress, however radical or incremental, you must seek out exposure to new ideas. A coach may be one source of perspective, and they can also help you develop strategies to promote a culture of innovation.
You know your perspective is not the only one.
I was shocked recently when a community leader told me that local established nonprofit executives “don’t need coaching.” As if coaching reflects inexperience or flawed leadership. Contrary, I have found over and over, with myself, my peers and my clients, that seeking out coaching is a sign of mature leadership signaling commitment to learning, development, and innovation. Working with a coach reflects your humanness, and your commitment to personally taking big steps to invite outside perspective and push yourself to grow.
You’re willing to face your cringiest areas.
One of the most valuable questions one of my coaches once posed to me was, “What areas of your own development do you tend to avoid facing?” Cringe. I knew immediately what they were. Now I help my clients identify their “cringe areas.” Whether it is public speaking, staff supervision, board relationships, or intensive diversity, equity, and inclusion work, everyone has their areas. A coach can help gently guide you through and out of your avoidance areas. As you conquer your fears and dread, you will emerge more confident and equipped.
You strive to be strengths-based.
When you read about accountability, feedback, and indeterminate growth, you may not immediately jump to thinking about your strengths. However, when you find a coach that takes a strengths-based approach, you build on your strongest skills to tackle new ones. I used to be fixated on my flaws around detail-oriented, operational tasks. My coach helped me lean into my strong delegation and organizational structure design skills and acknowledge I don’t have to be awesome at everything. This compelled me to focus on the vision and strategy work I do best and to structure the operational support to other team members. With a strengths-based coach, you will celebrate your successes and leverage them in your learning. You can only be as strengths-focused with your staff as you are with yourself.
You’re tired of feeling alone.
Executive leadership can be lonely. You know that even when you have the most trusted confidante(s) on your team, there are still plenty of issues that are inappropriate or off-limits to discuss. Your board is also rarely the appropriate or most equipped go-to for many challenging issues. And the power dynamics associated with your role can be isolating. A coach can be a lifeline, a partner, your biggest supporter, and most trusted voice of reason.
You welcome feedback.
Executive leaders typically receive less feedback than any other staff position in an organization. Boards are historically not great at providing routine feedback to their executive. Within most organizations, feedback is directed “downward” and hierarchically. Supervisors give feedback to their direct reports, and there are rarely opportunities for feedback to flow “upward.” Honest feedback is vital to your growth. A coach can give crucial and objective feedback that will challenge you to grow.
You are willing to invest in yourself.
After I meet with my coach, I feel proud of making that investment in myself. You deserve to also. When I say “investment,” I’m acknowledging the resources that are required. Time, money, emotional energy. Whether for coaching or another form of self-improvement or care, carve out sacred, untouchable time on your calendar each week-and guard it with your life. If you can’t scrape together financial resources, go to a funder and make the case or start strategizing with your board, who should champion your development as a leader. And regarding expending the emotional energy, the more you invest, the more you’ll get out of it.
Bonus Tip: If you are a leader who is striving to integrate equity and inclusion into the DNA of your organization, find a coach who employs an equity lens. To truly advance equity within and outside of your organization, diversity/equity/inclusion work cannot live separately: it must be applied to all aspects of your leadership and operations. A coach who uses an equity lens will challenge you to consider equity across all aspects of your leadership.