Behind the Curtain With a Top Executive Coach

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I have to confess, I’ve been highly-suspect of the world of coaching.

In no small part, because I’ve known more than a handful of people who defaulted to the career after failing at a number of other careers, being unable to create some semblance of order and joy in their own lives and searching for a path where the barrier to entry was pretty low.

But, I’ve been taking a look back at the industry with fresh eyes over the last few months. And, what I’ve discovered is that, well, I was wrong.

I still do have concerns about quality and effectiveness in the space, but, at the same time, I’ve gotten to know a handful of highly-specialized coaches who are extraordinary at what they do.

One of the those people is Karen Wright. Karen is a world-class executive coach. Been in the field for more than 16 years, she’s extraordinarily intelligent, intuitive, highly-educated and successful and, this was important for me, boasts a long-term track record of phenomenal results working with C-level and “high-potential” execs. Put another way, she’s smart, she’s honest and she’s got chops.

I’ve wanted to interview Karen about the industry for a while, but her schedule is always insanely packed. With her new book out, The Complete Executive, we finally carved out the time to go deep on some tough questions about the industry, clear away some myths and learn more about her and her approach.

Here’s what unfolded…

1. It seems like everyone and their uncle is getting into the coaching space these days. Life coaches, business coaches, kid coaches, pet coaches, psychic best friend coaches. How do you know who is truly equipped to help you do big things…and who’s a disaster in waiting?

I’d love to meet a Psychic Best Friend coach, Jonathan –that’s a new one! But you’re right, there seems to be a coach for everything.  Coaching is still an unlicensed, unregulated service, so there’s no iron clad guarantee, unfortunately. But if you’re looking for a coach, start by making sure you’re only talking to those who’ve completed an accredited coach training program – you can find them on the International Coach Federation website at CoachFederation.org.

Then ask for references – lots of them – from clients who’ve been in similar situations to yours. And while I get your point about the crazy coach specialties out there, I am in favour of clear areas of expertise. If you’re an executive looking to improve your leadership skills, hire a coach with that focus – not a life coach or a pet coach.

The “disaster in waiting” is the coach who says they can do it all, especially if they have not invested time and effort into learning about the science behind human behavior.  And worse, the coach who crosses professional boundary lines into therapy, financial advice or law without the appropriate training.  Be afraid, be very afraid….all that said, there are lots of brilliant coaches out there, it just takes a bit of digging to find them.  Best advice?  Ask around in your own network for referrals.  A happy client is a coach’s best advertising.

2. You are an executive/business coach. And word on the street is you’re the person companies call when the hard-driving C-levels need someone who can operate at their level. So, forgive me for asking this, but what exactly IS an executive or business coach? And, why would someone or some company need you? What can an already high-achieving mover and shaker do working with you that they couldn’t do alone?

Spoken like an already high-achieving mover and shaker!

Fact is, if you’re at or near the top of an organization, you’re successful  but you don’t have many people you can talk to – that you can “get real” with.  So much of my work is as a “thought partner” with senior executives – creating regular time for them to reflect on the business and their life, and providing an objective sounding board as they process their ideas and challenges.

Sometimes we work on specific leadership competencies, particularly with leaders who’ve risen up the ranks from technical or professional specialties, but that’s often in conjunction with the bigger picture reflective work.  So sure, they could do much of it alone, but there is enormous synergy in partnership, plus it’s useful to have even your best ideas checked out with someone objective.

3. So, you’ve been at the top of your field for more than 15 years and you’ve just come out with your first book called The Complete Executive. What’s it about? And, maybe a bigger question…why a book and why now? What does your book let you accomplish that you couldn’t do without it, both for you and for, oh let’s keep it modest, the world?! lol.

The Complete Executive is a compilation of the best practices, habits and personal disciplines that I have observed in my clients over the years, particularly the clients that really thrive in what are incredibly demanding roles.

As I have worked with leaders over the years I have been witness to many huge successes and many tremendous challenges, and have had the opportunity to learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t. The simple fact is this – if a leader focuses and prepares for the challenge of the business without preparing for the challenge of the role, they will not likely be successful, or thrive the way they potentially could.  So the book is a description of the model I developed that supports leaders to be happy, healthy AND successful.  “Complete,” if you will.

As for the question about why a book and why now – a couple of reasons.  For the entire 16 years I have been coaching I have worked one on one with clients, most often face to face.  That is a pretty demanding business model! It’s also limiting – I want to be able to have greater impact than what I’m able to do in a pure professional services practice.

That said, I love the one on one work, so I wasn’t feeling compelled to create a program or a model until I got to the point where I felt I had sufficient evidence and experience to do it well. So, maybe it’s just my time.  And, of course, the world will be better for it! LOL.

4. Seems like there’s an increasing push in the world of coaching and consulting, especially in the business side, to have some kind of proprietary or revolutionary system. Curious how you feel about that? Real, contrived, valuable, necessary, silly?

Silly to develop a system just for the sake of developing a system, for sure.  And pretty easy to see the things that fall into that category, that are cute and slick but have no substance.  That said, without some sort of system or model it is hard to scale your work and hard to give clients proof that what you do is effective.  So with a system that allows measurement, the whole issue of proof is in the hands of the clients.

In my case, my clients are very numbers-driven – they have to be in order to deliver the business results – so a numbers-based system really appeals to that sort of person.  Also, having a system allows me to create programs such that more people have more access to the things that I know.  And ultimately I can license other coaches to use my materials which helps those who have not yet developed their own model plus allows me to expand beyond my own capacity to see clients one on one.

5. The thing that really drew me in about your approach in The Complete Executive is that your focus is much bigger than business. It’s about life. Tell me more about that. Why does your approach integrate the fuller picture? What are entrepreneurs and execs who want to operate at the level of stun missing when they focus on the work and only the work? And, do the CEOs and other top performers you work with ever reject that bigger picture model and say “look, let’s just focus on work?”

The leader who just focuses on the work will be ill-equipped to inspire, develop and retain great people, and people are ultimately the engine of any organization.

The leader who leads by example, who consistently operates with a clear set of values, who openly admits to and learns from their mistakes, who continually pursues their own growth and development, and who models vibrant health and positive energy – that’s a leader who’s going to have great influence and will be a role model for future leaders.  Plus they’ll have what they need to sustain themselves –they’ll have health, mental acuity, great relationships, and even a little room for a bit of fun now and again.

And yes, there have been many clients who have rejected – or tried to reject – the bigger picture model, but in cases like that I don’t preach about completeness or thriving or anything quite so “fuzzy.” The best thing I can do is link a small new idea to a potential business outcome – it’s on that basis that an otherwise resistant individual might consider something different than what they’re currently doing.

They learn from whatever we try, and decide for themselves whether to continue it.  And once a new habit has been formed or a new idea adopted, I can point out how the individual has broadened their perspective, and then they’re more likely to consider progressively newer, more radical ideas.  You have to build on success, and start wherever the client is starting from.

6. What’s one thing that someone who wants to make a substantial leap in their career and potential can do now that’ll have a real, measurable impact on their performance and path as quickly as possible? Or is the ability to cultivate “rapid” change something that’s more myth than reality?

Rapid is almost never sustainable, which is sometimes hard to accept in our instant gratification-based world.

That said, and I’m sure you’ll agree, what I call “reflective practices” are the habits that I believe can make the biggest long term difference in performance.  Taking the time to get focused and clear, whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly, annually or (ideally) all of the above – that’s where the big shifts can happen.

I must put a condition on that, though – reflective practices are the big opportunity as long as health is not an issue.  Health is the first category in the model because without that, nothing else can happen.

7. Why do you coach? What does it give YOU?

No two days are the same, no two clients are the same. I get to see inside a wide variety of companies and industries and work with really smart, driven people who have great vision for what they are up to in the world.  And because I am working with people who are at or near the top of organizations, their impact is significant so, by extension, I am making a difference with a huge number of people.  I truly love my work. I am incredibly fortunate to have found this path.

8. What’d I miss? What have I not asked that you think is really important for people to know about you, working with coaching, your ideas in The Complete Executive and beyond?

At the risk of sounding like a cheesy acceptance speech, none of what I’ve accomplished would have been possible without the amazing friends, colleagues, mentors and tribes I am blessed to have in my life.  I take nothing for granted.  As for what’s next? Not sure, except that whatever I do must create positive change and help or serve others – it’s what I value about what I do, and it’s an important example for me to set for my kids.

+++

Big thanks to Karen for getting real. You can learn more about her and check out The Complete Executive at KarenWrightCoaching.com.

[Disclosure – I really enjoyed Karen’s book, buy into her ideology entirely and have mad respect for her work as an executive coach, so I was thrilled to blurb her book].

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10 responses

10 responses to “Behind the Curtain With a Top Executive Coach”

  1. Mark Furlong says:

    Thanks for the interview. I look forward to reading Karen’s book. I got into coaching after checking into the results it brought in so many different areas of life. When I got certified, I got coached, and it was life-changing for me, so I’ve drunk the kool-aid and hope everyone will take advantage of it at some point. I particularly like Karen’s advice on “reflective practices” and totally agree. Too easy to just work and live without living on purpose.

  2. Kate says:

    As an (experienced and hopefully well qualified) executive coach, I’d add to Karen’s response to the second question that we all have blind spots, and people who press our buttons without us necessarily knowing why, or for whom we just don’t seem to have the impact we desire. Sometimes you need someone else to work that through with, especially someone who’s got training and experience in psychology and human behaviour and who understands how power, politics and hierarchy work in organisational life. People are complex, organisations more so, and sometimes you need help to work out what’s really going on.

  3. Great interview Jonathan….just long enough to make me crave more. I’m excited to read Karen’s book – it just arrived yesterday so I’ll be diving into it with these insights in the back of my mind.
    I’m with Karen on her “Why” – getting to understand what makes people who run large and small organizations tick and why companies exist in the first place is so completely interesting to me!
    The fact that she recognizes how lucky she is to have found her path is truly wonderful and speaks to her approach very clearly. She loves what she does, no two days are the same. You won’t get a cookie cutter approach hiring her because although there are similarities, unless you’ve got 16 years of listening under your belt, no one else could write a book like this and continue to bring new insights to light for you.
    Congratulations to both of you!

  4. I just think it’s cool that you can become a student of self-mastery, compile all the best-practices, and create something as concise and actionable as this book.

    Karen definitely seems like an eternal student, which I see so much throughout your writing and community Jonathan. Great interview.

    It’s interesting to consider that the highest paid, biggest corporate achievers among us require training, management, and “sounding boards”. We can all learn a lot from that on our way up…

    John Maxwell had a great quote, something like “If you don’t make an investment in yourself, why should anyone else invest in YOU?”

    I’m hiring a coach. Wish I could afford Karen Wright! hahahah

    kc

  5. Jonathan: Thanks for posting this interview. It was really wonderful. I’m glad you pulled back the wool a little bit – I think because coaching is so unregulated, there are a lot of people who are suspicious of it.

    I recently started working with a coach, about 6 weeks ago, and so far it has been a wonderful experience. (I just wrote two blog posts about it on my blog which I won’t link to, but you can find on my blog). I feel like the work you do with a coach is something everyone should do. Unlike regular schooling, a coach dives deeper into what you want, helping you to adapt the world around you and create an “Impossible Future” (as Robert Hargrave calls it in his book “Masterful Coaching”) for your business.

  6. Christopher says:

    I’d be surprised to meet a successful business owner who can’t appreciate “reflective practices.”

    I remember when I was little and I used to race friends in the town pool (which is massive). I’d swim freestyle, but with my eyes closed and without taking breaths. Hoping to hit the other side before losing my breath, I’d finally run out of breath, only to realize I’d swam at a 45 degree tangent of where I thought I was going.

    The “clear set of values” and “reflective practices” seem to be about making sure you swim in a straight line. Thank you for the clarity in my understanding Karen and JF!!

    I can’t wait to dig into The Complete Executive!!

  7. Ali Davies says:

    I think coaching is the same as any other industry – there are some really good folk who operate from a high place of integrity, quality and help their clients deliver exceptional results and there are those at the other end of the scale.

    As with hiring any type of professional, the buyer needs to practice “due diligence” to make sure they are hiring the right calibre person.

  8. Fantastic post again Jonathan. I’m with you on thinking the same way around coaches, despite being one of those `Business Design Coaches’ you allude to here.

    This interview has really opened my eyes to doing some simple enhancements to my work to really ramp it up for my clients, including some systems that measure results effectively

    Thanks!

    Natalie

  9. While coaching to achieve results is important, the phrase “coaching as a sounding board” resonates with me the most. I’m an executive coach specialising in leadership development and I know that one of the things my clients value most is the opportunity to share perspectives. When a coach has a higher order perspective in psychological/spiritual development, they can be of immense value to uplift and inspire even greater self-confidence in their clients who are already highly effective leaders on their way to becoming exemplary leaders with the power to transform society and create a better world.