Are the best coaches the “older and wiser” ones?
Popular misconceptions of coaching lead many to believe that the older and more experienced the coach is, in their counterpart’s (coachee’s) field of expertise, the better. General Manager, Education Mandy Geddes disputes this view, and reveals what you should really look for in a coach.
Executives often choose a coach to work with that is “like them” (similar age, background, experience, etc.) There’s also a comfort factor involved; people are more likely to choose a coach who is like them because they feel comfortable talking to them. This makes sense for rapport and because you are going to spend quite a lot of time together, and get into some fairly personal conversations.
However, your coach doesn’t need to be the subject matter expert on your life or work; you are the expert. You know more about your role than pretty much anyone else, and most of us know what it is that we need to do. Your coach is often the person who will challenge you, and hold you accountable for DOING IT (whatever it is that you need to do) and for continuing to do it, consistently.
Deep listening with curiosity is one of a coach’s core skills (International Coach Federation, Core Competencies, 2018). A coach with experience and/or subject matter expertise in your field may be listening for what they want to hear, or what they expect you to say (or even want you to say?) rather than really listening to you. The “simple but not easy” skill of organisational coaching is key when choosing a coach, not the personal experience they happen to have in your field. That may only bias their listening.
The coach should also be mindfully present when coaching you. This means they are fully with you (not distracted by their devices, or the inner workings of their own mind, or thinking “what question shall I ask her next?”)
Douglas Riddle, from The Center for Creative Leadership, recently wrote for Forbes:
“…if a coach can’t create an environment that dissolves the limitations of history, expectation, and assumption, I’m not interested. How does a coach do that? By creating in the conversation with the coachee a sense of open, reflective exploration. The coaches who expand my mind, emotions and performance come to the coaching relationship from a place of inner calm. They have quiet minds. They are not beguiled by fancy techniques or elegant coaching models. They are midwives for the narrow, messy emergence into a larger world – and they rely on habits of mindfulness to accomplish that.”
So, look for a coach who is fully with you and focused on you. If they are distracted at the beginning, things are not likely to improve.
Through IECL’s 10-year longitudinal study of coaching effectiveness (Armstrong, Nielsen, Tooth, 2013) we found that organisational coaching provided the following key benefits for counterparts, among many:
- Awareness of my underlying personal issues.
- Ability to give professional and personal feedback to colleagues.
- Ability to look at new ways at the issues and problems.
- Ability to discuss heated issues constructively.
- Confidence in my ability to model appropriate behaviour and work styles.
There’s not a lot in there about subject matter expertise, is there? Advising from a position of expertise is really the role of the mentor or the trainer, not the coach. So, does the coach need to be older and wiser than their clients? Not really. Ideally the coach is curious and mindfully present, as well as being well trained and a great coach. However, we quite possibly feel more comfortable when they are at least a little bit older than we are.
Armstrong, H., Nielsen, S., Tooth, J.A., (2013), Coaching effectiveness survey instruments: taking stock of measuring the immeasurable, in Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research & Practice, 11 June 2013
ICF Core Competencies, 2018
Riddle, D. (2018) Three Keys to Mindful Leadership Coaching, Forbes