The External Coach:
Developing a personal-professional relationship.

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There is a growing organizational trend to provide formal coaching for key staff. Part of this trend includes working with a coach external of the organization. Here are some thoughts on the benefits and differences when using an external coach.

External coaches are beneficial for several reasons:

* An external coach allows the key staff to be more open and candid about their development aspirations and concerns.
* It facilitates the key staff’s identification, selection and implementation of personal development goals.
* It challenges the key staff to be focused, realistic and proactive without admitting weaknesses to people within the organization.
* It helps the key staff understand accept their blind-spots without being defensive.

Your effectiveness as an external coach depends in part on a well-defined personal-professional relationship; you have no history to fall back on. Your relationship will go through successive stages. The key staff always has the option to end the relationships. How you behave during each stage will impact this decision. One way of understanding these stages is to compare them to the more familiar stages that a team goes through in a team development model.

Stage 1:  Introduction

This is the parallel to a team kickoff meeting where a team is given its assignment. As an external coach, the key here is how was the assignment made? How does the person being coached see you – as an asset? – or as a henchman? It is important to reconcile your role as an asset to the person being coached.

Establishing rapport is critical to moving ahead successfully. This doesn’t mean being charming or charismatic. It means getting on the same side of the issue – the positive developmental experience of the person being coached. To the extent appropriate and comfortable find common experiences and interests and possibly make the first meeting informal over coffee, lunch, etc. The first meeting can be a shorter informal icebreaker where you will talk about the issues and key success factors for making your joint efforts successful. In our external coaching efforts, we often leave behind some notes, ideas and possible worksheets to help move into the second stage, Clarification.

Stage 2:  Clarification

This is the forming stage in teams. At either the first or second meeting, it is important to begin clarification of:

Purpose – why are we doing this? – what results are we looking for? -how do we define success?
Roles and Responsibilities – what is the coaches role(s) (educator-subject matter expert? – political strategist? – counselor-advisor? – Socratic sounding board-challenger? etc.?)
Process – will we meet face to face? – weekly? – will it involve direct observations, role plays, exercises, etc.? (There will be some flexibility required to allow the coach to adjust the process in response to changing goals, progress, or lack thereof.)
Goals – what are our goals for getting successfully started? – what are their priorities (and the organizations)? – what are our goals for a successful relationship? – what achievements are we looking for from the assignment? – what are the developmental goals to be addressed?

In coaching, clarification is the stage where issues are addressed that a team sometimes deals with in the storming stage. If addressed proactively, it allows the relationship to move from the forming to the performing stage – storming is not requisite in a coaching relationship.

Stage 3:  Development

This is the performing stage. We move beyond initial definition and continue to develop roles, mutual respect, synergy, processes, norms, routines, productive patterns, intermediate and final goals and produce developmental results.

Stage 4:  Graduation

In the teamwork model, this stage is often called celebrating. In the literature on mentoring, this last stage is often called redefining. Because the coaching has been successful, the person being coached has grown and developed and the relationship between them is being redefined as they become more capable and independent. In an organizational relationship the person being coached often moves into more of a peer role than a subordinate role. As an external coach you successfully work yourself out of a job as the other person graduates to a new level. Either way, the relationship is usually redefined as one of colleagues rather than coach and key staff.

In our experience, it is critical for ownership of the process and its results to clearly belong to the person being coached. The coach, especially an external coach, should bring significant process expertise to the relationship, but coaching cannot be forced. This is a potential danger where an external coach is assigned to help someone “get their act together”. In our view the coach can be both supportive and direct and challenging. They can be a subject matter expert on the process and provide strong guidance on what it takes to be successful, but the desire to be successful and follow the process must come from the other person. In that light, here are a few thoughts on what a coach should / should-not do.

Serve as a facilitator Tell them what to do
Serve as a non-judgmental outsider “Grade” their ideas plans, actions
Take them through a defined process Dictate all the details
Ask questions Provide answers or solve their problems
Listen Be the know it all or the expert
Ask for details Dwell on mistakes
Serve as a sounding board Act as a therapist
Challenge their perceptions Argue they are wrong
Focus on the future (starting now Dwell on the past
Call for action Insist
Challenge them to meet their goals Be afraid to give feedback
Ask them to judge their progress Grade
Set next goals, as appropriate Think of an ending point

Coaching is a non-authoritative based process and that is why an external can easily serve as an assigned developmental coach. In fact, because of their detachment from the organization, its culture, its egos and its internal politics, it is often best to use an external. Many of our clients have found external coaches to be more effective for these reasons.

Good coaching and collaborative problem solving, skills are critical. Our experience in coaching and training leaders to be coaches has demonstrated over and over the critically of the coach focusing their role to assist the development of the person being coached.

A successful, well designed, coaching program can be one of the most effective development approaches for key staff and new professionals. To learn more about our coaching services and the value for you, go to:

Hints on what a coach should do:

Serve as a facilitator
Help them gain a vision of what should/could be accomplished and the personal benefits for them. Listen to their views and ask questions that help them gain insights. Share experiences that seem appropriate to the decisions they face but avoid giving advice unless specifically asked or it is perfectly clear that there is a need to do so. Help them develop a plan for achieving results, challenge the plan and their thinking until they (and you) are convinced that they know what they are doing and know how to achieve their goals. Remember you are a guide and you work for them.

Serve as a non-judgmental outsider
Be an objective sounding board; ask questions about their aspirations and concerns. Ask about the organization, its goals, values and how people succeed. Ask about their relations with key people in the organization. Listen and summarize what you understand. Ask questions for them to reflect on key issues. Without taking sides, help them understand organizational realities in a way that helps them develop.

Take them through a defined process
Guide them through the four stages of a coaching relationship (Introduction, Clarification, Development, Graduation) and have a series of standard exercises to draw from to clarify desired results, set goals, assess performance, develop plans and gather feedback. When coaching on a specific issue, our 8-step coaching model can be useful. Getting their input and creating a sense of ownership on their part is the key to making the process successful.

Ask questions
Judiciously use questions to gather information, test your understanding, expand their thinking, reflect on issues, generate insights and sometimes pose important issues that may be too threatening if made directly. Skillfully, and appropriately using questions is an exemplar coaching skill. Learn to use questions to help them develop the answers rather than you providing solutions. Do not fall into the trap of asking questions for questions sake – use them intelligently and with a beneficial purpose.

Be a sounding board so they can talk and listen to themselves. Listen so you understand their aspirations and concerns. Listen with empathy when needed. Respond appropriately so they know they have been heard and understood. When you feel an urge to play the role of expert, listen instead.

Ask for details
The difference between grand plans and results producing plans is usually in the details. Help them understand that and make sure their plans are specific, measurable, achievable, results oriented and time driven (SMART). If you feel it is lacking in these areas, share your concerns and keep asking questions to help them develop the details.

Serves as a sounding board
Listen so they can hear. Often people need to talk to express their concerns, aspirations, frustrations, dreams and crystallize their thinking. An important function is getting them to listen to themselves. Encourage them to verbalize their thoughts by listening with interest and appropriate empathy. Don’t let them get mired down in pity or unproductive frustration and don’t let it get too personal for your own comfort level. Keep them moving in a positive direction, ask for “what they can control – do next – etc.. Let them talk until they come up with their own answers.

Challenge their perceptions
Seek clarification. Use good “implication” questions, anecdotes, metaphors, other experiences, etc. to help expand and clarify their perceptions. Get them to seek additional information and feedback on issues. Share your own view of the situation as appropriate, but frame it as just an alternative view they should consider. Don’t make them wrong (even if you feel they are).

Focus on the future (starting now)
Learn from history, then once the lesson is learned let go – rehashing history generates a need to defend , validate, justify. Shift the focus to what can be done differently to make future outcomes more positive. Successful coaching is empowering and hopeful because it helps us perform better in the future. All improvement takes place in the future so get started now.

Call for action
“Great! When will you get started on this and what are your first three steps?”. Specifically ask them for a commitment to do these things. If they say yes, without any reservations, they have placed themselves on their own hook to get it done. Help them overcome the natural inertia involved in giving up what is comfortable (known) to try something new. Help them find the motivation to move forward, but remember it ultimately has to be their initiative.

Challenge them to meet their goals
Re-emphasize what the benefits are for them when they fulfill their goals. Support and encourage them. Share particulars as to why you have faith that they can do this (“your plan is very logical and well detailed, I know this is something you can turn around”), etc.

Ask them to judge their progress
Hopefully you have described the desired results in tangible or observable terms so an objective assessment can be made of their progress. Ask them to self-evaluate and reflect on the degree of progress, rate of progress, successes and lessons learned, barriers and lessons learned and gather external feedback as appropriate. Without “grading” them, share your own observations and perceptions as appropriate.

Set next goals, as appropriate
Celebrate and build on success and discuss what can be done to take performance to the next level. Help them select next goals as appropriate. Be ready to graduate them to the next higher level and redefine the relationship as “colleagues” when appropriate.