How An Executive Coach Helped Me Be a Better Leader



When I became executive director of Learning Forward (formerly the National Staff Development Council), I found there were few things I really understood about running a national organization. Fortunately, one of the best decisions I made was contracting with an executive coach.

While coaching had been recommended to me on several occasions throughout my career, for some reason I had never accepted the offer. I’m glad I made the decision to seek coaching as one strategy to support my effectiveness in my first few years in a new position.

For those of you who have benefited from coaching, you may find much of the following resonates with your own experience. For those of you who have been weighing an opportunity to join a coaching relationship, perhaps these reflections may tip the scale for you.

My coach encouraged me to build appropriate relationships.

I had previously been the deputy executive director, a position I described as having incredible responsibility, but very little authority. The only way to get things done with my colleagues in the organization was by building a consensus to support it. I knew as our organization would grow and I stepped into this new role, that our relationships would change. I wanted to make sure they remained positive and productive.

He recommended establishing organization values, staff agreements, operating procedures, and more. Providing examples from his organization he acted as a sounding board as I tried different strategies within my own. His guidance was on target and these systems and tools have contributed to a productive and organized workplace.

My coach served as my thinking partner.

During those early years our organization was changing rapidly, and I had a lot of big issues on my to-do list. During sessions with my coach I would frequently say my goal was to get clearer about a particular project. He would become my thinking partner by engaging me in brainstorming, testing assumptions, checking details, and developing plans of action. He didn’t have any background in our field, so I found his questions refreshing, his observations always interesting, and his suggestions extremely helpful.

My coach also helped me clarify priorities.

I have held almost every job within our organization, so it’s easy to focus too much on the details rather than the vision. My coach always encouraged me to focus my time and energy on those things that were reserved for the executive director. Beginning each call, he would ask what I wanted to accomplish with our session. I would share what was on my list and we would rank them according to criteria we had established.

He would help me to feel comfortable about letting go of some issues, letting people learn from mistakes, identifying the points in the organization that required my attention and those where I need to find alternative champions.

My coach strengthened my confidence.

I will always be grateful for some of the simple things he would say and do to reinforce my desires and ability to do the right things by the organization. In the early years there were some first-time challenges I had never confronted. I was uncomfortable. I shared my sense of inadequacy with my coach. He always made clear that his job was to help me realize that I could accomplish anything I wanted. He gave me confidence as well as holding me accountable to my own commitments.

Through our relationship I learned many things about myself and the kind of leader I envisioned becoming. While our weekly sessions ended after three years, I am still striving to attain the vision I have for myself. I know that whenever I am faced with a new opportunity, challenge, or feeling overwhelmed, I can pick up the phone and call, and we can have a session that will move me forward on the next path.

For that I am a better person, and a better leader.

By Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director, Learning Forward

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