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Choosing an Executive Leadership Coach: What Matters

Nelms Charlie

One of the realities of moving up the executive leadership ranks, whether in higher education or other sectors, is that the higher you ascend, the fewer people you have with whom to commensurate or in whom to confide. The truth be told, for numerous reasons, even the most confident executives are often hesitant to turn to persons inside their organization, in ranks above them, to run an idea past them or to seek advice. They dare not give the impression they don’t have the answers, or that they can benefit from feedback provided by someone outside of their immediate administrative circle. Thankfully, such attitudes and perspectives are on the decline, and a growing number of college presidents and other C-suite members are increasingly using executive coaches. In fact, access to an executive coach is frequently a benefit included in the contract of many newly-hired executives.Dr. Charlie NelmsDr. Charlie Nelms

Approximately forty-years ago, when a small group of Black executives integrated the C-suite at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs), we relied on each other for pro bono counsel and non-judgmental support. Except for the American Council on Education ACE Fellows Program, leadership development programs were scarce at that time. Today, there is a plethora of nationally recognized leadership programs, many of which were established by Blacks and other historically disenfranchised people.

My Rolodex in the 1980s and 1990s included the names and telephone numbers of colleagues, including Gladys Styles Johnston, Chancellor, University of Nebraska at Kearney; James Renick, Chancellor, University of Michigan–Dearborn; Vera King Farris, President, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey; Herman James, President, Glassboro State College (now Rowan University); George Pruitt, President, Thomas Edison State University; David Carter, President, Eastern Connecticut State University; and Harley Flack, President, Wright State University, among others. We respected and trusted each other unequivocally, and we seldom hesitated to seek advice, or to just validate that we were on the right track. Of course, several of the early and most renowned Black presidents at PWIs included Clifton Wharton, President, Michigan State University; Ruth Simmons, President, Brown University; and John Slaughter, Chancellor, University of Maryland, among a small group of others.

After more than four decades of executive leadership in the academy, I am now privileged to serve as President-in-Residence with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), and Senior Consultant with the Association of Governing Boards (AGB). In both instances, aspects of my work entails executive coaching for both aspiring and newly appointed university CEOs. While I am receptive to working with C-suite executives from all institutions, I am particularly committed to the success of those who lead or work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).

In selecting an executive coach, the following are prerequisites I believe to be of paramount importance.

  • Fit. One of the unfortunate realities in the world of executive coaching is the fact that it is not a regulated industry, in the same way as many others. A person can declare themselves to be an executive coach and command an exorbitant fee without any evidence of objectively established and validated professional competence. Rates can easily range from $200 to $1000 per hour without any evidence of training or certification. Fit encompasses a combination of experience, cultural competence, and responsiveness, among other characteristics. At its core, fit is about having a coach whose commitment and experience align with your interests and needs.
  • Credibility. An effective executive coach is one who has a record of delivering on the promise of helping clients enhance their leadership effectiveness and responsiveness. This is an instance where the adage “trust but verify” is most appropriate. Before signing with a particular coach, don’t hesitate to ask for references. If they have none, or refuse to provide names, this is good indication that you should keep looking.
  • Background. Although I do not subscribe to the notion that one must have served in an executive role to be an effective coach, I am confident that it helps. However, the ability to listen actively, authentically and wholistically and to provide objective feedback is paramount. My advice to mentees and prospective clients is to be clear about their goals before engaging the services of a coach, and not to expect coaches to give them answers to what they should do! I always commence every coaching session with this question: how can I be helpful? Sometimes clients just want me to listen, while in other instances they want me to listen and to provide feedback.
  • Availability. As one who lived by a schedule for more than four decades, I know firsthand the importance of schedules. However, I also know that emergencies are not scheduled and that most executives cannot wait until their next scheduled appointment to confer with their coach. If your prospective coach is wedded to a schedule and cannot be available for you, my advice is to keep looking!
  • Authenticity. Truth matters! Stay away from executive coaches who tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear.  As difficult as it may be, good coaches always level with their clients even if it means the loss of business.

Here are my three takeaways:

First, no matter how experienced they may be, executives in higher education and beyond can benefit from having an executive coach.

Second, executive coaches are not guarantors of success nor substitutes for the courage of making important decisions.

Third, utilizing the services of an executive coach is not a sign of weakness, but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that we can all use a little help on our leadership journey. The word “coach” is rooted in a metaphor that comes from the same word as carriage: a vehicle that carries passengers to their destination. Remember that it is always up to you to determine that destination—and the route your leadership journey will take!

Dr. Charlie Nelms is a veteran higher education administrator and chancellor emeritus of North Carolina Central University.

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