DRG Executive Search Consultants

April 2014

Accessing Your Strongest Self - An Inside Look at Executive Coaching


Jennifer Thorne


In the past two decades, executive coaching has emerged as a growing resource for leaders in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors, but for many executives seeking support as they steer their organizations and navigate their individual career paths, the process and philosophy of coaching may still seem unclear. To help demystify the field, we spoke to two successful practitioners, Josh Elkin and Merryn Rutledge for their takes on what coaching is, what it can accomplish, and where it’s headed in the future.


“I get a particular reward from seeing my clients’ potential unfold before my eyes.”


Jenifer Thorne: How did you first become involved in coaching?


Josh Elkin: As an executive, I had used mentors, people who were more senior in my field, and also consultants who were influential in the development of the coaching movement. So when I decided to step down from PEJE [in 2011], coaching was on my radar as a logical extension of my experience and my interest in strengthening nonprofit executive leadership and volunteer leadership.


Merryn Rutledge: I was a writing teacher for many years before I started my business in organizational development, and I’d always approached my creative partnership with students from the standpoint of “What do you want to say?” and “I am here to assist you.” That was the seed of my interest, that curiosity and discovery I find in the partnership process of working one-on-one. I get a particular reward from seeing my clients’ potential unfold before my eyes in coaching, so I started moving more definitely in that direction in 1998.



Can you describe your process in working with nonprofit executives?


JE: As a first step, I give clients a questionnaire designed to introduce themselves to me in terms of the things they value, the peak experiences they’ve had - a variety of things in their background that they’d like to bring to the coaching table. The theoretical underpinning of the school of coaching I’m most familiar with is that we view clients as naturally creative, resourceful and whole. If you want to coach someone effectively, you’re much better off capitalizing on strengths, rather than trying to obliterate weaknesses. You can only quiet the weaknesses, put them on the backburner or contain them - while with strengths, the sky is the limit.


“You’re much better capitalizing on strengths, rather than trying to obliterate weaknesses.”


MR: I encourage my clients to fill out a simple chart where they list what they’re interested in, why they decided to engage a coach, and, as much as they know, what they’d like to see as an outcome. It’s helpful as a first step in giving me a lot of information - but more important, in engendering focused introspection on the part of the client. In the first session, the client has that as a resource, and in subsequent sessions, I might then ask what interests they’re coming in with, what they’d like to work on that day.


“Coaching is ‘dancing in the moment’.”


JE: Coaching is “dancing in the moment,” very dependent on what the client brings to the table. We work together as a team in an open and honest way, designing an alliance, gaining clarity on specific challenges they’re facing, helping them make decisions. If someone is stuck in a certain mindset about something they’re facing, I reframe that, challenge them to come up with five or six other perspectives. We use different methods, including the physical piece of things and metaphor, to expand perspectives and get out of a stuck position. I’m always working on optimism and positivity, helping people realize that they’re always choosing, that they’re never really trapped - there are always new options and ways that you can proceed. It can follow an arc. The duration of coaching varies, but the point is to create a sustainable process, which includes “accountability structures,” my fancy term for homework.


MR: During a session, I ask inviting questions and listen in specific ways in which I’m trained as a coach to listen - watching how people are with their bodies, paying attention to what their language is telling me. For instance, one client was having difficulty in her job. At one point, she said, “It’s so hard in this town.” It struck me that she had been talking about her organization and her boss. All of a sudden, it was “this town.” She’d shifted in a way that caught my attention, and I said, “Here’s something I’ve noticed.”


The first step is raising awareness. The next phase is that we try some experiments. For example, I notice in one of my clients that each time she’s on the cusp of taking action towards the goal she wants, she uses the word “but.” When I recognize that pattern, I invite her to reframe the statement using the word “and.” Then we explore what that was like and it might lead to other experiments. At the end of a session, there’s greater awareness, some action practiced, a discussion of what’s been meaningful to the client and some intentions listed. I call it “homework” - it’s usually self-generated or something that I pick up on that we co-create. One of my clients is a decider and a doer who wants to grow her powers of self-reflection. Her homework is very specific, trying out journaling and doing some reflective questions while she drives home at night.


“A real desire for work-life balance…there’s both more permission in our culture to raise the issue and more conflict over it.”


Have you noticed any trends emerging - issues that seem to be universal among the executives you work with?


JE: I would say that the topics that are most frequently brought to the table are around board management - crafting a partnership with the board and defining clear roles and responsibilities. And maybe even more prevalent are issues related to personnel, anything from orienting staff to reducing the size of their staff or letting someone go. It’s one of those common challenges senior executives face. Sometimes it involves redeployment, recognizing people who are not in a slot that caters to their strengths and making a change. Those are always difficult issues for executives to get involved in.


MR: One is, among both men and women, a real desire for work-life balance. I’m seeing that a lot more lately. Somehow there’s both more permission in our culture to raise the issue and more conflict over it. A second one would be the sheer pace of work. The form that I see it take in leaders is that they’re called on for near-instantaneous responses. Whatever Mary Barra’s plans were for GM, two months into her tenure, she’s got these horrific challenges to deal with. It’s not as though she can convene a committee - she’s on deck every day having to respond to whatever’s just been posted to the Huffington Post, not just the last day’s paper. Some of my clients are relatively small nonprofits, in the $10 to $12 million range, but, in one case, the CEO is in the wind of healthcare reform change. Amidst the snafus over the websites and questions about how both the national and state legislation may be changed, she is, almost daily, asked to turn on a dime.


“Nonprofit executives are very caring people. They don’t want to be the bad guy.”


How does coaching help address those issues?


MR: Coaching may be the only dedicated time when the leader can put all of that aside in order to process it - to reflect, analyze and get ready to back out there. One of my clients was an Executive Director who wanted to play in a larger arena, but he was dreadfully busy. One of the things we did was that he learned how to carve out dedicated time to take steps towards this larger aspiration. Within a year of beginning our work, he was serving on a major national board, which then became a stepping-stone to his becoming head of the national organization for which he’d been a regional director. That came out of coaching sessions that started as a time commitment of an hour a week.


”It’s important that the coach not problem-solve for the person…”


JE: Management situations tend to become all consuming and highly distractive from everything else that needs to get done. Nonprofit executives are very caring people. They don’t want to be the bad guy, but ultimately the needs of the organization come first and you need to move forward. So you want to give people the sense that they have choices and enable them to call on their strongest self to do the job. A lot of the work is about allowing executives to trust their intuition. I ask them to respond to the question of how they want to be in the process - do they want to choose to be tough, lenient? I help them clarify a process of due diligence - for example, whether a staff member will be given a chance to address concerns before a decision is made. It’s important that the coach not problem-solve for the person, but really draw on the resources of the client and help them come to clarity on their own.


“Quiet all of those saboteur voices.”


Is there any advice you can provide for our readers, who may be considering partnering with a coach or working to improve performance on their own?


MR: [In seeking out a coach], certifying processes and training programs are important qualifications because they are markers of demonstrated skills in things like asking resonant questions, sensitively bringing what is out-of-awareness into a client’s field of vision, and then co-creating plans and action. I think it’s also helpful to have a coach who isn’t just trained as a coach, but who understands organizational systems - an executive’s milieu - whether from being an executive her or himself, and/or from formal study in fields like leadership or organizational change.


JE: Asking powerful questions is a very important tool - questions that don’t have a clear yes or no answer, but are designed to expand your thinking about what options you have. I place a lot of emphasis on being and doing - not just action taking, but questions like “How are you in this moment? How do you tend to show up in these difficult situations?” Remember to appeal to your best self and try to quiet all of those saboteur voices. We have a crew of voices inside us, but the captain of that crew is the leader that the client most wants to be. It’s important to work to bring forth that strong voice.

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Following a twenty year tenure as the head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, Joshua Elkin served as the founding Executive Director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a philanthropic collaboration focused on seeding new Jewish day schools across North America. After fourteen successful years leading PEJE, Josh stepped down to create a private practice devoted to leadership development and executive coaching. Josh serves as a Consultant to DRG and a coach to many of our placed candidates.


Board certified leadership coach Merryn Rutledge is Principal of ReVisions LLC, a national executive coaching and change management firm with clients in all sectors. She coaches for the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland’s coaching certification program, teaches in the University of Vermont’s Executive Management program, and enjoys doing research and writing on leadership. In her first career, Merryn led educator professional development and taught for many years in the US and abroad.


Executive Search for Nonprofit Sector