“Ruthless compassion” may appear to be an oxymoron. But, if we think of it as a form of “tough love” adapted for executive coaching, it takes on real meaning.
The role of an executive coach is to ask powerful questions and to provide meaningful feedback in the form of observations and assessments. This allows the coachee to identify what is holding her back from taking successful, sometimes transformational, actions. But, what is holding back our leader? Often, she cannot see herself as others see her. She fails to detect and correct her errors because she is unaware of them.
The first phase of the coaching process involves “unfreezing” the leader’s perceptions of herself, of her leadership, management style and its impact on others*. The masterful coach provides the executive with honest and timely feedback so that she can see herself as others see her, and become open, ready, and vulnerable for the work of transformation ahead. But, if our coachee is “blind” to her current state of being, the task of having her hear our questions and integrating our feedback will very difficult indeed.
This is where ruthless compassion and meaningful feedback intersect. As coaches, we are committed to making a positive difference in our coachee’s life, to transform her roadblocks into opportunities. To do so, we need to penetrate her “blindness”, to allow her to see the world and herself as they truly are. While being always professional and sensitive to the leader’s needs, we have to ask difficult and often painful questions. According to Robert Hargrove*, it is by discussing the “undiscussable” that masterful coaches get to the nuggets of truth that make our feedback meaningful for our coachee and lead to transformational breakthroughs.
The second phase entails intervening in the context, the old patterns, that are stopping the executive from being the leader she can be, and that her organization needs her to be. How? 1) By distilling the feedback the coach has received about the executive in a 360-degree process. 2) By understanding, distinguishing and articulating the existing context (patterns) that shape the leader’s reality. And, 3) By identifying and articulating with the leader a new enabling context, new patterns, e.g. being collaborative rather than a lone-ranger.
The last phase of the transformation process requires the executive to freeze, to crystalize, and to integrate the new context that the coach and the leader have co-developed. For this to be truly effective and lasting, the leader needs to imagine, visualize and feel how she is going to be different, think differently and act differently starting immediately. If there is no firm commitment on the part of the leader to make this real in her life, the coaching will fail and our leader and her organization will suffer ….
* See Robert Hargrove (2010, p.95 and 315, and 2000, pp. 218 – 238)