If you’ve seen Shakespeare’s King Lear, you recognize my reference. The Fool is Lear’s own, personal stand-up comedian. But he is much more than that. When the Earl of Kent lips off, Lear boots him out of the kingdom. And when Lear doesn’t like what Cordelia, his daughter, has to say, he disowns her altogether. In contrast, the Fool is never rejected and retains “humorous” immunity throughout the life of the King. In Lear, the King gradually goes mad, but the “Fool” provides commentary even in the madness.
As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, the Fool is actually very smart. He’s the only person who tells it like it is, even calling his master “foolish.” Additionally, he provides much of the social commentary. He’s also loyal. But most of all, he is the voice of reason, serving to clarify and expose folly, while emphasizing reality over appearance.
Lear’s Fool: where many coaches fall flat
The rise of executive coaching over the past decade has brought a great deal of clarity to the process. That’s because executives maintain a number of routine activities that lend themselves to regular, direct feedback and practice. They include managing and leading people, interactions with key managers, negotiation with counterparties, networking, briefings, presentations, customer relationships, team meetings and general career building. In most of these settings, the exec can usually gain feedback from a thoughtful observer and improve his or her practice. For a number of reasons, however, many execs prefer a corporate outsider—an executive coach—to enhance their effectiveness. And companies have often found such coaching a very useful investment.
Coaches typically rely upon a given technology (often communication or the behavioral), the ability to gain useful developmental feedback from the client and his network, an understanding of the rhetorical culture of the client and the firm, the ability to frame learning and objectives in ways that are meaningful to the client, and the ability to give feedback to the executive.
A good coach is usually a blend of confidant, advisor and goad. But most of all, the highly useful and effective coach plays the role of Lear’s Fool. And that requires a great deal of experience, insight, conversational flexibility, good humor and sheer guts.
Giving executives direct feedback is tough for many coaches. Of course, it’s also very tough for managers to give feedback to their own subordinates. On numerous occasions, for example, an exec told me he’d given feedback to a subordinate. But when I talked to the subordinate, he didn’t know what his boss was talking about. Giving direct, developmental feedback is painful for 95 to 99% of the population. It rarely happens.
—And the consequence? Over the years, I’ve developed a vocabulary and a battery of story lines that make it possible for me to give direct feedback. First of all, I always—yep, always—let a client know that he or she will be getting direct feedback, some which will be frustrating, difficult and even painful. And I set the stage with this instruction from the get-go. Since the client has actually hired me for that feedback, he’s usually willing to accept it, even though the hairs on the back of his neck go up when I share my information. Here’s the process:
Detail the client’s strategic strengths with example and application. Few clients know where their real business strengths lie. This act alone endears you to the client and provides a clear future to work with. They also support your freedom to give negative, developmental feedback. Inevitably, you will want to return to the strengths of the client again and again, tying them to career strategy.
Create a set of story lines that support critical feedback. “I’m reporting to you what I’ve heard.” “I’m giving you repeated verbatim from a number of relevant colleagues.” “So relax—Cool it.” Etc.
Remind the client that once he’s understood the feedback with clarity, it’s much easier to make developmental changes. Maximum development over a year is in the range of 3 to 5 competencies. Never, absolutely never more than 5 in a 12 month period.
Tie the critical feedback to personal strategy and constructive development skills. There should be normal business opportunities for the client to work on the new competencies. They must be relevant.
Determine the relevant feedback and ignore the rest. Always give your rationale for ignoring some of the feedback, along with cultural data to support your reasoning.
Remind your client, when necessary, that this is not life or death. And argue your conclusion well, providing evidence and obvious data.
Give detailed praise on the client’s developmental successes. After several months of coaching and success, a single page listing successes, their application and career usefulness can be highly motivating, especially to print-oriented execs.
Always allude to your reality structure. I work out of a sense of sanctified nonchalance, which is to say that I have a great deal of trust in the universe and my client. It’s only in recent years that I’ve understood how much people desire that reality structure. It is phenomenally liberating and clients respond. It’s actually a form of secular preaching. It needs to be said that I’m not a “religious person” in the typical sense.
Effective Fools have very different personas. One of the most effective was a McKinsey director: quiet, soft-spoken, concrete, colorless, but direct. My style is direct, concrete, colorful, studied, calculated and sometimes fleshed out with expletives. Candidly, I think every exec needs a “Fool.” My protégé serves that role for me. He can be ruthless, cutting, impatient, but also highly thoughtful, affectionate, supportive and insightful. He’s a classic no-bullshit guy with a terrific vocabulary. I’d be lost without him. Overall, the persona or style of the “Fool” needs to be reflective of authenticity and transparency—however a person manifests that.
So it strikes me that Lear’s Fool is a great model for understanding the coach’s role. And yes, if you can do so with a great deal of good humor, it’s liable to be far more useful. I’ve been a story teller much of my life. A portion of these stories is comedy. They demonstrate the ability of past clients to succeed based upon their own wit, wisdom and strength. Admittedly, this takes competency, practice and guts—but the consequence, invariably, is career success for the client and return business for the coach.
Flickr photo: Mikeandhiscamera