Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: Focus on the client

October 14, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Leadership

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Effective coaching means focusing on the client‘s interests and progress, not the coach’s. I like working with clients, especially students where I used to go to school, so it’s easy to think about my interests. But I know that in the long term, a client telling me they got out of our interaction everything they wanted and more is my greatest reward. To do that my focus has to be on them.

Use the meeting structure to focus on the client

This stuff is basic, but easy to forget. If you work with a coach who doesn’t focus on you, you may want to change coaches or suggest they change to be more attentive and responsive to you.

An hour is short so you can’t waste time. On the other hand, a open, candid, and warm communication helps most people speak and introspect more comfortably and openly than diving right into business. Also, you don’t know anyone’s interests until they tell you them. So chatting a bit at the start helps.

After a handshake, introductions, and making sure they’re comfortable and ready to start, I first tell them I don’t share what we talk about with anyone, including their teachers or classmates, and that we can talk about whatever they want, that most people talk about the feedback report results, but not everyone; some people choose me (the students pick coaches from a list of all available coaches and their bios) for my background in entrepreneurship, science, or having been a student there, and want advice on those subjects more than on leadership. Clients from corporate environments who had many 360-degree feedbacks sometimes choose other topics.

If they choose to work on the report, I first ask if they had any surprises or major topics they wanted to cover first. If so, we go there. If not, I ask how well they understood the report and start by going over what it means.

If they choose other topics, I put them first. Usually that means asking what they want to cover and why, then letting them talk about it and responding as they want. Even when they want to talk about something else, it’s never been far from leadership, so I haven’t had to worry about someone getting off-topic.

Giving advice

In regular life I prefer not giving advice unless someone specifically asks for it, even then double-checking to make sure they want it and are prepared for it. Leadership and coaching situations often force you to give advice. I still check that they’re ready for it and want it. I try to look at the situation from their perspective and understanding their interests (usually helping myself by asking them their perspective and interests).

I also try to give advice not in the form of “Do this. Do that.” I try to say “If your goal is to achieve X, doing Y will generally achieve it, and here’s how.” That is, I try to give them context and a way to achieve their goals, not just telling them what to do.

(Come to think of it, if I haven’t written about this structure for giving advice, I should give it its own post some day. Giving people background of things they could do and their consequences can help people more than telling them what to do.)

Exercises and resources

I wrote the other day about the importance of exercises. I try to have them do at least one exercise and learn how to expand on it later. I also try to give them a resource — usually a book or video — to follow up with if they want.

For the exercises, I try to make sure they genuinely do it, understand the underlying theory, and see how it applies in real life.


With only an hour — fifty minutes, actually — it’s easy to run over. I have to keep an eye on the time. With enough time to answer anything if they answer yes, I ask them if they want to cover anything else before closing.

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