As coaches, we would all probably agree that we learn a lot from our clients. That’s why we love what we do. This is even more true in executive coaching, where occasionally, we do find ourselves coaching leaders who challenge us more than usual and where we have to consciously step up our game.
These individuals, while all different, have similar traits. They have high energy, drive and focus and are impatient to do much more. They are overachievers for whom the drive to achieve is too tough to resist. They don’t just know achievement is important, they feel it.
What Drives Overachievers?
David McClelland, a Harvard psychologist, spent much of his career studying motivation and how it affects leadership behavior. He identified three internal drivers (he called these social motives): achievement, affiliation and power. David defined these drivers as follows: achievement is the desire to excel in relation to a set of standards, and it is the drive to succeed; affiliation is the maintaining of close personal relationships; and power involves being strong and influencing, or having, an impact on others.
He said the power motive comes in two forms: personalized—the leader draws strength from controlling others and making them feel weak; and socialized—the leader’s strength comes from empowering people.
McClelland’s research showed that all three motives are present to some extent in everyone. He initially believed that of the three motives, achievement was the most critical to success. In his later work, however, he argued that the most effective leaders were primarily motivated by “socialized” power, the drive to help others be successful.
Context and Competencies Matter
I started coaching M and N around the same time. Both worked for different organizations in technology. N knew me, had sought me out and was extremely eager to begin. N was investing in the coaching himself. M was being sponsored by his organization. The first time I met M was during the chemistry meeting.
Paying attention to the context helped me understand early on how the ICF Core Competencies 2. Establishing the Coaching Agreement and 7. Direct Communication would help me achieve the breakthroughs with M and N.
Story of M and Establishing the Coaching Agreement
M had accomplished a lot in a short time. He thrived under pressure and set a hectic pace for his team. He was the first to build a new global product with his team in India, and now he wanted to be a part of the global team.
As I listened to him, it was clear that it was all about him and his need for new challenges. So, I asked him, “How important is it for you to help your team grow?” He didn’t answer and just kept quiet. It occurred to him, as he looked at me, that he had never paid attention to this aspect and knew instantly it was a blind spot. Overachievers get it.
He agreed that this was an area we could focus on in the session and that one implementable idea at the end of the call would be a good measure of success for the session. He finds value in the coaching, primarily because I did not move forward until we established the agreement. M, whom I did not know, made a call to trust me. M is now channeling his achievement drive to personal relationships and “socialized” power.
Story of N and Direct Communication
N is managing a large team of around 800 people, and he was promoted because of his superior project and personal relationship skills.
At the outset, N requested me to challenge him so that he could “catch up” with his peers. He had also received feedback on the need to work on his executive presence. It became clear during the second session that he viewed this intervention as a self-help project, which he would execute under my guidance.
I shared my observations with permission directly during the session: “I could help you design actions to challenge you and to keep you busy, but being busier will not help you increase your executive presence. How much of a challenge is it for you to be less busy and to reflect on what you really need to do?”
The balance shifted, and N started taking charge. Over the next few coaching sessions, N designed actions to support his team to execute independently of him and not just for him.
Coaching overachievers requires coaches to meet them where they are, early on. They are unaccustomed to being challenged and when we, as coaches, slow them down and show them the mirror, they get it.
To do so, we need to be more masterful and for that, the ICF Core Competencies make a huge difference!
© Prasad Deshpande 2018