October 4

Should Your Business Coach Be an Advocate or an Adversary? by Richard Tyson

Business, Leadership


It was early in the month of April when my phone rang. I knew who it was…even before I answered. The familiar voice said the words that I had expected: “Joe needs you here right away. How soon can you come?”

My client had just emerged from his quarterly board meeting, and he was feeling very beaten up. The phone call was from his secretary who had come to recognize that, as his coach, I filled an important role in helping him deal with the challenges of leading his company. That role was especially important in helping him rise and recharge after what was often a very tough review with his board.

I met with Joe a few hours after the phone call. He shared the stress he was feeling, wondering aloud about his ability to effectively respond to the mandates of his board. I listened attentively, not offering any immediate feedback. What he needed initially was an empathetic listening ear.

Soon I shifted into offering reassurances. Joe is an incredibly creative leader, technically competent in his industry and an outstanding motivator of people. But his confidence had taken a hit from the board; they had lit a fire under him–but they hadn’t fired him. In fact, their confidence in him was as high as ever, but their expectations for future performance were also high.

My role as Joe’s CEO coach that day was first–and foremost–to be his advocate, to restore his faith that he could meet the  challenges before him. However, over the next two hours, that role shifted. I became an intensive questioner. I sought to understand the specifics of each of the board’s mandates. I did this without trying to  provide solutions. Those needed to come from Joe.

As together we considered his possible actions, I questioned Joe’s answers. I became his adversary. What he needed next was someone who would challenge him. I was careful not to take on the intimidating tone he had felt from his board, but I wanted to facilitate his best thinking, to help him discover blind spots, and ultimately to leave our meeting with a sense of what to do next.

My relationship with Joe continued over the years until his business was acquired by a larger company, and he walked away with a very lucrative exit. During our time working together, I received many calls from Joe’s secretary urgently requesting that I hurry to meet with him. At one point, she told me that I was the only one who could restore his confidence after a tough board meeting.

She saw my role as that of advocate. But the fact is that that role was necessarily an ongoing balance between advocacy and adversary.

Balancing counsel between validating a client’s positions (advocate) and challenging those positions (adversary) is a critical skill for business advisors, coaches, and mentors. The extent to which we strike this balance may vary depending on the individual client’s needs, the specific situation, and the coaching philosophy of the advisor.

Key points to consider regarding Advocacy:

  • To be effective advocates–coaches, mentors, and advisors take the time to understand their clients’ goals, values, and unique circumstances. They listen actively to their clients’ perspectives, seeking to validate their feelings and experiences. It’s essential that they build strong rapport and trust before challenging the client’s positions.
  • Validation is about acknowledging and empathizing with the client’s viewpoint and feelings, creating a safe environment where the client feels understood and supported. This is especially important when he or she faces challenges or has doubts about their decisions.

Key points to consider regarding being an Adversary:

  • Challenging a client’s positions involves asking tough questions, playing the devil’s advocate, and helping the client critically assess their ideas and strategies. This process encourages clients to explore different perspectives, identify potential pitfalls, and make more informed, objective decisions.
  • Understanding the context and timing of when to shift into an adversarial mode is critical. While growth and learning are most often achieved through challenging the client, advisors must be sensitive to signals that their questioning is too much. I’ve adopted what I call the “spanking your baby rule.” If the client feels I’m spanking their baby too hard, they can call a time-out.

The balance between advocate and adversary will differ for each client. Some may require more validation and encouragement, while others may benefit from a more adversarial approach. Remember that the ultimate goal of any advisor, coach, or mentor is to foster the client’s growth and development. Balancing the roles of advocate and adversary helps clients build confidence and competence to address their challenges independently over time.

About the author 

Rich Tyson

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