What makes a great coach?
Author: Do Thi Huyen Trang – Senior Investment Associate, Mekong Capital
November 8th, 2022
It was a Wednesday morning, and I was about to have a 2-hour weekly conversation with one of our investees’ CEO. My usual ritual before each meeting with him would be an email sent in advance proposing 1 or 2 topics of discussion. The conversation would directly link to his current priorities of the quarter, and I also ask him in advance if he had any outcomes which he intended to achieve in our 2-hour conversation. This time, I chose not to do it this normal way.
The week leading up to that Wednesday was a busy week for the CEO. We just came back from a 2-day session in one of the company’s largest warehouses, a 30-minute drive from Hanoi. The event was intended to acknowledge his team’s effort. He wanted it to be a fun event, everyone would celebrate wins, be present, and be connected to their 2022 goals. However, it took on a different direction. On day 2 of the event, one of the co-founders shared that the company still had many struggles in terms of people management, operations at the branch level, and so on… He confronted the management team, including the CEO, and asked them how they would take responsibility for these issues. The atmosphere in the meeting room turned heavy.
Although the event was over and completed, something obviously lingered in the mind of the CEO. After lunch, as I said goodbye to CEO and everyone else, and observed his contemplative expression, I thought to myself, “I will talk to him privately when we are back in HCMC”.
Back in the CEO’s room on Wednesday, I started by genuinely acknowledging him and the whole team for what they had achieved in the first half of the year. I admired his leadership in facing and leading the team through challenges and struggles with new actions to keep their commitment strong toward the breakthrough target of 2022.
Then, I shared with him:
“I came here today without any prepared topics like we normally do when we meet. Instead, would you allow me to ask how you have been since last week until now?”
The CEO looked at me as if he did not quite understand what I meant. I continued by sharing that I experienced he was there full of energy with the team from day one. But on day two, he seemed tired.
Silence. He looked at me again – then turned away.
Sitting there still, I reminded myself to be present with him, in this silence.
Then he spoke: “I was not tired. But my head was occupied with thoughts, the feeling of being stuck with things I did not know how to resolve. I kept thinking all weekend. I even wrote down what was in my head. I even asked other founders if they saw anything that was ineffective in my leadership then they let me know.”
I slowed down. At that moment, all the well-formulated coaching questions were jumping up and down in my head, waiting to spill out. But if I said it out loud, it did not sound connected to the current situation. So instead, I chose to acknowledge his experience:
“It must be uncomfortable with all experiences you are having… My head urges me to continue asking you some coaching questions. But being with you now, all I wish to do is to ask you what you want to see differently from this situation.”
The CEO told me that he knew, in theory, that he needed to have a breakthrough in leadership and to cause breakthroughs for his team to turn around the situation, but he did not know how. He seemed to use up what he knew.
Well, I might need a punch here to dig for gold:
“Where do you think the breakthrough starts?”
In his words, he articulated that it all starts when someone has a result from the future that he/she is committed to, and which seems not easy to be achieved. Slowly, we restarted our conversation going with his flow of thoughts.
The more he reflected and learned from his own insights during our discussion about what led to breakthroughs, the more I experienced easiness asking him relevant questions. I saw myself asking the follow-ups: As the leader of the company, what is your original commitment? Do you think that you have successfully communicated to your team in order to transform off-track into opportunities for breakthroughs? What about those conversations that you feel unsatisfied with?… The conversation was so great that I did not have to effortfully think of what’s next questions to ask him, but it was even greater to see that the CEO was more engaged in talking.
To a point, he acknowledged:
“I felt safe talking to you, and I didn’t experience being judged. I used to be asked a lot, which landed on me as checking if I was doing everything right. But here and now, I don’t resist your questions. They are open questions that require me to reflect, think, and I often get something from them. Just like today, when we talked about “transforming break-down to break-through” meeting, from your questions, I realized that I did not give my team a comfortable and clear context when we set up those meetings. Thank you for that.”
That day, in our conversation around the VDI element of Generating Breakthroughs, when the CEO shared with me his takeaways, it opened me to a discovery of being a coach: a simple but not easy thing – that being a coach requires me to not only be committed to my CEO’s results but also to be present and fully listened for his experience.
I have been thinking about the relationship between leaders and coaches. What would happen if I always came to them with a designed “intended outcome” or “what do you want to achieve”? But what I learned to unlearn was that many times, the best conversation you can give someone is just being a trusted listener to their experience.
When I do that, just like I did, what used to be formulated or theories turned out to be so real and relatable. I came to the conversation with the CEO as a completely empty space. From that space, my job as the coach is to become a mirror – to project reality and allow him to reflect. Once he sees himself clearly and hears himself loudly, he will be able to make the decision needed to make himself shine best. You might not like the mirror for what you see from it, but the mirror is essential for personal and professional development – that’s how I choose to be a coach for the leaders of our investees.
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Mekong Capital makes investments in consumer-driven businesses and adds substantial value to those companies based on its proven framework called Vision Driven Investing. Our investee companies are typically among the fastest-growing companies in Vietnam’s consumer sectors.
In January 2022, Mekong Capital founder Chris Freund published Crab Hotpot, a story about a bunch of crabs who found themselves stuck in a boiling pot. The colorful cover of “Crab Hot Pot,” complete with expressive cartoon crustaceans, looks like a children’s tale at first glance. But as one continues reading, it becomes clear that the work has an important message about organizational transformation, leadership and focusing on a clear vision for the future.