As an engineering leader, should you work with an external leadership coach? Many engineering leaders are curious about coaching, but aren’t sure what coaching is like, what they can expect to get out of it, and how to find a coach.
Cate Huston (Director of Engineering at DuckDuckGo) and Jean Hsu (VP of Engineering at Range) chatted in-depth about this topic during Episode 3 of Lead Time Chats, and then followed up with an AMA.
The questions and answers below came from the AMA Cate and Jean did for Lead Time, a community for engineering leaders who want to build work cultures where personal growth and company growth go hand-in-hand. You can request an invite here.
Q: How did you decide to start using a career coach? Was it something your company offered or something you arranged privately?
Cate: I was having a really hard time at work (the startup I was working at was failing) and a good friend was kind enough to tell me that I needed this help and recommend someone. She was so right - it made all the difference, and I've worked with that coach ever since.
Q: Do I need external coaching if I already have a pretty good manager?
Cate: Maybe not, if you're happy and growing in your current role and your manager is supporting you well through a combination of feedback, mentoring and coaching, that could be totally fine. In which case: lucky you!
Coaching might be helpful in the context of: your broader career, ways in which you're getting in your own way, etc. In which case you could consider it. Also worth thinking about, what more could your manager be giving you that would help you with your current / next job, if some of your needs were being met elsewhere?
At times I've relied on my coach because my manager was busy/absent, but even having a good manager - as I do now - it's still helpful, both for support on things that I don't want to put on him, but also to use my time with him more effectively.
Q: Do you need to be at a certain level to get the benefit from a coach (e.g. director or above) or are they applicable to anyone?
Cate: One of the most helpful things I've found with coaching is that it supports you in closing and accelerating your feedback loops. This makes it particularly helpful for managers because it's rare that someone else has deep insight into their work and can give meaningful feedback the way an engineer might get in a code review, for example. But plenty of non-managers would benefit from that kind of support, particularly during a period of growth or struggle. I think this is particularly the case for people whose managers are - for whatever reason - not very involved or helpful with their growth.
Q: Is coaching applicable to non-management leadership roles? (e.g. staff/principal engineers)
Cate: Absolutely! Similarly to my answer above as to who would benefit, but for staff+ roles especially - engineers at that level typically have a broad remit and limited support. Having a coach can be invaluable to help them work more effectively and grow.
On top of that, senior engineering leadership roles often lack peer support and report into senior (director+) level leadership. This means: less tactical support, more managing up. Having the support of a coach can make all the difference in those situations.
Q: Coach vs. Manager vs. Therapist - where is there overlap and what are the major ways they diverge?
Jean: There is certainly overlap between those three roles.
Coaching is very goal and action-oriented. So a typical coaching session might look like you bringing something you feel stuck on, talking through with your coach and exploring what you want, what's the stuckness, finding new perspectives to view the situation through. And through that clarity, your coach can guide you to actionable next steps to get you unstuck and get you closer to what you want.
My personal experience with therapy — and through talking about it extensively in coach training and with other coaches — is that it's not as goal-oriented. There's a lot of emotional processing and making sense of things, but the goal is not to come to immediately actionable next steps that you'll be held accountable for.
Managers additionally usually are responsible for some of your work output, so may sometimes put on a coaching hat, or a functional lead hat, or other hats, depending on their role. But you may have 1:1s that feel like coaching sessions, if that's in your manager's wheelhouse.
Q: What are coaching engagements like? Short-term goal-based or longer? What do variations look like?
Jean: It depends!
I know some companies have coaches come in for one-off sessions people can sign up for.
When I worked as a full-time coach, I experimented with a variety of different packages depending on the situation. Some were for 4-session packages (so more as-needed coaching sessions), some were monthly weekly or bi-weekly coaching, some were for 3 or 6 months.
For more one-off sessions, to make the most of the time, I had people do a bit of pre-work to define a topic and clarify what they felt stuck on, so we could jump right in.
A lot depended on people's budgets either out-of-pocket or what their companies allocated for coaching. Some companies will have ongoing coaching budget for execs or roles above a certain level, and then budget available for more short-term goal-based coaching engagements for front-line managers or ICs.
I mostly worked with people whose companies paid for the coaching, though there were a few people who paid out of pocket, or used standard education/development budgets to pay for smaller packages (4-sessions, for example).
Q: How much does coaching cost, and how frequently do people meet with their coaches?
Jean: It is a wild west out there for coaching costs.
On the high end, executive coaching with an experienced executive coach could be anywhere from $500-1500/session (often at that point, it would be a coaching package of like $10-20k that spans over half a year, for example).
In the mid-tier, there are coaches who charge anywhere from $200-600 per session (often also packaged as 3 or 6 month engagements).
For more affordable options, we've matched people with people we went through or are going through coach training with. They often don't have engineering or engineering leadership experience, but are good coaches — and often, the topics people bring to coaching are not especially eng-focused, they just need a sounding board.
Cate: I work (as a coach) with a company called BestPracticer (https://bestpracticer.com/coaching) who offer affordable coaching within existing learning budgets, starting at $150 a month.
Q: What are the pros and cons of employing a coach who has a similar background (demographic/skill set) to yours?
- Less explaining, more tactical knowledge. E.g. a coach with an engineering background will understand things like what makes a project particularly complex without explaining it.
- Engineers often find a shared language and context easier in relationships.
- Coach / manager / mentor are separate, and this can easily mix them up. I'd encourage people to consider what different things they are looking for, and the different places they might get that - rather than looking for too much from one person.
- It may be tempting to ask for / give advice. When a coach doesn't have an engineering background the focus by default really has to be on the person. Co-Active coaching works on the model of "Naturally Creative, Resourceful and Whole" which I love.
Jean: Everything Cate Huston said, and also — and I say this as someone who started coaching engineering leaders before going through coach training 😬 — another con is that there are a lot of eng leadership coaches out there who are more consultants. It is *way* too easy to slip into giving advice, if you have relevant context and experience.
That is absolutely fine if you're looking for a mentor or consultant. But if you're looking for someone to work with you on some of the things holding you back (especially if they're not particularly eng-focused like confidence or feedback or overwhelm), a coach with coach training and no eng experience to lean on for advice-giving may be more useful.
Q: Do you always talk about work things or is it more about the "whole person"?
Cate: 100% "whole person". The way that I frame my coaching is that it may be paid for and likely focus on work, but work is just part of life, so it's fine to go outside of it if that is what's most present/important/helpful for them.
With my coach, I totally feel this, and especially over time. When I'm stretched at work, we focus on work. When I'm more stretched by life (e.g. during a global pandemic...) we focus on life. In general I view it as the support to live my best life - with my career as an important piece of that.
Q: Should you only employ a coach for major life changes or have one always?
Cate: I've worked with my coach pretty consistently for ~6 years and found it so helpful! But short engagements can also work. Ultimately it depends on your situation and what you need / get out of it.
Jean: I've worked with a personal coach for a 6 month engagement, and found that really useful. Even though I had a fantastic experience with her, I decided not to renew after the 6 months. I felt like I had gotten what I wanted out of the experience, and had experienced masterful coaching — and if there comes a time when I feel like I want that support again in my life, I will look for another coach (or work with her again).
I have also worked with coaches who were arranged through work. One was through a leadership program and we just had a few one-off 1:1s, but I found them extremely insightful. Another one coached the entire eng leadership team for many months — it felt a bit more like having a regular 1:1 with a coach who had some context on the team.
All were useful in their own way. Like Cate said, depends on your situation and what you want to get out of it. You can always start with a short engagement or a few sessions to get a feel for it or try out a few coaches.
Q: Would I have to do homework? If so, how much time would I need to budget for that in an average week?
Cate: Sometimes! But it's up to you if you agree to it, how much time you commit to and regardless, any homework should support your goals not be an additive thing. E.g. homework might be to do the thing you've been procrastinating on and report back!
Q: What does good coaching look like?
Cate: Good coaching makes the person feel heard and seen and gives them what they need. Good coaching helps them see new possibilities, have more clarity and feel more confident and capable. It's hard to define tactically (aside from the listening thing - that bit is key), but how you feel after coaching (both immediately and over time) is what determines if it's good - or not.
Q: Would you recommend co-active coaching training to most engineering leaders? If not, what do you think is the signal that it would be beneficial to someone? Also curious what you think is the value of their certification.
Jean: Yes absolutely — I remember when I was considering it, Jennifer Kim told me to at least take Fundamentals (their first module, which is sort of like a sampler/intro) because it's super useful for anyone who works with people, which is basically everyone.
One thing co-active coaching training really taught me and hammered in was how valuable just asking open-ended questions is, and NOT giving advice. Most engineering leaders are very comfortable (maybe even too comfortable) giving advice. When I was coaching ppl, I could kind of tell when I veered into telling MY stories and it wasn't enough about the coachee, but didn't have a lot of good tools or practice to know how to dial it back. Co-active training basically teaches you how to coach when you have zero context or relevant experience, and you see how powerful it is, so then you can adjust accordingly.
Also, it's super easy to just take Fundamentals (which is about $600 with a discount code that floats around - let me know if you want me to get ahold of one) and then decide if you want to continue, so you don't have to make a huge commitment.
I personally did not go through certification, but I have a lot of friends who did — some got a lot out of it, and some say they thought it wasn't hugely beneficial. I'd say it depends on what you want out of it.
For me, I already had a full coaching practice, so didn't feel like I needed the certification for credibility. But if you want to be coaching and you're mostly going through HR/Ops/coaching companies, they may look for a certification. Most of my clients were people who found me individually. I did get added to a few coaching rosters at larger companies (and get brought in for a few engagements through coaching companies) even without a certification bc there was demand for coaches that have coach training and engineering leadership experience, and there are so few.
If you’d like to ask Cate or Jean more questions about coaching, or don’t want to miss upcoming Lead Time Chats and AMAs, request an invite to Lead Time.