What’s more important for executive coaching – tools or experience?

Ian P Buckingham explores if a solid grasp of theory or time at the coalface is the key

The question of what’s more important – tools or experience – in executive coaching often crops up in business seminars. As someone who has been a business and leadership coach for more than a decade now, for me the answer's simple: both are important, of course, but there is no substitute for experience, and the deeper, the better. As William Wordsworth said: “The education of circumstances is superior to that of tuition."

Of course, there are caveats. Coaching is a skill that doesn't simply descend from the heavens with grey hair, and business experience alone isn't enough. It takes a certain set of skills, combined with self-awareness, to transfer personal competence to a nurturing mindset and relationship. Let’s face it: blinkered thinking of the ‘my way or the highway’ variety is going to have limited appeal.

Consider, for example, the many sporting greats – such as Ian Botham, Stuart Pearce and Roy Keane – who have dozens of caps and trophies but simply can't develop their model of the skills and learning needed to sustain success in others, their coachees. This seems to be especially true when they were the ‘lead by example’ types who were so successful in their day that they just can't see any other way of facing challenges. Coaching is less about ‘like me’ and more about ‘right for you’, because organisations and teams are the sum of diverse parts bringing a range of approaches to problem-solving, which the great coach should be able to convey.

Coaching and mentoring skills, tools and techniques can usually be learned. But like with the best MBA courses, the most valuable learning comes from sharing experiences with fellow participants. This attribute far outweighs the application of certified models and theories that are, after all, the successful experience of someone else simplified and distilled.

Although theories can help, in order to share good practices, detect and learn from patterns, and apply learnings to fresh situations presented by clients, there is nothing like experience to cultivate empathy and stimulate authentic conversations between coach and client. As Mahatma Gandhi said: "Knowledge gained through experience is far superior and many times more useful than bookish knowledge."

If you’re seeking a leadership coach, start your quest with someone in mind who has experience of both coaching and leadership itself. Then make sure they will challenge your assumptions, blind spots and prejudices in a manner you are most likely to respond to. Avoid the temptation to employ someone who will indulge and perpetuate your pet peccadilloes and encourage the wrong sort of productivity.

If you're looking to become a coach, remember that books and certificates won't be enough. Seek out and immerse yourself in challenging business situations. Develop and fine-tune your skills on the frontline and foster a leadership thesis based on practice first, theory second. Ultimately, who really needs a coach who has achieved nothing in their professional career? Put yourself in your client's shoes. Throw yourself into practical leadership adventures wherever you can find them.

We all like a good model or a clever theory. But the harsh light of experience and strong command of soft skills aligned to the objectivity that comes with pragmatic thought will undoubtedly add the most value to your coaching relationships in the long run.

Ian P Buckingham is a business transformation executive and coach, and is the author of Brand Engagement and Brand Champions