Interview with John Reed

December 9, 2021

Talking to a Global Leader in Coaching about the Importance of Active Listening

John Reed is a senior executive and certified coach with 30 years of corporate leadership and coaching experience across dozens of industries and Fortune 50 companies. He’s a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches group and designated as a master coach by three leading firms: the International Coach Federation, Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching, and the MEECO Leadership Institute of the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches. He has an MBA from Dartmouth and a PhD in psychology from the University of Georgia. He wrote a seminal book on executive coach selection, Pinpointing Excellence, with a follow up book to be released shortly.  

Ponder recently had the pleasure of speaking with John about active listening, creating a dedicated space for learning, fostering an environment for psychological safety, and measuring the ROI of coaching. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

John Reed

At Ponder, we think a lot about the importance of active listening in coaching as well as leadership. Has this been true in your experience?

Based on my background as both a licensed organizational psychologist and coach, there is an important difference between listening to form your next response, and listening to understand and appreciate the person who is taking the time to tell you something about themselves.

How do the best coaches develop better active listening skills?

Verbally and nonverbally, this can be done for example simply by reiterating what the client says, leaning forward, and nodding to show attentiveness and appreciation. This is especially important if there is a difference in rank between the coach and client.

The metric I have to constantly monitor is speaking less and letting the client speak more. I aim for the client to speak at least two thirds of the time.

This means sitting quietly and attentively and not intervening. As a coach, you need to become more comfortable with silence to give the other person space to process thoughts and feelings. You don’t want the session to be a ping pong match—just going back and forth.

What have you found to be the most effective tool or process for gaining insights between sessions?

As I’m wrapping up a session, the client and I may agree on some homework. For example, I might say, “This week I want you to be aware of each time you experience X.” And then I have them check-in with me on what they’re noticing during that time.

Sometimes, I am an accountability partner between sessions. For example, I might call the client weekly to ask them how they’re doing on a scale of one to ten on goal X.”

How can coaches create the space for executives to take a step back and focus on personal development while they already feel so strapped for time?

Engagements usually focus on both personal development and navigating on the job demands, and of course these two are interrelated. In starting coaching, we’ll talk about things they are experiencing as well as specific demands they are tackling. They might ask what I think about a specific situation or challenge. As coaches, we try to be clear about when we’re responding to a work demand, as opposed to focusing on self-development. From there, we can regularly reconfirm that the client’s needs are being met.  

How do you create the safety to foster honest communication so you can recognize underlying emotions?

I work as a coach and organizational psychologist under two ethics codes from the International Coach Federation (ICF) and American Psychological Association (APA). So we talk about  confidentiality, my being accepting and nonjudgmental, and related subjects. I’m genuinely curious while trying to understand the client as much as possible. As coaches, we want the client to reach the point of knowing and feeling that this is a safe place to be self-disclosing and perhaps the only place where they don’t need to maintain a façade. Occasionally, as coaches, we can model self-disclosure. For example, I can give an example of a time when I struggled with X so the client feels less alone. Self-disclosure helps build trust and show vulnerability. As  the client sees this behavior modeled—and it’s normalized—they are more likely to feel safe.

How can coaches give clients the skills to develop outside of direct coaching sessions?

Here are a couple of suggestions. We can help clients to be aware cognitively of their self-talk, such as: “In situation X, what were you telling yourself?”  Second, as part of the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching process, we can help clients get in the habit of asking the people they work with for input on potential positive behavior changes that will strengthen them as leaders. Also, once the client starts working in coaching on a behavior change, they can regularly check in with co-workers (aka Stakeholders) for more input on how they are progressing in making the behavior change – using brief, simple questions like “How am I doing with X?” 

In your book, Pinpointing Excellence, you talk about the importance of hiring quality coaches to improve the ROI of coaching. So, I’m interested to explore what you’ve found to be the most effective way to track ROI?

Tracking ROI starts with moving in the right direction. At the very beginning, coaches need to be clear about the client’s specific goals. Why are we doing this coaching work? What are the target outcomes? What are the implications (financial, strategic, etc.) of meeting those goals? What, if any, are measurable results we could expect?

For instance, if I’m working with a client whose goal is to get better at delegating, we’ll want to observe throughout the coaching process whether that client has more hours in the week to get out of the weeds and work on, for instance, strategy. We’ll want to clearly define from the start what it would mean if they could, for example, allocate 10% more time and energy to formulating and implementing strategy.

As coaches, we need to specify the goal at the beginning, then check in with the client to see if they’re seeing desired outcomes. If we’re using the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching model, I’m checking in with stakeholders – perhaps quarterly - to track the client’s progress. 

We also need to compare stakeholder feedback with the client’s perceptions of their progress, to confirm it. As coaching ends, and stakeholders see that the client is better at X, the odds are better that we can connect their coaching results to measurable business outcomes.

What do you believe definitely does not work?

Here’s one of many mistakes made in my first few engagements. The client and I would just dig into the coaching, get things accomplished, and wind up the work. At that point I would ask “What do you think the value and ROI of this has been?” Through no fault of theirs, clients would not know and could not be expected retroactively to come up with something. Much better to be clear from the start about targets and to track progress throughout the engagement. 

Whatever the goal is, we’re starting to ask the questions right from the beginning that help the client become aware of what they should be looking for and tracking. For example, let’s just say your emotional intelligence improved by 30%. What would that do for your relationships at work and, in turn, what would that mean in terms of business metrics?

Ponder is an AI-enabled asynchronous voice platform that connects and aligns teams.

As part of this process, we regularly connect with thought leaders who have researched and developed best practices. We’re fortunate to be able to share some of their insights with you. Sign up today to further your development as a leader.

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Interview with John Reed
December 9, 2021

Ponder had the pleasure of speaking with John Reed, a renowned executive coach, about active listening, creating a dedicated space for learning, fostering an environment for psychological safety, and measuring the ROI of coaching.

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