Artie Isaac of Vistage International: Your Questions Answered

Executive Coach Artie Isaac has been encouraging successful people toward greater creativity and effectiveness for decades. By starting with asking questions, Isaac helps guide executives to better practices that change not just their lives, but have a ripple effect to positively influence others.

Isaac employs his techniques through a variety of methods including leading corporate creativity workshops, serving as a keynote speaker and teaching in classrooms and conference rooms. He also leads several executive peer groups in Columbus and was recently named “Rookie Chair of The Year” by Vistage International, the world’s leading CEO organization.

Isaac is normally the one asking the questions, so we turned the tables and asked him to answer the top questions he receives about executive coaching.

1. What is executive coaching?

I don’t much like the phrase executive coaching. It sounds like someone needs to wear a whistle. I don’t wear a whistle.

But it’s otherwise apt. I serve executives. By executives, I mean leaders whose thoughts and behavior influence others. The coaching is asking the client to identify the biggest issues facing him or her, encouraging them to identify how those issues can be addressed and holding them accountable to taking productive action.

The power is multiplied. If our work is effective, the coaching client’s life is improved. So are the lives of their family, the lives of his or her employees and their families, as well as the lives of the customers and their families. Work with even one executive coaching client can improve many lives. I love that.

2. What are your primary methods?

By far, the most essential method is Socratic questioning. I ask questions. I ask any question I can imagine. When I am at my best, I keep the questions open-ended, asking questions without an intended answer. When I am at my weakest, I’m not asking questions, I’m giving answers. Coaching is the opposite of consulting.

There are several supporting methods including:

  • • Cognitive behavioral psychology. I’ll focus on how the client feels about a situation. Then we’ll identify what actually happened and how the client’s beliefs might evolve to produce a better outcome.
  • • Language. I’m an old English major. I believe that words have meaning. So, when I hear important words, I’ll simply repeat aloud what the client has said. Then, when he or she hears it, the words sink in deeper. I serve as a mirror for words.
  • • Improvisation. Talking about challenges and opportunities is wonderful. Sometimes, it’s more wonderful when we act out what’s happening. That way the evolution of beliefs and behaviors can be deeper and longer lasting.
  • • Peer groups. Nothing I have seen is more effective than bringing together ambitious, successful, effective business executives — and getting them to coach each other. The less I butt in, the better it works.
  • • Vulnerability. I demonstrate my own vulnerability. I’m not the coach who thinks he knows it all. I’m candid about what perplexes me. I describe my own failures. In doing so, the client takes a turn as my coach. As the client becomes a coach, the client becomes better able to coach himself or herself. That’s great, because self-coaching, in the end, is the goal.

I’m hungry to have more methods and am enrolling in a coaching certification course at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.

3. Who taught you how to be a coach?

Lee Lemke, an executive at Huntington Banks, was the best manager I’ve ever had. Lee wasn’t a coaching client, he hired me on behalf of the bank as a creativity consultant. His work shaped my career. It was productively invasive and effective. I will always be grateful.

My first coach, Steve Anderson of Integrated Leadership Systems, taught me how to apply cognitive behavioral psychology to my life. He really opened my eyes to the gaps between how I perceive the world and how I behave.

The 700+ chairs of Vistage International are my teachers. I am a Vistage chair and I am honored by the teaching of other chairs who take the time to share how they work. They are a strange and wonderfully talented group of people. Vistage mentors and my local chair colleagues include Glenn Waring, Ken Ackerman, Rich Jacobs and Joe Lorenz.

Of course, the number one teacher is each coaching client. Every coaching session teaches me something about myself and how I behave. I have learned coaching by coaching. My clients aren’t shy about instructing me, because it will help my practice and, in return, help them.

4. How do I know if I might benefit from a coach?

As Steve Anderson said to me, “I seek clients who are old enough to know they need to change and young enough to have the energy to do it.” Of course, and Steve knows this, it isn’t really a function of age. I know people of all ages who have the wisdom and energy to be prospective coaching clients. And I know people of all ages who lack either wisdom or energy or both.

Beyond that, coaching clients are best when they have a hunger for self-awareness, the discipline to work on their self-improvement and the trust to be vulnerable and candid. The lack of any of these isn’t a disqualifier at the first meeting, but these need to be developed and strengthened to continue.

5. What are the first steps to launching a coaching practice?

Be coached. I don’t believe anyone can be a good coach who does not have the continuing experience of also being coached. I have coaches. I belong to a Vistage peer group, in addition to the the several groups I lead.

Learn to suppress your magnificent advice. Learn to listen. Shut up. Say less. Say less than that. As Vistage chair Al Stuempel has taught me, coaching is a minimalist profession.

Adopt the primary method of Socratic questioning, then pick your own supporting methods. While I can’t believe that anything beats questioning as a primary method, there is no lack of supporting methods.

Maintain your sense of humor, your desire for learning, your impulse for caring and your generosity of spirit. As I enter each session, I remind myself, in the words of my teacher Danny Maseng, “Not for me, but for them.” What I am doing is not for my own glory; my work is to help the person across the table.

For more information, including links to Artie’s blog and recommended resources, please visit Vistage Columbus.

Original photo by Jason Moore.