Charles Pfeffer

Executive Coaching & Leadership Consulting

What is a Thought Partner

It may seem strange, but I think a good way to describe the role of a Thought Partner would be to share a story about a time I failed to be a good one. About a dozen years ago, I was coaching a technology executive who had made his career on the invention of the digital printing press and the resulting Print on Demand industry. He was a remarkable person in many ways, especially in his capacity to see where technology trends would take competition in an industry and to think through the moves that individual players would need to make to stay in the game. One of his challenges was in being unable to help others, including the CEO of his company, see the competitive dangers he saw so clearly.

This challenge was made even more difficult by the culture of internal competitiveness among executives that prevailed in that company. Two Vice Presidents in a room created a sort of stand off of egos in which the personal stakes became so intertwined with the business stakes that no progress could be made. Any agreements that could be reached would in some way put one VP at an advantage over the other in the competition for status and power within that company.

One of the challenges for me in this coaching relationship was not to be critical of the assumptions my client had about his colleagues. After all, he was more expert in the values and attitudes of his culture than I. For me it seemed obvious that the assumptions themselves created the defensiveness that made it difficult to communicate warnings about the dangers of competitors’ moves to his company. To my client, my suggestions that his negative views of colleagues might not be completely accurate and were probably unhelpful just sounded naive. Ultimately, I was not able to persuade him to soften his judgments and he gave up trying to share his insightful concerns with his fellow executives. He retired and sold his shares. A couple of years later, the problems he had anticipated came to pass and the company nearly went bankrupt, and was forced to lay-off thousands of people and sell off several divisions.

If my client had been able to successfully alert his colleagues, would the company have avoided its near death experience? We’ll never know. What I can say is that years later, the problems he described were still vexing this company and they were not addressed in a proactive way when it would have been easier to do so, at least in part because of the failure of my client and his colleagues to interact effectively. My failure was in trying to talk him out of a point of view that I saw as undermining his effectiveness. This is not being a Thought Partner, it’s being a competitor. What could I have done instead?

The role of a Thought Partner is to think with the client in a way that makes the process of thinking explicit and allows the client to see the implications of the thinking process on his or her goals, actions and conditions for performance. It is not the role of the Thought Partner to be more informed, more correct, more logical or more incisive than the client. It is the role of the Thought Partner to attend to the conditions of the dialogue in a way that enables the client to think more clearly and effectively toward his or her goals.

The critical faculties for being a great Thought Partner are listening without criticism, reflecting a client’s thinking back to him accurately and without judgment and sharing insights emerging from the dialogue with no emotional attachment to being viewed as right or brilliant or any other favorable or unfavorable assessment. The Thought Partner is more than a parrot, in that he or she must think the thoughts of the client and then reflect them back, not merely repeat the words. Neither is the Thought Partner merely a foil for the client’s thinking.

One way to think about the role is as an assistant to someone who is trying to do a complex and important piece of physical work, such as a surgeon or a craftsperson. The assistant must be closely observing the actions of the surgeon and even slightly anticipating the coming actions in order to be ready to place the right next tool in her hand, or wipe her brow. The Thought Partner must listen to the thinking of the client as though this thinking is the sharp edge of the surgeon’s scalpel, or perhaps the hairs on the brush of the artist, painting the future of the client’s life and work.

Some of the client’s work is less like painting and more like stretching canvas over a frame. There is work to do before you start painting. For a client, this work might be putting some bad history behind her. Or it might be learning a new approach. In this case, it can be helpful for the Thought Partner to provide skills or training to the client’s preparation effort. In doing so, it is important for the client to understand that they have asked the Thought Partner to be a consultant rather than a coach. So long as the client and the Thought Partner make explicit these different processes, consulting can be helpful.

Back to my client case: what I now think would have been more effective than my attempts to change my client’s point of view about his colleagues would have been to listen with more empathy for the point of view. I would ask what he wanted to see happen and invite him to describe in detail what things would be like if this were to happen. I would ask him to invent several different approaches for bringing about his aspirations and whenever a judgment about colleagues seemed to get in the way, I would ask for another approach.

In other words, I would not presume that I knew his point of view was wrong or unhelpful. I would instead let him do his own thinking and encourage him to keep thinking toward his desired outcomes, past the temptation to stop with a rationalization about his colleagues. This client was my first experience with a Fortune 500 corporate officer level executive. He would probably not have said that the work we did failed, and in fact he gave me very generous acknowledgements and referred business to me. For me this experience was both a high point of my early career and missed opportunity. As I look back, knowing what I know now, I believe being a more effective Thought Partner could have changed this client’s ability to influence his CEO and a household name company might have avoided a desperate period of downsizing and dramatic shareholder losses.

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