A View from the Top: An Interview with Jeff Nikkel

There comes a point in every professional journey when questions of desire inevitably arise. Despite having accomplished much, at times we may wonder, “Is this as good as it gets?”  “Am I living the life that I really want?”  “Am I having the impact that I have always hoped?”  “Am I vibrantly alive?”   

Often when we’re in this place, it’s helpful to have a skilled and reliable guide, someone outside of our context, who can be trusted to help us discern the way forward. 

Jeff Nikkel, an executive coach with Trailhead Coaching, works with business owners, executives, and teams, who, motivated either by passion or pain, are hungry to move forward. Jeff’s process, which has been adapted for use in the 5280 Fellowship, aims to stimulate personal and professional growth through deeper self-discovery.

In this interview I speak with Jeff about the loneliness of leadership, blind spots, embracing our calling, and finding the courage to grow.

Jeff Haanen:  Tell me about your daily work.

Jeff Nikkel:  I can’t believe I get to do what I get to do! As a coach, I get to work one-on-one with successful leaders, who are hungry, personally and/or professionally, to reach a new level.  My daily work is getting to know people deeply, accepting them, believing in them, helping them discover what’s most true about them, speaking hard truth to them, and encouraging them on the journey. At the end of the day, my hope is to develop leaders who are fully alive and fully engaged, living with purpose, freedom, courage, passion, and joy.

Coaching is different than some other helping professions. For instance, a consultant helps as a subject matter expert. The consultant knows your industry better than you do and helps by advising. A therapist helps typically by looking back in a person’s story, identifying hits a person has taken that are keeping him or her from moving forward. These are incredibly valuable; it’s just not coaching, which is more future-oriented. A coach primarily asks two questions: 1) “What is your current reality?”  This could apply to a person’s production, profitability, efficiency, health, leadership, finances, relationship with Jesus or whatever.  2) Where do you want to be? It’s asking Jesus’ favorite question – what do you want? A coach then serves by understanding how people grow, asking good questions, helping the client deal with obstacles, and discovering a path forward.

JH: What are the big needs you see your work is fulfilling in the world?

JN: Whether you are a CEO of an organization, the executive director of a nonprofit, or the senior pastor of a church, you are in an inherently lonely position. The higher you go in an organization, the fewer people you have, at least within the company, who don’t need you, who understand the unique weight you carry, and who can give you truly unbiased feedback. There’s tremendous need for that.

I love working with the most contagious people in an organization and experiencing first-hand how change at the top spreads for good throughout the company.

JH:  Tell me about the biggest areas of brokenness you see in the executive coaching industry. What are the things you feel need to get fixed and that the gospel might heal?

JN:  The Fall has fractured our most important relationships: with God, with ourselves, with others, and with our work. Nowhere is this more evident than with business leaders and executives, who among other things, must think about their relationship with power. If we’re going to address core issues instead of just dealing with behaviors or symptoms, we will often – at least with my Christian clients – explore questions about who God is, what he is like, and how we are relating with him.  Do our lives suggest that we trust that God is good, that he is after our deepest joy, that being in a right relationship is the single greatest thing that could every happen to a person, that his posture toward us is warm and inviting, that he can be trusted, and that, through Jesus, he has met our deepest needs? Or are we somehow trying to save ourselves through our performance, status, relationships, and accomplishments?

This is a very human challenge in that all of us who claim to follow Christ to some degree have allowed Jesus to shape our identity and in some degree – and at great expense - look to other things that can never fully satisfy for our value, dignity, and worth.

JHWhen we think about the gospel, often times we think in terms of personal salvation, which, of course, it is. But as well as that, Christ is the redeemer of the world – including the structures and systems of the world. As you think about executive coaching, what is your greatest hope for both your clients and your profession?

JN:  My greatest hope for myself and for my clients is that we would live and lead courageously and joyfully in a way that our lives make Jesus look like the treasure that he is. God has called us to play significant roles in the story he is telling. For us to do that well, we need to be men and women who are alive to Jesus, to ourselves, and to others. So many people are spending so much energy uselessly trying to become better versions of themselves. They feel like “I need to be Jeff Nikkel 2.0 or 3.0”, desperately trying to develop themselves into someone God hasn’t even called them to be. The real work is discovering and owning our unique “shape,” and then courageously offering it in a way that others are blessed and God’s purposes are advanced.  Leadership gets really fun fast when we don’t feel like we have anything to prove or anything to lose.

I’m a little bit biased, but quite frankly I believe executive coaching is the greatest leadership development strategy out there — this kind of 1:1, life on life, pouring into one another. I get to help people come alive and identify what things are blocking them from having the kind of impact they desire.

JH: How does somebody know when they’re ready for an executive coach?

JN: In my experience an ideal client exhibits two traits. First is a sense of hunger. As I’m qualifying a client, I’m looking to hear something like, “It’s not an option for me to be at the same place a year from now as I am today.” All growth involves pain. Unless someone has a strong motivation to grow – usually stemming from either passion or pain – my experience is that they often won’t get the full value out of working with a coach.

The second trait is humility, which, as I understand the term, is simply a desire to see things as they really are. Every one of us has blind spots – none of us can see the back of our head. Are people genuinely interested in learning more about themselves, which includes their strengths, gifts, and talents, and also their impact on others and their organization, for better or worse?