Editor’s note: This post is based on responses to Atul Gawande’s article in The New Yorker, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches—Should You?” (3 October 2011).
Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Renee Fleming is a force in the world of opera. Both of them had coaches throughout their careers.
Why, then, do professionals in other fields resist coaching?
Atul Gawande wrote his New Yorker article for one of those professions: medicine. But the resistance to coaching happens just as often among educators, psychotherapists, and others—including organization leaders. Several related factors conspire to create this resistance:
- Some professions, particularly those that require years of advanced education, look askance at coaching as part of their basic mindset. The prevailing attitude is “I have worked hard to achieve my status in the field, so I shouldn’t need to be coached in my own craft.”
- Leaders believe that coaching might erroneously be seen as an admission of weakness or incompetence. We have often heard this concern from leaders in our client systems—together with the point that the widespread perception of weakness in a leader could be fatal to her or his career.
- Leaders worry that nothing is off-limits to the coach’s purview and evaluation. The coach could probe areas that the leader deems too sensitive for discussion—or too trivial to waste time on.
- Leaders confuse coaching with advice giving, which carries nuances of presumptuousness and even condescension. Coaching, by contrast, is a highly facilitative endeavor that builds trust while enabling new ways of seeing, thinking, and acting through reflective dialogue.
- The broader U.S. culture promotes several themes that run counter to using a coach: the emphasis on rugged individualism, the myth of the “self-made person,” the pressure to project an image of perfection.
Even so, these objections are losing their hold in many organizations, particularly as evidence of coaching’s value mounts. The use of coaches at the highest level of leadership has soared in recent years. In a survey of top business and human capital leaders, 78 percent said they viewed executive coaching as credible and valuable (DBM & Human Capital Institute, 2008). Michael Hehir, CEO of Rand McNally, and Ken Weller, who became CEO and chair of The Good Guys, have used coaches to good effect (Sandlund, 2002).
These leaders, and many others like them, have learned why coaching is so valuable for any professional. None of us can ever have a completely objective picture of our own performance. Coaching provides a “fresh set of eyes” to view the leader’s behaviors with the distance required for greater objectivity. Moreover, contracts can help leader and coach agree on the boundaries of the assignment—what is “in bounds” and “out of bounds.” Even so, these boundaries should not be drawn too restrictively: often the coach’s most important contributions involve areas of improvement that the leader never noticed or asked about. What may seem trivial at first glance may lead to substantial improvement in the future.
In addition, the fact that “no one of us is smarter than all of us” calls for a longer-term solution even beyond individual coaching. This is where the Executive Feedback Pod is so valuable: a group of six to eight people, selected by the leader, who meet regularly to give candid feedback on her or his progress toward practicing the desired behaviors. Group members reflect a diversity of backgrounds, functions, and levels to give the leader a 360-degree vision of her or his performance. In other words, the Pod models the unmatched power of inclusion to bring broader perspectives to any issue, resulting in deeper insights and continuous improvement for more effective performance.
In an intensely competitive world, where continuous improvement is an absolute necessity even to stay in place, leaders cannot afford to dismiss any strategy that would make them better. Coaching—individually and in Executive Feedback Pods—provides the same kind of help to executives that, for decades, has propelled promising athletes to the top of their game.
Charles Pfeffer, Cassandra Caldwell, David Wilks, Frederick A. Miller, Monica Biggs, Peter Norlin, and Yvonne Alverio contributed to this post.
DBM and Human Capital Institute. (2008). Trends in executive coaching: New research reveals emerging best practices. Quoted in New research reveals increased credibility and positive returns for executive coaching (14 August 2008), http://www.dbm.com/us/en/doc/DBM%20Research-TrendsInExecutiveCoaching-08-14-08.pdf?obj_id=5255.
Sandlund, C. (2002). Coaching takes to the couch. Chief Executive 184 (1 December), http://chiefexecutive.net/dev/coaching-takes-to-the-couch.