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Why it sucks to be coached

A CEO I work with asked me the other day ‘how is [another CEO I work with] getting on?’ The uncomfortable answer was that I am no longer working with him. Why? Because it sucks being coached, and he just wasn’t up for it.

Why not? Well, he was sick of: (his examples):

  • Having to look at his own shortcomings (treating people badly)
  • Being forced out of his comfort zone (always dealing with immediate crisis)
  • Having to consider change (handing over real authority to his leadership team)
  • Facing up to difficult issues (wasting money in unproductive parts of the business)

And who wouldn’t be? When I read this list, it’s a wonder any coaches are in business, given what we inflict on people. A CEO I work with once described me as being ‘like a bad girlfriend’ – always asking him to do things he didn’t want to do. Coaching sounds great, in a cold shower / bracing kind of way, but the reality is, in fact, uncomfortable.

It’s like going to the gym. You know you need to, a part of you wants to, and you know you’ll feel better for it afterwards, but there’s a resistance, because you know there will be discomfort in what you hear, preparation is required, and you’ll probably come away with a list of difficult things that need to be done.

It makes me sad when it doesn’t work out with a CEO, as it feels like leaving unfulfilled potential on the table, a job unfinished. One of my favourite books on coaching – Mastercoach, by Gregg Thompson – emphasises that the key role and skill of the coach is to recognise, and believe in, the potential of the coachee.

Potential means, by definition, that it is currently unfulfilled, that the person has reached a limit, or a blind spot. It’s like how sports coaches focus in on which part of the body or fitness is holding you back from peak performance, and train against it.

A CEO’s personal blind spot is surprisingly easy to see from the outside. In fact, being a coach is easy. You listen, ask questions, and let the coachee do all the hard work. What’s hard (for me at least) is presenting blind spots in a way that are well-received, and helping to create a plan for improvement.

A company is an extension of the founder / owner, their strengths and weaknesses get amplified into the organisation. So, uncovering bottlenecks to growth in the business often comes down to identifying the weakspots / blindspots of the entrepreneur. So, what coaches do is important. Just not always welcome.

The term for willingness to be coached is ‘coachability’. I have found, unexpectedly, that coachability is inversely proportional to age. Older people are more open to taking feedback, and thinking about difficult questions, than younger ones. Maybe it’s just how I do it, but younger CEOs are often defensive – they feel the need to prove that they’re right – whereas older ones have a deeper sense of security, so are open to listen.

Most of my coaching failures have been with younger CEO’s. They also tend to be high-IQ and education level – ‘early 30’s, went to Cambridge’ has become a red flag to me! They’re just like I was at that age, like teenagers who know everything already.

So, if you’re thinking about hiring a coach, consider these few points:

  • Are you really up for it? Honestly ask yourself whether you’re prepared to make difficult changes. If someone wrote you a letter pointing out where you’re going wrong and what to do about it, would you read and act on it? If you’re comfortable with where you are now, don’t hire a coach.
  • Timing. The right frame of mind usually only happens in the face of significant threat / danger / discomfort, or a big opportunity. Is there something in your world that is forcing you to change?
  • The process a coach follows is often as important as the Coach themselves. Just sitting down regularly to focus on ‘what’s up’ has quickly diminishing returns. Most coaches adhere to some kind of program, so assess that as much as the coach.
  • Coaching is like any business, it has value, but also tends to over-rate its own value. So, be skeptical, shop around, listen to your intuition and if you feel someone is over-selling themselves, move on. Ask the potential coach to recommend good alternatives to their services, and see if they do (is their priority what’s best for you, or for them?).
  • Coaching distinguishes itself from consulting in being non-technical and non-advisory; coaches insist they just help coachees reach their own conclusion. This is only true up to a point. In reality, coaching cannot be truly objective, coaches end up forming opinions too. So, pick one who’s judgement you are willing to trust, even if that’s not their primary role. Specifically, pick one who’s done what you’re trying to do. Despite what we say, knowledge context is a bonus (as any coach with experience relevant to your field will quickly tell you).

Then again, maybe I’m just doing it wrong! Maybe there is an easier, softer way. Please let me know if you find it.

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