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Do You Need a Coach? Look To Your Staff

A good coach is someone who sees you in action day in and day out and is highly motivated to help you improve. Who does that sound like?
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When I talk to groups of executives, I often ask them to raise their hand if they have a coach.  In a group of 100 people, 5 hands will go up.  I figure that  I haven’t asked the question clearly, so I follow up, “How many of you don’t have a coach?”  95 hands go up.  Wow.  How can that be?

Most of us typically receive some type of coaching early in our careers.  We are closely observed by bosses and are often on the receiving end of real-time feedback.

As you become more senior or start your own business, you are no longer closely observed by bosses.  As a business owner, you might have a board of directors, but they see you only at board meetings, not in your  day-to-day leadership activities.  Board members can serve as useful sounding boards but usually don’t have enough direct information to provide effective coaching. Maybe you’re secretly glad that you’ve outgrown constructive criticism; it can make you so uncomfortable!

Does this sound like you?  The fact is, executives need coaching just like everyone else — maybe more so.  As business owner, your actions are highly consequential to your company, to put it mildly. So the bliss you may feel at having “outgrown” criticism can quickly melt away if your leadership or decision making style cause a serious problem with your business. At that point, it may be too late to prevent lasting damage.

In my experience, a key difference between mediocre and highly successful professionals is their ability to proactively get coaching.  You must continue to learn, adapt and improve if you are to continue to excel.  As a leader, isolation is your enemy – it can lead to poor decisions and perpetuate severe blind spots.

If you agree, what should you do?

First, you must “own” the process of getting coaching.  It is your responsibility.  You ought to be able to accurately write down your strengths and weaknesses.  This requires you to seek feedback regarding key decisions and your leadership style.

Second, you must seek feedback from people who regularly observe you.  And who observes you more closely than your subordinates? Yes, your subordinates. While you may not think of subordinates as coaches, I would urge you to re-examine your thinking. Your subordinates know what you could be doing better.  They have clear views on this.  When they are out at night having a drink and laughing about work — who do you think they’re discussing? You!

To seek feedback from a subordinate, you need to meet  one on one and ask  a simple question, “Could you give me one specific suggestion on what I could do better?  I would really appreciate your advice.”

They will likely hem and haw and say, “There’s really nothing I can think of.”  At this point, you need to be patient and repeat that you would really like advice.  It may feel a bit awkward. They may begin to perspire.  They are likely trying to figure out if you are really sincere, or if this some sort of sinister trap.

They will eventually gather the courage to offer a specific suggestion, and it will likely be… devastating!  Why?  Because you’ll know intuitively they are right and that everyone must think this.  After saying thank you, you’ll call home and ask a loved one whether this sounds like you.   There will be a pause on the phone and then the answer: “Yes. It does.”

You’ll know you need to work on this suggestion and improve, and the good news is, you will.   The subordinate will be impressed that you listened and will tell his or her peers.  This will signal to your people that you welcome advice and early warnings of problems. You will become less isolated and your performance will likely improve.  You will also take a big step in creating a learning environment at your company.

Everyone needs coaching.  Do you have a coach?  Take ownership of getting it.  Start with your subordinates.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jan 11, 2012

ROBERT S. KAPLAN | Harvard Business School

Rob Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard and author of What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential.




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