How many times have you been talking to a friend and one of you has felt a spring release in your mind. The next words spoken may be something along the lines of, “Why didn’t I think of that?” or “Lightbulb moment!” This is a natural reaction to the questions asked and information exchanged in most human conversations. It may not have happened at a problem-solving meeting, it may have been a casual conversation where you wanted to pull that brain wedgy out of a cerebral crack. And the question asked by your conversation partner may have had very little to do with the conclusion your brain threw up in response. Our brains are a bit weird that way; because they process so much information on a few levels of consciousness what that grey lump of fat, electricity and water conjures often a surprise to the brain’s “host”.
I relish that moment when I see the facial expression of someone I am talking to, shift from furrowed brow and tight lips to wide eyes and open mouth; the “lightbulb” moment. It is professionally satisfying because I am a “coach”. I hope to explain to you what coaching many to many who call themselves coaches today, and shed some light on a relatively new but well established people development discipline.
When asked what I do for a living my reply, “executive coach” is often met with a brief silence and the head tilting back a slightly open mouth and an utterance of, “Oh!” “Oh” is code for “I have no idea what you do!” “What is an ‘executive coach’?” I have some magnificent responses ranging from, “A coach? Which sport?” “You drive luxury coaches….!?” Or “My friend is a life coach; do you do the crystals and stuff?”
To start defining “executive coach” it may help to apply Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” and start with why, then how, then what… It is confounding for some as most people expect a job title. Here is my Golden Circle:
Ack: Sinek, S., Start with Why, Penguin Books, 2011
- WHY: I believe that everyone has the potential and has the desire to achieve their very best. I believe that we all have a great talent that can change lives and the world.
- HOW: I work with people to unearth that talent and apply it for the betterment of their lives in general and their work specifically
- WHAT: I am an executive coach.
I could fulfil the “why” by doing many other jobs or activities, at this moment in my life my existential purpose is satisfied by being an executive coach. And now the next “oh!”, what is an executive coach? I’ll get to that.
My kind of coaching is strength-based and developmental. It is not outsourcing those difficult performance management moments or exiting people from the organisation. I prefer to avoid the last stop café role where managers can justify a decision to performance manage someone through a professional and then claim, “The employee was given every opportunity to improve including time with this highly qualified coach person and the employee still did not improve; they must be exited”. This is an abrogation of responsibility, coaching is underpinned by challenge which can include tough feedback. If the phrase abrogation of responsibility makes you uncomfortable, I am doing my job! When we are uncomfortable necessity requires us to learn to deal with the discomfort … thinking of the feeling when you have a brain wedgy!
In the performance management example, my proposal to the manager is for him or her to work with me. The manager is the person who needs to explore what it is that is getting in the way of the difficult performance conversations; that’s about the manager’s mindset. This is what coaching is about. And that leads me to the “executive” moniker; which that I work for a client (i.e. the person who manages the organisation’s contract with me for the effort I provide. The person I am working with is not (usually) the contract manager. I work on behalf of the organisation through a specialised skillset and mindset to unearth the employee’s talent and apply it at work.
I realise that if you are not familiar with coaching you are probably no closer to understanding what coaching does. It’s about the “Inner Game” and was first brought into the business world by a sports coach, Timothy Gallwey . He created a simple formula to explain why sportsmen and women, despite being highly trained and skilful, have bad days, crises of confidence. The formula is P=p-i, more about that soon.
Ack: FoxSports 13 December 2013
We’ve all seen sports stars miss one shot and then another, and another and it compounds in to a bad streak. Harry Kewell’s penalty miss a few seasons ago is an extreme example. Harry who has spent his life kicking a ball, 10s of thousands of times a year at training hitting the net and the back of the goal most of the time. He has mastered of kicking a football into a goal, and in the main he scores. He has primed his body to carry out a complete process that guarantees success. But he misses, in this case horribly, you can watch here (https://youtu.be/NubFJQFxKds). In the interests of balance and comparison this is Harry scoring a sublime goal https://youtu.be/dfNYJZt5Bcw scored when he was playing for Liverpool FC in the English Premier League and scoring a penalty “Rabona” style at training https://youtu.be/lwwujCMqWQw.
What went wrong? Not his body, but something internal – his mindset. It is at the margins that peak performance is impacted, this is where coaches operate.
So if you have these high performing athletes and successful leaders who are well trained and very competent why do they have off-days? Gallwey’s Mindset Formula may help:
“The Inner Game, Timothy Gallwey: The inner game takes place within the mind of the player* and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts and assumptions … increase “p” and reduce “i”, this will get you playing in the ZONE”.
* – “Player” is applicable to “leader” in a business context
Coaching is about identifying these elements and working with your counterpart to either modify potential or minimise interferences to maximise performance.
How is this done? The coach will ask you about your challenge and what you want to be different, the performance. Then together you’ll explore what it is you need to do to have in place to achieve the desired level of performance. Then you’ll explore potential and interferences. The best clue to unearthing interferences are those words that follow “but”. The coach works with you to kick the “but(t)”! If that’s unclear try this example, “We could put on more staff but the boss might not like it…” Is “the but” a fact or a mindset construct? Have you been able to determine that there is an interference or is it a habit, or a bias, or avoidance of failure…? Only the conversation and some challenging questions will tease that out and kick the “but”!
You could be told what the answer is, but that would not be coaching. It would be management mentoring or education. A premise underpinning coaching is that the answer is “within” the individual, the coach helps them work through what’s holding them back. This is unearthing the potential within. Revealing through an open conversation, a dialogue, the ways to break through, all of which are created by the person being coached resulting in that moment when I see the person fidget in the chair begin to shift their focus, because they know what to do and just want to get away from the coach and get on and do it!
If you meet someone in the future and they say that they are an executive coach, you’ll have better sense of what they do. It isn’t a mystery really; it’s a guided learning method. Coaches provide a structured and efficient conversational process to maximise performance, a quicker and more efficient way – perhaps – than the chat with your friend.
David Pierce – Professional Certified Coach (PCC), International Coach Federation (ICF). David has a lifetime of working experience in management and leadership roles in large public and private sector organisations. For the last 10 years he has worked as an executive coach with leaders at all levels accumulating over 800 hours of coaching experience with individuals and groups. His coaching philosophy is to be a guide on a journey of transition and growth. His approach is based on a narrative process with action focused outputs from which to derive the desired change outcome. Click here to contact David today.
 Gallwey, Timothy, “The Inner Game of Work”, Random House, 2000