Timothy R. Clark: You can play ball, but can you coach?

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 11:25 p.m. MDT

In a past column, I talked about the importance of coachability — the willingness to receive guidance, support and correction. Now let’s talk about the one doing the coaching. When you achieve world-class performance in something, you qualify to be a world-class coach, right? Wrong.

Performing and coaching are two different things. How many professional athletes have failed miserably as coaches? Too many to count. On the other hand, was Duke’s Coach K a world-class basketball player at West Point? No. You get the point.

Here’s the problem. People are constantly promoted to leadership on the strength of their performance as individual contributors. You’ve seen this: the great teacher becomes the principal. The lead sales rep becomes the sales manager. The most brilliant computer programmer becomes the team leader. The best nurse becomes the chief nursing officer. Most of the time, these promotions reflect intelligence and drive. Does that translate into leadership? Partly. There’s a lot more to it.

Coaching is a core leadership skill. Think about it this way: Was there a single gold medalist at the London Summer Games who didn’t have a coach? It’s unthinkable, because coaching directs and accelerates performance. It’s a dialogue of continuous analysis and feedback between the coach and the coachee. Larry Bossidy, the former CEO of Honeywell, and Ram Charan, a well-known adviser to CEOs, said, “Coaching is the single most important part of expanding others' capabilities.” That’s a bold claim. Do you believe it? If you do, you’ll be motivated to become a better coach. If you don’t, I’ve got some hard data for you.

LinkedIn, the professional networking site, conducted a study about leadership in August by asking a simple question: “What is the most important characteristic of a leader?” Here are the results:

  1. Sets a compelling vision, 30.47 percent
  2. Motivational and inspiring, 28.39 percent
  3. Listens actively, 20.27 percent
  4. Knows people as individuals, 8.05 percent
  5. Willing to take a hit to protect the team, 6.78 percent
  6. Technically competent, 3.02 percent
  7. Maintains a good work/life balance, 3.02 percent

Not surprisingly, vision tops the list. Having vision is inherent in the definition of a leader. If there is no place to go, you don’t need a leader in the first place. Now set that aside and take a look at the next three responses: “Motivational and inspiring,” “Listens actively” and “Knows people as individuals.” Do you see a common thread here? All three response categories relate to coaching. You could actually fold the three responses categories into a broader category called “coaching” and have a combined response of 57 percent. Beyond vision, coaching is at the heart of leadership.

Here’s an interesting question: Can you be a great leader and not a great coach? Answer: The only possible way is to be an extraordinary visionary. That one strength may grant you an exemption, as in the case of Steve Jobs, who was not a great coach. The rest of us need to become great coaches.

If you’re still not convinced, let me ask: What does a coach do? A coach provides the vital human connection and full sensory experience to help engage, inspire, correct, hold accountable and finally mobilize a person to a higher level of performance. MIT’s Edgar Schein said, “Almost any change in behavior, assumptions and values is mediated by interpersonal relationships of one kind or another.” Think about what can happen when that process becomes deliberate and consistent. Consider that employees learn 95 percent of their knowledge and skills informally. Coaching is the process of accelerating that informal learning process.

To become a great coach in the workplace requires both will and skill — in that order. The motivation and intent of the coach comes first. If you don’t want to coach others and help them develop, skills won’t matter. Great coaches have made an emotional and psychological transition away from themselves. They’re prepared to make their major contribution through others.

Do you remember when Gabby Douglas won the gold medal in the gymnastics all-around in London? I watched her coach, Liang Chow, respond as the world turned its gaze on Gabby. He shared in the triumph. His jubilation was no less felt than hers. His compensation no less rewarded.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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