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How Top Leaders Leverage Coaches

Optimize You

"Everybody needs a coach." ~Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google

I still remember the day I got my “ticket” to fly, in the form of my pilot’s license.  My flight instructor, with a proud yet knowing smile said, “Your pilot’s license is a ticket to continue to learn, not a validation of your piloting skills.” I’ve spent the last 20+ years and over 1,000 flight hours becoming a pilot and I’ve continued my flight education throughout that time, working with countless flight instructors in order to obtain licenses, ratings, and endorsements.  To ensure that I’m the best pilot I can be, I’m continually working on sharpening my skills.

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Although I’ve worked with a variety of instructors over the years, I’ve always maintained a very close relationship with my original instructor who is affectionately known by my family as our own “Pilot Bill.”  Bill isn’t just a talented pilot in practice, he and I have developed a rhythm of communication pre- and post-flight to review my flight plan, my personal minimums checklist, and often to debrief me on my decision-making process after a particularly challenging or stressful flight.

Learning to fly, much like operating a business, is a truly dynamic experience.  I don’t know if I would have survived my flying adventures without my trusted flying advisor relationship with Bill.  As it also turns out, I don’t know many successful organizations that haven’t benefitted from the guidance of a portfolio of trusted advisors.

Entrepreneurs, by nature, already have the basic flying skills, but they need the support and wisdom of their trusted advisors to learn the more advanced skills that make them high-impact leaders.  Taking risks right out of the gate, either in a plane or in a business, without a trusted advisor providing guidance along the way is an incredibly risky way to operate.

As we’ve discussed, trusted outsiders can take the form of a coach, a peer networking group, or an implementer for an operating system. Many entrepreneurs start with a coach and some use them in conjunction with a peer network group or to help implement their operating system. The best approach for you depends on your unique set of hurdles and current business priorities.

Optimize Yourself with a Coach

Top Leaders Leverage Coaches

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in this popular Fortune video, “One thing people are never good at is seeing themselves as others see them. A coach really, really helps.”

The well-known executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, worked with Ford CEO Alan Mulally when he was still at Boeing. Most top executives work with coaches, and large institutions typically have a senior organizational development role; a person who works with the executive team to develop leadership skills and resolve issues.

Think of your coach as your leadership support system. A coach helps you shape your approach to the organization and the people in it and provides the wisdom and guidance to effectively resolve issues and overcome challenges. Your coach gives you the buffer to stay focused on leading the organization.

I recently met with Lieutenant General (Ret.) David Huntoon Jr, who led the training of our military officers at West Point and is now President of D2H Consulting. As David described it to me, “Coaching and mentoring are continuous requirements in any organization that values growth, adapting to the extraordinary change we see in the marketplace today.”

David noted that the military values and reinforces leadership development through a continuous cycle of training, development, coaching, and mentorship of leaders from their first day in service and as they move upward. “Coaching and mentoring is a very effective reinforcing technique in leader development.” He said. “The opportunity to take a complex leadership concern to a trusted superior allows you to lay out your issue in complete candor and gain the wisdom of greater experience without being judged.”

The Readiness Factor

Working with a coach requires some readiness on your part. Are you open to asking frank questions of yourself? Will you experiment with new approaches to working with your colleagues and staff? Are you willing to be held accountable to your goals?

A good coaching relationship:

  1. Opens your mind to possibility and fosters the mindset to succeed
  2. Provides an objective sounding board—“Shines the Light”
  3. Holds you accountable to your goals
  4. Brings experience—the coach has been in your shoes before
  5. Helps you create a legacy—think bigger than you do

When Erica Marrari was promoted to VP, Client Services at 5AM Solutions, she sought out a coach who had paved her way in a similar career path. “I wanted some assistance with managing the role, being an executive at the company, and how I was going to grow as a woman in customer service in technology and science,” she said. “I realized it had more to do with style more than anything else.”

Erica asked me to help her find a female coach who had a background in science or technology product development. I recommended Cindy Morgan, former vice president of organizational development and learning at NYU Langone Medical Center and now Vice President, Learning & Organization Development, Penn Medicine (University of Pennsylvania Health System). Cindy didn’t have the specific industry background Erica was seeking, but she fit several other criteria and was in a related field.

Erica gathered more names from her network and eventually interviewed over seven coach candidates. She chose Cindy because of her approach. “Cindy suggested that we focus on the here and now and then make my 5 to 10 year plan,” Erica said.

According to Cindy, the top reasons individuals engage a coach are:

  1. Taking on a new role, for example, going from peer to boss
  2. Entering a strong culture from the outside
  3. As a senior leader (e.g., the executive team)

“When you have people that rise up in the organization,” she said, “it’s hard to find the right course to teach them the specifics of what to know. It needs to be specific to the person’s context. If you can accelerate by increasing your self-awareness during a time of transition, you can exponentially grow and enter jobs, and business relationships more intentionally.”

A Guide Who Shines the Light

To change your behavior, it’s important to understand the context and culture in which you’re operating and a coach can help you ascertain how you come at it. “If you look at a situation differently once your awareness is raised,” she said, “You can come at it from a different angle.”

For Erica, that meant learning how to avoid and manage conflicts. “A lot of it centers around language,” she noted. “I’m a direct person and Cindy would coach me on how to use alternative language for more of a soft landing. It was about changing the way that I phrased things, asking more questions, and being more analytical.”

Cindy role-played with Erica so that she could learn new approaches with her colleagues through practice. “I’ve had a lot of people give me guidance but never in that way,” Erica said. “It was very useful.”

Grow with Your Circumstances

Alicia Marie, founder of People Biz, a coaching and training organization, said that the number one reason people decide to engage a coach is that they hit a personal development ceiling. A moment occurs when they are stuck, when they realize they must change in order to be successful. “That can happen because your entire team of twelve just walked out on you, or you just sold $1 million in product and can’t fund it,” Marie said.

“It can be due to major success or major issues.” Either way, the person acknowledges that they will have to grow to deal with the circumstance.

Alicia Marie noted that the biggest challenge is always people:

You can have systems in place but what people underestimate is that people are the levers. I’ve seen people with all sorts of resources fail because they weren’t paying attention to the people. Anyone can be successful by him or herself. But can you get another person to his or her optimum level? That takes skill. Until leaders and managers can do that, they’re at a disadvantage. Companies that do that will have a huge advantage. That’s where coaching comes in.

Plus, for entrepreneurs and senior leaders at emerging growth companies, there are fewer people to talk to and be authentic with about your struggles on the path to scaling up. “Good coaches ask great questions at the right time,” said Cindy Morgan. “And slow you down before you take action that may or may not help you in the long run.”

Gain Personal Traction

Fourteen years ago, Mark Huge, executive coach and founder of Work Flow Facilitators, volunteered at a Cleveland clinic with a doctor to help patients resolve their personal and business issues. After a couple years, Mark said to the doctor, “We talk about the issues each week and the next week the patients have the same problem. We need to put some structure in to help them solve those problems and hold them accountable to that.”

Afterward, Mark and the doctor developed what they call the OCE system (Order, Control, Execute) to help people get organized and in control of their tasks, goals, and issues. “No one person can do it all,” Mark says. “When people get overwhelmed, they need a system. There’s always more to be done than can be done.”

I have worked with Mark for several years and one of the key values I find in having a coach is that he both knows my vision and what I’m up to week to week. This proves invaluable when the inevitable crises emerge. In other words, not only is he available to me for one-on-one coaching to work through an issue, he also has the context to guide me through a fork in the road.

This came in handy recently when a partner from my former business asked me to pursue an opportunity. Tempting as it was to take on, I didn’t want to lose the momentum I’ve driven developing the Optimize for Growth system and helping my clients implement it in their own organizations.

Mark reminded me, “A year ago this is what we agreed it [my vision and business] looks like. Stay on task.”

That simple reflection helped me stay focused and make the right choice when I didn’t have the horsepower or objectivity to effectively tackle the challenge myself.

Dave Marinac, owner of ABC Packaging Direct, also works with Mark Huge to implement EOS in his organization. “Mark leads our Level 10 meetings every Monday,” Dave said. “He helps us to keep the emotion out of it. I want to jump in, as an entrepreneur, but he keeps us on point.” In addition, Dave uses him for general executive coaching. “He’s the guy I call with work issues and to bounce ideas off of him,” he shared.

Mark Huge emphasizes that being successful does not negate the need for a coach. “Mike Phelps has a coach with him virtually all the time —he’s with him in the pool,” he commented. “Why does he need a coach being as good as he is? He needs a coach to help him stay on track. He makes his money swimming. If he has to think of all the other pieces and parts, he won’t be as effective swimming. Everyone needs a coach to be truly productive and fulfilled.”

Choosing a Coach

Coaches vary and choosing one takes forethought and due diligence. To begin, ask your mentor(s) and extended network for recommendations based on a set of criteria you have already developed (e.g., gender, background, focus, etc.). Interview each candidate by phone to gauge your comfort level and the chemistry and type of dialog that ensues.

Cindy Morgan suggests that you ask yourself some basic questions: Can I be my worst self with this person? “This isn’t about pleasing and putting your best face on. It’s about being real,” she said. Additionally, she asks potential clients, “Why coaching and why now?”

Often, the impetus for finding a coach occurs when entrepreneurs hit their personal ceiling. This may be coupled with a struggle in the business or a realization that what got you here will not get you there. There’s another way: select a coach as part of your decision to implement the Optimize for Growth system. Your desire to scale up drove you to read this book. Now it is time to assess your top priorities for achieving growth and begin your journey on an efficient and effective path to scaling up.

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