Over the past few years, I’ve asked many effective executives some version of the following question: How did you learn what you needed to know to be so successful? They rarely responded by talking about classroom learning. Instead, they almost always spoke about experiences. They talked about an experience that was extremely challenging, even a failure. They described their lack of understanding of the situation. They talked about how unprepared they felt. These experiences forced them to step out of routines, try new things, learn new skills, pull from reserves they didn’t know they had and grow in ways that they had not predicted. In almost every case, they also talked about others who assisted them, encouraged them, challenged them, questioned them and helped them through the situation. The other person may have been a boss, a colleague, a parent, a minister, a spouse, a teacher or a consultant. Whether or not this process was called “coaching” (and it rarely was), it had all of the dimensions of guided reflection that great coaches provide for willing learners. In most cases, the impact of this relationship was catalytic, and the successful executives identified it as a profound influence.
History is replete with examples of those who learned and grew from guided experience with the help of trusted “coaches.” One of the first recorded coaching relationships of this type was the mentoring of Alexander the Great by Aristotle. Jethro was said to be the first “executive coach” to Moses. Many people refer to spiritual or religious council gained from one source or another. Fiction is filled with examples, such as King Arthur and Merlin, or Eliza Doolittle and Professor Higgins. Contemporary business leaders are finding a real source of growth from highly effective coaching relationships in an increasingly challenging world.
Coaching is a growth industry, but it has always been the core of real learning. The best classroom teachers have always known that learning is a personal experience. They recognize that the time they invest in assisting a receptive and responsive student to challenge assumptions and to consider alternatives is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding of a teacher’s experiences. A complete taxonomy of developmental approaches almost always includes elements that are experience-based, education-based and feedback- and coaching-based. Of the three, the feedback and coaching elements are by far the most highly leveraged. Experience without reflection is merely activity. Education without thoughtful application is merely more information. Feedback, coaching and reflection are the very essence of learning, and deserve the highest priority in any learning, change or development effort.
What often passes for coaching is merely advising. Pure advice giving may not result in growth. In fact, it often results in dependency. It is one of the hardest lessons for a parent. As children mature, parents shift from dispensing commands to providing advocacy, and then to appreciative inquiry. Of course, life and business is never a clean, linear progression. It can be helpful at all stages of development to get advice, but real growth demands that a learner and leader develop a reasoned point of view. Great coaches know that growth in capability is more important than the adoption of the coach’s point of view.
Great coaches make the difference, and they are wildly different in their styles. Some coaches use many words, while others use the power of graphic illustration. Some coaches use anger and threats, while others use encouragement and affirmation. Certainly my bias is for the latter, but it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that some coaches with styles very different from mine have been quite successful. This illustrates the importance of the right chemistry between the coaching pair.
Done properly, coaching and learning are almost inseparable. By my unscientific observation of corporate learning curricula around the world, coaching is the fastest-growing element of new program design. This is certainly true for leadership curricula, but it may also be true for programs that are more hard-edged in nature. Coaching, or guided reflection, is more than a fad—it has always been the essence of growth and development. It is no surprise that successful executives point to experience and to others who provide feedback and reflective inquiry as the keys to their success. After all, experience and feedback is the breakfast of champions. Eat up!
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company. Fred has held numerous international leadership roles and worked with several Fortune 100 companies, including IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and, most recently, Motorola. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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