As a 25-year-old aircraft commander, I was carrying 154 Marines on a mission from California to North Carolina. We encountered unexpectedly severe thunderstorms that forced us to alter our route far north over Canada and to much higher-than-normal altitudes. At the end of a demanding night mission, fatigue was setting in, and our fuel was dwindling.
We needed help to get to the ground that night, and we needed it to be good. Equipment alone was not enough. What we needed most was a highly skilled, ground-based human, viewing a screen and providing “precision approach” instructions. A precision approach controller has one objective: to help a pilot continually correct to the course and glide path that will help assure a safe landing. That is what we needed that daunting and dangerous evening …
Years later, as my career as a pilot was replaced with many years as a learning professional, it occurs to me that the controller is to a plane’s pilot what a coach should be to an organization’s management.
First, the responsibility of a coach is to provide feedback and perspective to help you find and stay on a path to the desired outcome. A coach can’t tell you how to do your job any more than a controller can directly manipulate the aircraft controls. The best coaches are thought partners. Their job is not so much to tell. Rather, it is to provide frameworks to raise the level of your thinking and ultimately improve your performance. A good coach will give you the coordinates you need, so you can direct your own path.
Less skillful coaches have a tendency to try to solve other people’s problems. While it can make a coach feel very powerful, it invariably leads to dependency and an erosion of confidence for the person being coached. Alternatively, when a manager masters a coaching process that can be applied to help others fully employ their capabilities, it is empowering for both and provides a lasting basis to address the challenges of leading.
Second, good pilots learn from each experience to incorporate the controller’s judgment and expertise into their own flying strategies. Increasingly, organizations are asking managers themselves to mentor and coach. Indeed, coaching is one of the most prolific additions to the management development curriculum. This is a significant change from the days when coaching almost always came from external professionals. There are certainly times when an external coach can render an invaluable service. Yet even when outside people are brought in, their task should be to support the coaching skills of the manager rather than to do the coaching for the manager.
Third, the person being coached has to have a clear stake in learning what the coach has to teach. For example, pilots have their lives — and the lives of their passengers — hanging on how well they internalize the controller’s advice. Coaching in an organization is tougher, though, because the value of coaching isn’t always so clear. In spite of the best efforts to create coaching competence within management ranks, these initiatives often fall short of the mark. Too many organizations report that even after training their managers to coach, the managers simply don’t do it. Managers complain that their “real” jobs get in the way, leaving them little time for coaching. This is a classic case of supplying “training” when only a more specific set of management practices will work. Companies must select managers who demonstrate a positive disposition toward coaching and measure the amount and efficacy of their coaching efforts.
… As our C-141 approached the landing field, it was tense in the cockpit. Our passengers were concerned and frightened, even though they were trying to mask it. The weather was as rough as most of us had ever seen it, and our alternate landing fields were equally stormy. We were in no position to delay the landing.
The calm, assuring voice of the precision approach controller gave me just the coaching cues I needed to guide our craft through the storm and down toward the runway. After what seemed like an eternity, I heard the controller say, “You are at minimums. Do you have visual contact with the runway?”
“Roger Approach,” I replied. “We have visual contact. Thanks, coach.”
Fred Harburg is a managing partner at Venture Works and has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.