You Don’t Get to Skate: Coaching, Contracting, and Commitment

IMG_7078_2Over Christmas, we taught a 4 year old in my life to skate.

Someday, like me, he may look back and realize that he doesn’t remember not knowing how to skate.

I’ve always skated, and have solid skills:  avoiding wobbly skaters, supporting little beginners without falling, and even stopping with a twisty flourish.

No spins, no jumps.

The last few winters, I’ve found myself wishing to skate backwards more fluently.

This year, I decided to stop wishing.  I hired a coach.

At the first lesson, I wondered where to start.  My coach, Sarah, showed me the simplest move.  The forward swizzle:  you propel yourself forward by moving your legs apart and together.

Oh, my gosh.   I’ve skated almost every winter for decades.   And 30 minutes of swizzling — rather, trying to swizzle — kicked my ass.

That’s what coaching is.   It brings you back to basics you might have missed out on.

I also saw a weakness in my left side, probably from an old injury I thought had healed.  The left side of my swizzle — so much weaker than the right.

That’s what good coaching does.  It helps you to see weaknesses you may have papered over.

Some mornings these days have found me out on the ice before work, practicing my swizzle.

And that’s what coaching demands.  Commitment.

In the realm of business coaching, this isn’t always so clear, as I’m seeing in recent experiences.

I’ve recently met a number of people who are looking for coaches.  What people say they want is all over the map.

An online buddy, Jeff Carter, recently commented about feeling defrauded in coaching relationships.  He’s blogged about his experience, too.

Finally, I read a NY Times article on coaching.  Though it’s a trend piece in search of a trend, it also illustrates what a mess “coaching” looks like at this point in time.

Anyone considering coaching would do well to read the Wild West of Executive Coaching (at Harvard Business Review, registration/sign-in required).

This 10 year old article is directed towards the core HBR audience, not entrepreneurs.   The authors and I aren’t completely aligned.  That said, it’s a good description of the characteristic work and boundaries of a solid coaching engagement.

You don’t hear too much about bad coaching relationships — most people don’t talk about it.  Some people won’t even tell you they’ve worked with a coach.

This makes Jeff Carter an unusual guy, and he took a few minutes the other day for a candid discussion with me.  (Thanks, Jeff!)

Jeff found himself riding the wave of a career shift brought on by tectonic changes in his industry.  He sought out coaching.   (Read about Jeff’s experience at his blog.)

It didn’t work out so well.  One coach never met him in person.  The other basically rewrote Jeff’s resume: she was apparently unable to work with more complex issues until he purchased other services.

Neither relationship offered him new insight or learning.

And it sounds like neither coach followed a cardinal rule:  the coach and client have to start with a concrete, achievable goal.

Each party’s responsibility in moving ahead should be agreed, and a plan committed to paper.

The process of coming to this agreement is what some would call “contracting.”  It creates accountability for both parties:  nobody gets to “skate.”

Contracting isn’t enough, though.  As a client, you need to be realistic.

Skating backwards might take me more than a few lessons.

A coach must possess the skill and experience to assess the client’s reality.   And then, they have to be honest.   If I need 10,000 hours of practice, and not 3 lessons, my coach should tell me to adjust my goal.   Or refuse me as a client.

The open-ended coaching relationships described in the Times article?  Red flag.  I prefer a time-bound, fixed-cost engagement, with specific deliverables.

There are all kinds of bad reasons to hire a coach.  To get other people to change.   To have someone fix your problem.   Because all the cool kids are doing it.

Or because someone else thinks you need it.

Oh, wait.   If a boss, a board member, or other stakeholder in your work tells you that you need a coach?  Listen.

Then, it’s you, your coach, and your stakeholders who are contracting.

Finally?  If you don’t like the coach, don’t hire him.   Or her.

Chemistry fuels commitment.

And that seems to be a good place to close on this Valentine’s Day.

Photo:  Bryant Park, 12F.   The other day.  After swizzling.

15 thoughts on “You Don’t Get to Skate: Coaching, Contracting, and Commitment

  1. I am trying coaching one more time….this is the last time though. If it goes bad again, I will give up on coaching. I’d love to hear someone like @jerrycollonna weigh in, or Jeff Minch. I have sent entrepreneurs to JLM and they have said he is totally awesome to work with. I don’t know Jerry, but from all reports he is good to work with too.

    Most of the time, I think they are frauds. I know of another one in Chicago that has never done anything in their life and they are “coaching” and charging a boatload for it. Crazy that companies spend it.

    Maybe I should go into coaching?

    1. I’d love their input too — was actually thinking about reaching out to Jerry, JLM and another guy with a link to this post. Now I’ll do it. Thanks for the push.

      And thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      It’s complicated. There’s a whole industry built up around coach training and certification, and this attracts people who are in a mid-life career shift and feeling unlikely to ever land in a corporate job again. These people have good skills and subject matter expertise, and they’re trying to make their way in the world.

      But not everyone is cut out to coach. Certification does not equal qualification.

      For one thing, a good part of your job is sales, marketing and relationship management. It’s not like your (marketing, management, logistics) expertise can be lifted up out of your institutional job and vended out to people who hold those roles. So that’s not for everyone, long term.

      The other piece, relevant experience. Well you could say, unless someone has had a specific experience, or reached a certain level, they can’t coach people in a particular role.

      There, I would say “It depends.” We’re seeing that right now: Olympic medalists aren’t all being coached by people who have “stood on the podium.”

      There’s a more subtle shared experience and teaching expertise at play there.

      I guess back to who’s coaching. If I were vetting a coach, I’d want them to:

      . have been at it for a while.
      . have few miles on them — I’m glad that my skating coach is in her 20s, but a business coach? Similarly, do I want a newly-minted financial advisor, or someone who has been through 2008 (or 1987!)?
      . be able to answer the question, “tell me about when one of your coaching engagements went wrong”
      . be able to speak to those shared experiences, and teaching expertise.
      . have references from people in my circle…

      Also, another question, why are you coaching, and not “doing.” (And again, for those with a few miles on us, there are some obvious and excellent answers to this question.)

      I struggle with the word “coach” as applied to me. The word is so mushy around the edges as to be meaningless.

      When I started out consulting, a mentor — a bschool professor/PhD and coach to Fortune 10 execs — told me that there was no upside to me for calling myself a coach. Because of the blurry boundaries around coaching.

      And yet today in the startup community here, much of what I do is called “coaching.”

      Last year, someone I know pretty well professionally emailed me to ask for a coaching resource who could do a,b,c…I said, “Uh, me?”

      I talked with her later, to ask why she hadn’t thought of me. It turns out that not calling myself a coach is a problem!

      Huh. I’m working my way into it.

      And, if you really think you want to be a coach, I’ll be glad to chat with you on that one. Friends send people to me who are thinking about this one fairly frequently, and I actually have an outline of pros and cons to consider.

      Thank you so much for stopping by.

  2. Here’s the thing about coaching — you need to work with someone who has actually done what you want to be coached on.

    The difference between the “theory” of CEOing and the actual practice is huge. Like the military — great fun until the shooting starts and then very, very, very messy.

    Most big decisions you make will be undertaken under a bit of pressure — real or imagined.

    A good CEO coach coaxes out of you what is already there. I have never found an intelligent CEO who did not already have their Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives, Values and Culture in their head. Never.

    The work is getting it on paper and then communicating it to others.

    There is no idea that does not become better through a bit of wrestling. When good ideas wrestle, the strongest ones survive. Those are the ones you put into action.

    In some ways, coaching is just shoplifting experience. You borrow someone else’s experience — rent it, if you must. Under no circumstances do you pay full tuition. That’s the basic value proposition.

    If I can help, let me know. Costs nothing to chat a bit.

    512-656-1383 cell

    1. Thanks for stopping by JLM!

      Experience is so key. And I don’t think we could be more aligned on the value of the simple yet powerful act of committing to paper your Mission, Values, Goals, and so forth.

      Your company’s infrastructure, and people management processes in particular, need to be built with the same care you use to build your products!

      Thank you.

  3. Interesting blog post Anne. But I have to say that this is not at all my experience as a coach nor is in the experience of coaches whom I’ve taught and supervised over the last 14 years [I supervise about 15 coaches per year and I’ve trained approximately 200 folks to do executive coaching or some variation of executive coaching]. Most of my Clients and Clients of my supervises and students report this: they’re delighted with the coaching experience. In fact, the only differentiator I’ve heard about in the last five years is how delighted they are: is it delighted or very delighted? Now, maybe I’m biased or as all of us are, somewhat self-deluded. but this is my experience in the full time coaching world I move around in.

    I agree there are lots of ways to screw up a good coaching assignment. Most of these are addressed in a book I wrote with some colleagues called How to be Become An Exceptional Executive Coach [the publisher added the Exceptional part]. If you take your time setting up the coaching assignment, are clear about who the Client is and what should and should not happen, have clarity about money, confidentiality, process and information plus the necessary coaching chemistry with the Client, it should work pretty well.

    Maybe I should start a radio program called Coach Talk like the car talk guys? I’m happy to try to fix peoples’ coaching assignments that appear to have gone off the road. I’m good at fixing people and coaching assignments. Just don’t ask me to fix your car!

    1. Jeremy, I can attest to your coaching, and coach training, skills personally, too! Thanks so much for stopping over and for your thoughts.

      Your point here is gold:

      If you take your time setting up the coaching assignment, are clear about who the Client is and what should and should not happen, have clarity about money, confidentiality, process and information plus the necessary coaching chemistry with the Client, it should work pretty well.

      Exactly the point I wanted to make. In many fewer words. (No swizzling.)

      People hiring a coach need to know that “contracting” should happen.

      Thank you!

      1. Amen to that! And everyone one on this blog should know that Anne is not only a wonderful person [who will always be remembered by me as being extremely helpful for my daughter when she just graduated college] but is also a smart and effective management consultant IMHO. And now, my daughter is clerking for Federal Judge in the Southern District of NY so Anne surely did not steer her wrong, either. Just sayin’

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