“Everyone needs a coach.” These are the words Bill Gates chose to open his TED Talk with impact. Interestingly the point he highlights—and the one characteristic common to all high performing individuals, from executives to athletes—is the fact that they all have a coach. Yet, surprisingly in business nearly two-thirds of executives outside the leading-edge innovators of the world don’t. In fact the majority of individuals over 60% are embarrassed to consider, let alone ask for coaching. “Why do you need coaching? What’s wrong with you?”

In our experience, the people that seek coaching aren’t the ones with something wrong with them. To the contrary, there’s something very right about them — and it’s enabling them to leap ahead.

What Is Coaching?

In speaking with clients, colleagues and friends on the topic of coaching a lot of the hesitancy to work with a coach comes from a lack of understanding of what coaching actually is. Our industries are overloaded with ambiguity around coaching’s purpose, its objectives and the results.

Good coaching provides actionable insight and opportunity for growth based on specific areas you wish to improve; be it better decision-making, problem-solving, or conflict management and negotiation. Its purpose must be clear and the success criteria are set. But not by a coach, by you.

Coaching is the mechanism to help you achieve the success you define for yourself, the coach is the ally that helps get you there. But in a world where roles and responsibilities from manager to mentor to consultant are common day, conflated, and often confused, where does a coach fit in?

Here’s A Way To Look At Defining These Evolving Roles:

  • Coaches facilitate the development of personal or professional objectives. The coach doesn’t provide you with the answers to a challenge or even tell you what to do. Instead the coach acts as a facilitator to help you ask better questions, and explore your own answers. They serve as a guide while you create a plan, define outcomes, and experiments to move your thinking forward.  Think “facilitator” and “action-oriented.”
  • Mentors give those with less experience advice or assistance in a specific area. For example, when mentoring someone in product management, we may cover  specific techniques and tools that they’d like to understand better—like Discovery, Story Mapping, user interviews, etc.  Mentors may even advise on the skills needed to move up to the next level in a client’s career.  However, unlike a coach who helps you discover your own answers, a mentor teaches, sharing their experiences and knowledge on industry related questions and challenges. Also, mentors are often a voluntary or unpaid role. Think  “advisor” and “teacher.”
  • Consultants are brought in to answer specific questions or address specific challenges for an organization. They provide recommendations — based on their own experience, market trends, research, and many other inputs  — and are often asked to be responsible for implementing those recommendations within the client’s organization. Again, a key distinction from coaches is that a consultant provides the answer — and maybe even own delivering of it —  while a coach helps you facilitate your own answers. Think “problem solver” and “implementer.”

Everyone needs a coach

Breaking The Coaching Taboo

By creating a clearer understanding of what coaching is, and isn’t, we can start to break apart the taboo that surrounds it. Let’s not kid ourselves, though, changing the way the working world thinks and feels about coaching isn’t going to be easy.  A lot of the stigma is supported by outdated practices and policies now institutionalized in our organizations and our own mindsets and behaviors.

Working with organizations across sector, size and geography there are a few key assumptions around coaching that consistently appear and create challenges. Here’s our top two to debunk.

“I Don’t Need A Coach. I Have Years Of Experience!”

The stigma around coaching can exist at any level or in any type of organization. From experience, it seems the reluctance to embrace coaching can be stronger in those in more senior positions. After all, with years of experience and a place of responsibility in an organization, there’s a sense of “I don’t need coaching … What would they know about my industry? … I’m the expert!”

This again is where the confusion around what coaching really is and what benefits it has to offer exist.  A coach is often not an expert in your field. In fact, we constantly tell executives we work with that we don’t have the same level of expertise they do in their field. But we can help them discover how to endlessly improve any skill, capability or challenge they want to tackle for themselves. This disarms their ego and ignites their curiosity.

We set expectations that coaching is there to help them facilitate finding the answers to your own questions and challenges. Remember a coach is not a mentor – she or he is not there to give you the answers.  You are the expert in your field, the coach is there to help you get to your next level of what you have identified you wish to achieve.

How? By challenging your thinking, making you considering better questions or different world views, and helping you understand your own blockers to success. Coaching helps you break through these barriers, empowering you to be the expert of your own success.

As Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and chairman of Alphabet recounts; the best advice he ever got, initially resented but now always gives is to have a coach. A great coach is somebody who looks at something with another set of eyes, they give you perspective, the one thing you can’t give yourself, and a system to tackle future challenges and succeed.

“Only Underperformers Need Coaches.”

For many others the idea of coaching conjures feelings of failure, punishment and even incompetence.

A good friend was recently promoted to a senior management position in her company. Soon afterward she was told by her manager that she was not meeting certain requirements for her new role and as part of her performance improvement program, she would be assigned a coach.

She was embarrassed and ashamed that she had to work with a coach. She had just recently been promoted and was now being told—and so was the rest of the organization—she wasn’t good enough. It was the equivalent to being sent to sit in the corner with the dunce hat on.

It’s a common scenario in today’s organizations—coaching is positioned as a performance management tool for underperformers instead of an opportunity for growth and progression for everyone. If we are going to break the taboo that surrounds coaching, then decision makers and leaders within organizations need to rethink how they position coaching: is it a punishment for underperformers or a benefit to unlock potential? We know which side high-performance organizations and leaders see it.

In the end, she was so happy with the results, and enjoyed the experience so much she is now paying someone to help her reach and achieve higher career aspirations and goals. It’s her company that may yet end up the one sitting in the corner wearing in the dunce hat.

So What Are You Going To Do, About YOU?

Bill Gates was right: the reality is everyone does need a coach. And those who can recognize when they need help, how to ask for it, and where to get its power ahead in pursuit of their personal and professional development objectives.

When you are passionate about improvement and growth, asking for help is rarely the blocker. The challenge is knowing where to go and how to get started. Here are our tips:

  • Clarify your purpose for coaching. Be accountable to why coaching matters to you, not something else. It’s your personal and professional development—own it.
  • Identify a challenge that you are personally struggling with. Maybe it’s presenting in front of people, giving difficult feedback, or being unsure what should be the next step for your career. Pick a challenge and define success for addressing it.
  • Seek out coaches who specialize in the challenge domain—be it leadership development, adjusting to change, business evolution—and partner with them. Word of mouth is a great way to find a coach. Ask your friends, colleagues, manager, or mentor if they can recommend anyone. Also, there may already be a coaching program on offer in your organization, so be sure to check with HR and other internal training resources about what may be available.
  • Check the coach’s credibility. There are a lot of people who sell themselves as coaches who haven’t coached other leaders, been coached themselves, or trained in coaching. Ask prospective coaches what they have done to demonstrate excellence in coaching. Are they active in the coaching community? Recommended by people who worked with them before? Accredited within the industry? Do they eat their own dog food and get coached by someone else too? What are they trying to improve?
  • Don’t feel you need to sign up for a wildly expensive or multi-month program. Start small. Do one or two sessions. Most coaches will offer an initial chemistry session to see if there’s a fit. Take advantage of that!
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with many different coaches to find the correct match. Discover if you are a good pairing for one another. The most benefit comes when you’ve got the correct match.
  • Recognize that at different stages of your career, life, or situation you may need other coaches to help you. Coaching doesn’t have to be for life, it should align to your purpose and objectives at that time. It’s ok to adapt over time.
  • Start. Give it a go. Test and learn. Don’t succumb to inertia—discover for yourself what works, and what does not FOR YOU!

This article was co-authored with Kate Leto. Share it with your network, then sign up to my newsletter for new content and discounts to my online course, workshops and more!

References and further resources

What’s the ROI of coaching?  http://researchportal.coachfederation.org/MediaStream/PartialView?documentId=2891 The Coaching Impact Study, Measuring the Value of Executive Leader Coaching: Schlosser, Steinbrenner, Kumata, Hunt, International Journal of Coaching organizations

The International Coach Federation (ICF), which is the only recognized professional coaching certification. They have a directory listing of coaches around the world that can be found at https://coachfederation.org

Stanford 2013 Executive Coaching Survey https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/2013-executive-coaching-survey