Why Most Coaches Don’t Actually Coach

Experience and the Coaching Continuum

Bad coaching in some cases even gets you fired.

You can’t be a coach by resting on one idea. To a very real extent, there is no “craft” of coaching. There are a lot of Agile coaches out there who have never built a single piece of software and a lot of Lean coaches who have never built a product or been part of a system.

I recall my friend Dragos Dumitriu telling me a story. He was working with a new hire at a consulting firm he was with (not his current one). The new hire, an aspiring coach, told him she wanted to shadow him and learn how to coach the way he does. Now, if there is one thing you can say about Dragos, it’s that he has a unique background. High performance athlete, Romanian Olympic delegate, former stunt man, built his own gym and equipment in the soviet union (where entrepreneurship was illegal), escaped soviet union, worked in restaurants, managed an adult care group home, worked for a database company in North Dakota, worked for Microsoft, etc etc.

Not a normal guy.

So he looked at her and said, “You want to do what I do? Then you must …” and then he listed everything he went through to get where he was. Experiences and breadth were key to who Dragos was. They are what gave him is unique understanding of disparate systems and situations.

A few weeks ago, I wrote blog post about perspective. It examined the systems thinking behind new models of understanding addiction. I opined about how we as coaches don’t get outside of our own realm and find inspiration. We tend to read (a lot) about coaching or the field around which we coach, but don’t step outside those tight boundaries.

Then I went to an event filled with coaches and I asked them to relate inspiration they found in areas outside coaching.

Every single one of them described something interesting they had read about coaching. It was all new or different types of coaching. But it was all coaching.

Not only did they do the opposite of what I’d asked, when I called them on it and asked them to try again, they did exactly the same thing again.

This was a painful and bewildering experience. So, I asked again detailing how I was not asking for new types of coaching, but inspiration coming from anywhere else, your kids, cooking, a movie, existential crisis, etc.

Third time, same result.

So why the myopia?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are four main hard stops on the “Coaching Continuum”. (Hard stops in that, you don’t move along the continuum, as much as you get stuck in a role.)

The Coaching Continuum

Mechanics — “Coaches” the implementation of a single set of tools or one specific form. Rarely, if ever, deviates from those forms or tools. This group does not focus on problem solving at all and assumes that simply by implementing the tools, problems will solve themselves.

Hammerers — Coaches by applying a single set of tools to every perceived problem. Invariably, when they apply their hammers to a problem ill-suited to their hammer and failure inevitably results, they will blame the people they are coaching. They don’t blame because they are trying to cover-their-butts, they blame because they lack the perspective to know they are wrong.

(A dangerous subset of Hammerers would be Anointed Hammerers, who have been given a certificate for minor effort that declares their hammers sacred. This results in even greater levels of hubris and reduces the likelihood of outside study.)

Obsessives — Cannot stop reading, studying, taking classes, etc. about coaching as a craft. Reads about active listening, tools, practices, procedures, but all in the realm of coaching. They itch to “coach”. Driven by a real desire to make people’s lives better, they still lack perspective beyond simply coaching. Sort of like knowing all the mechanics of making the perfect crust, the perfect filling, exactly what temperature to proof / blind bake / bake, but still never having made a pie.

Mentor — With a desire to learn in quick and honest ways, these coaches are primarily focused on the needs of the people before them. Always seeking tools and perspectives outside their current set. Innately curious about why things happen and how to help outcomes be better. Patient and know when to apply tools, teaching, or interventions.

These folks are systems thinkers who, like Dragos, have seen a lot and have not only a lot of patterns with which to pattern match, but more importantly understand that novel patterns can be discovered. The mentor knows they still have a lot to learn.

Mentors have a tough row to hoe. It’s no wonder there are so few of them. One must be able to listen while simultaneously judging and not judging. Keeping an open mind while synthesizing information is no easy feat, indeed it goes against how human beings are programmed. Humans (like you and me) are geared toward easy solutions, rote solutions, and not thinking deeply about problems at hand — we are programmed to be mechanics, hammerers, or obsessives.

Mentors need to be comfortable with:

· knowing the limitations of their current knowledge,
· not inflicting help,
· not helping prematurely,
· learning with their clients,
· being systems thinkers in a world starved of systems thinkers,
· changing their opinions based on real information,
· not becoming overly invested in a given strategy,
· allowing their client to arrive at a better solution,
· allowing their client to arrive at a poorer solution they can learn from safely,
· allowing their client to prove them wrong (and rejoice in it), and
· knowing when to mentor, train, or direct.

In order to do this, mentors need toolkits, not a toolkit. Mentors need to pull from more than just coaching tools, they need to study people and organization and how we work together to make things. A mentor needs, by nature, to be able to see systems, invent potential solutions, and guide their client to an acceptable outcome.

It is incumbent upon mentors to always be learning. Always be doing and experiencing new things and new systems. Always be expanding the number of perspectives by which you have personally seen this world. Always be reading others perspectives. Always be growing.

Anything less is malpractice.

About Jim

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller: Personal Kanban. His other books include Why Limit WIP, Why Plans Fail, and Beyond Agile. He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking and the Brickell Key Award. He and Tonianne teach online at Modus Instituteand consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. He regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.