I have spent the better part of the last 15 years teaching mid- to senior-level leaders how to more effectively coach for performance. My clients have included thousands of successful men and women in some of the world’s best organizations. These talented professionals have advanced degrees, upwards of 40 years’ of leadership and management experience, and sometimes even advanced coaching certifications. Many consider themselves to be highly skilled at coaching. Some are, most are not.
It is not that ALL of these exceptional men and women do not understand what great coaching entails. Having asked thousands of leaders in many parts of the world to tell me about their own personal best coach—someone who had a profound and significant impact on them becoming the person and professional they are today—I know they understand it well. Some tell me about their mother or father, a grade school math teacher or football coach, a first boss, or, better still, their current supervisor (although I hear this less frequently than I should).
When I ask them to tell me about the character of their own best coach, the relationship they shared, and if there is something that this coach did or said that they still recall because it changed who they believed themselves to be or what they believed was possible, all tell me a similar story:
My own personal best coach was someone who saw my potential, believed in me, cared about my ultimate success, and loved me enough to confront me with my own gifts, talents, and potential, as well as my current ineffective behaviors. They were relentless in ensuring I became all I could. They were selfless and shockingly generous. They never once gave up on me.
“What I need is someone who will make me do what I can.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
When I hear this, my first thought is, “Great! I can teach you nothing further about coaching. You have only one task in front of you: become that person for others.”
However, although many of my clients could write a book on the theory of coaching (and some have), knowing something and being able to apply it are two vastly different things. We can know the theory and study the mechanics, but in my experience, there is one rare and fundamental ingredient that is necessary to be an exceptional coach for others: generosity.
Coaching is nothing if not the greatest act of generosity we could demonstrate toward another human being. We must be generous to make a relationship beneficial only to another person. This is something few of us have ever done, let alone seek to practice regularly. If you don’t believe me, during your next interaction, try to put aside your own needs and make the conversation valuable ONLY to another. This will require that you listen, genuinely listen. It will also require that you stop yourself from jumping in just so that you can feel seen or heard. You may even need to step back from congratulating yourself on ways that you are adding value so that you can really focus on what the other person is saying and more so, feeling.
As a coach, you must give, and give, and give some more. You must step outside of your comfort zone and take risks solely to benefit the other person. Risks like asking the difficult question begging to be asked, or fully acknowledging another when their talent and success threatens your own sense of self-worth. You must do this because it is the right thing to do, even though it will frequently feel thankless. After each interaction, the person will leave with all they need and you will have the feeling that you never even got to be in the relationship.
Sometimes those you coach will attack you for raising uncomfortable topics or asking unnerving but necessary questions. Other times, you will be blamed for their own failed authenticity. When they reach great heights, they will claim this success as their own. And, of course, it is theirs and theirs alone. Coaching has nothing to do with you. Your job is merely to give of your time, energy, and attention. If you have ever felt this less-than-rewarding experience, wonderful, you are on the right track.
In How To Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells the story of a dinner party where he sat next to someone he did not know, asked that person only two questions during the course of the entire evening, and then merely listened. Upon his departure, Carnegie’s dinner partner exclaimed, “That Dale Carnegie, he is the most wonderful conversationalist!” While she had the most incredible experience at dinner, I suspect the evening was not rewarding in the same way for Carnegie.
Coaching is the act of providing another human being with everything you would love to have—attention, kindness, compassion, truth, challenges, and fierce love— being seen not merely for what you are today but for all that you dream of becoming. Coaching is the gift of structured time with a focused partner to process your life’s events, and space to think and reflect, with an advocate who won’t allow you to settle. As a coach, you must be this committed partner, the one who truly sees the other, challenges them, and holds them to their own highest visions for work and life. You must do this with an unwavering belief in their potential and, a simultaneous disregard for what their actions (and success) might mean for you.
Few can demonstrate this level of selflessness and generosity. However, those who do can have an immense impact on someone else’s life. The reward for the coach is also immeasurable: a legacy that matters. You will know you are an exceptional coach when people leave interactions with you inspired by their own answers and highest visions of success, and when they leave completely unaware of the sacrifices you made that allowed them to be selfish and use the entire interaction and relationship to get their own needs met. You will know you’ve succeeded when they go on to surpass you but continue to look back and thank you every day for believing in them when they did not yet believe in themselves. Great parenting and great leadership look remarkably similar, don’t they?
If you are reading this article, you are likely an experienced leader and highly skilled professional. Wonderful. Now, focus on how you can be more generous in your relationships. Perhaps start with your next conversation. See if you can make the discussion valuable only to the other. Make note of the outcome. Repeat.
I welcome any and all feedback.