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Confessions of a business coach

Ian Dyason. 5 February 2021

Coaching is a very rewarding job. It is one that helps another become the best version of him- or herself. It is a job that can impact greatly on the future, and develop others to grow themselves, their organisation and ultimately, the whole economy. While coaches are not directly involved in creating the change, they are the indispensable force that champions that change. They provide another set of eyes that keep a lookout for pitfalls, helping the coachee steer clear from obstacles and help clarify the solutions for success. Coaching cheers success and provides support in failure. It helps build resilience in executives.

But all is not rosy as a coach. We can do better by working with more people, but many hesitate to ask for help. Many think that a coach is not worth the money (s)he charges, not realising that coaching can lead to multi-million dollar deals, which I had brought to a few of my previous coachees. (See my case studies on coaching here.) And herein lies the rub... coaching is a discretionary expense when it should be mandatory. Until enough people see the direct benefit of coaching to give it the same importance as training, it will still be relegated to the sides. But I hope to change all that by sharing my responses to an internal interview I had with a Middle East organisation. Here are the juicy bits of the interview entitled, "Confessions of a Business (Growth Mindset) Coach". (I have changed the focus a bit to the growth mindset, as outlined in parentheses)

What do you do as a business (growth mindset) coach?

I help companies grow by directly impacting the actions of the business leaders.

What is the difference between a business advisor and a business coach?

A business advisor normally has direct, relevant experience in the industry. A coach has broad-based experience that often lies outside the industry. Also, advisors advise. Coaches lead people to come to the decision themselves.

If you don't have any direct experience in the industry, how can you help the business leader?

There are three types of competencies: technical, behavioural and leadership. To be a good coach, you must have the behavioural and leadership competencies. Technical competencies are good to have but can be a double-edge sword. If one has direct experience in the industry, he/she might prescribe a solution of choice, thereby cutting off the learning aspect of coaching.

Does a coach need to have senior management experience to be a good business (growth mindset) coach?

The coaching industry says no, but here is where I differ. I say yes. As a CEO, I have been faced with strategic decisions that no one else has had to deal with. For example, I had to contend with the directions of the Board versus the needs of my staff. I had to commit money to something that "experts" said would not work, only to have them proven wrong after 11 months. But during those 11 months, I had been derided by many industry leaders - and the board members too. But in the end, we prevailed, and the Board suddenly forgot that they had wanted to fire me earlier! If a coach does not have such relevant experience, how can he help a CEO who is dealing with such experiences?

What happens if a coach tells a business leader to do something, and then it turns out badly?

First thing is, a coach never tells a business leader (or anyone else) to do something. Coaching is a co-creative process where the coachee will make the decision himself/herself. There is no coercion and no influence. The coach is there to help uncover blind spots, point them out to the coachee, and the coachee will take those into consideration - or not - in their decision process. In the end, the coachee needs to own the decision, because it is HIS/HER decision and no one else's.

What do you do when your coachee decides to do something that you don't agree with?

There is nothing to agree nor disagree with, since the decision is not ours to make.

What if the outcome of that decision is bad?

Then it is. Coaching cannot influence outcome; nothing can. Outcome of a decision is independent of the process of decision making. One can use all the right inputs and processes in his decision and still have a poor outcome. Conversely, one can use all the wrong inputs and processes and still get a good outcome! None of these is the result of the coach - or the coachee! It just is.

If that is the case, then why should a business leader engage you? You cannot even guarantee the right decision!

What is the right decision? One that uses all the right inputs and decision processes, or one that gave the outcome that you want?

One that gave the outcome that you wanted.

Okay. And at the point of making ANY decision, who can control the outcome?

No one.

Exactly. The only thing that can be controlled is the process and the inputs. If you have all the right inputs and used the right processes, then the result is the right decision, irrespective of outcome. Outcome is outcome; and we will then need to respond to that when it happens. But that does not make the decision wrong. Do you understand what I am saying?

So what you are saying is that the right decision does not lead to the right outcome?

Well yes, and no. The right decision can lead to the right outcome; but it can also lead to the wrong one. The right decision is the right decision, irrespective of outcome. And a good coach helps their coachees reach the right decision every time.

Now that we understand what a business (growth mindset) coach does, what are some of the pains of a business (growth mindset) coach?

Unfortunately there are many pains for a coach. Here are some of the pertinent ones....

(1) you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot force it to drink. This is up there as one of our greatest pains. We can tell people that the growth mindset, or any other business concept, is best for them, and they might even agree to it. But that does not mean they will adopt it. Awareness does not translate to behaviour.

(2) Coaching is different from being a person's direct reporting officer. As an RO, I can make things happen. But as a coach, I can only react to what they do - or more accurately - what they don't do. Many a times, after we conclude a coaching session with specific action plans, and when we get to the next session, nothing has been done. So we would have wasted the intervening time. But as a coach, I cannot reprimand; all I can do is accept it and move on, oftentimes with nothing to show for it.

(3) There is a very big chance that the coachee has some mental block that hinders the person from adopting growth behaviours. There was one executive whom I worked with who was intellectually arrogant - he always thinks he is right and will NEVER admit that he is wrong or is using the wrong thinking, even after being exposed. Instead, he will deflect the problem onto others. Ultimately, the problem was his but he failed to take ownership of it, and it never got resolved.

(4) Linked to the last point are those who pay lip service. They say they want to change, but in actual fact, they just want a convenient excuse from you NOT to change. They want the coach to validate their thinking instead of reflecting the problem to them, and helping them solve their problem.

(5) Finally, the greatest pain of all is that, after some time working together, the coachee says that coaching is not working for them and they end it prematurely. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the coaching was ended prematurely, there is no proper outcome. And with no proper outcome, the coaching was deemed to be not working. A vicious cycle, really.

So when all these happen, what do you do as a coach?

There is nothing I CAN do! I have to accept it. Since the issue is not mine to solve, it is also not mine to accept or reject. I just have to work with the current situation, and hopefully steer the person to a new perspective. For those who prematurely end the coaching, I normally give them a parting gift - to tell them to accept that we don't know what we don't know, and in order to grow, we must accept that we are wrong. If they cannot come off their high horse, they will not see change.

Why don't you guarantee results to keep them in the program?

We cannot guarantee anything. I cannot be responsible for the actions of people who cannot be responsible for them themselves.

What about your staff? Do you coach them too? They cannot run away from their responsibilities, right? So they can adopt the right behaviours?

I don't coach my staff. You have heard the axiom, "Familiarity breeds contempt" right? I am not saying there is contempt in my company, just that it is easier to just tell than to help them uncover. As I said earlier, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot force them to drink, even when you are their employer.

So does that mean that coaching does not work for internal staff?

I won't go so far as to say that. But I do think that people are inherently resistant to change, and they would prefer the path of least resistance. But, if they are passionate about their job, and genuinely want to do better, they will change. But we cannot force passion on them. They must want it.

Would that point to a hiring problem?

That would be an easy scapegoat. But you and I know; at an interview, people can say anything to get the job. It is only after they get the job that their true colours show. There is no foolproof way to select the right talent; so we must focus on development - so long as the staff are open to it.

Are there any last things you would like to share about being a business (growth mindset) coach?

Many people think that coaching is the panacea for all business problems. It is not. The innate desire to change is the solution. No one can force change on any person; it must be wanted. Yet, in my experience, I have seen people reach out to me who desperately need - and want - change. But when you point out that their own thinking is hindering their change, they become defensive. They justify their position. They blame you for betraying their trust. They will do all things to externalise their problem. It is easier to blame a coach for their problems than to face the fact that they are their own worst nightmare. In the end, their problems persist; and they say that coaching does not work. The sad thing is, THEY don't work. But as a coach, we cannot say that. All we can do is allude to it and hope they can see - and accept - that. Oftentimes, that does not happen. My wish is that people own their problems instead of externalising them. The sooner they realise that they are facing their situation as a result of their actions or inactions, the better it will be for them, and for everyone involved.

But that is easier said than done.

And these are the confessions of a business (growth mindset) coach. We want things to be better, and we are hopeful that they will be. After all, there is always something positive in humankind. We must believe in that.


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