There’s a connotation to the word ‘coach’ for most of us. Something that harkens back to a dusty field behind a high school, filled with sweaty teenagers who would rather be somewhere else. Maybe you picture an overweight, overbearing loudmouth with a clipboard — droning and commanding and criticizing. Or perhaps you have a more positive view of someone who instructed you, and taught you valuable things. But whatever your personal image of what a coach is, there’s one thing that many of us think about them:

Great. They’re here to tell me how to do something.

And if they’re here to tell me how to do something, then obviously that means that I don’t know how to do it myself. All a coach does is assign drills that teach the fundamentals, right?

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OK, I’m being a little extreme here, but you get the point. When we run into snags in our career or life, sometimes people will advise that we could use a little help, a coach to help us get through whatever challenge we’re facing. And unfortunately we sometimes flash back to that picture in our heads and think “Nah – what are they going to tell me that I don’t already know?”

Call it pride. Call it embarrassment. Call it not being willing to expose our shortcomings to a stranger, but in many situations where we could probably use a seasoned, disinterested third party’s perspective, we resist. We talk to our friends, our spouses and co-workers, but we don’t seek out a professional’s advice. Because what could they possibly tell us that we don’t already tell ourselves? What can a coach teach us about our own professional life that we don’t already know?

But that’s not what a coach is for.  An executive coach or career coach, or social media coach isn’t there to make you train — to have you do practice drills and get yelled at. A good coach is all about raising your game, and helping you deliver your best.  I spoke to an executive coach recently who said that her job wasn’t about telling executives what to do — she wasn’t an all-knowing seer that felt responsible for knowing exactly what her client needed to do in every situation. Instead she said that she was there to help the person make better decisions based upon what they knew. In the process of working with her client she got to know what the strengths were of the client that they could use to attack the problem, and get to a solution. She provided an external focus and objectivity, married with a concern for the person and an extensive background in helping people make solid decisions. She was there to help direct the movie, but not to write the script.

People who want focus, need a coach.

Maybe you’ve gotten to a level of success in your profession, but you don’t know where to go next. Achieving high status can be empowering, but it can also bring you to a series of decision points where you might have to pick a direction that feels pretty final. And, unfortunately, when most people are presented with lots of choices, it’s been proven that our decision-making skills can actually get worse. Under pressure, our brains can try to multitask, considering all options, and worrying about all possible outcomes and scenarios. At times like this, a good coach can provide focus about what’s important, even when our natural inclinations are leading us to scatter our attention and avoid getting down to what’s important.

You can, of course, muscle through and do your SWOT analysis, but when the stakes are high, it can make sense to get a second opinion. And why wouldn’t you prefer to have that opinion be an expert? Especially if they are an expert in helping people to focus on doing the right thing.

People who want to be better, need a coach.

I read an article about Pantheon CEO Zack Rosen, where he talked about shadowing other CEO’s, in order to keep learning about the areas that he needed to grow in. He describes his need to be a “learning machine” — and as CEO of a start-up, he recognizes that his job is continually shifting and changing. If you work in a dynamic category or industry or company, then you know that you can’t rest on what you’re doing now. You have to keep reaching beyond where you are to stay ahead of the competition.

It’s probably important to state that in some cases, your manager can be a good coach. And I’ve had my share of good coach bosses, but while you probably can’t be a great manager if you’re not a good coach, the world is unfortunately not filled with brilliant managers, and if your boss isn’t one, you’ll want to get another perspective to get you to the next level.

People who are at the top of their game, need a coach.

Olympic athletes have coaches for a reason. These athletes can accomplish feats that precious few other people can even attempt, and yet they rely on coaches — coaches who would probably each say that they themselves can’t do these amazing feats either. In these cases, the coach is not there to tell the athlete _what_ to do, but to help them fully understand _how_ to use their talents to go farther. They provide a different perspective — literally, in the case of some athletes where the coach can stand in a different location and see that one arm movement out of place is pulling the whole body out of alignment.

And we have the same issues with our performance at work sometimes. One insightful manager (and a great coach) once told me that although my sense of humor was helpful in some circumstances, it could be distracting in others. She wasn’t trying to change how I operate, or alter what makes me great at my job, so rather than laying me out with a broad criticism, she provided this feedback in true, quality coach style — saying “Sometimes, Jay, all it takes is a smile!” It wasn’t an attack, or teaching me something that I didn’t know — she just provided me with another view on how to achieve what I wanted. Coaches can do this because they are truly on your side, and can keep your best interests in mind.

So when we are faced with adversity and challenge, we have to fight the suspicion that having a coach means that you don’t know what you’re doing. A good coach doesn’t just share what they know. A good coach brings out your best. And we all could use that, couldn’t we?


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