Educating Steven: An Essay from My Master’s Degree

Every year when I’m being asked why I want a job teaching college students, I say that it scratches a lot of the same itches as creative directing. This essay was from my first and so far only post-secondary Business (with a capital B, dahling) course. It introduced the subject of professional coaching. I was utterly unprepared for how similar it was, too, to creative directing. Enjoy!

The Heartening Cacophony of Pennies Dropping

Significant Learning(s) About the Practice of Coaching

February 15, 2015

The following lists my most significant learning (among many) regarding coaching as a key element of good leadership, and the most profound ways EXMN675’s readings and discussions have changed my ideas about coaching.

First, Some Context and Background

The most significant learning was difficult to choose because nearly all readings so far have been revelatory. A business-course virgin and self-employed writer who has not had a day-job for over a decade, I have found all this material new and, usually, very sensible. Whitmore and Hunt and Weintraub’s books were especially illuminating; imagine someone suddenly lighting a darkened room where you knew, more or less, where everything was but moved slowly and cautiously through, lest you bash your shins.

I was once the creative director (manager/Don Draper) at assorted advertising agencies in the 1990s and early 2000s but could have been a far better one had I known some of what we are learning. I managed two types of employee: copywriters and art directors. Using Whitmore’s scale of traditional managers, it is easy to plot my style. A copywriter myself, I tended to dictate to the writers but often abdicated to the art directors (Whitmore, 2009). To be fair, I had zero training, and was schooled by crises under even worse managers. Still, if I had a nickel for every time the penny dropped these past three weeks, I would be less quick to grumble about learning late that I need not have paid nearly $100 for The Coaching Manager.

Now, That Most Significant Penny Drop

‘As a fundamental component of leadership effectiveness’ my significant learning had a clear winner: coaching is results-driven, existing primarily for the benefit of the enterprise. An ironic, or perhaps paradoxical, corollary of the concept is the (mis)understanding of time-use. Meaning? Many companies misinterpret coaching as a ‘touchy-feely’ waste of time (Hunt and Weintraub, 2011). Time is what most businesses — either overtly or unconsciously, as demonstrated through behaviours — value most over quality and employee learning (Whitmore, 2009). Yet, if these businesses only embraced the philosophies and benefits of coaching, the managers would find themselves with an abundance spare time to blue-sky and big-picture because their empowered, aware employees would quickly be raising the quality of performance throughout the organization.

Let’s view that paradox in context: the resistant traditional manager views coaching as a time waster. ‘I gatta latta baxes I gatta move aff the floah by the weekend’ is what one American retail advertising client used to lament when shown any concepts not within his preconceptions of how advertising should be. Though I was not his employee, this marketing manager’s words betray his attitudes and beliefs, incompatible with a ‘coaching mind-set’ (Hunt and Weintraub, 2011). And the paradox? By not taking time to reflect, he lost more time. My ‘creative’ stuff may be fine for other people but he had no time for such trivialities as ‘strategy’ and ‘targeting’. By focusing constantly and unmitigatingly on the present, this style of management burns out its staff, itself and ultimately its company’s future. It also swallows precious hours. Advertising superstar David Ogilvy neatly summarized this mindset of assuming you know your specialist’s job better than them: “Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself” (Ogilvy, 1983)

An interesting corollary of coaching being results-oriented and good for business is that it is also good for employees. Not ironically, these two goods are compatible, what Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, dubbed the now ubiquitous ‘win-win’. The wisdom of the concept is simple. When everybody is happy, everybody is happy.

Four Ways the Content Informed and Challenged My View of Coaching

First, let me reiterate that nearly all our readings have been eye opening (many of the professional coaching organization’s standards seemed unnecessarily obvious). However there were several points that took me from head nodding to pounding the table in agreement. The following are my top four.

  1. Coaching is not for retaining remedial employees but nurturing good ones.

Near their opening, Hunt and Weintraub declare that “Coaching can help, for employees who want to learn” (Hunt and Weintraub, 2011). Given Whitmore’s eerily familiar litany of authority figures, from parents and teachers to army sergeants (Whitmore, 2009) many of us default to viewing coaching as something for the weak and remedial, a grownup version of being sent to the principal’s office. We think it is imposed from the top down with coaches passing on years of experience to reluctant or, at best, passive employees — empty vessels to be filed. We would be wrong.

Instead, coaching is a way to turn employees with excellent potential into excellent employees. However, the employees must want to be coached: keen, participating partners. If anything, the employee does most of the visible work in the relationship, while the coach mostly listens, prompting with pertinent, provocative questions (Reichert, 2006). Furthermore, it is not for the coach to tell the employee what they should do but, instead, to make the employee aware of how they could solve their challenges themselves — a neat segue to my next revelation.

  1. You need not be an expert, just an expert coach (Whitmore, 2009). This thought sits within the other authors’ works, but is explicitly championed by Whitmore: coaching’s primary function is to help the coachee overcome challenges within themselves, rather than perceived external adversaries. Whitmore acknowledges that coaches are usually managers who are expert in their field, which is how they came to authority. I thought about this and expect he would agree: just because someone is good at cutting hair, it does not mean they will be great at inspiring others to do the same. These are different skills. Consider: should someone with zero training in managing people be granted the metaphorical axe, which could “end lives”, simply because he sold more widgets in the past five quarters? I think not — but most managers we all know are experts in their previous gigs, not management.

Whitmore introduced his example of “inner” ski coaches substituting for tennis coaching. The quality of their coaching — despite not having expert tennis skills — was equal and at times better. Why? The ski coaches did not have that distracting expertise to focus on the technical minutiae of the tennis student’s form. Consequently they spent time helping the coachee overcome self-doubts, which clearly manifested themselves physically. Excellent coaches — observers — and not tennis experts, they were able to address the underlying causes and not the technical symptoms (Whitmore, 2009). Brilliant!

  1. The ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’. Coaching is first and foremost, but not only, about results. The employee needs to come to his own conclusions and the coach is only there to provoke in the coachee enough confidence and awareness to recognize solutions. In this way, “Coaching is more about being than doing. It is more about essence than role” (Heemsbergen, 2000). Coaches need to care and be able to translate that concern. Fortunately, although there are born coaches or ‘naturals’, some managers can also become good coaches, but not all (Hunt and Weintraub, 2009).
  2. With the right mind-set, coaching can happen in seconds. While my management style often slid between dictation and abdication, I genuinely did used to coach most employees (although I would not have used the word coach) because, like Erich Dombrowski of Frankfurt’s post-war newspaper, General-Anzeiger, I could not do all the work myself (Hunt and Weintraub, 2011). This was especially the case with art directors because I had zero layout or design skills. At times, my ‘coaching’ was sporadic and inconsistent but I had a good rapport with most of the employees. Looking back on those days (reflecting) sometimes I definitely ‘coached’ in seconds with simple lightbulbesque questions. An effective creative director gets almost the same definition of the ideal coach: helps people find the best creative solutions to a marketing problem (because he does not have time to do it alone).

Still Much to Consider

It is this last revelation, perhaps, which intrigues me most. I ran an efficient creative department that was bringing in many awards and much prestige to the agency, while retaining good staff for abnormally long periods. If I had been a better listener — it requires no false modesty to admit I was/am a poor listener — I can only wonder how much more successful we may have been, especially if I had truly realized one could coach in seconds; that it was about the mind-set; that listening was more important than telling; that it was more about being than doing. Finally, if I had been coached instead of dictated to, I may not have left the one agency where I enjoyed the most professional recognition of my career so far.

There is no point in crying over spilled milk, but there is great profit in learning from one’s mistakes, or collecting dropped pennies.

Bibliography

Covey, Stephen R. (1989). Part Three – Public Victory. The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Heemsbergen, B. (2000). Coaching from the inside out: creating exceptional results. Banff: Leadership Compass, The Banff Centre.

Hunt, J. & Weintraub, J. (2009). The coaching manager: Developing top talent in business. London: Sage.

Ogilvy, D. (1983). Ogilyv on advertising. New York: Knopf Doubleday.

Reichert, G. (2006). Pin back those ears. New Zealand Management, 53(2), 46-47. Sunset North: Adrenalin Publishing.